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 and the Mon Valley.
After a busy day at work, Mark Cook likes to unwind by sitting on the front porch of his 241-year-old stone house in Fairhope.
The view is spectacular and straight off a postcard from this tiny community just southeast of Belle Vernon. To this day, the eastern edge of Fairhope is mostly woods, farmland and a few cabins. A car or motorcycle occasionally whizzes by but most of the passersby are wild geese, turkey, deer and raccoons. Time seems to stand still where Cook lives, a place where the past often intersects with the present and the future.
“I often wonder what this area was like when my ancestors settled down here,” said Cook, 48, as he watches a small herd of cattle graze in a field on the other side of Cook Road. “Why did they choose this spot? What kind of hardships did they have to overcome? What were their dreams? It would be interesting to hear what my great-great-great-great grandfather had in mind for this area and what he thinks about it today.”
Although Fairhope has evolved over the years, it still remains the quintessential bedroom community. Fairhope is a family-oriented town where you’ll be greeted with a friendly wave and smile while you are taking a walk down the street; a place where kids still play on neighborhood ballfields and adults enjoy a few hours of camaraderie at the local bingo hall. Cook thinks that Fairhope is one of the best kept secrets in the Mon Valley.
“You couldn’t ask for a better place to raise a family or spend your retirement years,” he said. “It’s safe, peaceful and quiet here. At the same time, Fairhope is only a short drive from all the amenities of larger towns and cities.”
Love at first sight
Fairhope has had a love-at-first-sight effect on generations of people. Some historians believe the area was first inhabited by the Monongahela Indians — a tribe that lived off the fertile farmland for hundreds of years before dissipating in the 17th century. In 1770, Col. Edward Cook and his family trekked westward from Lancaster County in the search of adventure and a better life. He found his destination at the Rehoboth Valley, where he purchased 200 acres of land and built a small log cabin and store. In 1776, Col. Cook completed construction of a stone house that was hewed from native limestone. The Cook family continues to own that house to this day.
A well-respected landholder, farmer, jurist and politician, Col. Cook played a prominent role in America’s early history. He served as an officer for the county militia, sat on the Pennsylvania Constitutional Committee that drafted the first Declaration of Independence and acted as a moderating influence on a group of farmers who took part in the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794. Col. Cook also was a good friend of George Washington.
According to local legend, Washington paid several visits to the Cook homestead and slept in one of the smaller bedrooms during an overnight stay.
“During one of his visits to western Pennsylvania, General George Washington stopped by the Cook house for a rest,” said Cook. “Meanwhile, Col. Cook was reviewing a militia in an adjoining field and wasn’t aware that Washington had arrived. When some of his men learned that Washington was in the area, they started to race off toward the Cook house. Col. Cook chased after his men to see what the commotion was all about. When he got there, Washington was delivering a fatherly speech, much to the delight of the troops. From all accounts, it was quite a sight to behold. And family lore has it that Washington then spent the night in this house.”
Before his death in 1808, Cook acquired 3,000 acres of property in Fayette, Washington and Westmoreland counties. When the Court of Quarter Sessions began establishing townships throughout Fayette County in 1783, some of Col. Cook’s land became part of Washington Township. Eventually, Washington Township was reorganized to include the villages of Arnold City, Brownstown, Fairhope, Gillespie, Lynnwood and Naomi.
No place like home
Anthony and Deneen Barr have lived in Fairhope for 54 years and never want to leave.
“It’s always been a safe, quiet place where everyone looks out for each other,” said Deneen Barr, 83, who grew up in an upstairs apartment across the street from the old Steinberg store. “When my husband and I moved to this neighborhood, there weren’t too many people who lived here. As more homes were built on this street, we were fortunate that our neighbors turned out to be nice people. We couldn’t have asked for a better place to live.”
Anthony Barr, 85, a retired steelworker, also loves the area, even though he has a small gripe.
“For years, our mail was dropped through a slot in our front door,” he said. “Then in the 1990s, there was a big meeting at the Washington Township Fire Hall and the postmaster told everyone that we had to put up mailboxes on the other side of the street. That’s somewhat of an inconvenience for elderly persons who have to walk to get their mail. But other than that, I can’t complain. The taxes are reasonable, and we are close to shopping and restaurants.”
For Bill Bergman, Washington Township was the perfect place to grow up. He later moved to Florida but liked his hometown so much that he came back to the area.
“One of my favorite childhood memories is sneaking into the Cook barn with a few of the kids to play hide-and-go-seek,” said Bergman, 47, a Comcast supervisor and past president of the Washington Township Volunteer Fire Company. “We later realized that Mr. Cook was watching us the whole time. As long as we didn’t damage anything, he let us play there. Everyone respected each other in that community, and it’s still that way to this day.”
