Editor’s note: The following story is part of a monthly series of articles that examine the people, culture and history of the small towns that dot the landscape of Fayette County.
It’s quiet,” James Manchas says from his house perched next to Route 40. “There isn’t anything going on in Brier Hill.”
At 59, the retired coal miner lives in the same Brier Hill house where he grew up and hasn’t wanted to follow several of his siblings who have moved out of the area.
Brier Hill, wedged between Brownsville and Uniontown along Route 40, has been a vitally important refuge for centuries in one way or another. It is believed that during their flight from the south, runaway slaves hid in the basement of the Peter Colley Tavern, which was constructed in 1796 and still stands on Route 40. In Brier Hill’s early years as a coal mining community in the 1900s and 1910s, St. Hedwig Church on Route 40 provided the community’s large contingent of Polish immigrants with pastors of Polish heritage and a namesake saint who cared for the poor and sickly in 13th-century Poland, closing in 1977.
On a chilly January afternoon, Manchas points out from his front porch part of a stone wall constructed around the church by Reverend Michael Kowal and the men of the parish circa 1950. There are reminders like that here and there of the Brier Hill that used to be, but its current residents are able to find a different kind of refuge in the Brier Hill that still is.
It’s a peaceful place for resident Mike Defino, Jr., who said that as a magisterial district judge, he appreciates being able to come home and enjoy some quiet. Brier Hill has given resident Ibrahim Toury a private lake and a nice place for his friends and grandchildren to visit on Route 40.
Redstone Township Supervisor Michael Cetera recalls several family members buried in a cemetery near the former location of St. Hedwig Church, where his parents got married 45 years ago.
And resident and Brownsville Area School Board President Rocky Brashear boasts about the high elevation of his property, enjoying living in a community where he knows “every nook and cranny.”
“It really hasn’t changed much,” said Defino, who has lived in Brier Hill since 1985.
So even though Brier Hill is too small to be a U.S. Census-designated place today, it still offers ample reminders of the community’s past as both a coal and coking powerhouse in the early 20th century and the target for a planned community revitalization in the 1970s that would have made Brier Hill the most populated town in the tri-county area.
A landscape of landmarks
Today, Brier Hill consists of only a few residential streets, and its most defining features are structures that have abutted Route 40 for generations.
“The new, younger population, they kind of just pass through on their way from Brownsville to Uniontown, not really thinking about what they’re going through,” Cetera said.
The Peter Colley Tavern was a major stagecoach stop and hotel in the early 19th century, featuring what was known as the smallest bar east of the Mississippi River: a miniature bar closed off because guests kept their valuables there until they left. Next to the tavern is the Brier Hill Honor Roll, dedicated in 1942 as a tribute listing the names of men from the community serving in the military during World War II.
Toury owns the Brier Hill Reservoir that sits on the eastern side of Route 40, where Manchas used to fish for bass and hunt rabbits growing up. The St. Hedwig rectory overlooked the reservoir, where in the evening older residents rowed boats and kids dove off a limestone wall.
Near the honor roll is a 10-by-12-foot building that served as Brier Hill’s post office after a fire in 1944 destroyed the company store, which had housed the previous post office. The building is dilapidated now but throughout its lifespan has prompted many travelers along Route 40 to stop and photograph it. Brier Hill residents still refer to it as the smallest post office east of the Mississippi River.
Brashear still gets his mail from the current, larger Brier Hill post office that sits nearby on Route 40, although he says few residents still do. He also remembers Smoky Row, a company housing area a little further removed off the west side of Route 40 lined with coke ovens where kids older than him used to play growing up.
“I was never allowed to play by the mine shaft,” Brashear said.
Near Smoky Row used to be several houses situated unlike those in “patch” towns because they were separated and surrounded by trees.
“It was a whole different world (then), all smokestacks, coke ovens,” Defino said.
Defino wasn’t there then but knows Brier Hill’s early-20th century landscape anyway thanks partly to a panoramic picture of Brier Hill during its mining days in his office that he says makes people stop on a dime when they see it. The undated picture shows a Brier Hill teeming with railroad tracks, soot and at least four dozen houses in view.
“Just about every one of those houses has been removed,” Redstone Township Supervisor Larry Williams said. “It is the coolest picture of all time.”
But Defino says that Brier Hill eventually lived up to its name after its mine ceased operation and its population dwindled since the community is now 90 percent briars. Blackberry and strawberry-filled dense woods have attracted bears into Defino’s and Brashear’s yards recently.
When Brier Hill was booming
Brier Hill’s name wasn’t blackberry-related, though.
The community was conceived when H.M. Stambaugh of the Brier Hill Coke Company of Youngstown, Ohio purchased 115.5 acres of coal land in Fayette County for $400,000 on June 29, 1901, according to a copy of the Wilkes-Barre News from two days later. The company constructed houses the following year, and Brier Hill had a company store by 1904.
