by: Maureen Manning
Nestled in a valley in the southern part of Somerset County lies a hidden gem. It’s a Shangri-La for the thousands that come to spend one week every summer, year after year, and for many families generation after generation, but unknown to many residents of Somerset County.
Wind your way down from Pennsylvania’s highest point at Mt. Davis, west through woods dense with evergreens, dramatic limestone outcrops, and an abundance of Mountain Laurel to the stone gates of Deer Valley YMCA Camp.
The YMCA of Pittsburgh runs this popular and successful summer family camp and year -round educational and recreational retreat. Originally the campers were all from the Pittsburgh area. Now, 56 years later they travel from more than 30 states to spend one week basking in Mother Nature’s glorious splendor at Deer Valley.
The land on which Deer Valley sits was granted to the family of John Peck about the time of the Revolutionary War. Much of the land was cleared and farmed. Howard G. Peck bought the farm from his uncle Jacob W. Peck in 1906. He then operated one of the largest farms in Somerset County for 30 years, specializing in breeding pureblood Shorthorn cattle and Shropshire sheep. One of the first Pennsylvania fish propagating projects took place on his farm. Peck started the trout fish hatchery in a stream near his home, drawing residents from all over the state to see it. While a small part of the land continues to be farmed by the Peck family, the site on which Deer Valley sits has long been recognized for its potential for recreation and rejuvenation.
Back in 1931 Curtis Howe Springer optioned 2000 acres of land from Peck to create the Maple Glen Haven of Rest, a sanitarium and health resort. According to the June 1, 1931 issue of the Meyersdale Republican, Springer planned to erect “cottages for health seekers, a health school, golf links, lakes, trout ponds, a rifle range, bridle paths and free health lectures.” Springer, originally from Alabama, was led to the area by his wife, Mary Louise Berkebile of Somerset. Doctor Springer, as he referred to himself, falsely claimed to be a medical doctor. He was actually an evangelical preacher who was widely known for giving health lectures that were carried on radio stations across the country and syndicated for publication in magazines and newspapers. He also created a line of health bread and other products that were sold throughout Pennsylvania. The proceeds from those endeavors provided the funding for his resort development.
During this time of Great Depression, the building work was quite welcome. In May of 1933 the Meyersdale Republican reported: “Work was begun on Dr. Springer’s project last summer and has gone steadily forward ever since, giving steady employment to practically all of the able-bodied men of Maple Glen during the worst period of depression and unemployment this country has ever known. As a consequence of this employment and the Springer activities, the Maple Glen community is the most prosperous rural community in Somerset County at the present time.”
A log and stone house for use by Springer’s family was built as well as a number of cabins for visitors to the health camp. Many acres of land were cleared and a small lake formed by restoring an old mill dam. A cement swimming pool was built that attracted use from residents as far away as Meyersdale (12 miles to the east). Other developments included an 1800 by 40 foot rabbit house to raise white, pink-eyed New Zealand rabbits, which Springer planned to breed then slaughter in order to sell the fur and can and sell the rabbit meat.
In late May of 1933 Springer presented his development plans to a record large audience at a Meyersdale Chamber of Commerce meeting. He told the audience that he was not a rich man and usually had only enough money to pay current bills but that his business income seemed to be increasing and would be sufficient to complete his development. According to the Meyersdale Republican, “He held the audience spellbound with his narration…and the glittering promises of the great things to be.”
Those promises proved to be empty ones. In January 1937, Springer lost the property for non-payment of taxes and Howard Peck regained the land.
The vision for a recreational use of the land remained though. Less than a year later, former Meyersdale CCC camp director Captain Golon Harris leased 700 acres of land from Peck with plans to convert it into a winter sports resort and boys summer camp. The property already contained eight heavy log and stone cabins with stone fireplaces, oil stoves and running water from Springer’s development as well as the swimming pool and lake, reported the Meyersdale Republican. The newspaper referred to the site as the “Deer Valley development” during this time. It’s unclear who originated the name.
In December 1937, Deer Valley Park opened with three ski trails, a toboggan run and two ski jumps as well as a skating rink and sleigh rides. The large concrete block building made to house rabbits now served as a ski lodge, serving lunches and warming chilled frolickers.
