Throwback: Mayview Farm Memories

by Phyllis Knowles Bombassaro

Cover Spring 1998; Cover underwritten by Louis Anthony Jewelers and was designed by Michele L. Scureman, coordinator of Celebrating the Arts and photographed by John McManus Studio.

Throwback with TODAY

Mayview Farm Memories By Phyllis Knowles Bombassaro

Spring 1998; pages 10, 11 & 72

On the evening of August 5, 1996, the Township of Upper St. Clair's Board of Commissioners made final arrangements to purchase 238 acres of prime farmland, known as Mayview Farm, for $67,500. This land extended from Chartiers Creek around the farm to the far portion of land on Boyce Road already owned by the Township. Chartiers Creek has always divided the farm in Upper St. Clair and the hospital grounds in South Fayette Township, as it does even now.

This is not just a valuable piece of land; it is more than that to me. For 30 years, the farmhouse that I called home was located on this land.

William B. Knowles

Before World War I, my father, William B. Knowles, had come from North Carolina to work on the hospital wards at Mayview. He returned to North Carolina to join the army and served in a Field House with the U.S. Army in France. Shortly after the war ended, he returned to Mayview and was employed as the Swineherder for the Piggery.

The farm and the hospital at that time were operated by the City of Pittsburgh and known as the Pittsburgh City Home and Hospitals until it was taken over by the State of Pennsylvania in the 1940s.

It was not always called Mayview, but was named Marshalsea. I have postcard pictures denoting this name for various buildings of the Hospital, as well as the Piggery.

When my dad first started to work at the Piggery, he was paid $1320 annually and he and my mother were each paid $384 annually in maintenance. The house came along with the job, but for a good reason. My mother, Minnie, was a Cottage Matron and cooked three meals for our family and for 10 to 12 male patients who worked in the Piggery and the Dairy. The men ate in our basement. She did this for 30 years without a vacation. For many Depression years, she worked without salary and only received the maintenance money. She was paid $660 annually to start her working days at the farm, having already worked in the wards on the hospital grounds.

Back row: Phyllis, Mother Minnie and Bill Knowles. Front row: Betty Knowles and cousin Mary

It's hard to imagine now, but for the better part of all those years my dad butchered hogs every other Monday in the fall and winter. Of course, the meat was taken to the hospital's own butcher shop and then distributed throughout the facility and prepared in separate kitchens in the different buildings for the enjoyment of the patients and employees.

One of the greatest pleasures of butchering day was the No. 10 can of "cracklin" that my dad would bring to the house. They rendered their own lard and those crispy morsels were the remainders of pure fat, but so delicious. Vegetable soup was always the Monday main dish, and it was made with all fresh vegetables from the farm. Monday was always laundry day and clothes were hung outside until the temperature dropped below freezing.

Mom raised her own chickens and many Sundays she made chicken pot pie, as her Pennsylvania Dutch family did before her. It was squares of dough dropped into boiling chicken broth with a potato and a carrot. Another fine dish to remember. I've tried making it, but have not been able to duplicate that dough portion.

The old house had four bedrooms. One was very small and that became my brother Bill's bedroom. Small is an understatement. It had space for a single bed, one dresser and one straight chair. He had to sit on the side of the bed to open the dresser. It was meant to be the bathroom in the original plans. Years before my Mom and Dad arrived at the house, a bathroom had been added off the kitchen on the first floor and to the side of the house.

The Knowles' home on the Mayview Farm property

My parents' room was the largest and my sister Betty and I shared a room. Beyond our room, we had room for a female patient, Gertie. She lived with us and helped with the dish washing and some of the house cleaning. Gertie loved jewelry without bounds. She wore as many as four or five pins on her dress bodice and perhaps two of three necklaces at one time and loved everyone of them.

Of course, there was no central heating system. We had two heaters downstairs in the dining room and the living room and they glowed red on the backs for the gas heat. The kitchen was always the warmest room because of the cooking being done. The upstairs was really chilly, and the old story of snowflakes on your windowsill or your bedspreads was no laughing matter in those days.

When we attended Clifton School, our first grade teacher was Sara E. A. Lesnett who taught for 49 years in the Upper St. Clair School District. There was never a finer teacher. She often told me of walking over from her home on Old Lesnett Road to play with the children who lived in our house before our time. She pointed out where a window in the kitchen had once been a door and how they would run into the field and play and we had such happy times.

The farm was surrounded by a four board wooden fence that was painted or whitewashed every year and was always clean and neat looking. Every spring the painters would come and repaint the boards and whitewash the tree trunks. The weeds and grass were always cut and the fields were enhanced by the brilliant white fence.

My brother and sister and I knew every patient by name and were never afraid of anyone. Instead, it was the visitors who came to the farm who were needlessly concerned for their safety.

The man who worked for my Dad and in the Dairy lived in a large dormitory-style room at the rear of the piggery above the slaughterhouse. The patients lived there and did not travel back and forth to the hospital as they were later forced to do with new regulations in the '40s.

Speaking of the Dairy, most of you readers have not, nor will you ever know, the joy of taking two or three one-half gallon Mason jars under your arms and going out the back door and across a grassy area to the barns and coming home with the best whole milk. Of course, it came right from the Holstein cows and was run over a cooler and we held jars under the stream of milk until jars were filled and then took them back home. When the milk settled and the cream rose to the top, there was something that we all looked forward to having - ice cream! We took turns pushing that old crank handle until we could not turn any longer. Then we removed the dasher and left the ice cream to age before eating. We didn't make ice cream every time we got milk.