Brier Hill eventually had 475 beehive coke ovens and what the Uniontown Morning Herald said in 1969 had had a mine shaft plunging to a depth of 736 feet before the mine closed in 1935.
The Brier Hill mine was reopened around 1942 after L.D. Perry acquired it and operated it through World War II, according to the Virtual Museum of Coal Mining in Western Pennsylvania.
Then Brier Hill’s long industrial decline began.
“As jobs moved away, so did the people,” Defino said. “No mine, no money.”
Josie Voytek, 75, whose father was a coal miner and mother bore 15 children, remembers growing up in Brier Hill in the 1950s.
“People were going to Ohio, where there was work,” Voytek said, adding that even by the 1950s, not too many people lived in what was nonetheless still a very close-knit Brier Hill.
And in 1959, Voytek left for Cleveland herself after graduating from Redstone High School. By the time she moved back into Fayette County in 1970, Brier Hill was preparing for a major transformation.
The ‘big thing’ that wasn’t
At 9 a.m. on Sept. 9, 1968, Allison No. 1 volunteer firemen set fire to a house in Brier Hill, starting a weeks-long blaze in the community.
They burned down some 45 houses in Brier Hill to clear a path for development in the area, a decision made by Kalamazoo, Mich. business executive Charles E. Parker. Parker had married L.D. Perry’s daughter in 1947 and became owner of 235 acres in Brier Hill in 1967 following the death of L.D’s widow Ruth, according to the Uniontown Evening Standard.
“No more will you hear ‘that town is as bad as Brier Hill,’” columnist Jim Yadamec wrote in the Uniontown Morning Herald the same month as the burning.
The decaying homes and junked cars had become an eyesore in Brier Hill along Route 40 by 1967, so the deep mining shaft was filled that year, the crumbling mining tipple was torn down and Parker aimed to make Brier Hill, whose population had dwindled to 49 by 1971 per the Uniontown Evening Standard, bigger and better than ever.
“He had a lot of plans, I saw them one time,” said Brashear, who worked for Parker as a Redstone Railroad Corporation employee in the early 1970s. “I thought … ‘Well, this is going to be a big thing.’”
Pennsylvania’s governor at the time agreed.
Some 300 people gathered near the Peter Colley Tavern on Oct. 26, 1970 to watch Gov. Raymond P. Shafer drive a pick into the ground to mark the beginning of a “new town” for Brier Hill.
“It is you who will bear testimony to the fulfillment of Brier Hill as well as your children and their children,” Shafer said to the Brownsville Area High School Band, according to the Uniontown Evening Standard, which reported the following year that a large commercial business district, industrial park, tourist complex and modern housing for all income groups were planned.
Expectations continued to build for the project, which was to be placed under the Department of Housing and Urban Development but was still reliant on Parker’s financial support. By March 1972, the new town was projected to have an estimated population of more than 25,000 when completed in 1992, per the Morning Herald.
Brashear said two houses were built for the project – and that’s all Brier Hill ever gained from its designated status as a “new town.”
“It was a very ingenious plan,” Toury said, adding that Parker nevertheless had extended himself too far financially.
Parker was left $500,000 in debt, the Pittsburgh Press reported in 1976, and federal officials deemed the project economically unfeasible.
Parker’s Redstone Central Railroad company also owned the Brier Hill Playhouse, a 225-seat venue located in a century-old, renovated dairy barn at the eastern entrance to Brier Hill that opened in 1971. In 1976, David and Bonnie Wargo bought the property and renovated part of it into an antique shop. The property was torn down in 1991 after the couple sold it to Eli Shumar, owner of Shumar Welding and Machine Services, Wargo said.
“I do miss sunsets on top of the hill (at the theater),” said Wargo, who now lives in Lakeland, Fla. “That’s one thing I miss a lot.”
Easy to miss
Shumar’s company has an industrial site in Brier Hill that provides testing and development for government and commercial purposes, so the community’s manufacturing contribution continues.
Brier Hill residents have been content with looking elsewhere for almost everything else for a long time. Manchas shops at the South Union Township Walmart once a month, and he and Defino both still know the phone number for Pizza Wagon in Smock by heart.
Still, memories of Brier Hill were compelling enough to bring back dozens of former residents who had moved to Ohio, Maryland and elsewhere in Pennsylvania for several Brier Hill reunion dinners organized in recent years by Voytek, who now lives in Menallen Township.
“I’ll always think of it as home,” Voytek said of Brier Hill.
And Manchas has advice for anyone traveling through the community along Route 40.
“Don’t close your eyes,” Manchas said. “If you blink, you’ll miss it.”