Old Country: River Rats, Frank Lloyd Wright and the Laurel Highlands of Pennsylvania


Some immigrant families to the US talk of life in the old country–the ancestral homeland. They speak of their family traditions and culture, and often highlight the best of their old traditions that do not translate well to the American lifestyle. As the migrating generation becomes a parent, then a grandparent, those traditions fade. For the new generation, at some point they may ask questions about the homelands, and hope someone can answer them.

Most people do not know too much about their grandparent’s grandparents. As living memory departs, only the detritus of their lives remains. Photos and newspaper clippings, old deeds and lock boxes, obsolete watch fobs and old clothes are left to reconstruct the story for the young generations who care to listen. The only connection we moderns might have to our ancestral homelands is to actually go there, to see the same vistas that perhaps our grandparents did, to walk in the woods that they too might have walked, to find neighborhoods and street addresses and take in a scenic site that might have been around in their time.

Americans whose families have been here awhile do not have those immediate stories of  the old country. They have been stewing in the great American melting pot for so long that any unique heritage has been well-boiled. Surely, we know that we are from some place “over there,” and maybe an odd tradition or foodstuff is still used in the home.

My family roots in America are older than the Republic. My pioneers became farmers, then smithies, then coal miners and factory shop guys. They are all Scots-Irish. My ancient kin were the kind of Scots that no one wanted around. First they were kicked out of Scotland by the landed gentry, then off the Ulster plantation because they couldn’t get along with the Irish. They found their way to the ends of the new world at that time, the Appalachian Mountains and in the valleys of what would become Western Pennsylvania in the 1760’s. And in those hills they named their villages after the towns in their old country that showed them the door–Donegal and Somerset, and after the people who expelled them, Lords Pitt and Westmoreland.

My old country remains the Laurel Highlands of Pennsylvania. On a clear evening, up in those old, withered mountains, you can keep an eye on the city folk in Pittsburgh, the peaks of the PPG crystal castle sticking up over the horizon. General Washington had a similar idea 237 years ago, when asked what he might do if the British won the war:


If defeated everywhere else, I will make my stand for liberty among the Scots-Irish…”

Washington knew that from this vista, he might see the British coming. And given the Scots-Irish were born fighting, from the Scottish lowlands, to Ulster Ireland, to Colonial America, it must have seemed to Washington like the best way to go. Intriguingly, thirty years later, the wily Scots-Irish rebelled against father Washington himself, when the federal government proposed a whiskey tax here in these foothills. Perhaps Washington remembered his allegiance to the Scots-Irish, for when he quelled the Whiskey Rebellion, he pardoned many of the fighting Scots-Irish, and left them to their hollers and hillsides.

The Laurel Highlands are still peppered with those descendents. The mountains get their name from the “Mountain Laurel”–the spoonwood plant. Mountain Laurel is a signature plant in the Appalachia, growing along the mountain range from Georgia to New York. The waxy leaves cover up old logging in old growth forests. The people in those hills have been called a lot of things over the years, “Hilljack” being the most pejorative. Some of us got off of the mountain, and are barely recognizable to those family we left up there. But we share that old country, and that vista.

Mountain Laurel in Bloom by a Little Waterfall

River Rats

Before the age of amusement parks, people had to find their fun for free. And in the Laurel Highlands, locals headed to the watering holes that can be found all over southwest Pennsylvania. Ohiopyle, a small village of 59 people in Fayette County, still offers those experiences. Ohiopyle is a river rat’s home. Canoing, whitewater rafting and cheap beer–Stoney’s, Straub and even Iron City–by the case (as that is the only way it is sold in Pennsylvania) abound in this country corner. The summers are cooler in the mountains, the water runs briskly. Ohiopyle offers the water slide enthusiast a singular experience–a “natural waterslide” carved into the creekbeds around the Youghiogheny River.



Before too long, the city slickers found out about the whitewater, and with the advent of the automobile and the transcontinental Lincoln Highway, they arrived. The most famous of the new money to find their way to Ohiopyle was Edgar Kaufmann, the owner of a major department store in downtown Pittsburgh. His family set up a modest campsite at Mill Run, just outside of Ohiopyle. Kaufmann decided to set up a more permanent weekend retreat, and connected with an architect looking to re-start his career as the eminent architect of his, or any era. Kaufmann’s wallet and Frank Lloyd Wrights ceaseless creatively created one of the most famous residences in the world, Fallingwater.


