Harrison’s rescued Burtner House offers history lesson as strawberry fest | TribLIVE.com
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Tom Davidson

A 20th century road and a 19th century relic were on a collision course in 1972.

The road was the Route 28 expressway, the often-delayed gateway from Pittsburgh to the Alle-Kiski Valley and places north. The relic, the Burtner House, is a three-story homestead started in 1818 and finished in 1821 on a hillside in its path in Harrison.

Original plans called for the house to be razed to make room for the highway, until Pennsylvania Gov. Raymond Shafer “pardoned” the house as a wrecking ball was ready to bash it to bits, said Burtner House Restoration Society President Jeff Jones. The expressway was redesigned to move Route 28 just slightly.

The rest is history: preserving and celebrating the Burtner family, its history and showing people what life was like two centuries ago.

The Burtner House Restoration Society aims to do that.

“Through 45 years we make changes and restoration every year to make it better and better,” Jones said. “We’re like a living museum.”

The big fundraiser for the house is the society’s Strawberry Festival. Saturday was its 45th edition and cars were parked on the shoulder of Burtner Road for a quarter-mile as about 700 people were expected to tour the grounds, see historical displays and to eat strawberries.

There was shortcake with ice cream, strawberry rolls, tarts and pastries and a variety of other baked good for sale in the house’s basement. Around back, in the summer kitchen, there were home-cooked meals available.

A steady stream of people made their way through the doors, listening to volunteers talk about the history that’s preserved there.

They included Jones’ mother, Virginia, who worked in the summer kitchen and explained why cooking in those days was done outside of the main house.

“To avoid a fire,” she said.

The summer kitchen that’s used now is a replica. It’s about the size of an ordinary country kitchen, but set off about 20 feet or so from the main house.

Cooking in it meant the residence didn’t become beastly hot in the days when air conditioning wasn’t dreamed of and even electric fans hadn’t yet been invented.

Burtner family artifacts were on display and a descendant, Sheila Smith-Bishop, who now lives in Oklahoma, made two quilts that will be sold to raise funds for the house. It was given a new roof earlier this year, Jones said.

“I like to come out here and talk to the people and see how they’re doing,” said Garrett Baker of Lower Burrell.

Baker’s also Burtner descendant. He’d like to see more people become involved in preserving the house.

“They need more volunteers,” Baker said. “Us older ones can’t do it no more.”

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