December 9, 2010 Written by: William L. Passauer
it like to actually grow up as a child on River Ridge Farm? Read the story
of one that did, Jack Beebe.
The following historical narrative was written following several interviews with Jack Beebe, one of only three known living individuals that resided on River Ridge Farm during the Sibley era. His story provides us with a very special perspective, that of a child growing up on the farm from infancy until he reached his 20th birthday. Many thanks go to Dave Anderton and Grant Carner for placing me in contact with Jack.
Jack Beebe was born in 1928 in what use to be the original Office building of River Ridge Farm. He was born two years after the farm’s owner, Congressman Joseph Sibley, passed away, living on River Ridge Farm during a 20 year span when Joseph Sibley’s two daughters, Josephine and Celia Mary Sibley owned the farm.
Jack’s dad, William Winfield Beebe was the “Farm Boss” as Jack called him. In fact, William was the second and last farm manager, having taken the place of John Hanna, the original farm manager, after his death. At that time, Jack’s family was offered the home of John Hanna to live in, but his mother turned it down telling her husband William that she didn’t want to take care of a much larger home having 13 rooms. The Beebe family continued to live in the “Office” home for the duration of their stay. Jack said that because their home was originally an office, all of the rooms were very large--large enough to hold a square dance. The home had 2 rooms and a powder room down stairs (living room and kitchen) and 3 bedrooms and a bath upstairs. In the middle of the kitchen was a large table. Jack said that on many occasions, if someone would drop by during dinner, the family would just move to the side and add another chair for the guy or gal to join them for dinner. Jack said it was the norm for people just to drop in unannounced. Everyone did it.
The “office” structure was one of many wooden frame buildings found on the farm. Most of them were built to house the many workers and their families that lived on the farm. Another of these structures was the spring house. It was built over a spring found on the farm and used by the mansion and the other families to chill their milk, meat, etc. before refrigeration became available. The spring house basement was divided into sections where the people could place their items in the chilled spring water.
Jack told me that these wooden structures survived until the Hammermill Paper Company purchased 940 acres of the land around 1958. At that time, the company tore down all of the wooden structures, leaving only the stone and brick buildings, he believes, because they made a decision not to rent the homes and didn’t want to pay the property taxes. The Hammermill company cut down all the trees decimating the land for years.
Jack told me that while the mansion was being built during 1913, Joseph Sibley and his first wife, Metta Evalina Babcock lived in the stone home located behind and slightly to the left (at a distance) to their “Office” building home.
The farm had two telephone systems. The first provided by the local telephone company ran like this. Everyone was on a party line. If you wanted to make a call, you simply lifted the receiver and an operator asked you what number you wished to call. If you wanted to call the mansion, their phone number was “1”. Jack said their family phone number was “119”. In addition to the regular phone system, the farm also had their own phone system that connected most of the buildings. One of the original farm phones may still be seen in the mansion.
When the depression came and went, those that lived on the farm never felt its effects because of the generosity of Joseph Sibley’s two daughters. The families who lived on the farm were provided with free water and sewage. The families were even provided with free toilet paper. This was to ensure that the Sears & Roebuck catalog pages would not be used that might clog up the farm’s sewer system. The families could also purchase for a pittance, as Jack says, all of the dairy products, eggs, meat and vegetables that were produced on the farm. In addition to that, each family could grow their own garden plot. Coal was the heat source of the day and cost $5.00 per ton, quite expensive for the day.
The children who lived on the farm were allowed to start working for money on the farm at ages 12-13. At age 12, Jack began to mow the farm lawns, of which he said there were many. At age 14, he began work in the dairy barn becoming responsible for milking 9 cows both morning and evening. Then from the ages of 14 thru 17 he worked as a field hand on the farm, driving tractor, planting and bringing in the hay. Jack also had chauffeur duties on Thursdays when the maids, cooks, and apparently the regular chauffeur, Mr. Mitchell had the day off. On Thursdays, Jack would drive Josephine, her husband Bill Heathcote, and others that were visiting, to the Franklin Exchange Hotel to eat in their large dining room while Jack remained in the car. On the way home, Jack would drive the car around the block to the Mackey home where the ladies would go in to visit. Jack and Bill Heathcote would normally wait in the car. On the occasion when Bill, a smoker, would go in the house, Jack would see the windows fly open to get rid of the smoke. After age 17, Jack discontinued working on the farm, choosing instead to work at a local car parts dealer because the money was better.
