Just north of Pittbsurgh, where interstates give way to rolling hills, farms, and thick forests, I discovered a place where passion runs deep, where people are connected to the land and to each other, where they care about their history and their traditions, about food and family, about home and community, where they welcome strangers with warm smiles, and you get a sense that old-fashioned values are the glue that holds this place together.
In Butler County, Pennsylvania, I met sixth-generation farmers; beer makers and coffee purveyors; and young men whose creativity and zest for life offer a sense of hope that the future will be better than the past—not worse.
Here in this quiet countryside, folks work hard, but don’t begrudge it. They earn their keep. In Butler County a good honest living means more than just bringing home a paycheck. It means living a life that you love, a good life where who you are and what you believe in still matters.
Visitors flock to Butler County for its idyllic beauty, outdoor recreation, festivals, and family fun. But if you dig a little deeper, you’ll find another reason to visit Butler County. Here on farms, in restaurants, in B & B’s and grocery stores, you’ll find people whose greatest pleasure in life is sharing their quality products, food and drink rooted in tradition and created from the heart.
PRIDE OF OWNERSHIP
Seventy years ago Marburger Farm Dairy carried its milk to Pittsburgh on streetcars. Now next to the barn where the cows swish their tails, chew their cud, and wait to be milked, a fleet of trucks lines up ready to carry Marburger dairy products up and down the Eastern seaboard.
I met Martin Marburger, 90, in front of the bottling plant in Evans City. While his son, Jim, has taken over the day-to-day operation of the business, Martin still stops by regularly to check on things. As we chatted, pride of ownership shone on Martin’s face.
In fact, four generations of the Marburger family have kept this small farm running through the years. After we viewed the homogenization and bottling departments, Becky, Martin’s niece, showed us the Holsteins, which weigh on average 1400 pounds each. Milked twice a day—at 3 a.m. and 3 p.m.—in the milking parlor, the Holsteins need a lot of attention. Becky said, “You can’t go on vacation from milking the cows.”
Families will enjoy an outing to Marburger Farm Dairy, where they can meet the cows and learn how milk gets from the cow to the refrigerator. You just need to call ahead for an appointment. And stop by a local grocer, where you can grab some creamy Marburger chocolate milk or their prized buttermilk. After a swig or two, you’ll appreciate the hard work the Marburger family—and their cows—put into their delicious dairy products.
A few miles to the east in Saxonburg at Armstrong Farms, generations of the Allen family have been raising cattle since 1816. John and Kathy Allen preside over an operation that not only includes breeding purebred Angus, but also embraces agri-tourism.
Known for its award-winning livestock, the farm uses DNA testing to breed cattle with “the right gene markers for tenderness,” explained son John, who’s the sixth generation to tend the 1000-acre farm. Their cattle’s progeny are found on other cattle farms across the country.
John describes how they use rotational grazing at Armstrong farm to ensure the cattle don’t overgraze the land. “One of God’s gifts to us is grass,” he said.
About ten years ago the family decided to expand their business by inviting tourists and groups to enjoy their beautiful surroundings. They offer bed-and-breakfast accommodations and stables for those who want to bring their own horses and also host numerous weddings each year.
Kathy believes today’s children need to experience farm life up close. “Many of the people who come here have not had a farm experience,” said her husband John. The family welcomes guests who want to learn about good environmental and stewardship practices, hike on the farm’s seven miles of trails, fish, hunt, observe wildlife, camp, and horse back ride.
Just south of Butler, the county seat, an oasis of calm awaits: the Succop Conservancy. This 50-acre country estate—with lush rolling hills and old-growth forests—was donated by the Succop family to Butler County Community College Foundation in 2001. Popular as a setting for weddings and events, the estate features walking trails, ponds, and gardens, as well as farm buildings and a beautiful 177-year-old dwelling called the Marcraig House. One of the conservancy’s missions is to offer courses in folk arts, such as blacksmithing, aromatherapy, stained glass, basket weaving, even bagpiping.
In a converted chicken house, I met Ryan Stauffer, a 30-year-old Rennaisaance man with a ponytail, banging on an anvil as he shaped a piece of iron. Ryan owns a grass-fed cattle farm but spends much of his time at the conservancy sharing his many talents with anyone willing to learn. Besides blacksmithing, Ryan teaches knife making, bagpipe playing, and beer brewing.
He showed us his workshop: bits of animal bones used to make knife handles and parts for bagpipes, rusted iron bedsprings which he transforms into hooks and hinges, handmade croquet mallets and hand-forged wickets. Ryan’s planning to set up an “extreme croquet” course in the back woods of the conservancy. When I asked how he had the energy to do all these things, Ryan said, “I have ADD. I love it.”
Ryan was all about being resourceful. “If I don’t have a tool I need, I’ll make it,” he said. He wore a Swedish WWII coat and said he shops at thrift stores. “I like the vintage look,” he said. “I’ll never buy new clothes again. It’s too wasteful.” Ryan takes recycling to a whole new level. I admire his resourcefulness.
