With 200th anniversary looming, Burtner House preservationists wonder if it’ll make it
The number of volunteers at the historic Burtner House has dwindled to an alarming number.
“We are in danger of having to close the doors,” said Sandy Jack, Burtner House Restoration Society volunteer and secretary.
Fewer than 10 active members comprise the volunteer roster these days, and Jack said with diminished volunteers, it’s becoming impossible to keep the home maintained as it should be.
“Since we formed our group and saved the Burtner House from demolition to make way for Route 28 in 1972, we have made improvements, offered tours and festivals, educated the public, offered school tours, provide Union and Confederate re-enactors — volunteering to preserve what we think is a jewel of Harrison,” Jack said.
The historic Burtner House was built in 1821 by farmer Philip Burtner. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972 and to the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation Historic List in 1975.
Originally a working farm on acreage along Little Bull Creek, the stone house’s large size could accommodate crowds. So it served as an election polling station, hosted town meetings and served as the family home to five generations of Burtners.
Burtner House, owned by Harrison but maintained by the restoration society, celebrates its 20oth anniversary in 2021.
“We would like to have an extended celebration for the anniversary, but that is dependent on volunteers — if we’re there,” society vice president Lucy Mahdik said. “We are trying real hard to make it to the 200th anniversary, and after that we will see what happens.”
Jack noted the addition of about 20 to 30 volunteers would be wonderful because the house’s youngest volunteer, a 19-year-old high school senior, is graduating this spring and attending college in the fall.
“Our oldest volunteer is 85,” Jack said. Most volunteers are between the ages of 40 to 70 but aren’t being replaced as they move on or die off, she said.
Longtime volunteer and treasurer Mary Cihil recalled a time when the Burtner House was overflowing with volunteers.
“It is a shame,” Cihil said. “We had so many volunteers in the past if you were in the Burtner House during a meeting you couldn’t even move around.”
The township provides one day of maintenance service, usually for about four to six hours, before the society’s annual Strawberry Festival in June, Jack said.
“They clear hillsides before the festival and are there a few hours,” Jack said.
“But we pay for a part-time policeman to handle traffic control during the festival; that’s from our budget,” Jack said.
“They don’t have anything to do with us. It would be nice if they showed more of an interest in the house,” Jack said of the township’s involvement.
In 2018, the society paid more than $4,600 for grass cutting .
“That’s the amount we basically profit each year with our Strawberry Festival,” Jack said.
Mahdik began volunteering at the Burtner House 40 years ago.
She said that while her decades of volunteering have been rewarding, and she’s thrilled with the improvements to the home, the lack of volunteers is a concern.
“I would say going back about a decade, that’s when we didn’t have the volunteers show up as much,” Mahdik said. “And then (the board) was forced to recruit our family members. We recruit our families, and it shouldn’t be that way. We are forcing our families to help us.
“We don’t want to close the house,” Mahdik said. “But if some people don’t come forward and volunteer — it’s looking like that will be a reality down the road.”
Joyce Hanz is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.