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Tarentum Campgrounds: An oasis of peace from a bygone era

| Sunday, July 25, 2010

Tom and Judy Doyle say they always have been fond of "how things used to be."

When the Penn Hills residents first made that right turn off of Main Street onto Serenity Lane, in what locals refer to as the Campton section of Natrona Heights, they knew, Tom Doyle recalls, "We had stumbled into something special."

Like generations before them since 1849 -- those who came via the Pennsylvania Canal, horse and buggy and, later, the railroad trains and by other means -- they had found the Pittsburgh-Tarentum Campmeeting Association grounds, popularly known as the Tarentum Campgrounds or, simply, the Campgrounds.

"I feared that it was going to be another 'Brigadoon,' with Gene Kelly and Van Johnson, only appearing once every 100 years," Doyle says.

He is sitting in his comfortable old wicker chair, on his beloved "old wooden porch" of the cottage -- one of 33 that dots the 14 wooded acres nestled near the Allegheny Valley Expressway -- where Doyle and his wife live from spring to fall. The grounds are open from April 1 to Nov. 1.

"It seems that when you drive down Serenity Lane, the world outside becomes less stressful," he says.

It's the neighbors calling "hello" from their porches, inviting you over to sit a spell with them. It's the unhurried opportunity to sip coffee or tea together on those back-porch swings. It's also those impromptu bonfires -- "people sitting around a campfire," Doyle says, "just because you can."

The primary appeal to them of being Campgrounds residents, though, is the spiritual connection that those who live here, Protestants and Catholics alike, share. Judy Doyle is a music minister. "We are a small melting pot of people from all walks of life, and, yet, there is a bond that ties us together," Tom Doyle says.

For him, it's the chance to walk on "holy ground," he says, knowing that, for the past 161 years, those who have inhabited this place did so with a vision to maintain a Christian community. "It works here. Things are not a Shangri-La, but it works," he says.

What began as a strong Methodist commitment to evangelical preaching has evolved through the decades to what some describe as a mini-Chautauqua-like atmosphere for all denominations.

Worship services are held at 7 p.m. Wednesdays and Sundays in an Amish-designed and built open-air tabernacle pavilion, complete with pews and, behind the altar, stained-glass windows. Guest clergy from various denominations and lay speakers preside.

There are two free Saturday concerts remaining this season, at 7 p.m. July 31 with the Steel Impressions steel drum band, and 7 p.m. Aug. 14 with the Alle-Kiski Barbershop Chorus.

Services and concerts open to the public

Internationally acclaimed mezzo soprano Marianne Cornetti, a Knoch High School graduate, Cabot native and former New Kensington resident, has sung at the Campgrounds several times.

"I've found so much solace in that little place over the years," says Cornetti, who has performed in some of the world's greatest halls. "I absolutely have no qualms about sharing my gift anywhere, especially in a religious-type community like the Tarentum Campgrounds."

Lynda Jamison, a critically praised an Allegheny Valley contemporary pop vocalist who has performed in some of Manhattan's storied cabaret rooms, feels the same way. The O'Hara resident delivered a blend of Gershwin show tunes and Gospel numbers at the pavilion.

"I think God needed to get me to be quiet in the last year-and-a-half, and I needed to listen to him," she said before her debut there. "That's what's so attractive to me about the campgrounds. It's a very peaceful place."

Now owned by a nonprofit corporation called the Pittsburgh-Tarentum Campmeeting Association, it is presided over by 15 trustees of various faiths.

It is believed to be one of the oldest Christian communities of its kind in the nation. Civil War veterans once came here to worship and to be honored by Campground residents. Legendary Pittsburgh Pirates' announcer Rosey Rosewell ("Get outta the kitchen, Aunt Minnie, and open the window, here it comes") owned a cottage.

Some viewed the Campgrounds as a weekend spiritual and recreational retreat. From the mid-1920s to the 1950s, a now long-gone spring-fed swimming pool attracted the general public. The cold water was said to be "more suited to polar bears than humans." It has been replaced by a medium-size, above-ground pool for residents.

The Campgrounds, Doyle says, is an oasis for those who want to be part of a Christian community. "It is an escape to a simpler time," he adds.

"This is a very special place. There are not many places like it. It's wonderful to come here in the summertime. We need these places of rest in our lives," says the Rev. James Morris, retired pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church, Brackenridge, and the campgrounds' worship leader. He and his wife, Marilyn, have resided here for 17 years. Like many here, especially those who have retired, they live in Florida in the off-season, returning to the Campgrounds to escape Florida's heat.

"Everybody can hardly wait to come here in the spring, and they hate to leave in the fall," says Marilyn Morris.

Her husband tells people they have found paradise. "It's a beautiful spot. We are close to shopping areas, but down in this valley, we are just a place of quietness and peace, a place where we can share our faith and a lot of fun times," he says.

His first impression of the Campgrounds•

"I was just amazed to find something like this in the middle of a town," he says.

He is not alone.

Former Brackenridge tax collector Pat Berringer says, "I had lived in this area 64 years and didn't know that the campground was even here." She and her husband, Tom, both Tarentum High School graduates who now live in Florida, were looking for a place for the summer, in a spiritual environment, to be close to some of their children and grandchildren.

