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.
The Champion, Pa., of today is a zip code spread across the three counties of Fayette, Westmoreland and Somerset, but the rural community tucked in the mountains of the Laurel Highlands couldn’t be any more close-knit.
“I love it,” said Barb Skinner, who along with her husband, Merle, started Champion Christian School in the 1980s, a K-12 school that also provides Christian teachings to its 100-plus students.
“To me, it’s peaceful,” said Skinner, the school’s director of development and a resident of nearby Indian Head. “People come here to recreate. And I get to look at the mountains. It is beautiful here.”
It’s an eclectic drive to get to the Champion area. From state Route 711 at Connellsville and up the mountain, the views offer modest homes, small businesses, expensive chalets that serve as weekend getaways, even an alpaca farm and a lot of breath-taking scenery.
“I love the family orientation here,” Skinner said.
History of Seven Springs
An internet search of “Champion” will most likely yield a result of Seven Springs Mountain Resort, part of which is in Saltlick Township in Fayette County.
Seven Springs is a major regional tourist destination that draws thousands each year to its ski slopes during the colder months and to its golf courses when the weather is warmer. And to confuse matters to people not familiar with the area, the resort is in Millcreek Township in Somerset County. But it has a Champion address.
The history of the resort dates back to Franklin Roosevelt’s first term in office. Adolph Dupre, a Bavarian immigrant who was a farmhand and groundskeeper for the Mellon family at their estate in nearby Ligonier, is credited with starting the resort back in the 1930s. Dupre bought some property on the mountain and discovered seven springs on his land, hence the name of the 5,000-acre resort that traces its roots back to 1932.
Dupre built a number of cabins on the property and even invented the first mechanical rope tow — powered by a Packard automobile engine — for skiers. Dupre passed away in 1955, but his son, Herman, kept investing in the resort with the installation of the first snow-making equipment in 1960. He is also credited with the installation of a chair lift.
Dining rooms were added as the resort — which sits 3,000 feet above sea level — grew. A new lodge was added as was a convention hall with a seating capacity of 1,500, according to the website www.westpennmiata .club.
Other expansions under the Dupre family ownership included the construction of single-family houses for people who wanted to live at the resort or have a second weekend home. More chair lifts were added, as was a golf course and even a fly-fishing club.
The resort was sold to the Nutting family in 2006. The family, which publishes a number of daily newspapers across the country, had been frequent visitors to the resort and own Hidden Valley ski resort. Robert Nutting is also chairman and principal owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball franchise.
Tale of two areas
It’s obvious to any visitor that the popularity of Seven Springs has driven high-end development toward the Somerset County section of Champion, and, as a result, has attracted many people with plenty of disposable income.
A prime example of this is Highlands Market, built and owned by Seven Springs where a number of expensive automobiles can be found in the parking lot on a blustery February day. The market, located less than a mile away from the main entrance of the resort and in Somerset County, offers local artesian products, fresh meats and cheeses, as well as craft beer and a high-end wine selection, where a small bag of ground coffee is more than $10, or a bottle of Pinot Noir can fetch $40.
“It’s great during the winter,” said Scott Mayer, a Somerset resident who works at the Highlands Market, where he works in the deli.
Next door in the complex is Always Board shop, a snow board shop owned by Rob Zeglin, a Champion resident and snow board enthusiast who seems unfazed by his high-end location.
“It’s so quiet here,” said Zeglin, when asked why he lives in Champion.
Housing prices around the resort tend to be a bit higher than the average home in Southwestern Pennsylvania, which is around $120,000, according to zillow.com.
In Champion near Seven Springs, a three-bedroom, two bathroom condo is listed for $295,000, according to the website www.laurelhighlandsliving.com. A one-bedroom, one-bathroom condo, by comparison, is listed for $150,000. Also listed for sale in Champion is a condo with four bedroom suites. The asking price is $500,000, the website said.
Many of the homes near the resort are indeed owned by people who live and work in Pittsburgh. They come to Champion Friday evening and return home late Sunday, said Robert Wagner of Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices, The Preferred Realty in Donegal Township.
