Spruce Creek, a trout stream revered by anglers and fished by presidents, still runs swift and cold behind Fairbrook Manor. In the stream's swirling, stony depths, trophy fish that have escaped them all await the next challenger.
Just over the hill stands the manor house itself, its clean limestone walls nearly 2 feet thick and laced with tall windows, its porches open to a view of wide lawns, giant trees, a 5-acre lake and lush pastures and woods. Through the front door, visitors find themselves in a grand foyer leading to living and dining rooms with 11-foot ceilings and black marble fireplaces, and upstairs to the 13 bedrooms that once held parents and children, college presidents and countless guests.
Now, though, all those people are gone, and the rooms are silent and empty except for antique furniture and the photographs and artifacts of experiences lived there long ago. The house needs new people and new memories, said Virginia "Ginny" Harpster, a member of the family trying to sell the 41-acre property in Pennsylvania Furnace, Huntingdon County, for $3.2 million.
"Someone needs to come in here and start over again," said Ms. Harpster, 74. "They need to start over again with it and bring it to life again."
Fairbrook Manor, originally called The Cedars, was built in 1834 by iron-master John Lyon, who placed the headquarters of his business, Lyon-Shorb & Co., in Allegheny City (now Pittsburgh's North Side) during the Civil War, according to a 1982 history of the area by Huntingdon County Historical Society.
Lyon, the son of an Irish immigrant who served under George Washington during the Revolutionary War, constructed Pennsylvania Furnace, an air-blast furnace for smelting iron, just within sight of the house near the Huntingdon County line. The furnace, which produced iron between 1813 and 1888, used charcoal made from local trees for fuel.
Before trees around the house grew so tall they blocked the view, the furnace could just be seen from the home's third-floor hallway window -- maybe one reason Lyon built the house so tall, Ms. Harpster said.
In its heyday, the furnace was one of the most productive in the country, employed nearly 200 people, and included a rolling mill, slitting mill and nail mill; in 1826, its annual production of pig iron averaged 1,500 tons, according to the historical society's research. At first, pig iron was hauled to Pittsburgh on barges. Later, it was taken to Johnstown and Pittsburgh on a rail line -- now a grassy, slightly raised track -- running behind the house, Ms. Harpster said.
Across the lake, Lyon also built cottages for the furnace workers -- some are still standing, but are no longer located on the property. He also built a grist mill near what is now the property's picnic pavilion and it housed the area's first post office.
"You can't believe all the things that have happened here," Ms. Harpster said, looking over the area where the grist mill once stood.
Lyon died at Allegheny City in January 1868, and was buried in Allegheny Cemetery in Pittsburgh's neighborhood of Lawrenceville, according to the historical society.
The iron baron's empire began to dissolve soon after his death. In 1873, an international financial crisis that had begun in Vienna and spread across Europe to North America caused a panic that ultimately forced Lyon's company to be dissolved. A trustee of the company initially managed to pay off its debts and salvage the company, but a later investment in the Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railroad -- then trying to extend its reach to the oil fields of the Allegheny Valley -- proved ruinous, and the company was liquidated to satisfy creditors, according to the historical society.
Pennsylvania Furnace, one of the last furnaces still being operated by Lyon-Shorb & Co.'s founding families, was closed and later sold to the Tyrone Mining and Manufacturing Co. The remaining holdings were sold to Andrew Carnegie and his associates.
Members of the Lyon family lived in the house until 1910, when it was sold to a group of men who named it Fairbrook Country Club and replaced the original metal porch, which had been made at the furnace, with the broad wooden porch that stands there today. The home was sold again in 1924 and operated as a boarding house, and later used for private dances and parties.
In 1944, Chevrolet car dealer Robert Harpster and his wife, Juliet, purchased the estate and began to make it their own.
Former residents of nearby Warriors Mark, the Harpsters told local newspaper The Pennsylvania Mirror in August 1972 that, before buying the estate, they had passed the mansion many times when it was "closed and grown up with weeds," Juliet Harpster said.
