Retired history teacher has big dreams for the village of Yellow Dog
When Joseph Meyer first saw the vacant, overgrown village of Yellow Dog, he looked past the smashed windows and sagging porches and was inspired.
Then he bought it — all of it — 16 structures, including duplexes, a three-storied managers’ house and boarding house.
“I found it for sale online and was enthralled with the possibility of saving the village and making it a place where people could come and spend a week in the past,” Meyer said. “After I saw the village, I was in love, and it was easy.”
The retired history teacher from Lebanon County has been living in the former limestone mining town just outside of Worthington in West Franklin Township since early this year. He bought it in late December for $222,000 on behalf of Bison Holdings of Delaware.
Meyer hopes his vision for Yellow Dog becoming a heritage and craft-centered educational village will catch on. He wants five or six craftsmen to come and stay and pass on their knowledge to those interested in learning. He also hopes to spark support for the project and garner financial backing with a goal of raising at least $100,000.
Some of the traditional crafts and skills Meyer plans to offer include sustainable housing construction, traditional farming and gardening, horsemanship, blacksmithing, carpentry, open hearth cooking and baking, folk medicine, early pottery methods, folk music and glass blowing.
On a recent morning, Meyer walked past a line of empty mailboxes that mark the entrance to the village overlooking Buffalo Creek. He smiled easily, frequently lifting a hand in response to a greeting shouted by a passing neighbor or truck driver.
“There is a strong connection in this community and we want to preserve it,” Meyer said.
When he first arrived, the weeds surrounding the homes were shoulder high. He got some help this summer clearing away the scrub and removing old tires. Horses belonging to his college-aged daughter did their part, too, by grazing on the encroaching grass and hay.
Several of the horses gazed at him from their paddock as he made his way along a silent, shady street to a green-sided duplex. He was accompanied by his beagle, Bo. Together they walked through the living room with its peeling paint and sagging curtains. Meyer pointed out the home’s sturdy built-in cabinets and solid structure.
“Five houses need roofs, 300 windows need to be fixed but this is all salvageable. These houses are well-constructed and in better shape than some of the houses in town,” he said. “What we really need is financing. If we can get that piece of the puzzle, we can be up in running in six weeks.”
The idea is to provide craftsmen with a liveable residence, equipped with electricity, internet service and a place to work and teach their craft.
“This is for any traditional craftsmen who is retired or in a transitional point in their life who is willing to relocate,” Meyer said. “But they have to be willing to live rough at first and haul their own water.”
The remaining houses are planned for renovation and will provide temporary, seasonal accommodation for visitors and students.
Each visitor guest house will be furnished in early 20th Century style and will run on battery-operated lights. Those houses will be equipped with an icebox, dry sink, washtub and clothes line. Water used for washing must be hauled from a nearby spring and bottled water will be supplied by the village, Meyer said.
“This is for people interested in going off-grid and learning a craft and the traditions of the past,” he said. “It would be good for families to experience that.”
According to Armstrong County historical records, Yellow Dog was built in the early 20th Century by the Pittsburgh Limestone Mining Co., which owned and operated the mine along Buffalo Creek. A nearby railroad transported the crushed stone and lime to feed the steel and construction industries.
The company built the village for its workers under a condition: Workers had to promise never to unionize. That agreement is what lies behind the village name.
“Yellow Dog was a political term meaning ‘anti-union’,” Meyer said.
After the company went bankrupt during the Great Depression, the village was bought and sold many times and underwent name changes. In recent years it was renamed Shady Side Village and later, MAK Square, before coming full circle back to the name it never really lost: Yellow Dog.
Yellow Dog memories
Bill Hodak has fond memories of growing up in the old mining village. He recalls being a young kid living for a time in the old boarding house.
“It was a beautiful town at one time,” he said.
It was the kind of place, he said, where folks left their homes unlocked and where kids played outside, skating on the frozen creek in the winter and playing baseball in the summer with taped-up bats that had been discarded by the Worthington ball team.
“The biggest problem for our mothers was calling us in to come eat,” Hodak said.
After serving in the military, Hodak returned to the village where his dad and uncle were still living. Now he lives in Worthington, is the chairman of the Worthington-West Franklin Joint Parks and Recreation Authority and owns a business in Kittanning.
There was a time, about 30 years back, when Hodak thought about buying the village. But the amount of work needed to make all the repairs eventually dissuaded him.
“It was one of the hardest decisions of my life,” he said.
Several months ago, he met up with Meyer and heard about the plans for Yellow Dog.
“I hope he does well,” Hodak said. “But it’s going to take a lot of hard work.”
When Brent Bowser, vice chairman of the West Franklin Board of Supervisors, heard about what Meyer’s was trying to do, he was happy.
Before Meyer had moved in, there had been incidents at the vacant village with squatters and illicit drug users.
“I’m glad someone’s doing something about it (Yellow Dog),” Bowser said. “It was a real eyesore.”
Kevin Andrews, Director of the Armstrong County Tourist Bureau, said he is intrigued by Meyer’s plan and believes he is on to something.
“It’s a really good concept,” Andrews said. “I think it would be great for the area. An entire village would be a great stop for groups or tours coming into the county. There’s a lot we can do for him and a lot he can do for us. It’s a win, win situation.”
Brigid Beatty is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-543-1303 or [email protected].