A BRIEF EXPLORATION OF HISTORY
Mercer County Home and Hospital circa 1940
Mercer County Home and Hospital, now Avalon Springs, is a rich part of the County’s heritage unknown to many area residents. It is a part of the socioeconomic and agricultural history of the County. The County provided residence for the indigent members of the community, and the land provided food for those who called it home. It was a picture of what we now refer to as sustainable agriculture. The Home and Hospital’s buildings, farmland, and residents were as recognizable as the Courthouse throughout the area.
The County Home and Hospital began to emerge as an institution of the County over 150 years ago. In 1830 the Pennsylvania General Assembly enacted legislation allowing Counties to establish alms homes or poor farms. One by one, counties across the state began to develop a system to care for community members within their municipal borders. It was the beginning of social welfare throughout the state. On March 22, 1850 the PA General Assembly approved Act 202. This Act commissioned a panel of twenty-eight local individuals to determine upon and purchase real estate that they deemed necessary for the accommodation of the poor of Mercer County. It also set forth that the purchase should be made prior to January of 1851. With the passage of Act 202, the County began its infancy as a caregiver to area poor.
Initial development of the alms home in Mercer County took place over the early 1850s. The original site was purchased from Henry Moore in 1851 by the Directors of the Poor and of the House of Employment for the County of Mercer. Directors Enoch Perrine, Samuel Woods, and William F. Groves soon realized that the site was inconveniently located and in too poor of a condition to continue developing. Although a building was started at the Moore property, construction was abandoned and the property was eventually sold. The site then transitioned to another location. In May of 1852, 83 acres were purchased by the Directors of the Poor and of the House of Employment for Mercer County from Thomas Pearson. The site was developed and ready for residents in January of 1853. Fourteen individuals were recorded as the first residents of the new establishment.
The property of the Home was assembled from various land acquisitions. Parcels of land were purchased over a period of nearly 80 years and together they formed a contiguous 353.85-acre facility. The lands, approximately one mile north of Mercer, spanned from Clarksville Road on the west to Route 19 on the east. In May of 1866 the Poor Directors of Mercer County purchased 40 acres of land west of the Pearson property from Charles and Anna Bagnall and Thomas and Sidonia Clucow. Next, 83 acres west of the first two purchases were acquired by the County of Mercer from Margaret and Robert Buxton in March of 1880. The County of Mercer then purchased 110 acres of land east of the Pearson tract. These lands were purchased from John and Elizabeth McConnell in November of 1920. Finally, the Directors of the Poor and of the House of Employment purchased 35.5 acres of land south of the Pearson tract from J.C. and Lillian Moon in 1930. Together these lands comprised the 350-plus acre parcel of land operated under the management of the Mercer County Home and Hospital.
The Home property has been the foundation for several indigent resident facilities. Over the course of about 110 years, three buildings were constructed to accommodate the poor of Mercer County. The first was completed and housed residents in 1853. Next, ground was broken in 1880 for a new resident complex. The architecture firm of Drum and Stein of Pittsburgh developed plans for the castle-like structure shown at the right. The building was constructed by contractor Simon Harrold of Beaver Falls for $110,000. The facility was opened for use in 1883. Finally, the third residential complex was completed in 1960. This structure is still operational today as a skilled nursing center under the management of Avalon Springs.
Agriculture was an integral part of the operation of the home. The farmland surrounding the facility was used to provide food for patients residing at the home. Although the intent of the home was to house individuals who did not have money to care for themselves, the role patients often played in the agricultural support system of the facility was significant. Able-bodied residents worked on the farm cultivating crops, raising livestock, and producing other farm products. The community of patients developed around their need for support and agriculture developed to support them. This relationship of an alms home supported by agriculture, in conjunction with the 1830 legislation referring to the establishment of poor farms led area residents to refer to the home as the “poor farm.”
