NEW FLORENCE -- Many people return to their childhood haunts, but Bill Pfahl got to spend two months painting pictures of the dock, lake, porches and golf course where he loafed as a boy.
In the summer of 2009, the O'Hara artist captured the people, buildings and lush Westmoreland County hills of Ross Mountain Club, a place that has nurtured four generations of his family.
Mr. Pfahl, who often paints outdoors and teaches art at Brashear High School, was the first artist in residence at this 1,300-acre rustic retreat, a private club founded in the 19th century where people have built a tightly knit community and 33 homes.
Located 11 miles north of Ligonier and nestled in a valley between Laurel and Chestnut ridges, the club was founded in 1887 by a group of nine lawyers, bankers and businessmen. Today, the 80-member club remains a cool, welcome respite, topped with a splash of Hendrick's Gin, from Pittsburgh's blistering heat and humidity.
This year, members are getting a look at the organization's early days. Inside the clubhouse, which was modeled after Mount Vernon and designed by architect Benno Jannsen, hang 54 black-and-white photographs that were digitally enhanced from the original glass plate negatives. The photographer was Henry Merwin Pfahl, Bill Pfahl's great-uncle, who died in 1920.
During his residency, Bill Pfahl showed the glass plate negatives to club members, including attorney Harley Trice, who arranged to have them restored and digital prints made. This summer's exhibition was one way of celebrating the club's 125th anniversary.
Terry Starz, a doctor who is a longtime member and club historian, was struck by early members' formal clothing in the photos.
"We really don't have pictures of people in what we would call casual dress. They're wearing ties and hats and coats and long skirts," he said.
The club's name mixes fact and myth because the old Ross iron furnace, built by Col. Isaac Meason and in continuous blast from 1814-54, still stands on the property next to the No. 3 green on the golf course.
But there is no natural elevation called Ross Mountain here in the Laurel Highlands. It may not matter because, as attorney Tom McGough said, "Ross Mountain is as much a state of mind as it is a place."
Bill Pfahl's earliest memories of visiting Ross Mountain as a boy include his grandfather, William Henry Pfahl Sr., who was the second treasurer for the Armstrong Cork Company. He drove an old blue Packard, smoked a cigar and always drank his whiskey garnished with an orange slice.
Despite having spent part of his boyhood here, when he arrived in 2009, Mr. Pfahl felt a bit apprehensive.
"I was wondering what I would paint first," said the 59-year-old artist.
Then, he met Judy and Jim Boswell.
"His father and my father were neighbors at Ross Mountain," the artist recalled. "The ice just kind of melted after meeting them."
At night, he added, "The stars are there and the moonlight on the mountain. The more I stayed, the more relaxed I got. It helps to have the time to focus on art."
Mr. Pfahl wound up painting Mrs. Boswell on her porch. At the end of his stay, he exhibited his work in the Ross Mountain clubhouse and sold 14 paintings to members.
Abigail Cook, a club member and banking executive, proposed the artist-in-residence program. She grew up in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., the home of Yaddo, the well-known artists' colony.
Club members began building houses at Ross Mountain in 1888, and throughout the years, homes have been expanded and modernized. Today, there are 33 houses on the property. Most vacationers arrive on the last weekend in June and leave over Labor Day weekend, lending the club an air of Brigadoon. But for eight weeks, there's time for tennis, swimming in the pool, picnicking and golf. Communal meals are served on the first floor of the clubhouse from Thursday through Sunday.
Visitors often ask why the golf course consists of 14 holes, instead of 18.
Because, players will say without fail, "That's all you can comfortably play between breakfast and lunch." (In the really old days, players had to make their own tees by hand, using sand and water. One picture shows the wooden receptacle that held both.)
As they have for decades, members gathered recently in the clubhouse's second floor after Sunday dinner for vespers. Hymns were sung and Dr. Starz preached a sermon about wisdom. A hat was passed and the proceeds donated to the local volunteer fire department.
"In our lives, we need time to have reflection and understand what we're doing and gain perspective," Dr. Starz said later. "Ross provides that. We are able to come up here, get away from our daily lives and have an opportunity to be here out in a very natural setting. Our children can come. ... Ross is such that all of the adults serve as the kids' parents."
Modern amenities have arrived, but they are not pervasive.
'"While the place is wired for television and computers, people are not out on the golf course on their cell phones. The kids are not texting each other up here," Dr. Starz said.
Besides Bill Pfahl, other regional painters who have been artists in residence at the club are Ron Donoghue, Kevin Kutz and Patrick Ruane. Next year, Rita Haldeman, an artist who lives in Jeannette, will live and paint there.
"Nobody tells them what to paint," Dr. Starz said.
For Mr. Pfahl, his residency at Ross Mountain reconnected him with the days when he watched "the thunderheads, the moon and the rainbows." He painted that scene from memory and donated it to the club.
Another picture, "My Father's Bucket," shows a dock on the lake created by Tubmill Reservoir, and it represents one of his cherished memories.
"It's where my father used to take us to fish when we were little. He had a galvanized steel bucket and a bamboo rod."
Marylynne Pitz: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1648. First Published August 11, 2012 4:00 AM