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Saxonburg embraces old world charm

Pittsburgh Tribune ReviewBy Joan Greene
Sunday, February 25, 2007

Saxonburg’s storied history draws thousands of visitors to the quaint borough nestled among the farmland and hills of southeast Butler County. An array of quaint shops and historic buildings line Main Street in the tiny borough of 1,629 residents.

Saxonburg was founded in 1832 by German engineer John Roebling and his brother, Charles, who bought 1,600 acres of land for $1.50 each. The brothers then sent word back to Germany for others to come help them establish the village.

In 1842, Saxonburg staked its claim to fame when John Roebling invented the wire-rope cable in a workshop. His invention allowed for the construction of suspension bridges. After building Pittsburgh’s Smithfield Bridge in 1846, Roebling achieved worldwide fame with his design of the Brooklyn Bridge. Opening in 1884, the bridge was noted as an engineering feat of its time.

Today, Roebling Park is the center of many of Saxonburg’s special events.

The park’s gazebo and pavilion add to Saxonburg’s old-fashioned charm. During the summer, the park is rented almost every weekend for weddings and other special events, Mayor Brian Antoszyk said. In the park, history buffs can see Roebling’s original workshop and visit the Saxonburg Museum, featuring historic artifacts and other memorabilia, including the recently released German stamps commemorating Roebling and the Brooklyn Bridge.

When visitors walk along Main Street, stopping in at Kelly’s Family Restaurant to have a bite to eat, it’s almost like stepping onto the set of “Mayberry R.F.D.,” a 1960s sitcom about a sheriff in rural North Carolina. Dishes, pots and pans can be heard rattling in the kitchen as locals sit down for a home-cooked meal. Off at a corner table sits Erik Bergstrom, the borough’s police officer in charge, chatting with Saxonburg’s controller Mary Papik.

With the notorious exception of the murder of Saxonburg’s police chief, Greg Adams, during a traffic stop in 1981, crime in Saxonburg mostly is limited to a handful of jaywalkers scurrying across the street during the borough’s car cruises, craft shows, carnivals and parades.

“Saxonburg is very homey. Yeah, it’s something like ‘Mayberry R.F.D.,’ ” said Bergstrom, who heads a police force of five, including police dog Lucas.

“The people make Saxonburg special,” Papik said. “They make an effort to learn your name and make you feel welcome.”

In 1846, when Saxonburg was incorporated into a borough, 61 families lived there, a school had been established, and the cornerstone had been laid for the German Evangelical Church. The building now is part of the Saxonburg Memorial Presbyterian Church and is the historic centerpiece of the borough at the head of Main Street.

Travelers would pass through Saxonburg to get to Freeport, Butler and other boroughs and townships in Butler County. Because Saxonburg merely was a stop on the way to a destination, many of the borough streets, such as Pittsburgh and Butler, were named after the cities and towns they lead to.

Saxonburg thrived during oil development in the 1880s and ’90s in neighboring Penn and Jefferson townships, and homes were built for the oil workers.

During the 1880s, Saxonburg had several hotels, including the borough’s landmark Saxonburg Hotel. At the turn of the 20th century, the area’s most famous hotel, Mineral Springs, was built just north of Saxonburg. A hotel casino and the healing effects of the mineral water drew travelers from miles around. The building that housed the hotel was destroyed by fire in 1972.

In the 1930s, broadcasting came to Saxonburg when Westinghouse’s KDKA erected a flat top antenna — a series of wooden poles — in the borough.

Ceramics shaped Saxonburg’s economic development in the 1930s and ’40s. Saxonburg Ceramics opened in 1936, manufacturing ceramic components used in electrical appliances, automobiles, light bulbs and televisions. In 1949, two former employees of Saxonburg Ceramics founded Du-Co Ceramics, which still is in business, according to “Historic Saxonburg and Its Neighbors” by Ralph Goldinger. According to Antoszyk, Saxonburg Ceramics will close in May.

