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Men 'call the shots' in Forest County

| Sunday, March 23, 2008

Ladies, face it. Forest County is a man's world.

The county, a land of open fields, the muddy, fast-moving Allegheny River and the vast expanse of Cook Forest State Park, is a hunting and fishing haven. It's a place where the local general store stocks enough toy rifles, swords, and bows and arrows to equip a play army. And where marriage and romance have a decidedly masculine tilt.

"Hunting and fishing, that's what the guys here live for," said Amy Barron, who tends bar at the popular Forest Hills Restaurant and Bar just outside Tionesta, the county seat and largest town, population 592.

Barron, 32, said some guys even go so far as to call a moratorium on romance during deer hunting season. "Hunting is that important to them," she said.

Indeed, the county of roughly 6,500 people issued 281 marriage licenses last year -- and 4,654 dog licenses.

Small both in size and population, Forest County stands out in the state in one respect: It has the most males and fewest females of all counties, by percent of population. Just 38 percent of Forest County residents are female, according to a 2006 U.S. Census estimate.

SCI-Forest, the all-male state penitentiary near Marienville, accounts for some of the imbalance, said demographer Dr. Gordon DeJong, of Penn State University. But even discounting inmates, Forest County, at 47 percent, remains the most masculine county in the state.

For that, DeJong had no explanation.

No lipstick sold

Forest County flexes its masculinity in any number of ways.

Consider the shopping. There are four venues in the county to buy a hunting license, but nowhere to purchase a blouse -- even a camouflage print -- or women's shoes.

The same goes for a tube of lipstick. A clerk at Tionesta Pharmacy politely advised a customer to head for Titusville, 14 miles away, over the Crawford County line. Not much demand for that sort of thing down at the campground.

Then there's Haller's General Store along Tionesta's main drag. Clerked by a Forest County native, Lisa Miller, the store peddles fishing and hunting gear along with an eye-popping array of toy weapons, enough to fill a 10-foot row of shelving.

There's a stack of camouflage toy muskets, "Western Ranger" rifles, a cowpoke "6-shooter" with a "try me" invitation printed on the box, a collection of pirate swords, a tray of miniature Air Force jets, even an "AK-47" water rifle.

Miller said the toy weapons are hot sellers. "The little boys really go for (the toys)," she said.

The plastic weaponry at Haller's caught the eye of county Treasurer Pam Millin, who said they reflect the interest in hunting of both Forest County residents and out-of-towners.

The toy pistols are nothing compared to the prospect of a destination-point, first-in-the-nation hunting and fishing museum in Tionesta. The executive director of the future Pennsylvania Hunting and Fishing Museum turns out to be a woman, Julia McCray.

McCray, a transplant from Erie County, said one reason to locate the museum in Forest County was because the two sports impact practically all aspects of life in the county.

That includes marriage, she said, pointing to the experience of women who move to the county with their retired, warrior-in-the-woods husbands.

"I think some of them have a hard time integrating themselves into the community," McCray said of the wives.

Scott Henry, of the county's industrial development authority, agreed.

Henry said it's always "the husband who wants to move here (because of the hunting), and it's always the wife who's had enough, after about three weeks."

McCray, 42, moved to Tionesta from Erie County 15 years ago to open a bed and breakfast. The enterprise flourished.

"The community was very welcoming," McCray said. "As a rule, anyone who shows an interest and wants to become a part of things is welcomed with open arms."

That suggests that Forest County may be a good place to open a business.

Except not many people do, and of those, few are women. While 25 percent of all businesses in the state in 2000 were female-owned, the number in Forest County was so small the Census Bureau didn't even bother to record a number.

Henry, who argued the county lacks adequate highways to attract major employers, said the dearth of female-owned businesses might be explained by the laws of supply and demand: "The type of business a woman might be interested in running might not do well here."

County treasurer Millin, part-owner of a Forest County restaurant, said being a female entrepreneur can be a lonely experience. "Any board I was ever on, I was the only female business-owner," she said.

No fast lane

Without a single traffic light in the county, few residents of Forest County are taking the fast lane.

McCray, a single woman, said the same applies to dating.

"There's not a great opportunity to meet people here," she said. "If you go to a bar, it's probably not the place to find someone to have a relationship with."

Considering the gender ratio, that's quite a statement. Yet any number of people say they can't believe their county is a bellwether of two-fisted masculinity.

Carol Barrett of West Hickory and Joanne Skibinski of Marienville are board members of the Forest County Historical Society. Both women were surprised that males outnumber females in the county, and by such a wide margin.

"Why, I would have thought it would be the other way around," said Skibinski, who declared the best things about Forest County are its clean air, low crime rate and outdoor recreational opportunities.

Barrett called Forest County a friendly place "where you know everybody."

Baron, a mother of three, seems to have mixed feelings about her home.

For one, she doesn't do backflips over the men of Forest County, who she said tend to call the shots in a relationship.

She used her own experience as an example.

Never a hunter, she took up the sport within months of getting hitched -- because her husband wanted her to, she maintains. Also at his insistence, she moved to a house tucked down a dirt road deep in the woods. Electrical service to the leafy love nest was so spotty that most days it was impossible to run the washer and dryer at the same time.

Heat came from a wood-burning stove.

For that, Barron chopped most of the wood herself. "If we wanted to stay warm, I had to," she said.

All in all, married life at the cottage was less than blissful. Except for one thing: It turns out she really did love the place, its quiet and solitude.

After her husband left for Florida, Baron moved back in, wood-chopping and all.

She's never afraid, though the cottage is in an isolated location, she said. "I got guns."

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