Christmas was a very special time on the farm. In addition to the horse drawn sleighs, the special private parties held by the Sibleys and the many parties held among the workers families, there was always a very special children’s event sponsored by the Sibleys. Everyone would gather in the top floor of the blacksmith shop (I imagine because of the heat from the blacksmith’s fire). There you find a stage for the children to perform one of their special annual plays. One favorite was the “The Christmas Carol” or “Scrooge” as the children called it. During the party the children would all be given a special, top of the line toy such as an expensive baseball glove or doll. Then, everyone on the farm would be given $1.00 from the Sibleys. While a $1.00 bill doesn’t seem like much today, back in those days it was almost equal to a day’s wages. Church was also held in the top floor of the blacksmith shop on Sundays.
Jack told me that he was able to accompany his father into the mansion on many occasions. Of these many trips there were three things that really stick out in his mind: 1) The North tower had an elevator. In the back of this elevator was a mural painting of a tiger. Jack told me that whenever he and his father rode this elevator he held his father’s hand to ensure the tiger didn’t attack. 2) Another special memory of the mansion was the mansion’s basement. Mr. Sibley had taken one of the large rooms and turned it into a German Rathskeller (A German bar found below street level). Here could be found many genuine German beer steins lined up on shelves and large pitchers used for the serving of lots of beer. There were also rough chiseled wooden tables and benches going down through the center of the room. You can just imaging the rowdy times that Joseph Sibley had with his friends here. 3) When Jack would accompany his father to the mansion on Sundays, William would inspect the mansion’s coal furnace that produced hot water or steam heat for the Sibley family. While there, William would fill the stoker with gravel sized pieces of coal that would be automatically fed to the furnace as needed. While other individuals managed the coal furnace during the week, William made the decision to give the regular men a break and do it himself on Sundays.
Jack with his mother and dad left the farm Nov. 1948 when Sibley’s oldest daughter, Josephine sold the farm to the White Fathers. Jack’s dad, William decided that he didn’t want to work for the White Fathers, so he moved his family to Reno, Pennsylvania. Jack was 20 years old at the time. William went to work for Joy Manufacturing.
Jack told me that the River Ridge Farm was a truly wonderful place to grow up.
After leaving the farm, Jack fought in the Korean War until 1952, eventually purchasing the Franklin Western Auto Store and continues to live in the Oil City area in 2010.
A few side notes:
When Joseph Sibley was still alive, he would occasionally roll fruit (cantaloupe, grapefruit, etc.) down the mansion lawn to the eagerly waiting children at the bottom.
The mansion library, in addition to storing many books, also contained a billiard table and many animal heads such as deer, elk and buffalo.
During Sibley’s “Farmers Day,” to ensure that everyone made it home alright, Sibley provided everyone with a full tank of gasoline before leaving the farm.
The farm had an electric driven irrigation pump that provided water to the greenhouse, and truck gardens (a farm where vegetables are grown for market) that grew strawberries, cantaloupes, sweet corn, etc.
A gentleman by the name of B. G. Harrington use to be Mr. Sibley’s valet. He did such a wonderful job that eventually Mr. Sibley made him the secretary/treasurer of the farm.
When I was telling Jack about the tomb stone found on the farm that belongs to Mary Sibley, he told me that he believes there are 3 workers buried somewhere on the farm. While he knows about where they are buried, because there were never any burial markers, the graves could probably never be found. He also is not sure if the men buried were workers that lived on the farm or were temporary migrant workers.
When Josephine Sibley Heathcote (Joseph Sibley’s oldest daughter) passed away in 1951, Jack believes that her net worth was 85 million dollars.
Jack told me that work was still going on with some of the stone planters, etc. when the word came to stop work (that the stone work on the farm was completed). As a result, in one section of the woods can be found completed and partially completed stone planters and other unfinished stone work.