Twice a week my mother would make out a grocery list for items like the fresh vegetables available from the farm. She would also order the paper products, cleaning supplies, canned goods and bread. Every Tuesday and Friday we received three loaves of fresh bread from the bakery, often still warm on Fridays. Another deliveryman brought a huge block of ice and put it into the icebox on the enclosed back porch. That porch led out onto a walk that went to the road and to the Piggery, dairy buildings, barns, and the Farm Manager's office. Many farm bosses came and went in those years. The house they resided in is still standing at the lower back portion of the Sky Ridge Plan. Our walk was lined with portulaca and made a beautiful carpet of multicolors all summer. A friend in Bridgeville still has flowers from seed my mother gave to her mother more than 50 years ago.

There was a time when the farm produced nearly all of the fruits and vegetables that were necessary to feed the patients on the grounds. We shared in that blessing and it was a wonderful, clean, wholesome life for children.

The farm also had beautiful Belgian workhorses to help with the plowing, cultivating and hauling in the hay and whatever else had to be hauled. Before tractors, they did the work. The beautiful animals were always well cared for on the farm. It was a delight when Mr. Joseph Bell, a blacksmith from Bridgeville, would come to the farm after supper to "shoe" the horses. We kids would rush over th that barn to watch him work. He brought his own portable forge and a five-gallon bucket for cold water. He'd heat the show, then hammer it to fit and then plunge it into the cold water. It sizzled and spiuttered, and we were fascinated when he would pick up that huge hoof and nail the shoe fast after removing the worn-out one. Meanwhile, his wife, Jennie, would come visit my mother. She was an English lady and a good friend of Mrs. Elizabeth Godwin, wife of Charles Godwin, the florist. She had come from England, also.

The only drawback to living on the farm was that we had no close neighbors our ages. There were three young men adn their parents who lived in the house below Mayview Road, but the Feston boys were too old for us to play with then. Their house burned many years ago.

We did have great friends in the children of the doctors and others, such as the chaplain and the druggist and other supervisory positions - Dr. Lerner's son, Dr. Scholl's daughters and Rev. Yount's sons.

We thought nothing of walking back and forth on the "grounds" perhaps three times in one day during the summer months. In the mornings, we played tennis where the Bengs Building is now, but in the evenings, we relinquished the courts to the doctors and others. In the summer we also went to baseball games that were played where the wetlands have been created in the past few years. The patients were take down to the games by their attendants, patients walking two of three abreast from the building to the bleachers. The female patients were taken as well, and a good time was had by all.

The team was made up of attendants who worked on the wards or the farm. They played twice a week with teams that came out of Pittsburgh. It was great recreation for the employees as well as entertainment for the patients and other employees.

In the winter there were movies for entertainment, and we always walked over and met our friends there.

When we were a bit older, we received some second-hand bicycles and then we would ride back and forth every day. The summer days were filled with the ball games and soon it was school time again.

Going to high school in Bridgeville, since Upper St. Clair did not have a high school, was a challenge. There were no provisions fro transportation to other schools after we completed eighth grade. We were ridiculed more than once when the Bridgeville kids found we had come from Mayview, but it soon wore off when they discovered that we were just like them.

A big problem was transportation. We had not had a car for years and I walked to Bridgeville for a couple months until the mailman, Herman Lewis from Boyce Road, found out that I was walking. He changed his route and took me to school on his way to work at the Post Office. About this time, Mr. Bigi started his bus line and we finally had public transportation. Eventually he sold it to the Port Authority and public transportation in Bridgeville has been available since then.

There was also a railroad station there before this time and it operated for many years. The last train from Pittsburgh arriving at the station was called the "bummer." At one time the rules required attendants to be on the grounds by midnight. There was a sentry building at the main entrance and employees had to sign in and out.

My cousin, Mary, lived with us for the first five years of her life and when it was time to start school, she went with my aunt and uncle to the Chicken Farm. She and my sister were born only six days apart and always remained close.

My Uncle Henry Johnson and my Aunt Margaret did the same type of work at the Chicken Farm as my parents did at the Piggery - only the animals were different. He raised as many as 20,000 chickens at on time. They were in cages, of course, and very productive. At one time 175 dozen eggs a day were produced.


At the Chicken Farm the patients lived in their own little cottage dormitory and ate in the little cottage next door. My Aunt Margaret, also a Cottage Matron, had one male patient who worked and helped her with the dishes and the cleaning and carrying of the food from the main house to the cottage for meals. He was a dear Italian gentleman named Orie. He spent his spare time hauling or pulling limestone rocks up over the hill and then spent hours chiseling pictures and designs on them and placing them along side of the garage or wherever he found space. He was truly a most cheerful fellow who would give you anything. He worked there with my aunt for more than 30 years.

The one big event of the summer was the Superintendent's picnic held at the Grove. This was also behind the Sky Ridge plan and up about one block from the Farm Manager's house to the side of the farm. When the corn was ripe it was time for the picnic. Trucks were used to take everyone up to the Grove and the corn and hot dogs and watermelon and other picnic food were served. There was music, also.

The Grove was on the way up the hill where the Chicken Farm was located. Today that road is hidden but it did come out where the sign for Baker Park is located. It's over grown now, and only a few of us remember.

My immediate family is all gone now and I am the only one remaining to tell you what it was like growing up at Mayview on the farm. I have fond memories that only a child and teenager can have of her first and only home. I left there to be married and although I have lived almost 40 years of my life on Boyce Road in Upper St. Clair, I will always think of that old far house as being my home.

Our old home was about 200 years old when the firemen were granted permission to burn it down for practice. It was a sad event that I could not go to watch.

I have moved from Boyce Road now and have left behind a house just 100 years old with many memories of a dear husband and the raising of our four children there with a large garden, our own chickens and a small two story barn. And, of course, I have the memories of my own childhood.

I hope the Township of Upper St. Clair will use the property to enhance its richness for everyone - a certain satisfaction that the farm itself gave to many in the past.

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