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When geography augments livibility

Different locales have surroundings that enhance their livability. Warren has the river, the national forest and prime agricultural land stretching to the east and to the north.

Erie has the lake into which Presque Isle State Park protrudes and a coastal plain along the lake which is famed for its vineyards, truck farms and orchards.

There are plenty of other examples of communities boosted by their adjacent areas. (Although there are certainly plenty of places for which the opposite is true.)

Other locales where I have lived and where their geography augments their livability are Tucson, which is situated in a serene scenic desert studded with saguaro cactus, and San Diego … which prides itself as the “ocean city.”

Youngstown, where I now live, has one of the finest metropolitan parks in the nation in Mill Creek Park.

When I was young, my family certainly took advantage of Erie’s distinctive setting, as we had property to the west of the city, just south of Fairview along Route 98 and another on the Forest Park Beach west of the state park.

While I was fortunate to have enjoyed access to those two sites (both of which were located just short drives from our home in southwest Erie) my recollections of both are tinged with sadness as to what pertains to the Fairview property, and with dismay as to what happened to the lake front property (which consisted of a large cottage with a shaded side yard) after my father sold it.

There was a gas station on the five acres we had at Fairview, and south of the pumps and the station shack there was a row of five tourist cabins. A lawn area fronted the cabins around which my father planted small evergreens, and another lawn area bordered the highway on the other side of the gas station, next to the station’s garage.

The land rose behind the station, and at the top of the rise there was a small one-story home. The land sloped off behind the home to a small orchard containing a wide variety of fruit trees. A small vineyard lay between the home and the orchard.

We raised potatoes on the land during World War II.

My father, who was the comptroller at Griswold in Erie, planned to retire at the home above the station. He planted two weeping birch trees at either side of the home’s entrance

One of my older half-brothers, Frank, ran the gas station. It did quite well, at least during warm weather, as drivers used Route 98 on their way to Presque Isle State Park from Pittsburgh in order to bypass Erie.

I enjoyed our visits to the Fairview property where I would explore the nearby woods and fields with my pet beagle.

But Frank, who perhaps grew weary of just pumping gas and renting the cabins thought that the gas station-tourist cabin layout could use a restaurant as well. So, he persuaded my father to move his planned retirement home down the small hill to a site between the station and the cabins.

I still recall the sad sight of that little home, jacked up onto huge timbers, being moved down to its new location overlooking Route 98.

A carpenter who lived in a home next to the station installed a hardwood floor, and the place where my father thought he would spend his post-Griswold years became a highway stop to enjoy “chicken in the ruff.”

But Frank’s dream of maintaining a thriving multifaceted business faded as did my father’s of spending his retired years with his wife in home on a quiet hill above an orchard. Frank abandoned the enterprise when Route 98 was closed for a year for reconstruction. He decided he could not wait out the closure and went on to other endeavors.

My father attempted to keep the gas station (but not the restaurant) going after the road reopened. But given his demanding job at Griswold, he apparently couldn’t do this adequately , so he sold the Fairview property.

Our family thus lost the enjoyment of its unique niche in the fertile Lake Erie plain.

Not long thereafter, my father also sold “Valhalla,” our beach cottage which had served as an extended family gathering spot for many years through the 1930s and well into the ’40s.

I well remember the neighbors in the cottage next to ours (whose parents were German immigrants) going into Erie the evening of Aug. 14, 1945 to join the festivities marking the end of World War II.

We used our two canoes for excursions along the beach (usually to the east to the busy beach scene below Waldameer Park), and I had a kayak which my father made for me in which I would “surf” on the waves when the lake was rough.

We swam in the lake daily, and trolled from the canoes for walleyes and bass along the beach on calm evenings.

My father, my older sister and I were often at the “cottage” throughout the year. We had to open up the place in the spring or summer using huge shutters attached to the building or close it up in the fall

The “cottage” was a substantial structure. It had enclosed porches at the front and at the rear. The kitchen and long living room with a fireplace ran along the east side if the building, and there were the bathroom and three bedrooms on the west side leading off the living room. French doors separated the living room from the front porch.

In our off-season trips to the property, we cut driftwood for use in the fireplace or for beach bonfires, raked leaves and did other chores. I therefore well recall how winters used to be along Lake Erie, when there would be a substantial amount of ice in and also along the lake in the form of ice dunes by Christmas and that the lake would freeze over entirely as the winter progressed.

Ice conditions on the lake are much different today.

My father sold the “cottage” as family use declined due to deaths, advancing age, and the dispersal of family members to other locales. The lack of road access was also a factor, as a steep path down to the property had to be traversed by foot from the parking lot on the edge of the lake’s bank.

But what happened to “Valhalla” as well as to other cottages in the same area some years after its sale to new owners was shocking.

It was in the early 1970s that the lake’s waters rose, and the crashing waves washed out the supports for the buildings, knocking them down to the level to where the waves could further the destruction.

Huge downed trees smashed several structures.

A giant cotton wood tree which must have endured storms over 100 years or more crashed into our neighbor’s home. The remains of the cottages, including “Valhalla,” had to be burned.

But the damage in the area was limited to beach properties unprotected by sea walls and piers next to which drifting sand accumulated, forming protective barriers.

I consider myself fortunate to have grown up in a family which had throughout much of my youth taken advantage of Erie’s location to have properties as unique as were the beach cottage and the five acres at Fairview.

Given the vagaries of Lake Erie’s water level, the beach location was doomed. The lake continues to wash away the shoreline. But if our family had had a greater depth of talent and more perseverance, the Fairview property could well have remained a valued family asset.

Those who had built the doomed cottages on Forest Park Beach, including the previous owner of our cottage, apparently had not foreseen the destructive rise in the lake’s waters. So its sudden rise in the early 1970s would seem to have been unprecedented.

Global warming was hardly in the limelight in those days, but I believe that it was the likely culprit as the rise in the amount of water flowing into the lake was due to increased precipitation.

Global warming has been creeping up on us, decade after decade.

Robert Stanger has lived seasonally for over 40 years along the Allegheny River and has the stories to tell about it.

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