"The cottages are very affordable, considering they are furnished, and you could not go to the beach for a week for what it costs to stay here the entire season," she says. "Not to mention, it's usually cooler here than at the beach."

They have been residents for six years. "The campground is a place where you can relax and go back in time," Berringer says.

Carol and John Slagle, also six-year residents, initially "fell in love with the charm of the place," and then the Christian atmosphere. "We really like the sense of community," Carol says. She was raised in Penn Hills; John, in Ford City, and they lived in Kittanning. They now live in Savannah, Ga. "We can't wait until April comes to make the trip north each year," she says.

The Campgrounds remind Slagle of her childhood in the '50s and '60s. "There are no places that you need to rush off to. You just relax and enjoy the beautiful scenery," she says.

Music ministers Phil and Pat Karsch, enjoying their second year in a cottage, appreciate that life here is tranquil and full of activity. "In the evenings, we sit on our porch and totally relax with our little rat terrier Koko, who enjoys his nightly walks around the perimeter of the grounds," Pat says. "It's quiet living at its best."

They also enjoy the picnics, campfires, hot dog and marshmallow roasts. "Most of all, we appreciate the fellowship of our Wednesday and Sunday night services," she says. An old school bell rings 15 minutes before worship.

"This is our little piece of heaven right here in Pennsylvania," she says.

That's because "there's a lot of love and beauty here," adds New Kensington native Darlene Schimelfanick. "It's been an amazing experience being here for seven years. We have had family weddings, and my grandchild had the honor of being baptized here," says Schimelfanick, who lives in the Orlando area. A social hall at the entrance accommodates many events, including an annual yard sale held July 24.

"The Campgrounds is the best-kept secret in our little community," says Mary Ann Edwards, of Naples, Fla., who lived here for almost eight years and now visits regularly. "When you sit on your porch, facing the tabernacle, you can't imagine the calmness and fulfillment you get."

Standing in a parklike setting, the cottages in oval formation around it, Jim Morris extends his arms in agreement. "This," he says against the chirping of birds, the aroma of grass drying from a late-afternoon shower in evidence, "is God's special place."

The cottages

Modernity and old-time charm live comfortably together at the Campgrounds.

Purchase a cottage at the Pittsburgh-Tarentum Campmeeting Association grounds in Natrona Heights, and you've secured a pass into two different worlds. "Most of our cottages have been modernized to some degree inside, but outside, we try to keep the atmosphere of the old campground," says Pat Berringer, who, with her husband, Tom, has a cottage.

Although the two-story Victorian cottages come furnished, including dishes and silverware, pots and pans and, sometimes, even bed coverings, owners are free to decorate, furnish and upgrade the residences. Some have added air conditioning, wall heaters and washers and dryers (although there is a Campgrounds laundry), and reconfigured the living space.

Unwanted furniture can be sold at an annual flea market and bake sale, which was held this year on July 24.

"The cottages remind me of my childhood at my great-aunt's cottage in Northern Pennsylvania," says resident Carol Slagle. Some people have installed automatic dishwashers, but, Slagle says, "I kind of like doing my own dishes. Most of my kitchen utensils are from the '40s and '50s and are of far better quality than today's. It brings back fond memories of watching my mother in the kitchen doing her daily chores."

The cottages remind Dean and Mary Ann Edwards of those at Martha's Vineyard -- "only they go up as high as a million dollars at the Vineyard, but they are on the water." The Campgrounds in Natrona Heights "are colorful and cute and adorable and quaint," she says. At night, the Campgrounds' twinkle with decorative lights on cottage porches.

"There is a really wonderful serenity here," says Marilyn Morris, wife of Campgrounds' trustee the Rev. Jim Morris, as she guides visitors through both floors of the couple's warm, comfortable, cottage. It has a living room, kitchen, two baths and three bedrooms.

Two days earlier, the couple hosted a birthday party for one of their grandchildren.

As of this month, 26 of the 33 cottages were occupied. People are surprised at how affordable -- from $5,000 to $14,000 furnished -- they are to buy, says Jim Morris, who has lived here for 17 years. "Isn't that amazing," he says, smiling.

How does the Campmeeting Association do that• "Through mirrors," he says, laughing. "This is not a money-making proposition."

Taxes, water/sewage and gas are included in the annual $975 assessment fee. A year-round caretaker lives on the premises. "It is an inexpensive way to spend the summer," Morris says. "These are really beautiful cottages."

When the Campgrounds opened 161 years ago, the entire 14 acres was purchased for $500.

Most of the current residents are retired. Morris estimates that the average age of residents is between mid-60s and mid-70s.

Jim Morris emphasizes that when someone purchases a cottage, they also are buying into the Campgrounds' experience. "There's a level of commitment we are looking at and our expectations are that they participate as much as they can," he says. "We try to make it such that they want to be part of the programs. Whether a Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, Roman Catholic (or a member of another denomination), we are a Christian family together in the summertime."

For inquiries, call Judy Doyle at 412-216-3300

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