Today, the historic village has become a destination. Featuring 32 buildings that are more than 100 years old, Saxonburg offers visitors a chance to step back in time and learn about the borough’s German heritage. Recently, a portion of Saxonburg’s Main Street — from Rebecca to Butler streets — was named to the National Register of Historic Places.

During the Big Car Cruise that takes place every July, as many as 900 antique and classic vehicles are displayed on Main Street, drawing more than 3,000 spectators.

The Festival of the Arts, which takes place every September in Roebling Park, features crafts, food and entertainment. Each year, Antoszyk looks forward to serving his family’s hot Italian sausage to hundreds of visitors.

Kathy Allen, whose family owns several properties on Main Street, describes Saxonburg as “a place separate from today’s vision of malls and congestion. It has a wonderful visual charm.”

Allen, who is writing a book about Saxonburg and southeast Butler County titled “Last of the Fencerows,” operates a bed and breakfast, Armstrong Farms, on her 200-year-old family farm in Clinton Township, two miles south of Saxonburg.

“A lot of our guests go into Saxonburg to shop and have dinner,” Allen said. “When they come back, they remark how refreshing and preserved everything is; it’s like a fantasy world. They’ve never been to a place like this.”

Michael Ortmann, owner of the Antique Coffee Shop on Main Street, believes he has found a “unique niche” by combining a coffee shop with an antique store. “Business people want Saxonburg to embody its history,” he said.

Featuring antiques and a gold couch where guests can sit and relax while enjoying a cup of coffee, pastries or ice cream, the Antique Coffee Shop, housed in an 1835 building, reflects the ambiance of a 19th-century parlor filled with guests on a Sunday afternoon.

One of Lucille Blakeley’s fondest memories of growing up in Saxonburg is attending the annual Firemen’s Carnival in June and marching in the Memorial Day parade. “The parade and carnival were a big thing for us children; we’d march down the street carrying bouquets,” said Blakeley, 88, whose father, Aaron Bachman, was fire chief for 27 years and whose nephew, Gary Cooper, is the current fire chief.

Although Saxonburg is small (two square miles), the downtown area has grown and “changed with the times” in the 82 years that Blakeley has lived in the borough. She recalled that she and her five sisters attended a little, red, two-story schoolhouse where the borough building now stands, and she graduated with a class of 25 in 1937 from Winfield High School, now a church three miles outside of the borough. Today, Saxonburg is part of the South Butler County School District. The district includes Knoch High School.

As a young woman, Blakeley worked at Chester Paul and Nellie Maurhoff, grocery and dry-good stores on Main Street. Maurhoff’s has become a fitness salon, and Chester Paul is an antiques shop.

When Blakeley was growing up, social life evolved around the Old Town Hall, where she attended dances and basketball games, and the Memorial Church. Although the town hall no longer is there, the historic church, built in 1837, is the centerpiece of the borough. A new Presbyterian church is across the corner, where the original Roebling Homestead serves as the church office.

Blakeley has seen several businesses change hands, but the Hotel Saxonburg, retaining its 19th-century decor, has been a landmark since opening during the mid-1800s. “I still go there for dinner,” Blakeley said of the hotel, which is known for its fine dining.

Local historian Bob Kaltenhauser, 76, has lived in Saxonburg for 50 years and was chairman of the John Roebling Historical Saxonburg Society, an organization formed to preserve the architectural heritage and old world charm of Saxonburg while revitalizing Main Street businesses.

“Ten buildings on Main Street date back to the 1830s and have clay and straw — called wattle and daub — inside the walls. (Saxonburg) really hasn’t changed that much; that’s the reason it still retains its charm,” he said.

Antoszyk said revitalizing Main Street, while retaining its history, will encourage “unique-type shops” to move into the borough.

The borough is in the process of securing grants, and conceptual drawings are being done to enhance the infrastructure with additional parking, sidewalks, trees and lamp posts.

“We hope to have the project completed in two years,” Antoszyk said. “The future of Saxonburg rests on the borough remaining a destination, not just a place to pass through.”

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

100 West Station Square Drive, Suite 450

Pittsburgh, PA 15219

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