Restored Farmhouse Has Tales to Tell

2/15/2014 7:00 AM
By Tabitha Goodling Central Pa. Correspondent

PORT ROYAL, Pa. — A Juniata County, Pa., farm house is rich with history.

The home of Jim and Luella McLaughlin in Port Royal, Pa., has a link to settlers of the 1700s who fought Native Americans along the Tuscarora trail. The accompanying barn played a role in history too, when it was destroyed by arson 40 years ago.

The 132-acre farm was originally owned by a surveyor known as Robert Campbell. A survey dated as early as 1766 now resides in the McLaughlin home.

Two parts of the original farm house still exist. The cabin side of the farm house was built sometime in the 1760s, Jim McLaughlin estimates. John Peter Shitz (pronounced Sheetz) then owned the farm and built the stone part of the home in 1832. The farm was sold to the Varnes family in 1875.

“The Varnes family lived here for about 100 years,” Jim McLaughlin said, until he and Luella bought part of the farm in 1973.

Campbell owned much property in Juniata County, Jim McLaughlin said, and a farm that belonged to him in Port Royal was attacked by the Native Americans of that time.

The McLaughlin farm house has slots inside the walls where it is believed rifles could be slid through to protect the home from further Native American attacks.

A part of the cellar has a tunnel-like passage way just beyond one of the fireplaces.

“Why would they have whitewashed part of the stones?” Jim McLaughlin questioned, if not to use the passageway as a tunnel. It is not known for certain but he believes it could have been used for a hideaway from the Native Americans and/or as a part of the Underground Railroad.

Another mystery of the home was the repeated need to survey the land. Survey papers from 1821, 1838 and 1841 are in possession of the McLaughlins today.

“Somebody wasn’t agreeing with somebody,” Jim McLaughlin said.

The Varnes farmed the land as a dairy farm along with poultry and sheep as well as producing honey. George Varnes is thought to be the first man in all of Juniata County to sell alfalfa.

When Jim McLaughlin bought the farm in 1973, he bought only 20 acres with the homestead and barn and accompanying sheds. The remaining acres went to Tressler Lutheran Services and became the property that houses Locust Grove Retirement Village.

Jim and Luella McLaughlin (her maiden name was “Houtz”) both grew up on small dairy farms in Juniata County. They did some small hobby farming on the 20 acres early on and now only have hay bales for the purpose of feeding their grandchildren’s 4-H steer.

Jim McLaughlin was a milk tester for nine years with 26 herds in the county. He and Luella moved nine times before settling on the old farm house.

Originally the home was one that “nobody wanted,” he said.

“It was in bad shape,” he said. Jim McLaughlin and Luella’s father, Doran Houtz, did much of the remodeling work in the home. McLaughlin tore out walls and fixtures while Houtz replaced them.

Much was done to reveal the authenticity of the home.

“The old fire place was covered with drywall, and there were old ashes in a wheel barrel in the fireplace,” Jim McLaughlin recalled inside the cabin part of the house.

He noted the beauty of the old barn Jim Doran built in 1810.

“It had tremendous logs,” he said.

It took McLaughlin and Houtz 19 months to work on the home, which measured 50 feet by 25 feet with a second story and a 20-foot-by-30-foot addition.

During the course of those 19 months, the barn fell victim to arson along with two other barns in that part of Juniata County in the summer of 1974.

The barn was 84 feet long and 46 feet wide with a two-story straw shed attached that was 34 feet by 44 feet.

“(The arsonists) not only destroyed what we had, but they destroyed a part of history,” Jim McLaughlin said.

The fire-setters were never caught.

“We’re just fortunate we had our family,” he said of the time and that the home was not touched.

Jim McLaughlin and Doran Houtz managed to clean up after the fire and return to working on the house.

“The original building (of the house) was whitewash and blue paint,” he said, and it was not easily removed. Jim McLaughlin also noted it had tiled block ceiling that needed to be removed.

Four fireplaces exist in the home. Three are in the cabin portion of the home and one is in the newer, stone portion. All four have been used at times, including one in the couple’s bedroom, although now they depend on oil heat and no longer use the fireplaces. Their son, Steve, has built mantles on the fireplaces and they now serve as an area of décor.

There had been no doorway to walk between the cabin side of the house to the stone side until 1913. Jim McLaughlin built an additional entryway in the 1970s.

Inside the stone portion of the house is a painting the couple received as a housewarming gift. It shows the house and barn as it had appeared in the 1800s and was painted by Dennis Hutchings.

McLaughlin pointed out that the home located on Varnes Road in Port Royal was once considered part of the town of Farmdale. The tiny town, which no longer exists, had a blacksmith shop and a grocery store down the road from the historic farm.

“We tried to keep everything as historical as we could,” Luella McLaughlin said.

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