BUTLER COUNTY, Pa. -- One way you could describe Butler County is "just north of Pittsburgh," but that really doesn't do it justice. It's an area packed with experiences that make it treasure trove of One Tank Trips ready to be explored.
After a recent whirlwind tour, I would suggest you focus on one of these places, or work a few into a weekend. Either way, it will be a unique journey into Pennsylvania.
*Zelienople and Historic Harmony: One town or two? Hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. We began at Baldinger's (www.baldingerscandy.com) on Route 19 in Zelienople. Betty Szabo runs the market. She will proudly tell you she is 81 and has worked at Baldinger's since 1933.
The store relocated in 2008 and may have lost some of its period "aura," but it is still worth a visit. Grab a basket and fill it with treats like candy cigarettes, Razzle's, Laffy Taffy (banana!) and the like. Give the kids a buck to keep busy at the penny candy table while you peruse oddball cookie cutters. In the end, your stash is dumped into a cake pan and tallied by hand. The youngsters can see how math is really done.
Over the hill is the Harmony Museum (www.harmonymuseum.org; 724-452-7341), a collection of buildings that resembles a charming European village -- with good reason. The buildings are the work of "Harmonists" (Lutheran Separatists) who emigrated from Germany in the early 1800s. Their population reached 850, but the adoption of celibacy led, inevitably, to their demise. Believing they weren't long for this world, they saw no need to reproduce.
It makes for an interesting tour, as in the interim, the society prospered, erecting a total of 130 buildings for the community including a church, school, warehouse, gristmills and businesses. Oddly, the Harmonists decided at one point to move to Indiana (then eventually back to New Economy, Pa.). In the meantime, Mennonites purchased the settlement.
The museum pulls all the history together. Three highlights here are a huge wine cellar, a stunning hand-drawn family tree of Abraham Ziegler (a Mennonite) that spans more than six feet wide with hundreds of teeny-tiny names making up its branches, and a picture of one imposing looking Gertrude Fiedler Ziegler drawn by her daughter Melissa. You'll swear it's a photograph.
A map helps when touring the other buildings. Don't miss the Harmonists' cemetery, with the revolving stone gate that symbolizes the leaving of one world for another. Although it weighs a ton, you can push it open and step into the oddest cemetery you'll ever see. No headstones, just grass.
On Nov. 14 and 15, the museum hosts its Historic German Christmas Market (WeihnachtMarkt).
The town of Harmony is darling. We made three stops near the main museum building: The Exchange at Harmony, a home decor and antique shop; the Bottlebrush Gallery, a fantastic collection of Western Pennsylvania artisans' works (www.bottlebrushgallery.com); and the supposedly haunted Harmony Inn restaurant for a delicious lunch (www.historicharmonyinn.com).
*More to check out: Shopping at the Harmony Museum Shop and in Zelienople, the Silversmith Shop, Andrea's Country Shop and Room to Grow.
*Along Route 19: Heading north from Zelienople and Harmony toward Portersville, drive up Route 19 for more shopping at antique shops (Sally's Cider Press Antiques looked promising) plus some unusual places, like the Appalachian Rock Shop and Jewelry Emporium (www.appalachianrockshop.com) with its odd assortment of crystals, fine jewelry and stone dishware. The weird fish and insect fossils will be a hit with the kids.
Off the beaten path (onto Route 8), we visited the Playthings Etc. Toy Store (www.playthings-etc.com), a giant silver, spaceship-looking building that bills itself as the "world's coolest toy store." With things like the "Airzooka" -- a toy that shoots a ball of air at the recipient -- it is really cool.
Also along Route 19, you'll find Nicolette's Tailor and Gift Shop (www.nicolettesshop.com), the Porter House Brew Shop (www.porterhousebrewshop.com) and dining at the historic Log Cabin Inn (724-452-4155).
*Outdoor adventures: If museums and shopping aren't your thing, head to Moraine State Park and the nearby Jennings Environmental Education Center (off Routes 422 and 528) to see a rare relic prairie ecosystem (home to the endangered Massasauga rattlesnake).
Moraine offers a variety of distractions around the sparkling, man-made Lake Arthur. Reclaimed from a coal mining, oil and gas operation, the park is stunning, with plenty to keep you occupied all day.
One option is to rent bicycles (or bring your own) for a ride along a seven-mile paved path. There also is a six-mile expert mountain bike trail, along with hiking trails, an 18-hole disc golf course and picnic areas. Park and cabin information and other help can be found at the park office near the South Shore entrance. It is open year-round, Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., and on weekends in the summer.
To truly experience the lake, rent a rowboat, kayak, canoe or paddleboat at Crescent Bay on the South Shore of the park (www.moraineboatrentals.com; 724-368-9955). For those less energetic, a cruise aboard the Nautical Nature, an enclosed pontoon, might work. Reservations are recommended. The boat leaves the McDaniel's boat launch and is handicap accessible. Proceeds benefit the Moraine Preservation Fund (www.morainepreservationfund.com; 724-368-9185).
At the nearby Jennings Environmental Center, there are several woodland hiking trails, or you can take mowed prairie trails to learn about this unusual Eastern natural occurrence. During the summer, the prairie is in full bloom with the purple Blazing Star wildflower. As for that Massasauga rattlesnake, he's pretty timid, but stay on the path to avoid any chance encounters with this venomous creature.
>A long day, a cold beer
If you are exhausted and starving (and even a little dirty) head to Slippery Rock and the North Country Brewing Company (141 Main St.; www.northcountrybrewing.com), a funky place in a college town. Owned by Bob McCafferty, the business is working toward being self-sustaining. We sat out back at long picnic tables under a tent, near a huge stone fireplace.
There's a huge composting effort going on here. Vegetable scraps are turned into fertilizer used on the garden for the restaurant. A farm has been purchased for raising beef cattle, and currently, all the grains from brewing are given to local farmers to feed their cows. McCafferty also has started a student scholarship at Slippery Rock University.
Since I am not a huge beer fan, the waiter helped with my selection (a Station 33 Firehouse with proceeds benefiting the Slippery Rock Fire Department). Maybe it was the great outdoors, but that cold beer tasted fantastic with the Pub Pretzels. Served warm, they came with cheese and Spicy Black Bear mustard. Heaven!
Following a scrumptious salad we dove into cherry barbecued pork chops, garlic mashed potatoes and homegrown green beans from an Amish farm.
Full, tired and happy, we headed home, Butler County having done and excellent job of entertaining us for the day.
If you go:
To get to Zelienople/Harmony, take New York State Thruway (Interstate 90) West, then Interstate 79 South to the town exit (about 3 1/2 hours). The Harmony Museum is open daily from noon to 4 p.m. for guided tours, Sundays 1 to 4 p.m. Closed Mondays.
For information on Butler County, go to www.visitbutlercounty.com or call (866) 856-8444.
For Moraine State Park and Jennings Environmental Education Center information, visit www.dcnr.state.pa.us/stateparks or call 888-PA-PARKS.
Places to stay: Slippery Rock: The Applebutter Inn, 724-794-1844, applebutterinnpa.com; McMurray House Bed and Breakfast, 724-794-8188, mcmurrayhouse.com.
Zelienople: The Eppinger House, 724-473-8310, theeppingerhouse.com
Butler: The Fairfield Inn & Suites, 724-283-0009.