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Residents say quaint Zelienople has it all

Pittsburgh Tribune ReviewBy Joan Greene
Sunday, July 8, 2007

Zelienople’s official motto is “Zelienople — a modern place with old-fashioned grace.”

But many residents also refer to the picturesque borough as a “Crossroads Community.”

Located seven miles north of Cranberry in Butler County, the historic borough of 4,300 residents is a popular destination for both highway travelers and visitors attracted to Zelienople’s small-town charm.

On their way from visiting friends in Erie to catch a flight out of Pittsburgh International Airport, Peter and Kathy Eyster, of Lakewood, Colo., decided to have lunch at the historic Kaufman House and take a brief tour of the town.

“(Zelienople) looked like a quaint, interesting town, and we had read about the Kaufman House in a AAA Tour Book, so we decided to stop, have lunch and look around,” Peter Eyster says.

Nestled among trees and rolling hills near the Connoquenessing Creek, Zelienople’s picturesque location is what compelled the borough’s founder, Baron Dettmar Friederich Basse, to buy 10,000 acres of Revolutionary War Depreciations Land in 1802.

Basse laid out the town and named it after his daughter, Zelie, who arrived in Zelienople from Germany in 1807 with her new husband, Philippe Louis Passavant.

After discovering iron ore on his land, Basse, in 1813, built Zelienople’s first industrial plant, Bassenheim Furnace, one of the first charcoal blast furnaces in Western Pennsylvania.

Zelienople was incorporated as a borough in 1840, and by the turn of the 20th century, industrial expansion spurred growth.

Zelie and Philippe settled into their permanent home, Passavant House, on South Main Street (Route 19), where Zelie gave birth to five children, among them William Alfred Passavant, founder of hospitals, homes for the aged and orphans, and schools and churches — many of which still carry his name.

Passavant House, which was built in 1808, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is home to the Zelienople Historical Society. The restored home is open for tours and features a vast collection of historic items, including clothes worn by family members, furnishings, family portraits and letters written by Zelie to her children and other family members.

Buhl House (built in 1805) is the oldest existing building in Zelienople and is named after another early settler, Christian Buhl. In 1804, Buhl, a German immigrant furrier, married Fredericka Dorothea Goehring, of Cranberry, and they had 11 children. Today, the Buhl family name is associated with philanthropy. Buhl Planetarium, opened in 1939 on the North Side, was built with money from a foundation set up by Christian’s grandson, Henry Buhl Jr. The new planetarium at the Carnegie Science Center retains the Buhl name.

Joyce Bessor, 75, executive director of the historical society, has vivid memories of growing up in Zelienople. One of the biggest changes that affected Zelienople was the opening of Interstate 79 in the 1970s, Bessor says. Before that, Route 19 was the main thoroughfare heading north from Pittsburgh to Erie.

“When I was a child growing up in the 1930s and ’40s, there was only one stoplight on Route 19 between West View and Mercer,” she says. “On Sundays, when people were driving to and from Erie, Route 19 was packed with cars, backed up for miles.”

Although Zelienople retains its small-town charm, the stores and schools have changed “considerably,” Bessor says.

Today, St. Gregory’s Elementary School is the only school within Zelienople’s borders. Zelienople Elementary School and High School were torn down in the 1960s. Students living in Zelienople attend Connoquenessing Elementary School, in the neighboring borough of Harmony, and Seneca Valley Middle, Intermediate and Senior High Schools, in Jackson Township.

Although many of the shops and restaurants lining Main Street have retained their facades, the types of businesses have changed, Bessor says. The antiques stores have been replaced by gift shops. “For 60 years, Buhl House was owned by an antique dealer, and people came from all over to buy antiques,” Bessor says. The home now is operated by the historical society and is open for tours.

Ketterer’s, owned by two sisters, was a popular clothing and dry goods store when Bessor was growing up and “almost everyone in town” bought shoes at Blum’s shoe store, which closed in the 1980s after being in business for almost 100 years. Today, it is a bicycle shop.

The Strand Theater, which is undergoing renovation, was where children would flock to the Saturday matinees. “In those days, Saturday night at the movies was a big deal,” Bessor says.

The Strand closed its doors in 1984. In 2001, Ron Carter, of Cranberry, formed the nonprofit Strand Theater Initiative to raise $5 million for its restoration. The goal is transorm the theater, which was built in 1914, into a performing-arts center for touring groups, off-Broadway plays, classic films, orchestras and bands.

