Farm on the frontier: an American storyJune 29, 2016
“You’ll see something that doesn’t exist anymore,” said Superintendent Scott Durham. “Pioneer Farm is probably the one of the top 2 or 3 oldest standing homes in the state, if not in America.”
His low voice carries a respectful note as he describes the restored 1830s log house and acreage.
Pioneer Farm’s story begins in 1835. Back then, the tiny settler home had 2 stories. Each room— and there were only 2— was a scant 20 square feet. The most noticeable feature was a yawning fireplace that dominated the lower floor. Outside, sloping hills and towering oaks dwarfed the humble structure. Nature clearly had the upper hand.
Scott, a seasoned park ranger, doesn’t question what Pioneer Farm represents. He knows that anyone who dared the frontier had determination and grit.
“The farm captures the spirit of our country in action,” he said. “The nice thing about the park service— and Twin Falls is no exception— is that you have a chance to recreate yourself. You can go back to our collective, cultural roots.”
But getting there is a gradual process. First, you embark along a pale path edged by oaks and scrub trees. Leaves shuffling overhead buffer the sounds of distant cars until all you hear are your own footsteps. Nothing ahead suggests civilization except for a spindly fence tracing an uneven line into the distance.
Scott appreciates the lane’s evocative power.
“You quickly feel a sense of isolation while walking back in time— and that’s what that road is, a trip to the past,” he said.
The smooth path continues as you leave the forest. Quilted acres of furrowed earth fill the little valley ahead. Then, there’s Pioneer Farm peeping above rows of young crops. The cabin looks like a fairy cottage with its smoke-stained chimney and crooked walls. Beyond that, thick groves crest over the settlement like an approaching wave, while rounded hills encircle the sides. Everything is restful, but humbled by nature’s grip, too.
During the 1860s, a new family— the Bowers— moved into the area and gradually made their presence felt in the hollows. They bought additional land and turned the tiny home into a 5-room cabin.
“It became a rambling, white-frame farmhouse,” Scott said.
“The farm captures the spirit of our country in action. The nice thing about the park service is that you have a chance to recreate yourself. You can go back to our collective, cultural roots.”
The Bowers also turned the cavernous fireplace into a kitchen and living room. As they grew more comfortable with their surroundings, cows, goats, pigs and sheep dotted the landscape.You’ll see similar animals today.
Scott is proud of Twin Falls’ tribute to history.
“[Today’s herds] visibly portray life from the 1830s,” he said. “Of course, some animals come and go, but it’s accurate.”
Years passed before anyone discovered the original cabin beneath the renovation. During the 1970s, Twin Falls State Park superintendent Morris Harsh, known as “Smokey,” had to remove decrepit buildings on the property. The Bower farmhouse was on his list. While tackling its walls, he found the older logs. Struck by their historic value, he wondered if the park could restore the home.
Scott, his assistant at the time, recalled how the central office reacted: “He was told the best thing would be if lightning struck it!”
Smokey was not easily swayed by anyone. He went ahead and decided to restore the home and build a basic farmstead anyway. The superintendent even planned the configurations himself.
“I remember getting the mail one day and picking up a tube,” Scott said. “As it turned out, an architect from Charleston had sent us blueprints.”
Smokey didn’t take kindly to such meddling. Besides, he already had logs ready to go. Scott will never forget what happened next.
As a nod to the past, park rangers made sure the project remained true to historical methods. Just as any settler would have done, they made fences and roof shingles from chestnut and oak trees in the area. Even domestic touches— like scraggly roses and tufts of tulips— are left somewhat to nature’s discretion. You won’t find manicured hedges or flawless lawns here!
Twin Falls had families actually manage the homestead. Ranger Randall Hash and his family lived there for 12 blissful years. He already knew how to farm, so maintaining crops and animals wasn’t much of a strain.
What he didn’t expect was the friendships he built with the guests.
Twin Falls visitors were entranced by the frontier home and its plants and animals. Folks also got a kick out of the miniature horses and frolicking lambs. Before too long, Randall found out it was easy to start conversations with these eager guests.
“It’s a very rare situation,” he said. “Whoever lives there becomes very invested in Pioneer Farm.”
Decades later, Randall still speaks fondly of his experience.
“You’d catch yourself smiling later that day because of the memories you’d have of the guests and their conversations,” he said. “You just build friendships with people. Everyone should have a farm!”
Pioneer Farm is a private residence, so you can’t completely envelop yourself into the past. But visitors— and previous caretakers— return over and over again to this patch of Americana.
“You quickly feel a sense of isolation while walking back in time— and that’s what that road is, a trip to the past."
“Some practically beg to stay there!” Randall said. “Seeing that glint in the guests’ eyes… seeing them connect with the house … it’s wonderful.”
Even if you can’t stay on the farm, you can still photograph it. The frontier settlement ranks as one of West Virginia’s most popular spots for shutterbugs. Autumn especially flatters the cabin’s dark logs and picturesque chimney. Lilies, pumpkins and blonde cornstalks, bleached from summer, make photos pop with color. But Scott and Randall like each season as it comes.
“In winter, your sense of isolation grows,” Scott said. “There’s a stark beauty about it with the snow.”
Randall also praises spring, which sends young plants poking out of the damp earth. But he knows what time on the farm is his favorite— that’s easy.
“The early morning hours right before daybreak,” Randall said. “And right before darkness.”
As for Scott, he feels like part of something larger than himself.
“It’s why I wanted to work for the park service,” he said. “You get to serve and leave something behind like this for others.”
by Katie Lindsey