The Big Valley

Youghiogheny, Quishacoquillas, and Chambourcin

At 3:30 am a week ago Friday, a quarter moon and stars shared the sky with a few clouds. Jay and I set off in the dark for southwestern Pennsylvania, aiming to reach the Youghiogheny Opalescent Glass factory by its 9:00 opening. Experience has taught us that to arrive even a half hour later would mean waiting for a glass cart and waiting in a long check-out line. The more time we spent inside the factory, the less time we’d have to explore south-central Pennsylvania on what promised to be a lovely fall day. Except for missing the I-81 exit to the PA turnpike (Jay was driving, I was dozing) and difficulty getting into a gas station at that exit (0.30/gallon cheaper in the opposite direction), the trip went smoothly. The sun rose as we ate a breakfast of pears and zucchini bread at the Sideling Hill plaza, revealing the multi-colored Appalachians. Steel blue, gray, and pink clouds touched mountain-tops cloaked in gold, yellow, orange, brown, and green. At times we looked down on fog clouds over valleys, at other times we drove through mist. After five hours we exited the turnpike at Donegal and drove down, down, down a mile-long steep grade and through the hills to Connellsville, arriving at the factory alongside the Youghiogheny River. There we joined a couple dozen other artisans standing in a light drizzle, waiting the last few minutes for the doors to open.

Jay at Youghiogheny sale
Selecting EasyFuse glass

Youghiogheny Glass is named for the river and owned by the adult children of its founder. Staff are always friendly and helpful. Owner Tristan Triggs took my list of frit (ground fusible glass) and measured out what we needed into 5-pound jars. That left me free to help Jay select fusible glass sheets. As usual we were disappointed that some colors were not available, yet inspired to try something new. In less than an hour we moved our cart into a very short check-out line and Jay went off to move the car into loading position. A fellow from Cleveland put “dibs” on our cart, conversed with me in line, and eventually helped us carry 60 pounds of frit, 18 full (24″ x 36″) glass sheets and 3 half sheets to the car. By 10:30 am we were loaded, reorganized for the second phase of our adventure, and driving back toward the turnpike.

Mary Ann waiting with glass cart
Checkout at Youghiogheny Glass factory

From the eastward-bound turnpike we took Exit 180 for US 522, heading north for Appalachian scenery including Amish farmland and some of the Susquehanna Heartland wine trail. The two-lane highway took us through small towns with names like Burnt Cabins and Shade Gap; past brick, stone, and worn clapboard houses; through woods and along drying cornfields and pastures with grazing cattle. After Atkinson Mills we turned on to Jacks Mountain Road, a narrow, winding route with a pull-over spot at the ridge crest. From there we looked down into the Ferguson Valley to the southeast and the broad Kishacoquillas Valley, also known as the Big Valley, to the northwest. Down the northwestern side of the ridge we drove onto PA 655 and into the town of Belleville, a Mennonite and Old Order Amish center.

Alt Gemee buggy at Belleville PA
Byler Amish “yellow topper”
The Big Valley is home to a dozen different Amish and Mennonite groups ranging from the most conservative Amish sects to the most liberal Mennonites. All trace their orgins back to 1791 when a few Amish families moved from Lancaster County to start farms in Mifflin County. For over fifty years they prospered, dividing into additional districts because of their growth in numbers before disagreements began dividing them into sects. Amish Life in the Big Valley appears much as it did a couple hundred years ago, still unspoiled by tourism. Our car followed buggies with canvas tops color-keyed to different groups. We noticed differences in women’s bonnets, the color of clothing hanging out to dry, and the modernity of farm equipment. Tractor and buggy tires, house decor, hair length, and whether or not men can wear suspenders (and the number!) are other distinguishing marks among the sects.
Old School Amish buggy
Nebraska Amish family buggy

Our search in the Belleville area for a good Mennonite restaurant we’d read about was in vain and eventually we learned it had burned down two years ago. Locals pointed us instead to home cooking at the Honey Creek Inn, named for a tributary of the Quisacoquillas Creek. In the meantime we found our first stop on the Susquehanna Heartland Wine Trail. Jay and I were on the trail of Pennsylvania Chambourcin, made from a grape variety that grows well in the state. The garnet colored wine is typically dry or semi-dry and aromatic with herb and fruit flavors and an excellent structure, a good food wine. We came to appreciate Chambourcin (sham-boar-san) after tasting a bottle from Brookmere Winery several years ago. Brookmere Chambourcin is semi-dry and we have since grown to like dryer wines, but still wanted to visit the winery, try one of the Chambourcin blends, and take home a few beautifully-labeled bottles. I regret not taking a photograph of the picturesque old inn and the vineyards.

Arrival at wine tasting room
At Seven Mountains Wine Cellars
After lunch we traveled (north)west on US 322 a few miles and turned off onto a deteriorating macadam road that led up through the woods to Seven Mountains Wine Cellars. Owner Mary Ann Bubbs accepted our greetings from wine critic Dave Falchek, served us samples, and told us background stories for some of their wines. Seven Mountains purchases California and Pennsylvania grapes in order to make their very good wine. Their Chambourcin, called Rattlehead Red, is dry and delicious.

Shadows were getting long as we drove back down the mountain. I will point out here that Jay and I had been sharing the same tasting glasses so we weren’t in danger of losing our bearings before finishing our tour. As we headed toward State College for the next winery on our itinerary, we encountered a detour necessitated by, we learned later, a serious accident. Making little progress on a narrow gravel road between corn fields, we changed plans and directions. Thus we reached Milheim before the Shade Mountain wine shop closed. Well over a year ago we visited Shade Mountain Winery, which grows all its own grapes near Middleburg. Most of the bottles of Chambourcin we purchased were given away as gifts, and the few we kept for ourselves, plus the bottles of award-wining Lemberger and Shades Hill Reisling are gone.

Before leaving Milheim we added a few bottles to the trunk of our car and strolled Main Street. Horses pulling buggies with families or young Amish men clip-clopped into town. A young man jumped down from the passenger seat of a black buggy and a young woman (the driver’s sister or?) took his place. It was a Friday evening full of promise for young couples and for us, too. We looked forward to seeing more buggies and beautiful farmland before sundown and the I-80 on-ramp, imagining as we drove what tableware we’ll create with the glass in the back seat and dinners we’ll serve with Pennsylvania wine.