“About 85 percent of the second homes there are owned by people from Southwestern Pennsylvania,” said Wagner, who along with his wife, Adrienne, specialize in the buying and selling of homes in the Laurel Highlands. “The other 15 percent or so are from the Laurel Highlands.”
Even though much of the housing in and around Seven Springs tends to be higher-end, there are $15,000 trailers available in the Champion area, he said.
Small town charm
What passes for downtown Champion is the intersection of state Route 711 and County Line Road. On one side of the road is the Champion post office, which is still owned by the Dupre family. It is in Westmoreland County. Catty corner to the post office is the Star Market Grill, a large white stucco building where many local residents gather in the morning and evenings for coffee and gossip. It’s in Fayette County.
Martha Spargur has been waiting tables at the Star Market Grill for 25 years. She said it is the people who keep her there.
“They’re wonderful, and I enjoy teasing them,” said Spargur, who was raised in Champion.
Sandy White, who sold the business two years ago to Akash Singh, a Washington, Pa., businessman, still shows up when needed to help out. White was back in the kitchen on a recent Monday afternoon cooking the day’s special, ham, potatoes, green beans and a roll for $7.25.
“I’m here today because another employee, Kelly DeWitt, hurt her back chasing a pig,” White said.
White and Spargur were closing the grill early on this particular day. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, however, the grill remains open until 9 p.m. to accommodate around 15 men who gather those days for coffee and a slice of pie.
“I call them the pie and coffee bunch,” Spargur said.
“It is definitely the gossip place and local hangout.” White said.
Just three steps down — and in the same building — is the Champion Gas and Foodmart. Here, you can purchase fresh deli meat, ear muffs and a one-pound package of tobacco.
“It’s peaceful here,” said Michelle Dellgross, who was manning the cash register.
Just across the road from Star Grill is Gerry’s Western Shop, which has been owned by Cathy Johnson’s family for 35 years. As the name of her business suggests, she sells western clothing, boots and jewelry.
Inside her shop, there are animal heads on the wall and a stuffed mountain lion — shot by her husband Dave during a trip to Canada three years ago — sits on top of shelves of Levis.
Johnson said they have stayed in business for more than three decades by keeping their prices low and being receptive to their customers.
“January and February are kind of slow,” she said. “The rest of the year is pretty good.”
When you meet Rick Hileman, who runs the Champion post office, “laid back” are the words that immediately come to mind. Hileman, who has longish gray hair and a diamond stud in his ear, has been running the post office for nearly three years and has added his own touches to the lobby, which includes pictures of him dressed up at Halloween, cars, an aquarium and an orange orangutan dubbed Charlie.
“It has been interesting, fun and enjoyable,” said Hileman, adding that it is challenging sometimes to try and figure out where the mail goes because Champion covers three counties.
So what happens when people come to the post office and ask for directions?
“I send them over to Star Market,” he said.
You make plans ahead
Pam Porterfield’s family has been in the Champion area for two centuries.
“It is more of a community here,” said Porterfield, who lives in a home built by her husband’s father. “If you know someone’s last name, then you will probably know the family history.”
Porterfield, an unofficial historian of Champion, said the area once had a bottling plant and a railroad stop with a nearby boarding house. Coal mined on the mountain was taken by train down to the coke ovens in Connellsville, she said.
But it’s the beauty of the area and the sense of tradition and community that keeps her tied to the area despite having to make plans ahead of time for something as simple as a trip to the grocery store.
There are Dollar Stores located on either side of the Mountain. But to get to a grocery store, you either have to travel to Connellsville, Somerset, Uniontown or even Greensburg. For people who live in the area, going to the grocery store has become an event.
“You plan for it,” she said.
But you also become self-sufficient, said Porterfield, who gardens and raises chickens and pigs. The trouble is you sometimes get attached to the animals, she said.
“We had this sow who didn’t take to her litter,” she said. “We ended up raising them indoors under a lamp. The babies would come out to eat and then go back into the pen. The runt of the litter ended up weighing 300 pounds and acted like a dog. He would ... push the door open and come into the house.’’
Would she live anywhere else?
“This is my home,” she said.