Sunday, December 30, 2007

Pennsylvania Wilds

Where country roads lead to oil booms, simpler times and skydiving Aussies.

A roadtrip through the Pennsylvania Wilds is best plotted with county maps. We’re driving old logging roads, dirt highways through 100-year forests, navigating by the direction of sunlight through stands of black cherry hardwood. We’re dappled in the ragtop, on the way to the world’s first oil well, and looking for oil-boom echoes from the 19th century.

We find our first petroleum ghosts at a pit stop called Pithole. There’s not much left of the boomtown that was once roaring with 15,000 hard-living speculators. Pithole, appropriately, was a muddy, smelly and completely unsavory place created in a flash of oil-fueled fantasia. Hotels, saloons and yes, any number of ill-reputed houses appeared overnight in what was then and still is pretty much the middle of nowhere.

We make the short hop from Pithole’s bleak memory to the pride of Titusville: the Col. Drake Oil Well, the world’s first to bring “black gold” out of the ground. The well’s still there, 150 years later. And so’s plenty of oil, to hear the clanking pump tell it.

Our local docent, Jerry, hollers to be heard. He takes us past great oilrig parts and ancient mammoth trucks. There’s even an old nitro wagon with painted warnings of its dangerous cargo.

“They blasted rock with nitroglycerine,” Jerry tells us. “Nitro’s skittish and hauling it’s a suicide job. Any little bump in the road and boom. Never lend money to a nitro man,” Jerry chuckles.

This place is a hoot worth the holler, and we’re glad the ragtop hauls souvenirs instead of explosives as we head into Titusville proper. It’s a sweet old town, with bustling breakfast joints, a great old sporting goods store where we browse ammo and arrowhead, and a cheery motel of painted railroad cabooses. We sleep like Casey Jones in an old Pennsy rail car and wake up to whistles. Across the way the Oil Creek & Titusville tourist train steams off on a fall foliage run.

After eggs over easy we highball towards Tidioute, a dreamy village on the edge of the Allegheny Forest. Burning break pads make our nose wrinkle and the ragtop limps with luck into Chris McLaughlin’s garage. He and his pop are Tidioute’s very own Click-and-Clack, and they keep locals in well-tuned cars. Today they help a couple of strangers with smelly breaks and don’t want money.

The right front wheel comes off with a “hmmm” and an “I thought so.” A wrench turns, an oilcan squirts and our breaks are judged good to go. We tell Chris we’re lucky to find an honest mechanic so far from home, and he laughs. “Aw, we take care of each other up here. It’s still the way life used to be everywhere else.”

The whole roadtrip’s a reflection of happier, simpler times. And to prove it, Chris points us across the Allegheny River, up Route 62 a couple miles to The Simpler Times Museum. A hand-scrawled sign says “Out back, honk horn,” so we do. Soon enough, Mr. Ziegler, octogenarian founder, curator and ticket-taker ($4 each) strolls down from out back and shows us into his amazing museum.

Mr. Ziegler’s collection is a sculpture garden of beautiful antique gas pumps, oilcans, Model-T’s, cast-iron tools, decades of road signs and license plates. The gas pumps stand like palace guards at attention, with antique clock faces on heads of Disneyland colors. Paraphernalia from when gasoline seemed to come right out of these Pennsylvania woods.

We ask our antique host if they really were simpler timers. “Simpler, maybe, but not easier,” Mr. Ziegler says. “We had to work hard to sit pretty.”

Sage wisdom in our rearview, we cruise a dirt highway through the Allegheny forest. We rumble toward Kane, where we find homemade sausage and smoked cheese at Jack Bell’s old-time country store and produce/meat market. Jack’s been making homemade sausage (love the “leak log”) and canning beets and pickles and spicy marinara for 37 years. We grab some picnic goodies that marry quite nicely with a bottle of “Route 6” Chardonnay from the Flickerwood Wine Cellars down the road a piece. A little bit of tastebud heaven in the noonday sun.

With happy bellies and a winery tour, we find King’s Run Road, yet another gravel byway on the county map. We’re on the edge of the Commonwealth, up hill and down dale. We actually have to cross into New York and then down a long driveway that takes back into PA and right up the front door of Oz’s Homestay.