As a kid, Mark Cook enjoyed riding his bike through Washington Township, catching lightning bugs in a jar and playing ball in a field not far from his house.
“That field used to be a racetrack where people raced buggies, cars and horses,” he said. “The story has it that people were desperate to heat their homes during the Great Depression so they started tearing down the grandstands for wood. All that’s left today is a grassy field.”
Cook also insists that the spring water in Fairhope is the best he has ever tasted. He continues to pump fresh water from a tiny spring house that sits at the bottom of his front yard.
“People always say that there’s something in the water at Washington Township. And I think there is some truth to that. I don’t know any other place where three Miss Pennsylvania beauty queens came from the same community. They all drank the same water from this area.”
Today, Fairhope continues to be a small but growing community. According to some estimates, about 2,000 people live in Fairhope — making it the largest of Washington Township’s six villages. A diverse range of businesses are located in the area, including several medical offices, a day care center, an insurance agency, a barbershop, a beauty salon and a mining supply company.
“Like any other small community, we have our challenges but we are holding up very well,” said Dan Moody, 50, who serves as one of Washington Township three supervisors, along with Jan Amoroso and Chuck Yusko. “Drugs are a problem throughout the Mon Valley and we’ve installed street surveillance cameras to help deter crime. Our small police force has to cover a lot of ground. One day they may be herding cows off one of the country roads, and the next day, they might be responding to a property crime incident in town. But they get along well with our residents and wave to them when they drive by. It’s a great relationship for everyone.”
Washington Township’s supervisors also have to find creative ways to stretch their limited budget.
“Fayette County doesn’t have as much LSA money as some of the surrounding counties and there’s a lot of competition for funding dollars,” said Moody. “Also, when the census falls below 4,000 people, it’s a little tougher to get funding. That’s why we’re working hard to bring in more families to this area.”
The Washington Township Youth Association has been the driving force behind many initiatives geared toward families with children. The association has renovated the township’s ballfields and oversees organized baseball, softball and T-ball leagues. During the summer, the association also offers a sleepover night at one of the fields, where kids enjoy a cookout, campfire and movie.
“We try to make all the kids feel like they belong,” said Bergman, who serves as president of the youth association and coaches one of the baseball teams. “There was a young boy who was the smallest kid on the team. But he gained confidence playing in our league and he made the hit that won the game. It was the greatest feeling in the world watching that boy round the bases. That’s the kind of thing that attracts young families to Washington Township.”
One of Washington Township’s younger residents is also doing his part to make the community more appealing. Stephen Palli, 16, a junior at Belle Vernon Area High School, devoted his Eagle Scout project to beautifying the small park adjoining the township’s veterans’ memorial. With the help of several family members, he recently renovated the gazebo, replaced benches and planted grass seed.
“I wanted to help liven things up and make the park more beautiful,” said Palli. “There’s a lot to do here. People can check out banners of our veterans, take a walk on the track or sit on the benches and admire the Monongahela River below.”
Various organizations are also deeply involved in the life of Washington Township. The Lions Club has spearheaded the veterans’ banner project and the Washington Township Volunteer Fire Company organizes bingo, cash bashes and other events to raise money for the township.
“People really care about the community,” said Bergman, who is running for one of the township supervisor seats this fall. “We sometimes don’t agree on everything but people pull together to make this a better place to live.”
A look to the future
According to Moody, Washington Township is poised to begin a new era of growth. Last year, the board of commissioners hired Mackin Engineering to help craft a comprehensive plan that outlines the township’s strategic goals for the future.
“We will be looking at ways to improve our community,” said Moody. “For instance, we want to make it easier for someone to build a house or develop an area for business. We also have formed a steering committee of business owners to get their input. And we are inviting residents to attend town meetings to tell us what we can do better. It’s a very exciting time to be living in Washington Township.”
Moody also would like to attract more businesses to the township, without sacrificing the community’s high quality of life.
“People enjoy living in a town that’s quiet and clean,” he said. “And we want to keep it that way. We’re looking at bringing in a few cyber businesses and adding some retail plazas. As we do that, Washington Township will become even more appealing to families who are looking for a nice place to settle down.”
For Mark Cook, Fairhope and the rest of Washington Township represent the pioneering spirit that brought his ancestors to the area.
“Col. Cook would be proud of what our residents have done with the community,” he said. “People work hard to improve the township and they continue to respect small-town values. It’s still a great place to live, work and play, just as it was over 200 years ago.”