The extent of agriculture increased throughout the history of the farm. Over the course of more than 100 years, many structures were erected to accommodate the food support system. At one time the property had three houses (one assistant farmer dwelling, one dairyman dwelling, and another farm house), two chicken houses, two slaughterhouses, refrigerator house, bank barn, dairy barn, three corn cribs, machinery shed, hide house, and a pig barn. It was said that in the 1950s, 100 pigs, 150-200 chickens, 30-35 milk cows with calves and heifers, and 10-15 beef cows were present at the farm. The buildings and cropland made possible the rearing, slaughter, and storage of needed food for residents. In addition, fruits and vegetables were grown and preserved for use at the home. At its largest, the 353-acre poor farm provided food for 235 patients and also inmates of the county jail. Considering that in 2002 the average farm size in Mercer County was 134 acres, the poor farm was a large diversified agricultural operation in the region that provided food to many people.
Agriculture at the poor farm was not static. Both the size and scope of the farm changed over its history. Buildings, acreage, and animals were amassed until the 1950s, which most likely was the peak of production and diversity at the farm. Nevertheless, changing regulations foreshadowed the fate of agriculture operated under the influence of the county. In the 1970s it became unlawful for patients of the home to work on the farm. Also, federal meat inspection regulations began to require all slaughtering to meet the requirements of a slaughter plant. As a result, a Blue Ribbon Committee of agricultural leaders in the county was charged with reviewing the status of operations at the farm. It was their recommendation that continuing to operate the farm was not economically sound. Consequently, the county ceased actively farming the acres of the poor farm when its machinery and livestock were sold at auction in January of 1973. Over the next 14 years, area farmers rented the barns and cropland, however much of the pastureland became idle. Finally, in 1987 the Austin Rains family began raising Angus beef cattle at the operation. To this date approximately 35-40 Angus cows and calves are reared annually at the site.
The landscape of the farm also changed over time. Buildings were razed and land was divided. In 1937, County Institution District Law abolished the office of county poor director and conveyed its powers and duties to the County Commissioners. From the 1970s to the late 1990s over 179 acres of the poor farm were parceled and dedicated to other interests. Mercer County Career Center, Mercer County Cooperative Extension, and Yes Academy Youth Education Services occupy 139 of those acres that lay east of State Route 58. The remaining 40 acres were sold to a private organization known as Avalon Springs. Avalon Springs still uses the third resident structure that was completed at the poor farm in 1960 as a skilled nursing center. From the 1960s to the late 1990s several buildings were removed from service at the County Home. The three farm dwellings, dairy barn, pig barn, and most notably the castle-like residence building were razed. The division of land and the demise of the structures forever changed the landscape of the poor farm in Mercer County.
Today, the land situated between State Route 58 and Clarksville Road (Rt. 258) still functions largely as it did years ago. Agriculture and elderly care are still the focus of these lands and facilities. The final residence structure built by the county remains as a home to patients at Avalon Springs. Also, the lands are host to the Munnell Run Farm Foundation Incorporated, Munnell Run Trout Nursery (operated by Neshannock Chapter of Trout Unlimited), Mercer County Conservation District, and Rains’ Angus. As tenant farmers, the Rains family raises crops and award-winning Black Angus beef cattle on 96 of the remaining 163 acres of agricultural land. Operational control of this agricultural land was granted to the Munnell Run Farm Foundation, Incorporated (MRFF) in 2002 through a 99-year lease and conservation easement from the County Commissioners.
This non-profit organization uses the farm to educate students, teachers, and community members on various agricultural and ecological topics in a real-world setting. The farm showcases several best management practices to reduce nonpoint source pollution impact on waterways. The MRFF was a 2003 Governor’s Award Winner for Environmental Excellence in Education and Outreach. The Munnell Run Trout Nursery is a cooperative venture between the PA Fish and Boat Commission and the Neshannock Chapter of Trout Unlimited. Approximately 2,000 trout are raised annually at the rearing facility that was converted from a deteriorating slaughterhouse in 1997. Finally, the land is home to the Mercer County Conservation District. The District carries out locally-led soil and water conservation programs that are delegated to the county by the state. With these organizations, tenants, and volunteers, the legacy of care giving and agricultural heritage the county began in the 1850s will continue in perpetuity.