The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad promoted Meyersdale and Harris’ winter sports resort to residents of Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Washington DC. Executives from the railroad proclaimed Meyersdale “an ideal location, with the most favorable possibilities along their entire line, for the development of a winter and summer recreational resort.” The land elevation and bowl-like formation of Deer Valley provided perfect conditions for a winter sports resort. “They are confident that this area will become nationally famous as a winter playground,” reported the Meyersdale Republican. Special one-day B & O Sunday Snow Trains would take visitors from Baltimore, DC, or Pittsburgh to the Meyersdale depot where they would be transported by bus to Deer Valley and back – all for $3.50.
(One of the biggest obstacles to the success of the winter resort appeared to be lack of overnight accommodations. The New Colonial Hotel in Meyersdale could only accommodate so many. The Meyersdale Republican repeatedly urged residents to get involved in the tourism efforts by renting out rooms. The following is one of the questionably enticing arguments given residents: “Among the persons requesting reservations are statesmen, ambassadors and other distinguished executives from the Nation’s Capital. All of the persons who have visited here in the interest of winter sports are of the high type that anyone could take into their home. Although many of these persons are accustomed to the best there is in home facilities, they appreciate an opportunity to get away from it all and enjoy the comforts and courtesies afforded in the homes of the “common people.” )
As with Springer’s resort plans, there was local excitement and hope that this development would bring prosperity to the area especially since the lumber and coal industries were no longer as lucrative.
January 20, 1938 marked Deer Valley Park’s opening. One hundred and ninety people had made reservations. Newspapers in the region reported a six to eight inch snowfall and the masses came to check out the new resort – an estimated 1,500 people showed up. (Eight hundred to 1,000 cars came from Maryland, West Virginia, Ohio and the District of Columbia, many unaccustomed to traveling the snow covered mountain roads came without chains on their tires. Needless to say, cars got stranded in every direction. Plans called for the Highway Patrol to monitor the roads in the future and only let those with chains enter the area.)
Less than six months later, Harris took a federal job in Washington, DC which required him to travel extensively in the summer months. He planned to hire a supervisor to look after the property and make improvements for the following winter season. The development of the summer boys camp was postponed for the year, citing local road construction that would inconvenience visitors.
The winter resort continued under the direction of Harris for another year with continued promotion by the B & O Railroad but by the winter of 1940 Howard Peck was running Deer Valley.
It’s unknown what happened with Harris’ involvement with the property and subsequently, what happened to the winter resort under Peck’s supervision. The Meyersdale Republican mentions warmer winters in 1937 and ’38 and articles also point to the lack of engagement from the Meyersdale community in supporting tourists. The US entry into World War II a couple of years later and increased competition from other ski sites, such as Laurel Mountain certainly could not have helped. Whatever the reasons for the snow resort’s decline, the site never lost it’s appeal as a recreational getaway.
A trio of men from Meyersdale bought the property from Peck in 1946 with aspirations of creating a lakeside resort of summer cottages and a fishermen’s paradise. They built a dam and cleared land to create a larger lake and stocked it with bass and blue gill. Although they rented one of the cabins for $100 for a year; the rest sat empty. Owner O.G. Getty said they didn’t have the finances to develop it like they had hoped.
While previous attempts to create resorts at Deer Valley were failures, they served as stepping stones for the site’s eventual success as a large-scale, year-round resort. In 1953 the YMCA of Pittsburgh bought the property. Immediately upon purchase, renovations began to the decaying lodge and the two other log and stone buildings that were still standing from the Springer years.
The lake was drained in order to clear brush and stumps to allow for easier and safer swimming, fishing and boating. The spillway of the dam was raised almost two feet to increase the lake size from about 80 to 110 acres.
Deer Valley began hosting teenage boys in a primitive summer camp setting two years later, augmenting the other camps around Pittsburgh that they already ran. They envisioned a thousand boys coming to camp every summer, but then plans changed slightly.
For about a decade and a half, the Pittsburgh YMCA had been running a family camp at Camp Laurel Ridge in Trent but were constrained in developing the facilities there. The Deer Valley site provided the desired room for growth. Eighteen cabins and a wash house were built and the camp opened for family camping in the summer of 1957.
Since then the number of summer campers has tripled, year-round use of the camp has quadrupled, and many newer, more modern cabins and buildings have been added. Springer’s original stone and log buildings stand among them. The 95% of campers that return each summer will attest that Springer’s idea that “plenty of good food, fresh air and clean invigorating exercise will restore health and happiness” also still stands.