Centennial celebration winds down in Ben Avon

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Ben Avon Heights has been celebrating a milestone birthday this year.

As the year winds town, so have the celebrations that have marked the borough's 100th birthday.

Mayor Scott R. Dismukes, 57, said the history of the small community, which covers only 0.17 square miles on a hilltop above the Ohio River, can be seen in many of the faces of its residents -- population 371 at the 2010 census.

"There are so many third-generation residents," he said. "A lot of people grew up and moved away and then came back into the community."

The close-knit ties of Ben Avon Heights reach across the country as was evidenced with the weekend centennial bash the borough held for itself in June.

"People came from all over the country," Mr. Dismukes said, noting that the celebration began with a huge picnic in the borough's park and finished with a dinner and reception at Shannopin Country Club.

"We didn't have enough room or tickets for the volume of people who came, yet there were no introductions necessary," he said. "As mayor, I got up and accepted proclamations from our senator and state representative, but no one was paying any attention to that, because they were all busy catching up with each other."

Co-chaired by longtime residents Al and Arlene Grubbs, the borough's birthday party took four years to plan.

"We're still hearing about it," said Mrs. Grubbs, 76. "It was a huge success."

She's not a historian, but after working on the centennial party for such a long time, Mrs. Grubbs can recall her borough's history like it was yesterday.

She said the borough started as farmland owned by Samuel Taylor and John Wilson. The area was planned to be a golf course community when it was purchased in 1910 by Walter Pringle Fraser, who turned nearly half of the former Taylor farm into the Ben Avon Country Club and golf course.

The rest of the land, roughly 44 acres, became a residential development he dubbed Ben Avon Heights. The area attracted well-to-do Pittsburghers who wanted a second home away from the smoggy city 9 miles away. The borough was incorporated in 1913.

"After World War I, the young men went to war, and those who were left lost interest in golf," Mrs. Grubbs said. "So, that golf course closed in 1917, and the land was divided and turned into homes."

The original golf club house is on Oxford Road, across from one of the oldest houses in the neighborhood at 9 Oxford Road. Originally part of the Taylor farmstead, the house was rebuilt after a fire in 1902. There were approximately 80 homes in the neighborhood at that time.

Golf returned to the community when the Jackman Farm, which was adjacent to Ben Avon Heights, was bought by three investors -- D. H. Roelofs, R. H. Houston and J. L. McBride -- and turned into Shannopin Country Club in 1920. Its clubhouse was completed in 1922.

PGA golf professional Eric Teasdale, 43, of Cranberry has worked at Shannopin Country Club for 19 years.

"This is one of the oldest golf clubs in the area," he said. "We have a long history of generational members."

Shannopin often receives calls from people who want to play on the 90-year-old course for nostalgic reasons.

"They'll say they want to play on the same course their grandfather did, or they'll tell me their family belonged to the club when they were kids, and they want to play a round for old time's sake," Mr. Teasdale said. "I get those calls constantly, and I always try to accommodate them."

The neighborhood grew in the 1920s and '30s until its borders were finalized in 1936. Ben Avon Heights now consists of nearly 150 homes, a community park and Shannopin's clubhouse (the golf course itself is located in Kilbuck).

Without a borough building, council meetings usually take place in one or another member's basement.

In honor of Ben Avon Heights' centennial, the Avon Club's biennial Holiday House Tour recently featured three of the neighborhood's homes on the tour. The mayor's home was one of them.

"We bought our house in 1991," said Mr. Dismukes, admitting that he intended to fix it up and sell the property. "We hadn't lived there three months when my wife said, 'I really like this neighborhood. Let's stay.' Everyone's so friendly; it's the only place I know where you can go around the block, and it will take you more than two hours."

During the town's centennial party, many of the residents found themselves being asked about their homes by former residents.

"I met the woman who built my house in 1960 at the dinner," Mr. Dismukes said. "She was 80 years old, and she sat down and told me the history of the house and how she got the property from the church in Avalon. She even wanted to come by later and see the house. There was a lot of that going on."

"In the past 20 years, lots of younger families have been moving in, and having tons of children in the neighborhood means our history will live on," Mrs. Grubbs said.

Jill Cueni-Cohen, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.

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