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Renovation to farm keeps its past alive

| Saturday, April 28, 2012, 4:43 a.m.

Farming was once an essential way of life. While not as common, it still is a way of life for a Harrision City family.

The 100-year-old Staymates Barn in Murrysville, where renovation is expected to be completed this fall by volunteers from the Murrysville Historical Preservation Society, is an example of an original farm structure.

The preservation of the old barn complements the experience of the active Schramm's Farm and Orchards in Harrison City. It is a family-run farm that has been producing since the 1860s.

The restored barn was built in 1905 by the Staymates family. Joan Kearns, president of the society, said that Bessie Staymates was a beloved teacher at Franklin Regional for more than 50 years. She began teaching at 16 and lived within a mile of the Franklin Regional school complex on Round Top Road.

As a reminder to her students of a waning past, she would occasionally ride a horse to school when the weather was too bad for driving.

The Staymates' property was bought in the 1850s by a settler family that was originally spelled "Steinmetz." Kearns said Bessie Staymates never married.

"Toward the end of her life, in her will she donated the property to the Westmoreland County Girl Scouts," Kearns said.

Murrysville took control of the site in 1977. Kearns said the site was in need of major repairs, as the lower wall was collapsing from the weight of the soil, and the slate roof weighed an estimated 6 tons, which the century-old structure could no longer support.

Money for the restoration has come from donations to the society and from Department of Community and Economic Development grants.

"By fall, it should be available to be utilized," Kearns said.

The barn will be available to be rented for private events as a part of Murrysville's Parks and Recreation Department from spring until fall.

When Murrysville was discussing the demolition of the barn in 1998, Kearns said it was recognized that the site had "lots of potential" as a recreational venue. The society assured the municipality that the project would not cost them a great deal of money.

"So much has been done by volunteers, in one fashion or another," Kearns said.

The municipality also owns Staymates Log Cabin, the left side of which was built in 1790, and the right side in 1820. Kearns said "it was a small family farm at one point, and more acreage was involved." The site is 7 acres.

Kearns said the documents regarding this part of history are still being compiled, and that information frequently piles up and gets put into boxes.

"We get information piecemeal from different people and try to make sense of it," Kearns said.

She recounted local legend, stating the original Forbes Road, complete with wagon tracks, is a pebble road about 200 yards from Staymates Barn.

The volunteers have been refurbishing the Staymates Log Cabin for 12 years. It was explained that the group had become older over the years, and progress was slow.

Modern-day farm

Carolynn Schramm Taylor said her family's original farm was located on McKnight Road in the North Hills, but it was moved to the area in the 1980s.

In 1864, immigrant John Schramm purchased the Pittsburgh farm after leaving Bavaria, Germany. For generations, the land was farmed and the produce sold at farmer's markets. In 1954, the first Schramm's market opened. Third-generation farmer Eugene H. Schramm Sr. decided to sell the Pittsburgh property because of overdevelopment in the area and moved the farm to Harrison City.

"Mechanization makes it possible to farm a lot of land with a lot less people," Schramm Taylor said. She said 100 years ago, a family would have had a smaller farm, without "the advantages of today."

Schramm Taylor said in the 21st century, genetics play a large part in farming. Farmers are very careful about what varieties of produce they choose to cultivate, because vegetable genetics have become very specific. They choose their varieties according to the maximum crop with the minimum input.

Strawberry season is in June. Sweet corn season, July. Schramm Taylor said their busiest months are during summer and fall, "when lots of people who don't usually shop here" seek out the fresh produce.

Of the 450 acres, sweet corn and pumpkins take up the most space, Taylor said. The farm staffs about 10 people year-round and about 30 including seasonal help.

Fourth-generation farmers Eugene "Hil" Schramm, wife Martha, brothers Ralph, John and sister Kathy operate the facility.

"We are all about a direct market," said Hil Schramm. "We like to sell directly to consumers. It's a year-round business, not just summer."

"Farming is not stress-free," said Martha Schramm. "We're fighting weather throughout the year. People have no idea of the seasons any more.

"Irrigation is the big difference, and modern-day pesticides and herbicides are so specific, you don't need a lot. There's more disease resistance on new seeds; they don't require as many chemicals."

Mike Kuzenchak, Laurel Highlands director at the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, said the preservation of farmland is important to maintain open land in Western Pennsylvania as well as improve water quality. He said Pennsylvania has always been an integral part of the agricultural production of the United States.

Kuzenchak said farmland preservation is "fairly new" for the conservancy, but they are interested in expanding their involvement as other projects are finished. He said the Westmoreland County Agricultural Lands Preservation Board is more closely involved with the preservation of farmland.

"We are protecting natural habitats and streams in order to ensure their safety in the future," said Kuzenchak. "Water quality can be helped by protecting farms."

Kuzenchak said the conservancy is looking for farms that overlap with other preservation projects.

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