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Soergel family has spent 150 years down on the farm in Wexford

Thursday, July 13, 2000

By Jane Miller

It was July 1850 when German immigrant Johann Konrad Sorgel moved with his wife and infant son from the South Side to a 43-acre tract of land in Wexford.

  Warren Soergel discs the ground before planting. (Bob Donaldson, Post-Gazette)

This weekend Johann's descendent Warren Soergel, his wife, Jean, their four children and their spouses and 13 grandchildren will celebrate the 150th anniversary of the family farm at Soergel Orchards on Brandt School Road.

"I was born and raised here. I've done this all my life," said Warren Soergel, who remembers helping his great-uncle Pete Soergel at age 5 in the blacksmith shop across Brandt School Road. He also recalls getting out of elementary school for the day to drive an iron-wheel tractor.

And of course, he said, everyone on a farm "picks strawberries as soon as they can walk."

It's a love for the land and its food -- it will be sold at its freshest -- that keeps him going. "I didn't know my grandfather, but my father was the same way. I have the same ideas and maybe that's the reason I'm still farming," he said.

Depreciation lands

Like much of rural Western Pennsylvania, what became the Soergel farm was part of the "depreciation lands," according to the family history written by Warren's aunt, Ruby Soergel.

  You're invited

The 150th anniversary celebration of Soergel Orchards will be from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

Admission is free. Food items, which include fresh roasted corn and old-fashioned kettle corn, a sugary popcorn made in a copper kettle, start at $1. Pony rides and hay rides are $1.

Entertainment includes country music by Sierra. Among the games will be apple-putting on a miniature golf course -- apples this time of year are golf ball-sized.

On hand to greet guests are Tubby the pig, Freda the horse, Noah the donkey, George the turkey, Todd and Spotty the goats and Moobie the cow.

Soergel Orchards can be reached at 724-935-1743. The Web site is www.soergels.com.

Until 1784 all the land north of the Ohio River and west of the Allegheny River was inhabited by Indians of the Iroquois Nations. That year the Pennsylvania General Assembly bought 720,000 acres from the Indians under the Treaty of Fort Stanwix.

The lands were surveyed and divided into lots of between 200 and 350 acres. Surveyor Samuel Nicholson was assigned to the district, which included all of Franklin Park.

The 283 acres called "Fluctuation" was sold to Nicholson, probably for 21/2 cents an acre. The land went through several owners, one of them William Jones, a "wild and reckless character" and the son of Benjamin Jones, who served in the American Revolution under Gen. "Mad Anthony" Wayne.

The land gradually increased in value, but not as fast as it does today.

For example, the Soergel property that David Henry of Butler had purchased in 1849 for $700 was sold to the German immigrant, whose name was Americanized to John Conrad Soergel, for $890.21. It has since been worked continuously by six generatons of descendents of John and Walburga Soergel.

In 1969 an adjacent tract of 25 acres was purchased from the family of Ralph E. Ford, a great-grandson of the former owner of "Fluctuation," William Jones, the first white settler in Franklin Park borough.

New generations

Jean Soergel, 71, shares the more recent history of the farm family while waiting for her family to come to the farmhouse for lunch. Her husband's grandfather, Philip Soergel -- one of 12 children -- took over the farm and planted the first apple orchards, although nobody knows exactly when. He raised eight children, including Alfred, her husband's father.

Warren, his father, his uncle Roy Soergel and his cousin Kenneth expanded the apple orchards while he was in high school, before going off to serve in World War II. After the war, Warren returned to farm the land with his father, uncle and cousin, Roy's son. Roy and Kenneth also ran a landscaping business on the side.

In 1960, Warren and Jean purchased the farm from them, Roy retired, and Kenneth became a groundskeeper for the University of Pittsburgh. Both are now deceased. His father, Alfred, died in January 1960.

Warren and Jean, a city girl from Millvale who never imagined her life on the farm, celebrated their 50th anniversary a year ago. They raised four children, Linda, Richard and twins Randy and Reed. After they bought the farm from the Soergel heirs, they moved into the farmhouse next to the market.

To market, to market

The first century of the farm, produce was sold wholesale in the Strip, except for three nights a week when it was sold at the farmers' market on the North Side. But in 1963 a heavy frost left so few apples that it wasn't worth the trip to the city.

On July 4, 1963, the couple opened the first produce stand at the intersection of Brandt School Road and Route 910, where it was then surrounded by farmland.

"The first stand was so little you couldn't even stand inside," said Jean with a laugh. A few years later, they built a larger stand, which is now used as a tool shed to repair tractors.

  The family started selling produce from this stand in 1963. (Family photo)

It's now noon, and Jean's four children and Linda Voll's son, Eric, an agribusiness major at Penn State University, lay down their walkie-talkies after they enter the back door. The family bows their heads and says a grace in unison around the dining room table. They are all members of what is now Trinity Lutheran Church, which Johann Sorgel also helped found.

The meal consists of barbecued ham or lunch meat sandwiches, fresh vegetables and leftover Jell-O salad.

"I don't fuss. It's pretty much sandwiches and anything left over the night before for my husband and myself." Her work with the office operations doesn't permit time for elaborate cooking and clean-up.

The rest of the family picks up the history. The present market was built in 1973, the same year I-79 construction claimed 14 acres of their orchards, where they grow 30 varieties of apples, which are sold fresh and in cider pressed on the farm.