Fallingwater earned Frank Lloyd Wright world-wide acclaim. Franklin Toker, in his book “Fallingwater Rising” points out that so much of this house’s international acclaim was due to the efforts of Kauffman himself to promote Wright’s work to William Randolph Hearst and Henry Luce–media moguls who spread the word about this oddity in Hearst’s newspapers and Luce’s Time magazine. In the years that followed, celebrities and global personalities would make the winding trek to Fallingwater to experience high architecture with nature running through it. What the hilljacks must have thought when Albert Einstein rolled past the one-stop-light towns, perhaps stopping for gas, hair akimbo, seeking directions to Kaufmann’s house at a local general store.

For this trip to Ohiopyle and Fallingwater, I teamed up with the Elder Eclectic–my dad. These woods and hillsides were his homeland. Yet, in the fifty plus years of his life, he never managed a visit over to Fallingwater.

“Too fancy,” his response.”But Ohiopyle has some nice campin’.”

It sure does. Ohiopyle State Park surrounds the little town, and offers a lot of seclusion under the mountain laurel, easy access to those natural water slides, and if you clean yourself up, a visit to Fallingwater once dry.

Cucumber Falls, long exposure, Ohiopyle State Park, PA

I did get my dad in the front door of Fallingwater despite the fanciness. That Scots-Irish DNA is indelible. Suspicion of those gentry in any century, and a love of the outdoors. When Kaufmann built his dream cabin, few homes in the Laurel Mountains had indoor plumbing, let alone running water or electricity. Those cabins might have had a few rooms, maybe. The city slicker built a pleasure dome for himself right in the middle of the Lost Tribes of Scotland.

Many a tourist has written their impressions of the home, and I will offer a few of my own here. The building is an engineering marvel, cantilevered into the bedrock, the floors are the burnished cliff side, Mill Run flows right through the house. Wright constantly plays with the senses of where nature ends and where the home begins. The tour ends with a women’s committee–the city folk–making a pitch to save Fallingwater and other Wright treasures in the region. I have to say, this bit of the tour falls on deaf ears, as any donation to southern Pennsylvania might be better spent at a food bank or shelter. Wright has global support, the Scots-Irish do not.

PA - Mill Run: Fallingwater - Dressing Room

Many tourists march through my old country without taking much of that scenery in. That is their folly. The reason Kaufmann built the house in the Appalachian foothills was because he was seeking the vistas and solitude it provided. He wanted that experience in the woods as well, just on his terms. As for Fallingwater, to best understand Frank Lloyd Wright, you have to appreciate his effort to blend all of his architecture into its natural surroundings. Wright’s first homes evoked the horizontal line of the Midwestern prairie. His Arizona homes would never be built taller than the Saguaro cactus or as he called it “Arizona’s skyscraper.” Both Kauffman and Wright loved the nature that surrounded Fallingwater as much as the building itself.  To visit there without keeping that in mind is to miss the whole spirit of the place.

Fallingwater remains the reason why most tourists will bear the descent from the civilizing Pennsylvania Turnpike into hollers and ravines and into towns where even fast-food hasn’t penetrated, to get a glimpse of Frank’s masterwork. Yes, dear reader, it is a draw for this collector of the eclectic as well. But as the tourist holds onto his lunch, praying for the hillside drive to end quickly, I take in the vistas, the streams, the mountain laurel, the cold mountain air of my old country. And if you allow for a moment, it can be your adopted old country as well.

Laurel Mountains Photo credit: macwagen / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Pittsburgh vista photo credit jmd41280 / Foter.com / CC BY-ND

Fallingwater Photo credit: pablo.sanchez / Foter.com / CC BY

Natural Waterslides Photo credit: y0chang / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Cucumber Falls at Ohiopyle Photo credit: Alaskan Dude / Foter.com / CC BY

Fallingwater Interior Photo credit: wallyg / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Mountain Laurel Photo credit: Thruhike98 / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA


4 thoughts on “Old Country: River Rats, Frank Lloyd Wright and the Laurel Highlands of Pennsylvania

    • Wow, thank you kindly. The political class likes to call Pennsylvania “Pittsburgh and Philadelphia with Alabama in between.” They might be right, however, there is some joy in the mountains. And that joy is accessible, from city dandy to country bumpkin. If you go, and camping is not your forte, you can rent another home built by Frank Lloyd Wright, or stay at yet another FLLW home that is now a bed and breakfast. http://www.polymathpark.com/

  1. Pingback: Groundhog Day | Henry's Eclectic

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