Field Notes: Grounded in Local History

The sting of the frigid late October creek water begins to subside as I sit on the rock dabbing the remaining water from my legs. I find myself getting all pensive as I put on my socks and lace my boots; history does that to me. I share a smile with my daughter, who accompanies me, as we realize that no one fell in during our wading. Boots on, we start downstream along the eastern bank as the rattling of a noisy belted kingfisher is coming upstream. This is Buffalo Creek, my home watershed in southeastern Butler County. We have come to this particular spot to delve into its past, which at times helps me with my 21st century perspective.


It is not very far along the bank before I pause again and fall into a mini-lecture about how Dr. Arnold E. Ortmann in May 1910 discovered the clubshell mussel here in the creek at this place called “Harbison.” I note that the clubshell has now declined to a mere 5 percent of its original worldwide range and population and therefore is officially listed as an endangered species. The missing 95 percent appears to include Buffalo Creek, as I have looked here and elsewhere in the watershed on several occasions. All evidence left now are Ortmann’s 1910 shells in safe keeping at Carnegie Museum of Natural History, with labels that denote this particular spot. I wonder if Dr. Ortmann enjoyed this remote place while he was here, with its steep moist wildflower hillsides and the gurgling riffle of the Big Buffalo.

Strangely, Ortmann described Buffalo Creek in his 1909 publication as with “… an abundance of life,” and in the same article he called the beloved Clarion River “… one of the worst streams in the state” and he reports no life from it. Today, at least the middle Clarion has recovered over time and is rich with aquatic life (WPC and Carnegie studied diverse dragonflies there in 1993), while my Buffalo Creek has degraded some, as indicated by species now missing. But we have come here to visit the remnants of an even older time.

Pushing through the undergrowth back in the floodplain, eventually we can see a trench of sorts running parallel to the creek. Following it, we are soon standing at the corner of an old foundation, 8-feet high and built of hand cut sandstone blocks. Now a very old black cherry is perched at one of its corners. The Harbison family was one of the first of the European settlers to venture into this region in the late 1700s and the history books tell us that they built this mill in 1807.

Standing inside the ruins now, I brush fallen leaves off of a section of heavily rusted iron gear and feel its surprising weight. I imagine for a moment the sights and sounds of creek water flowing into the mill, driving a crude turbine and powering the gear to spin stones grinding grain at this time of year. Sacks of flour are being loaded into a wagon as a cougar screams in the distance; the mill workers pause and look up.

Panning around I now see how Mother Nature has treated the mill. It still stands and the lichen encrusted walls are mostly in true lines, even if occasional Christmas ferns protrude from the joints between the big stones. I photograph one of the ferns as a memento.

As we wade back across Buffalo Creek, trying not to fall in, my mind comes back to frigid water and the present, but with perspective of the past.

Charles Bier is the senior conservation scientist for the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy.