The village of Whitehouse, Pennsylvania, does not receive as many visitors or worldwide attention as does the building of the same name on 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. in Washington, D.C.
But the residents of the small stretch of village along Route 857, at the base the mountains, and just beyond the sprawling acreage of Rich Farms, like it that way. They enjoy the solitude and comfort their hometown brings.
Mose L. Rubenstein, a lifelong resident of Whitehouse, tried to venture beyond, living for a few years in the 1960s in the D.C. area., until he returned home.
“D.C. was a rat race,” Rubenstein said. “Twenty-two miles to work and it took an hour and a half to get there. It wasn’t my kind of life.”
Rubenstein returned to the home where he grew up, and the home that once served as part grocery store for the residents of Whitehouse many decades ago.
“So many people are living in the same place they were raised up at,” said lifelong resident, 89-year old Irene Lynn. “I always say I never got far in this world — 89 years and I live in the same house.”
But the house she lives in looks a little different than it did in 1926. Now, the home has 11 rooms, instead of five. And of course, running water and electricity. The stonework on the outside of the home is Lynn’s handiwork.
“Whitehouse was a good place to be born and raised,” she said. “I never wanted to live anywhere else, and I never did. Whitehouse is a good town.”
A village gets its name
Lynn is considered the local historian of her hometown.
According to Lynn, Whitehouse was named after the Whitehouse Inn, which stood on the corner of Route 857 along Wymps Gap Road.
The Inn served as a respite for weary travelers making their way along the gritty, dirt roads full of ruts, on horseback, or on horse and buggy.
“It was the halfway point between Morgantown and Uniontown,” Lynn said. “And they stopped off there (at the inn).”
Back then, Lynn remembered, 12 miles was quite a distance considering the condition of the roads and the mode of transportation.
“It took them a long time, and now, we can be there in no time,” Lynn said, referring to Route 43, the new stretch of highway that can be seen from Route 857, almost as much as the mountains in the background. “Towns are closer now than they used to be.”
She said the inn stood in its original location up until about five years ago, when it was torn down.
“It was old and dilapidated,” she said. “It looks better without it, but I hated to see it go.”
It wasn’t the only building she hated to see torn down.
In 1986, Tobin School, a two-room schoolhouse that opened in 1912 and closed in 1967, was torn down by a man who purchased the piece of property to house a mobile home.
“It was a landmark,” she said. “I was sorry to see it go.”
She and her siblings attended Tobin School for eight years. Lynn said in her day, schools were built four miles apart so everybody could walk.
“We have it good today,” she said, as she shared a book, “Memories of a Two-Room School,” she compiled for a class reunion. In the book, Lynn included tales told by former students. Wilma Menhart Falkenstine said Tobin school days, between 1932 and 1940, were some of the happiest times of her life. “I feel the kids are missing so much now by attending the so-called modern schools. I can remember walking to school in all kinds of weather,” Falkenstine was quoted as saying in Lynn’s book.
Mose Rubenstein’s general store is still standing in some fashion, although, his son, Mose L., renovated it and turned it into a home for his family.
“He had a successful business there alright,” Lynn said. “I can remember the men taking burlap bags and walking to the store and getting their groceries in the bag and packing them home.”
She recalled that the store, at one point in time, was the only establishment in Whitehouse that had a phone.
“We were poor. Everybody was poor, so you didn’t notice it. If your house caught on fire, you would have to run up to the store, to call the fire department. And since there was no fire department in Smithfield or Gans then, and only in Uniontown, you might as well just sit at home and watch it burn,” she said.
Her observation was one that came from experience, as her family’s original home caught fire and burned about 10 years before she was born.
Despite the tragedy, they were able to rebuild and hold onto the property, even through the Great Depression.
“They never let it go,” she said.
A church at the center
Lynn’s house is almost as much of a landmark as the Whitehouse Free Methodist Church, which is still standing, and of which she is a member.
A search of “Whitehouse, Pennsylvania,” on Google Maps zooms into the church property — a representation of the fact that, like other small communities, the church is at the center of the community, and also, the center of bringing people together.
Dr. English Sr., a transplant to the area who began the Tri-State Dermatology practice in Whitehouse more than 30 years ago, remembers the church as being a place where he could share his faith with the people of Whitehouse.
At one point, he held a Bible study program through the church.
“I like the people. I was very fond of the people. They’re very open to what I believe, as a Christian,” he said. “I’ve been blessed with successful Bible studies here, with the inhabitants of this village, as I did not have that success when I was in Morgantown. People weren’t open. It’s my view that God guides people. I believe God allowed me to be here. It could be that I ended up here purposely.”
Lynn recalls that the original church opened as a one-room structure in 1906. The church undertook massive renovations in 1979, transforming the holy place into what it is today.
“I walked to church since I was able to walk,” Lynn said. “You walked everywhere. That’s why old people are so healthy.”
On Sundays, she and her family members would begin walking for entertainment.
“We walked up the mountain, and as we went along, other people would come out and go with us, and next thing you know, we had a crowd walking. That was our entertainment?,” she asked, baffled and amused by how the times have changed.
At 89 years of age, walking is an activity she doesn’t partake in as often as before. And, from her point of view, it’s not something many other people do as well, now that cars zoom up and down along Route 43.
On the map
In September and October, travelers from all over use Route 43 to visit an attraction that Lynn believes put Whitehouse “on the map.”
“If somebody wants to know how to get to your place, you say, ‘Do you know where Rich’s Fright Farm is?’ And I’ve never known anybody who didn’t know where it was,” Lynn said.
Fright Farm, a Halloween attraction that has been scaring people for about 25 years, was the brainchild of Michael Rich. Michael and his brothers came up with the idea for the attraction one evening after surveying the stone farmhouse where the family grew up.
“He came up with the idea that it would be a really scary thing,” said Tom Rich, owner of Rich Farms. “We tried it, and immediately it worked. After the first weekend we advertised, we started getting uncontrollable amounts of people. It’s a serious business. Tens of thousands of people come.”
Rich admits that it was difficult, at first, to encourage members of the community to come on board.
“We had to deal with churches thinking we were devil worshippers,” Rich said. “We had to calm everyone down, saying this is a business. We’re really, really careful not to cross a line too far. Our goal is to make it fun, and scary, and cool. The too gory stuff, we try to stay away from that.”
He said there were zoning issues right off the bat, and the family was worried about staying open into late hours of the night, but he believes the issues the family and the community encountered, actually brought everyone a little closer together.
“It’s settled somewhat,” Rich said.
Fright Farm consists of a haunted hayride, a maze and the mansion itself. Every year, the family develops a unique theme.
“It’s a big thing,” Lynn said. “A noisy thing for a month.”
The hayride takes visitors through a recreated version of Whitehouse.
“We started duplicating all the local buildings — the old Tobin school, the local gas station,” Rich said. “There are 25 buildings along the way. We got photos and old books because we tried to be almost to the T with what they looked like.”
Rich believes Route 43, which has given Fright Farm new exposure, is both a blessing and a curse.
“If nothing else, you can see it from the highway. The exit is right on our property as well. We’re positioned to be in a good spot. But it split our farm in half ... as farmers we were kind of upset about it. It took our lake. It’s not the same property we used to have.”
According to Rich, the property, which was owned by Bill Morgan, came up for sale in 1948, and his family jumped at the chance to buy it.
“Farms around here never come up for sale,” Rich said. “They’re in families forever.”
Although his family has been in the area for decades, to this day, Rich believes the family is still partly considered outsiders.
“Because, I think we’re the first Italian family that moved into the area,” Rich said. “One of our neighbors...the very first thing they said to their grandparents is that they just cannot believe that this guy sold to a foreigner. Even after 50 years, we’re still kind of foreigners.”
Rich Farms is technically on the outskirts of Whitehouse, as Whitehouse officially begins where the farm ends. However, Rich will tell you that he knows just about everybody in the small village, and has employed just about everybody at some point.
Every August, he and the residents he has gotten to know gather together for an annual festival.
“It’s like having dinner with your family,” he said. “Whitehouse is a little bedroom community. Every single person knows every single person. It seems like we’re all kind of related.”