When Brig. Gen. William Irvine was looking for some land to give as rewards to Pennsylvania soldiers who had served in the Revolutionary War, he came across some property along the west bank of the Allegheny River in what would become Warren County, Pennsylvania.
He liked it.
"In 1785, he saw this land and said, 'This is pretty good stuff'," Allegheny National Forest archeologist Gary Dunn said.
Times Observer photos
by Brian Ferry
Children on a tour of the grounds of the Newbold Estate, top photo, look down the uneven steps leading to the estate’s last standing building, the ice house.
He took on over 1,000 acres and developed an estate that would stay with his family for almost 200 years.
The property saw the family through good and bad.
At one spot, a large, cut rectangular stone sits askew from a depression showing its original position at a branching of the road.
On that very stone, inches from its current position, a great-grandson of Gen. Irvine - one of several Callender Irvines - who had been out hunting, was killed in 1850 when he sat down for a rest and accidentally shot himself.
The last of the general's descendants to live on the property died in 1963.
Ten years later, the sprawling building had deteriorated so much that it had to be torn down. "The house was getting old," Dunn said. "It was falling down."
Like the house, most of the estate's buildings and features are long gone.
The windmill pump system.
A silo inside a barn.
A large greenhouse in which a banana tree, tobacco, and flowers from all over the world grew.
But there are still signs of the development - monolithic stones, one standing, one downed, where the main gate once opened onto the property; some exotic fruit trees where a vast orchard once grew; and a small, man-made cave.
At the gate, a sophisticated, spring-loaded treadle system would detect the weight of a horse and automatically open the gate. Miss Esther liked to ride her horses fast, according to Dunn. Once, she was moving too fast for the gate system and was tossed when the horse could not pass.
The cave is made of stone and was used as an ice house. Dunn said workers on the property would have cut blocks of ice - probably from the river - and placed them in layers in the ice house, covered with sawdust for insulation. The ice would keep for months in the cool, shaded cave, with a door keeping out the summer air.
There are details of the Irvine family that have been recorded, simply because of who the general was.
"It's one of the most well-known pieces of real estate in the county because of its family history," Dunn said.
It's time for the real estate to become more inviting and more user-friendly. There is a five-year agreement in place between the Warren County Historical Society and the Allegheny National Forest.
"We want to clean it up, get it so more people can use it than use it now," Dunn said. "We want to develop the sense of the history."
"In some ways it's a cautionary tale... for whatever reason you can't or don't preserve things while they're still standing," Historical Society intern Jude Harter said.
"The Wilder Museum of Warren County History is a holding of the Warren County Historical Society," Managing Director Michelle Gray said. "It is to the benefit of the Wilder Museum to partner with the Allegheny National Forest Service to create a user friendly trail through the Irvine-Newbold Estate and provide a heritage resource to better educate the community and visitors on the rich history of Warren County."
The sites are expected to complement one another. "With the Irvine-Newbold Estate being located just a little over one mile from the museum, the new trail will serve to enhance interest and generate more visitors for the museum," Gray said. "The museum houses an Irvine-Newbold exhibit room with almost 300 artifacts on display relating to the Irvine-Newbold family."
Developing the history from the books and the artifacts was not enough for Dunn and Harter. They wanted to include the bits of information that make the site personal.
When visitors to the grounds look at some of the planned interpretive signage, they might read about the tobacco plants grown in the greenhouse, a child's first taste of a snow apple from the orchard, the sickeningly sweet smell of the locust trees, the silo inside the barn, the bars over the windows in one room, a dozen barrels full of china, or the bell in caretaker August Gross' room.
Those details come from the minds of people who spent time at the estate in the 1950s and 1960s.
Sisters 'Miss Daisy' and 'Miss Esther' Newbold were the last of Irvine's descendants to live in the house.
Patricia Lowe-Ritchie and her brother Raymond Lowe Jr. spent many weekends at the estate in their childhood. Their father, valedictorian of his class at Lottsville High School, was the sisters' personal physician and traveled there frequently.
While their father tended the sisters, they were "set loose" and spent much of their time with 'Uncle' August.
"We were fascinated with the greenhouse," Lowe-Ritchie said. "In the middle of nowhere, there were bananas... on a banana tree."
They also remember gifts from the sisters, generally to their mother who was a gardener.
"They delivered manure to the house on Mother's birthday," Lowe said.
Jim and Tom Hetrick spent even more time at the estate. Their uncle, Merle Skinner, was another caretaker on the property and they would spend weeks and sometimes months there to "help on the farm."
From the brothers, Harter and Dunn collected detailed information about the grounds, including the inside of the house. A large, scale model of the home sits under glass at the Wilder Museum. Jim Hetrick circled the display, pointing to rooms and describing what was inside.
Several other people with memories of the estate were also invited to contribute.
After the interviews, Dunn and Harter had much more information for their project. "This has been a treasure trove," Dunn said.
"We hit the jackpot," Harter said.