To date, the theater’s facade has been renovated, and a new marquee lights up Main Street at night. Work on the theater’s 2,700-square-foot interior is under way. Recently, 300 seats were removed and auctioned to raise funds. “There’s nothing like it in the North Hills,” Carter says. “The Strand Theater will be a destination and another reason for people to come to Main Street. It will feed into the restaurants and shops.”

Today, shoppers strolling along Main Street will find an array of shops reflecting old and new, ranging from Mathew Jewelers — in business for 60 years — to Tattoos by Boney Joe, Room to Grow toy store and C.T. McCormick Hardware, specializing in Lionel Electric Trains.

“Business is good,” says Claudia Brueckman, owner of Gift Baskets, Flowers & More. “Zelienople is still a walking town, and people are now into exercise. The events and attractions bring people into town.”

Borough Manager Don Pepe describes Zelienople as “a town of sidewalks.”

“Sidewalks promote communities,” he says. “We still have pressure to compete with the strip malls, but Zelie still retains itself because the type of businesses here seem to thrive and have found a niche.”

Mayor Tom Oliverio says residents have a great deal of pride in their town. “Everything grows off of that. People love their Main Street, and they keep the shops vital,” he says. “At the hardware store, you can buy one bolt at a time, not the entire package.”

Events commemorating Zelienople’s history and celebrating holidays draw huge crowds from Zelienople and neighboring communities, Pepe says.

One popular event, sponsored by the Zelienople Lion’s Club, is an annual summer horse show. In its 44th year, the event has been renamed Horse Trading Days and is Zelienople’s premiere attraction, attracting as many as 40,000 people during three days in July.

The borough has four or five parades a year for holidays like Halloween, where children and their pets dress up and parade down Main Street. When Santa arrives at Christmas, he takes up residence at Four Corner Park, where he is visited by thousands of children.

“People love the parades. A town is not a town unless you have a Main Street with a parade,” says Oliverio, who enjoys watching the parades with his grandchildren.

The Kountry Kitchen is a favorite among residents and commuters who work in Zelienople. Eating lunch at the family-style restaurant, Kelvin Mack, 22, says Zelienople was “an amazing place to grow up.”

“We could walk to wherever we wanted to go — the park, the pool, the basketball court. My favorite sight is coming down the hill off of Route 19 from Cranberry into Zelienople at night. I like the way the streets and buildings are lit up,” says Mack, who lives in Evans City.

Built in 1902, the Kaufman House is a destination restaurant and bar that attracts visitors from throughout the region, says owner Ken Pilarski, of Cranberry. “It’s popular because of the food, the location in a quaint town and the history of the town and building,” he says. Early in the 20th century, the railroads housed workers in the 32 rooms at the Kaufman House. The hotel portion of the building closed several years ago, Pilarski says.

Residents at Lutheran SeniorLife Passavant Retirement Community, on North Main Street, enjoy “the walking town atmosphere of Zelienople,” says Laura Roy, Passavant’s executive director. “They can walk to the grocery store, shops, bank and restaurants.”

Established in 1905 as the Old People’s Home, the retirement community has grown from eight acres to 42 and serves 650 residents in assisted-living, independent-living and skilled-nursing facilities, Roy says.

Originally named the Orphans Home and Farm School, Glade Run, on West Beaver Road, was founded in 1854 by Rev. William Alfred Passavant and offers residential services to abused and neglected children.

Zelienople’s demographics are a mix of older, longtime residents and families moving in to raise their children in a small-town atmosphere, Pepe says.

In addition to Passavant Retirement Community, which employs more than 300 people, Sysco Food Services of Pittsburgh, Billco Manufacturing, BNZ Materials, ITT Leopold and Robinson Industries are major employers. The 100-year-old Robinson Industries employs 100 people, manufacturing fan equipment for steel, aluminum, mining and utility companies.

Because the borough encompasses only two square miles, there’s not much room to grow. Three hundred acres of land, owned by Glade Run, is the last large parcel left and is being considered for single-family and multi-family development, Pepe says.

Pepe says he would love to start a project to beautify Main Street by burying the utility cables and improve parking.

A picturesque borough that offers historic charm with modern living, Zelienople lives up to its description by the Chamber of Commerce as a place “Where the Past Is Always Present.”

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

100 West Station Square Drive, Suite 450

Pittsburgh, PA 15219

Phone: 412-471-5808  |  Fax: 412-471-1633