Among the folk arts courses you can take are cooking classes in the historic Marcraig House. We learned how to make buckwheat waffles and pancakes, using locally milled buckwheat and Marburger Farm’s buttermilk. The results were extraordinary. I also met Margie Rhoades, another Succop instructor, who shares her passion for “buying local and eating seasonal stuff,” aka BLESS. She grows most of her family’s fruit and vegetables in a greenhouse and buys meats from local farmers. “Food tastes better when it’s local,” she said.
TASTY HOME BREWS
In the sleepy little town of Portersville a retired Marine Corp colonel pursues his passion at Porter House Brew Shop. In October 2007 Mark Sempf, his wife, Barbara, and their partners, Don and Ruth Whiesl, opened the cozy shop, where they share their love of making delicious home brews with patrons. Besides offering classes, the owners also organize events at the shop. For example, Mark has plans for “man-cave” parties, where participants learn how to make beer and, of course, sample a few brews. “Like Tupperware for men,” he said with a grin.
“Beer is not boring anymore,” Mark continued and then launched into a talk about styles of beer, its history, how to cook and pair foods with beer, and finally how to make it yourself. It’s surprisingly simple, Mark said. You just need to buy some basic equipment, add malted barley, hops, water and yeast, and you’ll be sipping homemade brew in no time.
Another local venue known for its home brews is North Country Brewing Company, a busy restaurant in Slippery Rock owned by Jodi and Bob McCafferty. Using recycled building materials, the young couple renovated a 19th-century storefront, converting it into a unique property with a rustic ambience and surprising handcrafted touches throughout.
As we sampled a flight of delicious beers and signature dishes, Bob shared his vision for the restaurant. “We want to be off-the-grid one day,” he said and explained how he and his staff were taking steps to reduce the business’ carbon footprint. By composting table scraps with the help of an on-property worm bed and feeding the grains leftover from brewing to local cows, Bob has halved his restaurant’s waste. The nitrogen-rich worm castings are then used to fertilize his vegetable garden, whose bounty he harvests to serve to his restaurant patrons. It’s a sustainable operation that draws crowds for its affordable food and tasty beer.
HAVING A MOMENT
Ed Wethli started out in the coffee business as the owner of a few coffee shops in Pittsburgh. In time he developed a growing passion for the coffee bean itself and began traveling to places like Columbia, Costa Rica, Mexico, Panama, and El Salvador, learning about the types of coffee and experimenting with the myriad flavors produced in the roasting process. Soon Ed sold his shops and now concentrates his focus on a wholesale business called Kiva Han.
In a tidy warehouse space in a town called Cranberry Township, Ed showed us his operation. “You get your flavor from the oil,” Ed explained. “Roasting brings out the oil and sugars carmelize.” He said he prefers the subtle flavors of medium-roasted coffee, as opposed to the darker roasts favored by many coffee shops. “I don’t like over-roasting coffee,” he said. “It tastes burned.”
My visit in early February coincided with the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast Regional Barista Competition, sponsored in part by Kiva Han. The competition took place at the Marriott at Cranberry Woods and pitted baristas from near and far against each other. Each had to make four espressos, four cappuccinos, and four specialty drinks, serve them to the judges, and do it all in less than 16 minutes.
I met Liz Clarke, 26, from Ithaca, New York, who had competed for the first time. While she’d been disqualified for taking longer than 16 minutes, Liz enjoyed the event and looked forward to trying again. “I became a barista because I needed a job,” she explained, “but now it’s become a passion.”
She told me that “being in the moment” is what the coffee experience is all about. “Let’s say your client’s having a bad day,” she said, “and when you give them coffee, you have a moment with them.”
What a perfect summary for my visit to Butler County. As I explored the county’s rich bounty of food products, I was struck by the genuine passion the people felt for their enterprises. These entrepreneurs, farmers, and restaurant owners care about their heritage and are committed to being stewards of their land. Even more their businesses represent their conviction that doing a job well is its own reward.
In Butler County sharing food and drink with others—whether on a restaurant table or in a milk jug—is a way of “having a moment,” and we all need to have more moments like these.
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Other foodie finds:
• Siba is a chic Mediterranean restaurant not far from Cranberry Township featuring a European-inspired menu and an inviting ambience. www.siba-cucina.com
• The McGinnis Sisters Specialty Foods is a small grocery store chain featuring quality foods. Owned by three sisters whose parents founded the business in 1946, the chain’s success is a tribute to the sisters’ hard work and commitment to quality products and service. www.mcginnis-sisters.com
• Fresh Cup Café in Saxonburg is a lovely place to have tea or coffee and enjoy a tasty breakfast or lunch. Next door is the Main Stay B & B. www.thefreshcupcafe.com
• Stop in a local farmer’s market and ask about local products such as produce from Harvest Valley Farms, Mama Rosa’s pasta sauces, Zanella buckwheat flour, Con Yeager spices, Thoma meats, and Herbal Delights dip mixes. You’ll come home with some tasty souvenirs!