Pennsylvania’s tiny boroughs find ways to persevere
By Jill M. Ercolino Senior Editor/Writer
A slice of Americana
Finding these tiny boroughs isn’t easy. Spotty broadband coverage in Pennsylvania’s rural reaches means navigation devices and apps will only get travelers so far.
But once visitors arrive, after consulting a map once or twice and meandering Pennsylvania’s back roads through groves of trees and past acres of farmland and the occasional red barn, there are payoffs.
In Indiana County’s Smicksburg, it’s the fudge.
“One man proposed to me because he loved it so much,” says Mary Lou Rolls, a member of REA Energy Cooperative who makes fresh batches of the creamy treat all day long at The Country Cupboard.
This gift shop is one of a handful of businesses along East Kittaning Street, the borough’s main thoroughfare. Several other stores specializing in furniture, locally made pottery and wine, antiques and crafts dot the town’s perimeter.
On the list of tiny boroughs, Smicksburg is among the tiniest, ranking No. 7 behind places like No. 1 Centralia in Columbia County, which has 13 residents despite an underground fire that’s been burning since 1962, and No. 5 Green Hills in Washington County, which has 28.
Generations of families have called it home.
“Half the town is related in one way or another, I guess” Mayor Dave Stiteler says.
While many small communities go unnoticed – they’re faceless towns road-trippers pass by on the way to other places – Smicksburg is a destination, put on the map by the Smicksburg Business Co-op.
The group of mostly locals uses grants to market the borough’s idyllic small-town charm and host seasonal festivals – billed as slices of Americana – that draw thousands of visitors each year. The Old Order Amish families, who have built homesteads on Smicksburg’s outskirts, are another attraction, and the clip-clop of their horse-drawn buggies along local streets is a familiar sound.
“People will hear that,” Rolls says, “and run to the door to see the Amish pass by.”
The shopkeeper has been working in Snicksburg for more than two decades and credits the business group, formed in the 90s, with creating an atmosphere that’s allowed a dozen or so small shops and the borough itself to survive. Niel Stiteler, whose family owns Smicksburg Furniture, has been over-seeing the Smicksburg Business Co-op for several years. Born and raised in the borough, he describes the group’s Economic development efforts as one hand helping the other.
“We’re a group of businesses supporting each other,” ‘Stiteler says, “and, in turn, we’re supporting the community.
Leaders from other small towns have reached out to the business owner, hoping to learn Smicksburg’s secret and mirror its success.
“You know what our secret is?” Stiteler asks. “We work together, and it’s paid off over the years. Everyone here is invested in the community. None of us want to see empty store fronts.
Borough tax collector and craftsman Nancy Smeltzer has lived in cities but chose to come back to tiny Smicksburg, where she spent time as a child, to open her business, Little Mahoning Creek Pottery. She calls the borough a “real special place.”
Dave Stiteler agrees: “We all just kind of pitch in.”