Editor’s note: The following story is part of an occasional series of articles that examine the people, culture and history of the small towns that dot the landscape of the Mon Valley.
Fells Cemetery was finally thawing out after a long winter, and it was showing signs of life again. Beams of soft sunlight filtered through the clouds, bringing a welcome warmth to the graveyard. Tiny green buds were beginning to sprout in a wiry tangle of trees alongside the cemetery while a smattering of wildflowers were starting to crop up in the meadow.
Harry Beck, 75, a lifelong resident of Fellsburg and superintendent of Fell’s Cemetery, was taking a stroll around the graveyard to survey the condition of the grounds. Aside from a few small tree branches that were strewn across the hillside and a couple of overturned flower vases, the cemetery was in good condition. Once spring finally arrived, Beck could concentrate on routine tasks like mowing the grass, trimming weeds and filling up holes.
Beck stopped to check a weather-beaten tombstone that was leaning sideways. He gave the tombstone a slight tug, but it was still anchored firmly in the ground. Although the inscription on the old tombstone was faded, it showed that Elizabeth Beazel, an 11-year-old-girl, was buried on this lot in 1795.
“Elizabeth has some very good company here,” said Beck, a retired roofer and farmer. “Fells Cemetery is like a “Who’s Who” of the people who have lived in Fellsburg the past 232 years. Someone from every generation is buried here. We have farmers, laborers, professionals and soldiers from the Revolutionary War to the Vietnam War. I think that’s a testament to the enduring appeal of Fellsburg. People enjoy living here. Even though our community is very small, you couldn’t find a better place to call home.”
In many ways, Fellsburg is a striking contrast to the Mon Valley’s steel mill and coal mining communities.
Municipalities such as Donora, Monessen and Van Voorhis had a swagger that was appealing to people who liked the hustle and bustle of life in an industrial town. Fellsburg, on the other hand, is quiet and more laid back. It has always been the prototypical rural community. And that suits Beck just fine.
“As long as I can remember, Fellsburg has been about small-town values,” he said. “People here prefer a slower, simpler way of life. They tend to form a strong bond with their neighbors. And they have a deep respect for the natural environment. I think that’s why people have chosen to settle down in our community.”
The Fellsburg area has always been considered prime real estate — even as early as 200 B.C. Historians believe that a primitive race of mound builders first settled in the Fort Hill section of Fellsburg. Later, the land may have been inhabited by the Mingoes or another Native American tribe. Fellsburg’s fertile land was ideal for growing crops. And since it was located atop a hill, Fort Hill gave its Indian residents a good command post to watch out for rival tribes that might be invading their turf.
By the time Matthew and Catherine Beazell arrived in the early 1700s and built a log house near Fort Hill, the Indians had already migrated far west of Fellsburg. Other settlers gradually moved into the area and established farms of their own.
Around the same time, Joseph and Bridget Fell, along with their two sons, left their home in Longlands, England to start a new life in Pennsylvania’s Bucks County. During the 1770s, the Fells’ grandson, Benjamin, became a successful leather manufacturer who specialized in making shoes. He also was a strong supporter of the Continental Army.
When Fell learned that General George Washington’s troops were sloshing through the snow with worn out shoes, he offered to make boots for the impoverished soldiers. Fell was promptly kicked out of the Quakers and the British put a price on his head. Fortunately, Washington did not forget this act of kindness. After America gained its independence, Washington rewarded Fell with 600 acres of land in the western corner of Rostraver Township.
By 1782, Fell and his family moved to their new home in southwestern Pennsylvania, where they established a thriving tannery. The Fell and Beazel families quickly became friends and discovered they shared similar religious beliefs. In 1785, both families hewed logs and whipsawed wood for the Fell Methodist Episcopal Church — the first Methodist church to be erected west of the Alleghenies. That same year, they also established Fell’s Cemetery on a tract of land alongside the new church.
Fellsburg attracted a lot of attention during its early years. When President Washington led a group of militiamen to suppress the Whiskey Rebellion in July 1794, he made his headquarters at the Larson home in Fellsburg. Marquis de Lafayette, the French artistocrat and military officer who fought in the Revolutionary War, also paid a visit to Fellsburg, where he spoke at Fell’s Church in late 1825.
In addition, Fellsburg was a frequent destination for the Redstone Circuit Riders — a popular group of Methodist ministers who rode horseback to preach at different churches across the country. Legend also has it that one of the homes in Fellsburg was a stopping point for slaves who were heading north on the Underground Railroad during the Civil War.
During the next 100 years, Fellsburg grew and was populated by a new wave of immigrants, many of them English and Scots. Fellsburg became well known for farming, storekeeping and boat building. In 1834, the old log church was replaced by a stone church and by the early 1900s, John Graham formally began to lay out lots for present-day Fellsburg. The community also featured its own elementary school, which remained open until the early 1970s.
“I attended grades one through eight at the Lebanon School,” said Beck. “We called it the ‘Slate Dump College.’ There were two just two rooms and there was an area that was known as the ‘chicken coop.’ It almost looked like an army barracks. There was also an outhouse behind the school. It was a simple school but we got a good education.”
Beck added that kids had a playground that stretched for miles. “In the summer, we went hiking in the hills or played baseball on our ballfield. In the winter, we would ride our sleds all the way down to the bottom of Webster Hollow. One of the other things that sticks out in my mind is that our constable never had much to do. That’s because our community was so safe. To this day, I believe we grew up in the best of times.”
While Fellsburg lacked a true commercial district, it made up for that with a smattering of small deli and confectionery stores, furnace repair business, insurance agency, fire department, gas station and even a branch campus for Westmoreland County Community College.
However, what really put Fellsburg on the map was it highly productive farms.
Bill Mauer, 87, spent most of his life working as a manager for stores and warehouses. But Mauer feels he learned many valuable lessons by working the land.
“As a kid, I worked at Kuma’s Farm on weekends and during the summers,” said Mauer, a former resident of Fellsburg who now lives in Rostraver Township. “That taught me a lot about responsibility. When I was a young man, I helped to deliver fresh milk to customers in Donora. My brother and I also were responsible for bringing the cows back from the pasture. I would wave my flag to stop the traffic while my brother tried to hurry the cows across Rt. 51. Fortunately there wasn’t much traffic on the highway in those days.”
Mauer also recalls living in the same neighborhood as most of his relatives. “At one point, seven of my relatives built their houses next to each. That was a common practice for many other families in Fellsburg back then. We joke that it was almost like experiencing a never-ending family reunion.”
Because Fellsburg had a lower per capita income than some of its neighboring towns, its residents were asked with finding creative ways to raise funds for community projects. That’s when the Fellsburg Women’s Club stepped in to help.
On Feb. 21, 1950, Mrs. Robert Murphy and a group of other women formed the Fellsburg Women’s Club with the purpose of “promoting legislative, civic, educational, moral and social measures.” During the next several decades, the club collected children’s books for the Lebanon School, provided eyeglasses for underprivileged children, delivered food baskets to needy families during the Christmas season and donated scholarships for students who were attending college, among many other projects.
“My mother belonged to the Fellsburg Women’s Club for many years and she was proud to be part of that organization,” said Mauer. “The ladies wanted to make Fellsburg more beautiful as well as a better place to live.”
In 1958, the Fellsburg Women’s Club also established the Rostraver Library at the old Lebanon School and donated books to start up its collection. (Eventually, the library was relocated to Fell’s Church before it settled into its permanent home above Willowbrook Plaza in Rostraver Township.)
Pauline Aitken, 81, a resident of Fellsburg since the late 1950s and a former librarian, will never forget the day the library first opened its doors. “The people of Fellsburg were ecstatic to finally have a library of their own,” she said. “But our library was more than just a place to borrow a book. We also offered a variety of educational programs. Most of all, the Fellsburg library was a place where people could get together. It gave us a sense of community.”
Like many other communities in the Mon Valley, Fellsburg has experienced a gradual decline over the past 30 years. At last count, Fellsburg reported having less than 1,200 residents. The only business left in town is the Sprowls Insurance Agency. The Methodist congregation moved to a new building at the location of the old Naylor farm.
And both the Lebanon Elementary School and WCCC branch campus closed their doors long ago.
Still, many residents of Fellsburg are content with what they have. And they are optimistic that their community can experience new growth in the future.
“When I was a girl, I looked forward to visiting my relatives in New Kensington,” said Rosemary Hako, 75, a former nurse who lives in Fellsburg with her husband, Bob, a retired coal miner. “I saw myself as a country bumpkin and wished I was living in a big city. But over the course of a lifetime, I began to look at Fellsburg much differently. It’s a safe, quiet community and a great place to raise a family. I’m glad we stayed in Fellsburg. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.”
Pauline Aitken often drives up Fellsburg Road to visit Fells Cemetery, where her husband, Lee; son, Kevin; and grandson, Nicholas are buried. She likes to gaze at the panoramic vista stretching into the distance.
“I often think about what the settlers must have seen when they stood on that hill and looked at miles and miles of beautiful countryside,” she said. “The potential must have seemed limitless. As newer people move into Fellsburg, maybe they will also see the potential of this area. I think Fellsburg still has a bright future ahead of it.”