Our house was in Sinking Valley – nestled in the Allegheny Mountains. The valley got its name became of the limestone deposits which sometimes deteriorated and caused the ground to sink in – causing sinkholes. To get there we went out Kettle Road or as we said “going up the Kettle.” At the top we could see the entire town of Altoona (the town, by the way where the slinky was invented.) For the next nine miles or so, the winding mountain road took us through sections that could rival any scenic highway in America. At one place, there is (or at least was) a mountain spring where people stop and get their drinking water.
After about eight or nine miles on the winding road – we came to Sickles Corner. When we lived there, Sickles Corner really WAS Sickles Corner – a small grocery/convenience-type store where we would often stop for ice cream. Now I think the corner is someone’s house – but the area is still called Sickles Corner.
About two miles further down Kettle Road, we turned left on a wide, smooth-surfaced dirt road (now paved) which cut through two fields and disappeared into the trees. The entrance was bookmarked by two stone posts and across from the entrance was the Fort Roberdeau sign. We would drive about a mile before the road split – the main part of the road leading to a small cluster of houses and a gun club. (Sometimes in the stillness of the afternoon, we would hear the staccato sound of the guns.) The other fork faded into a narrow, rutted path not much bigger than the width of a car. To the right we passed one of those famous sink holes – this one filled with brush. Usually a couple indigo buntings flitted around the pile of dead branches. Nearby this sinkhole was a great monkey vine – fun to grab the vine and swing back and forth.
We would continue down the road and up the hill to the left was the Kiwanis Camp. Didn’t seem like people were there too often – the place looked deserted. Once my parents must’ve talked to someone in charge of the camp because I remember they said we could use their swimming pool. We went up once – I think I might’ve had some friends visiting – and my mom went up with us.
But alas, the pool was deep and not very inviting, so I think that was the first and last time we used it.
Closer to the road was the barn that used to belong to the house, but was now owned by a man who owned property elsewhere – though he kept cows at the barn. Again, he told us we could go over to the barn when we wanted. (I think my parents kind of watched over the barn and cows for him – not actually feeding or taking care of them, but just making sure nothing went wrong). I often walked around the pasture and played inside the barn itself.
Then you turned the corner and saw our house. With the exception of one other family who lived at the end of the road – we were the only people who lived on this side of the fork.
A brook ran along the back of the house and disappeared into a cave. The brook appeared again several miles away. Two high school boys we knew sent something down the brook through the cave and then drove to the other end and sure enough, their “message-in-a-bottle” appeared. However, I was told never, ever to go near the cave because it was dangerous (unstable ground) and I didn’t. I wasn’t afraid of it, but had a healthy fear of not getting too close (and for getting punished by my dad).
A corner of the yard was filled with a huge catalpa tree. Dad hung a swing from one of the branches and I liked lazily swinging over the brook.
We also had our friendly neighborhood blacksnake that liked to lie under the tree. Residents of the area liked blacksnakes because they ate the mice and other annoying rodents. Although we never saw one, the area was known for its rattlesnakes and copperheads – not so friendly neighborhood snakes. (A friend of mine woke up one morning and found a rattlesnake under her bed. She screamed for her older brothers and they came and killed it.) After that I ended my nighttime prayer, praying I wouldn’t wake up and find a rattlesnake on the floor.
Across the woods from the house was a wooded area where I loved to play. I liked to collect the burrs, stick them together and make cups and saucers or I would pick huge armfuls of Queen Anne’s Lace and dye the white flowers with food coloring and put bouquets in every room of the house.
But the coolest thing about the woods was an old foundation from a Revolutionary War fort. Before World War II (or sometime long ago) someone had figured out where Fort Roberdeau once stood and started reconstructing it – but then stopped. I declared it “my fort” and loved playing over there.
Fort Roberdeau was a lead mine and provided ammunition for the soldiers. The story goes that the ammunition would be put on a raft in the brook and sent through the cave — to come out when the brook appeared several miles away. (Not sure that’s what
real historians say – but that’s what we were told.) Actually, not much happened there. No battles were won or even fought. But it did become a place of protection for the farmers in the area (or so they say). Usually no one paid attention to the broken-stone foundation in the woods except sometimes on lazy summer afternoons, some scholarly-looking person would show up and ask where the fort had been located.
Our family owned six acres (or maybe it was five). If you went down the road, past the cave, you came to a field. At one time this was a cornfield, but Dad and Mom had the field made into a baseball diamond. No, it wasn’t the Field of Dreams – but still the people came. Sometimes people from church would come out on a Friday night, play baseball, roast hot dogs and then sing and have devotions around a huge bond fire.
I have lots of other memories, too: Dad dictating his children’s books to Mom; walking around our property with Dad as he destroyed the destructive tent caterpillars with a a homemade torch; growing my own zinnia and marigold garden in a little patch outside the back side door (seen in the top house picture); the lilac bush in front providing a perfect haven to sit underneath and read. Which is why I think I am so obsessed with lilacs to this day. Which is why we now have seven lilac bushes in our yard – all different colors. (You can kind of see the bush in the picture – I think this was taken in the spring and it is just beginning to bloom)
Even though we were isolated, Sinking Valley never felt isolated. Since Dad was a pastor, we made the eleven mile trip to town probably five out of seven days each week so we were always coming and going and we were always around a lot of people.
I went to school in Tyrone, taking the bus eleven miles the opposite direction through more scenic country. I remember one morning on the bus sitting behind a high school kid wearing a Penn State jacket. I spent the eleven miles learning how to spell Pennsylvania – and to this day spell it with a sing-songy quickness I memorized that morning.
And then one weekend Dad took a trip to Chicago to speak at a church and the next thing I knew, I was leaving Pennsylvania and moving to the suburbs. My parents quickly sold the house to a family from church.
I cried. And I cried some more. I did NOT want to leave the mountains.
Not until I was older did I learn my parents weren’t that excited about leaving the house either. Dad promised Mom we would only stay in the Midwest for five years and then go back East where we were from. But by the time Dad left the church – I was married and had two kids. And … our entire family still lives here.
But there is a sequel to this story.