Some years back Ashley Easdon-Smith came here from Australia, fell out of the sky and into love with Celeine. They’re a couple of smiling skydivers, and their Homestay is actually an airstrip right out of Sky King. “It’s a homestay cause it’s our home and you stay with us,” Celeine explains.

“Have a beer!” Ash brandishes a pitcher and encourages us to fill it from the outside tap. It’s great to wash away the dirt highways of Potter County.

Everyone gathers in the great room of a restored 100-year old barn. Ash and Celeine live in the basement, and upstairs are a couple of roomy rooms with log beds, fit for a hobbit, and hand-hewn by Ash himself. Ash lords over the kitchen, and piles enormous prawns on plates of steaming linguini, tosses a salad the size of St. Louis and urges us to eat, drink and try to get a word in edgewise. The table is crowded with family, friends, neighbors and guests. Every night’s a dinner party at Oz, and every morning’s an Australian breakfast shines as the sun reflects on the Cessna parked outside.

We opt out of the offered skydive, and with cries of “chicken” in our ears, head for Eldred, where we gawk through a perfect little museum dedicated to the Big One, WW II. And to Smethport, home of toyland’s timeless Wooly Willy, and where we find a spooky county jail and a two-headed calf. But that’s a whole other story, best told in a whole other roadtrip.

Tonight, back to Oz’s Homestay, where Ash makes tenderloin tips and Celeine swears she won’t throw us out of a perfectly good airplane if we clean our plates. Until then, we’ll look for you on the bends and back roads.

When you hit the road, here's where to stop. For a complete map and photos of everything, stop in at

Col. Drake Oil Well Museum

Col. Edwin Drake and his sidekick driller, Uncle Billy Smith, started the oil industry right here. The gooey stuff is still coming out of the ground, and the museum’s a slick way to spend the day. On the outskirts of Titusville, and on a very cool website at

Oil Creek & Titusville Railroad

Take a ride through the Pennsylvania Wilds on a great old passenger train. The forest views along the Oil Creek are just beautiful. Call 814.676.1733 or hop aboard online at

The Caboose Motel

Every room’s an actual caboose, beautifully restored. Check in as Choo-Choo Charlie and see if they give you a weird look. On Perry Road right next to the Oil Creek & Titusville Railroad. Call for a reservation at 800-827-0690.
Missy’s Arcade Restaurant
The quintessential small-town breakfast and lunch joint. Where locals gather over buckwheat cakes and talk about how the Rockets did this season. (They love their high school sports up here.) 116 Diamond Street, Titusville. 814.827.8110.

Chris McLaughlin’s Garage, Tidioute

If you need an honest mechanic, Chris is your guy. Ask anyone in town where to find him and he’ll point to all the good places to visit in and around Tidioute.

Simpler Times Museum

Just a few miles north of Tionesta, along the Allegheny River on Rt. 62, is a wonderland of how life used to be. Remember gas pumps that looked like robots? Model-T’s and Mustangs? Rotary phones? One man’s collection is a whole world of nostalgia. Simpler times, simply not to be missed.

Bell’s Produce and Flickerwood Wine Cellars

Jack Bell’s opened his incredible deli and produce market 36 years ago. His homemade sausages, smoked cheeses, home-canned pickles and sauces can’t be found anywhere else. Grab a basket lunch and head up the street to Flickerwood Wine Cellars. We enjoyed a picnic lunch from Bell’s with a bottle of Flickerwood’s best. Bell’s: 401 N. Fraley Street in Kane, PA. Order online at Flickerwood: 309 Flickerwood Rd in Kane.

Smethport: The Home of Wooly Willy

When the old man put us in the backseat with our Wooly Willy, it was miles before we asked, “are we there yet.” They still make Wooly Willy, the original iron man, in Smethport. The old county jail and historical society is worth the visit, too. Keep your eyes peeled for the two-headed calf – believe it or not!

Eldred WWII Museum

During the Big One, the Eldred munitions plant supported our troops. Today the story of WW II is beautifully told at this perfect little museum. Be prepared for the lump in your throat. 201 Main Street, Eldred.

Oz’s Homestay B&B

You don’t have to jump out of an airplane to have a great time at Ash and Celeine’s unique B&B. You’ll be welcomed as old friends, eat well and laugh out loud. Come by car or plane or parachute. Call 814.697.7218 or jump online:

Ok, now it's your turn. Let us know what you find out there with an email to

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