Vanderbilt’s Main Street winds through the town like a river gently ebbing and flowing, passing homes and buildings that were once a vibrant and bustling hidden treasure nestled in the Laurel Highlands.
Older houses that were a shining example of an earlier period’s architecture are now covered with scaffolding and tarps as they are being restored.
Buildings, once the home of grocery stores and pharmacies, now hold treasures from bygone eras as they have been repurposed as antique stores.
Church parking lots are dotted with cars on a weekday afternoon as parishioners help to prepare the place for an upcoming community event.
While the town is a little smaller, both in residents and number of businesses, it is still a community that takes pride in being a place where “everyone knows your name.”
“It is a close-knit town,” said Duane King, borough councilman.
A century in the making
In 2005, Vanderbilt celebrated 100 years of being a friendly community and 75 years of the Dickerson Run, Liberty and Vanderbilt (D, L & V) Fire Department and put together a book to celebrate their centennial.
This book is filled with old photos including ones of the former Vanderbilt Post Office, Hotel Vanderbilt and even a photo of a mechanic’s business card that says he can help a person with all of their “auto repair or greasing needs.”
But before Vanderbilt had its first celebration, it operated under different identites.
“It first [was called] Alexandria in 1871 and a few years it [later was renamed] East Liberty,” explained Lance Winterhalter, mayor of Vanderbilt.
But because people were getting the town confused with the Pittsburgh neighborhood of the same name, officials decided to go with Vanderbilt, after the railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt who helped bring the railroad through the town that lead to the many businesses that flourished.
“This place was coal and coke and had the coke ovens,” said Winterhalter.
After the coke ovens were done serving their original intended purpose, they became a place where one man called home.
“We had a man live in the coke ovens,” said Winterhalter. “We called him ‘Lawrence the Bum.’”
The story of “Lawrence” was not the only colorful anecdote from the pages of Vanderbilt’s past.
“In the cemetery a guy was killed by a tombstone, and they called the police and said, ‘There is someone dead in the cemetery,’” said King.
“They (the police) thought it was a joke, and they said, ‘There are a lot of people dead in the cemetery’ and hung up.”
Legacies live on
In Vanderbilt, if you mention the name Harold Miller, it will sound familiar to many people.
Miller was only 9 years old when his family moved from Vanderbilt to Washington, D.C., because his father received a job opportunity. But, as a grown man, he left a legacy to the town in the form of his family’s home that was under construction when they moved.
“This was built by the Miller family,” said Winterhalter sitting at a conference table inside of the building.
“They sold it to the American Legion, and the American Legion gave it to the (borough) council.”
The stone building has been carefully maintained by the council since then, with a little help from a trust fund that was set up by Miller to care for the property.
The trust fund also helped establish a small park with a gazebo that bears Miller’s name and is situated on the outskirts of town.
100 years and growing
Upon leaving the quaint downtown area of Vanderbilt, the landscape opens up to rolling hills and bright blue skies as the houses become more spread out and are peppered among various farms that are homes to animals and row upon row of rigid cornstalks reaching for the sun.
Among the meandering country roads shaded by lush trees is a hidden gem in both name and hospitality — a quaint bed and breakfast along Emerald Valley Road.
With a fun play on words, the Seams Like Home Bed and Breakfast Quilting Retreat offers an oasis to weary cyclists making their way along the Greater Allegheny Passage and those wanting to spend time quilting and learning more about the craft.
The building that now serves as the bed and breakfast did not always look so cozy. In fact, it was once very industrial.
Donna Eicher, proprietress of the bed and breakfast, along with her husband Rick, had a vision to turn the former Neometrics office building into the home away from home it is today.
After living in North Union Township for many years, the Eichers decided they wanted to move out to the country after their youngest son graduated from high school. When they found the property that is now Seams Like Home, they felt the building was too big for their family to live in but felt it would be just right for an extension of their current sewing business.
After closing on the property in 2009, Eicher was faced with the task of converting a former office building with bright blue carpeting and metal railings into a place that people would want to call home for a night or two, as well as their own home.
Today, instead of concrete block, a bright and cheery yellow wall with a beautiful quilt greets guests.
Old offices are now turned into bathrooms and guest rooms with names such as The Americana Suite, The Hydrangea Room, The Magnolia Room and The Garden Room; a former employee cafeteria now boasts a large picture window with a view of the surrounding woods, a pool table, computer and television for recreation.
Down another country road out among waving tall grasses is Falk Performance Horses.
As a gentle breeze rolls up the hillside carrying dust kicked up by tractor tires and horse hooves, Alexandra and Eddie Falk train and lovingly care for these gentle animals.
Sitting atop George, a large chestnut-colored horse with a sweet disposition, Falk’s love of horses is evident.
“I have been riding since I was four. I made it my job in 2005 when I decided to do it as a profession,” she said. “I showed horses my entire life. This is something I always wanted to do.”
In various barns around the property, 46 horses are cared for, making it hard to believe the business began as a humble one-barn farm with a handful of horses.
Despite growth, Falk said that she never had an interest in moving the business out of the Vanderbilt community where she grew up in.
“I grew up here. It is nice, quiet, not busy,” she said. “We didn’t have to be in the house at a certain time. You can trust everybody.”
As it is written in the town’s 100th anniversary book, “There is something about small towns where everyone knows you by name — where you spend your time in school, play, work and church — those memories will always be a major part of those who have resided in the community known as Vanderbilt.”