"We were in college, and they said they would build the market if all of us would promise to come back and help run it," recalls Randy.

That promise has been more than fulfilled. Each of the four children owns a farm, and the total acreage is more than 400. Each of the four spouses is involved, as well as all 13 grandchildren.

From the beginning, the market was intergenerational. Grandma Marie Soergel, wife of Alfred, sold her home-baked pies and lived in the farmhouse across the road from the market. Great-grandma Susan Soergel lived in the farmhouse until her death in 1966.

In 1966, Jean and Warren, with four children, moved into the farmhouse. Until then, they lived in the brick house on the corner.

And there was always a petting barn of animals. Digger, a pig from a school project, became the first.

There are no names listed on a Soergel Orchards business card. Nobody claims any title -- Linda jokes that she is the "Hay Goddess" -- but each has a specialty, whether its the garden center, orchards, office, or overseeing shipping.

Linda's domain is really in the office,and husband Larry operates the rack and cloth cider press. They own a farm in Connoquenessing Township in Butler County, where the corn and pumpkins are raised. Reed and Danetta live a mile from them and also raise horses. Danetta has added pony rides and takes charge of the birthday parties. Reed is in charge of the growing.

Randy and his wife, Beth, live around the corner and oversee the garden center, which opened in 1990. Richard and his wife, Mary Kay, live off Wexford Run Road and raise apples.

Richard is in charge of shipping and wholesale. Mary Kay is a nurse at St. Francis Medical Center, but she's a weekend helper, especially during festivals, which include a scavenger hunt in the spring and the upcoming pig's birthday party, which is a fund-raiser for Make A Wish.

Changing times

Come the fall festivals, every family member is there on the weekends, and even the youngest of the grandchildren are ticket takers for the corn maze.

There are 50 full and part-time employees year round, but during the festivals the total increases to 90.

Despite the success, the Soergels face uncertainties that every farmer has, from deer and groundhogs eating new growth to the weather and the cost of gasoline.

"Dad always said he'd love to go back to when we didn't have much. But we had to grow. We had to go to entertainment. People don't buy bushels of apples anymore. You can't compete against the big growers," says Reed.

Their biggest concern is not a usual one for farmers. The farmable land is in the government's Clean and Green program, which keeps taxes on prime real estate at the agriculture rate. But everything surrounding the market is taxed at a commercial rate -- "even the tool shed where we repair the tractors," says Linda.

Four years ago their assessment rose 400 percent. The tax man already told them they won't like the new assessment this month.

"We don't want to leave the area," says Reed.

But in farming the future is always an unknown. They draw support from other farmers in the area, such as the Don Kaelin family down the road, which faces similar challenges. "We're all friends and help each other -- it's not like Lowe's and Home Depot," says Reed. "If a tractor breaks down, any one of us can borrow another's."

And they rely upon their creativity, such as the gift barn added in 1995 in an existing barn, the only original building from the 1800s. The newest addition to the market is the organic foods section, which is in a porch they closed in in January. This was the idea of long-time employee David Will of Gibsonia.

"As a family, we solve problems collectively. There's no power struggle. If someone needs to drive a truck or is needed in the office, we do what needs to be done," says Richard. "Mom and Dad gave us responsibility and trusted we would make the best decisions that we could."

Simple fare

The mood lightens again, and Linda serves birthday cake left over from Warren's 76th birthday June 25. The cake is a frozen one sold in their bakery but decorated by her daughter Katie.

Usually, the family's favorite dessert is a simple baked apple dish that Jean has been making since the siblings were little and adapted to the microwave. It's her signature dish. She is hard pressed to come up with recipes.

"I just cook. I don't use recipes," she said.

Linda nods. "Salt and pepper -- that's it. Nothing fancy. My family doesn't even like casseroles -- just meat, potatoes and a vegetable."

Walkie-talkies suddenly sputter with questions and signal it is now 1 p.m. and time to return to the garden center, market, office or out to spray the orchards.

"If you're into farming, you never lose that desire," says Jean with a smile. She clears the table of just another meal on the family farm.

Jane Miller is an Avalon free-lance writer.

Mrs. Soergel's Simple Baked Apples

Jean Soergel says her family "just loves this."

6 to 8 apples

1/2 cup brown sugar

1 to 2 teaspoons cinnamon (if you're a cinnamon lover, sprinkle it on heavily)

1 tablespoon water

1 tablespoon butter or margarine to dot over top in 4 or 5 places

Peel and slice apples, usually into eighths, to fill a 9-inch pie pan. Sprinkle with brown sugar, cinnamon, water and butter. Bake in the microwave oven on full power until apples are soft, usually about 20 to 25 minutes. Or bake for 1 hour at 350 degrees in conventional oven.

Jean Soergel, Soergel Orchards and Garden Center, Wexford

Tester's notes: Jean Soergel does not measure any of the ingredients. The amounts and times will also vary depending upon the sweetness and moisture of the apples, as well as the microwave wattage. She says you can also substitute "Twin" brown sugar, for a lower-calorie version.

Tester's comment: This is my "recipe" of the year -- so simple, good, and it makes the kitchen smell wonderful. It tastes just like an apple pie filling without the crust. Place a paper towel under the dish to catch overflow in case there is too much moisture or it overcooks, which doesn't harm it.

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