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North Neighborhoods
Haysville's 78 residents take pride in their community

Wednesday, August 14, 2002

By M. Ferguson Tinsley, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

round 2 p.m. Thursday, a double-decker freight train heading east toward Pittsburgh blasted its whistle as it passed within yards of Jean Karcher's front porch. Less than 10 minutes later, a second freighter barreled by going the other way. Then a third blew inbound for the city. Then a fourth. Then a fifth.

A Norfolk Southern freight train roars past Jean Karcher's front porch on South Avenue in Haysville. The scene is in stark contrast to the peacefulness of her back yard, which slopes gently to the Ohio River. (Bob Donaldson, Post-Gazette)

In 20 minutes, at least five freight trains clacked past Karcher's house on South Avenue in Haysville. It was a typical sun-scorched summer afternoon in Allegheny County's smallest municipality, population 78. Trains flashed by, floorboards shook, windows rattled and the day wore on.

Not much else happens in Haysville, a smidgen of a town tucked between Glenfield and Osborne along the Ohio River. The borough, one of the smallest in the state, contains only a handful of streets and no downtown. It is bisected by Ohio River Boulevard and the railroad tracks. The homes along the riverfront exist in a dichotomy --their back yards are lapped by the peaceful river but their front yards are shaken by clattering trains. A winding path of a road leads to an area called "The Hollow," where a half-dozen or so houses are shaded by huge, old trees.

But this month, though the exact date isn't known, Haysville -- will see its 100th birthday.

Is a celebration in the offing? So far, no. As of last week, the only scheduled events in the borough were more speeding trains. At least 70 trains breeze by every day, Karcher said.

"When the trains come by, it scares the kids to death," she said, calling to mind the 3-year-old twins who are her grandchildren.

Data from the latest census suggest that Karcher is typical of Haysville residents. Many are elderly -- nearly 22 percent are 62 or older. Many are female -- 12 percent of the elderly are women. Most get by on a modest income. Ten of the 38 households counted in the census take in only $10,000 a year.

Haysville itself doesn't have much to celebrate. One of only four employers in town is the Sewickley Speakeasy, a high-end restaurant along Ohio River Boulevard. Another, Schurman's Contractors, sits near where the borough's namesake, Capt. John Hay, once lived.

Born in Baltimore in 1796, Hay came to Pittsburgh with his parents in 1804 when he was 8. A sickly man, he bought 260 acres 12 miles northwest of the city in 1836. The land held a spring of "delightful water, which ... rapidly restored him to vigorous health," according to records at the Sewickley Valley Historical Society. Thereafter, Hay found the strength to lead troops into battle in the United States war with Mexico in the mid-1840s.

Returning to Pennsylvania, Hay built a house in 1856 where Ohio River Boulevard and River Avenue now intersect. He opened three inns, each grander than the other, until he and a partner founded Ellanova Springs, an extravaganza on the Ohio River with 250 rooms, according to one account. But all three enterprises, built at different times, successively burned to the ground. Hay later became a supervisor at the now-defunct Sterling Varnish Co. He died in 1879.

What Hay's town lacks in stature, its people make up in integrity and commitment to community.

Karcher's family story reflects that.

At 17, she came to Haysville from Sewickley to live with her husband, Bernie Karcher. That was 60 years ago. They raised their son, Ron, now 58, in Haysville. He moved next door when he married. He raised his two daughters and still lives there with his wife.

Bernie Karcher suffered through cancer and died of a stroke in May at 87. Jean Karcher nursed him at home during his illness.

Now, she lives alone and carries on with life pretty much as she has for the past several decades. Before her husband got sick, she had cared for her invalid mother-in-law, Elizabeth "Bessie" Karcher. She took in sewing to help with expenses. Piles of dresses and skirts still lie in the dining room awaiting her needle. Most belong to Sewickley women who want a hem stitched here or a seam gathered there, she said.

Her century-old house stands in a line among the other late 19th-century dwellings on the lot her father-in-law, Lemoyne Karcher, bought back in 1907 or 1908. He bought next door to his brother, Uncle William "Bill" Karcher, a worker at the former Sterling Varnish Co., who moved to Haysville around 1906. The Karchers were well-known at the plant. Lemoyne Karcher worked alongside his brother as did a couple of his sons.

Jean Karcher's mother-in-law, Bessie Karcher, also was known in the neighborhood. A religious woman who was once a dark-haired beauty, she caught the attention of Lemoyne, then a widower with six children. He hired her as a housekeeper and soon married her.

Bessie Karcher belonged to Haysville Presbyterian Church, the only church in town on their side of the tracks. The building's gone now, but what Bessie learned there she brought to the local children. It was her at-home Sunday school that gained her a reputation in the neighborhood, Jean Karcher said. As she aged, the neighbor children called her "Granny."

"She used to have [the Sunday lessons] right here in the front room," her daughter-in-law recalled. By then, Bessie used a wheelchair because of debilitating arthritis. "She would have preachers in to talk to them. I think she called it Bethel Church or something like that," Jean Karcher said.

At the close of service, Bessie passed the collection plate and each child would put in a nickel, dime or a couple of pennies. "That's all the offerings they had. I think there would be $3 or $4 in all and that's what they'd give the preacher."

Karcher said, in time, Bessie's arthritis, aggravated by an allergic reaction to penicillin, forced her paralyzed body to bed. She died in 1968.

When the county reassessed properties for taxation in 1971, Bernie Karcher made an impact on the neighborhood himself. The Karchers' tax bill went from $2,950 to $7,000. Angry, he erected a red sign over his front porch that read: "Beware of Allegheny County!!!" The increased valuation shut him out of a pension because the two houses he owned had a combined value above $5,000. The pension was compensation for an industrial accident that nearly blinded him when he was a young man, his wife said.

Haysville's size doesn't allow for political apathy. Jean Karcher has served on the borough's board of elections for several years. Although Mayor Chuck Lang hasn't been opposed for two decades, Karcher said 30 people, or 38 percent of the population, vote in an interesting election.

Council meetings compel commitment, too. The four council members, who meet on the second Tuesday of every month, used to gather at Lang's home. Now they go to Councilwoman Helen Rosenfelder's home. This month's meeting was canceled though because Rosenfelder, a long-standing council member in her 80s, was in the hospital.

Recently, Jean Karcher was again thrust into community service. When she attended a council meeting for the first time last month, she was drafted into the position of council secretary on the spot. The current secretary, Cathy Paff, said the job kept her too busy, Karcher said.

Unlike the Karchers, Cathy and Louis Paff had left the area for many years but returned when Louis Paff's mother was dying. Then, they stayed.

All things considered, Jean Karcher said, life has been and is good in Haysville.

"People shouldn't say those who got out are lucky," she said. "People who live here live here because they like it. We all could move out if we wanted to, but Haysville is a nice, peaceful place to live, except for the train whistles."

M. Ferguson Tinsley can be reached at mtinsley@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1455.

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