"Little did we ever dream we'd live here," she told the Mirror's reporter. She went on to say she and her husband bought the estate because "the place needed attention if it was to be preserved."
Mr. Harpster installed running water, indoor plumbing, electricity and oil-generated steam heat. A passionate trout fisherman, he also built a fieldstone pool to catch the icy spring water bubbling up from a hillside near Spruce Creek, and a spillway from that pool to the creek in which he raised fish.
Back then, Ms. Harpster said, her mother took care of the huge house, raised the couple's five children, maintained a giant vegetable garden, canned fruit and vegetables, and cooked and served lavish meals not just for her family, but for the visitors that often stayed at the house -- sometimes unannounced. They included fishing clubs, church groups and alumni associations such as those from Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster and Penn State University in nearby State College. She also served as the organist for Warriors Mark Methodist Church for more than 50 years.
"We've served a lot of people in these rooms," said Ms. Harpster, who joined her siblings in serving those dinners, along with performing chores like cleaning the outdoor privy. As a child, she said, she also raised sweet corn and chickens, sold eggs and learned to manage her pocket money as a result.
They might have been living on an estate, but they grew up like normal kids in the country, she said.
"We worked and did our chores and that was just the way you lived," she said.
Thanks to the fame of Spruce Creek among anglers, including a Penn State professor who was friends with the university's president, Milton Eisenhower, those mundane chores took on new importance one day in 1953. That May, Eisenhower's brother -- President Dwight D. Eisenhower -- came to fish for trout. ("Jimmy Carter visits Spruce Creek each May to fish for trout," said Eric Stroup, a local fishing guide.)
After catching about two dozen trout, President Eisenhower took a seat in the pavilion, where Ms. Harpster served him iced tea at lunch.
The president had a fatherly way about him. "You wouldn't have known he was president," said Ms. Harpster, who was 14 at the time. "He was just really gentle, really nice."
The lake, Ms. Harpster said, was also the centerpiece of the community Fourth of July party her father hosted every year. Residents of Warriors Mark and other nearby villages would begin arriving in the afternoon with covered dishes for a potluck picnic, and stay to light sparklers around the lake.
Daphne Hoffman, formerly Daphne Dills, began attending the party as a teenager living in State College and later brought her own children to watch sparklers light up the lake.
"It was just absolutely gorgeous -- I don't even remember one day that it rained out," said Mrs. Hoffman, who learned about the party from Ms. Harpster, a friend of her older sister at Penn State. "It was something so beautiful, it was breathtaking."
After Ms. Harpster and her two brothers and two sisters -- Joanne, who is deceased; Wayne, who owns the farm next door; Winston, who took over her father's dealership in Philipsburg; and Glenda, who married and moved to Lock Haven -- left home, their parents continued living in the house for the remainder of their lives. Robert Harpster, often with a cigar in one hand and a fly rod in the other, died of leukemia in 1972. Juliet Harpster continued living alone in the house until she died nine years ago, at the age of 92.
Since then, Ms. Harpster and her siblings have maintained the property as well as they could but acknowledge it needs cosmetic work and some updating. The grounds have been kept mowed and trimmed, and the family put on a new metal roof and repaired the sweeping, wraparound front porch in the mid-1990s. But the upstairs ceilings need to be painted after roof leaks, now fixed, found their way into several rooms; the bathrooms were installed in 1967; the kitchen is worn, and some windows need to be replaced.
The house is structurally sound and still lovely, though, and someone who appreciates the estate and the mansion could make those improvements over time, Ms. Harpster said. But while lots of people have wanted to see the house -- she estimates she has shown it to at least 100 people -- no one yet has been able to commit to it.
"They all like it, but they don't want to take on the responsibility of restoring it -- that's where they get bogged down," she said, as she sat in a wicker chair on the front porch, listening to raindrops patter on the metal roof. "It's going to take someone who has money and is willing to spend it to fall in love with it. Someone needs to live here."
For more information on Fairbrook Manor, go to www.fairbrookmanor.com.
Amy McConnell Schaarsmith: 412-263-1719 or email@example.com. First Published July 28, 2013 4:00 AM