Where It All Began
When I was a little kid, I vaguely remember Grandpap Miller’s cabin in Tionesta, PA in Forest County. It was located in the Village of Star at the top of the mountain off German Hill Road, part of the Allegheny National Forest. The mountains there are part of the Appalachian Mountains that run from Canada to Georgia. These mountains were formed by glaciers millions of years ago and the rock formations in this area are just amazing — some of them are the size of homes! The Allegheny National Forest is just one of the most beautiful and serene places I know. This is where we learned to love the beauty of the outdoors.
My Dad had many hunting and fishing memories with his Dad there. Grandma Miller had found a couple of pictures of my Dad with my Grandpap — and I had those framed for him in the 1992 — they now hang in our cabin, also located in the Village of Star not far from this campsite. I still recall my Dad’s big grin around those pictures. He told us that he had just turned 12 years old and required a fishing license, but Grandpap Miller decided he could slide a couple of years — but he didn’t tell my Dad that. So, of course as fate would have it, the fish commission asked for their licenses on opening trout day, and Grandpap Miller said, “oh my son here is 11 years old.” And my Dad said very proudly, “no Dad, you know I just turned 12!” Dad laughed at that, remembering those days with his Dad.
I remember a few things about the cabin — the built in bunk beds, the smell of the blankets and the room that was covered in wood paneling with various deer horns on the walls. I remember the small kitchen area, oh and of course, the outhouse. That was new to us kids, and there were many reasons I didn’t like that — especially having to go outside in the cold and dark in the middle of the night. It really was a very tiny cabin, but it served its purpose. I know all of my cousins on the Miller side of the family would go there and enjoy it as well.
This was a place that you knew my Dad just loved, because he took 8 mm home movies of the cabin, the forest and the drive on Rt. 62 that meandered through Venango County — through Franklin, Oil City, then into Tionesta. He took movies of the wildlife, the fall leaves, boating on the Tionesta Lake, the deer he hunted and the fish he caught there.
My Grandpap Miller sold the cabin in 1984. My Dad used to drive up there all the time, and he missed it greatly (and he missed his Dad just as much). Sadly, a massive F4 tornado tore through western Pennsylvania on May 31, 1985 and the cabin was completely blown away. All that remained was the stone slab that the cabin was built on. That night would go down in infamy as there were dozens of tornado outbreaks in western PA (as well as Ohio and New York). There was even a reported F5 tornado on that fateful night that went just south of Farrell, PA. That was unheard of for western PA, because of our rolling hills of the Appalachian Mountains.
The tornado that hit Tionesta left a 50 mile wide path of destruction and completely leveled the lush landscape of Forest County, climbing those enormous mountains, up and over, like a lawn mower. Those mountains are what broke up the storm in the end — weakening the F4 until it just fizzled out, and poof, like that, it was gone! I remember that night like it was yesterday, and I still fear Spring storms with tornado watches. While we lived about 2 1/2 hours from Tionesta, the tornados were widespread and all over western PA and were in our area too. My brother, Bob, while he was away at college, had a weather alert radio that went off all night long, as Debbie, Tommy and I huddled in our basement waiting for our parents to get home, holding that radio in our hands — they were shopping in Ohio where all these tornadoes were originating! I had nightmares for weeks after this horrific night.
The cabin was gone. It broke my Dad’s heart, but was doubly difficult, because my Grandpap Miller passed away just one month before on April 24, 1985. In the late 1980’s my Dad purchased a piece of property in the same general area on Heath Lane, also in the Village of Star off of German Hill Road. Almost walking distance from the original campsite.
A Miller Family Project — 1994
My Dad took a couple of years planning and designing what would be our new cabin in Tionesta, PA. He decided it would be a family project, something we could all do together, be proud of and all enjoy for many years to come. I also believe that this labor of love was a tribute to his own Dad and a way for him to remember him and be close to him.
The piece of property he bought had a mobile home on it — this would be our temporary living quarters while we built the cabin. This home had been lifted into the air and dropped again during the tornado, so the plumbing had to be repaired (as the toilet was several feet off the floor, held up by piping that didn’t go back down when the mobile home was dropped. I couldn’t imagine it was livable — but we somehow we managed living there for a couple of years during the construction. We even slept six of us in that two-room mobile home. We made many trips to the mountains in the Spring of 1994, taking load after load of cement block that would be the foundation for the cabin. Each time staying in this crooked, broken and dilapidated home. After the work was done, Dad and I would take a drive around the area for the rest of the day. He would show me all the places his Dad used to take him.
He took me down Jug Handle Road, and I took pictures of him standing next to enormous rock formations — just such incredible scenery — untouched or spoiled by tourists or anyone, really. We drove through back country roads and tried to follow the path that the tornado took in 1985. We could see all the damage and the underbrush that was now about eight feet tall. We saw gigantic trees that were twisted like ice cream cones. We marveled at the beauty of it all as deep in these wooded areas you could find the most amazing wildflowers — white Trilliums, white wood Anenomes, yellow Buttercups, yellow Coltsfoot, pink Spring Beauty, purple Violets and dozens more. I used to collect them and then press them in a large wood press.
Sometimes Dad would take me other places, like Kinzua Dam, Tidioute or “Hearts Content” — a lookout with breathtaking views — I saw a porcupine there. We would travel to the Tionesta Lake, Tionesta Dam and stop at the Nebraska Bridge. Sometimes the Nebraska Bridge would be under water if there was a lot of snow that winter. We would get ice cream at the “Little Store” or fresh water from natural springs that ran through iron pipes. Dad liked to drive around and see what had changed, but not much ever really changed. I think he liked it that way.
We went up to the cabin every weekend in the Spring and early Summer of 1994. We were able to get the foundation dug by a backhoe, the cement blocks prepped (removed old cement from them as Dad was using recycled blocks that he got for free), the foundation in place, and the base/flooring of the cabin built before we all took our week’s vacation to build the majority of it. It would take us years to finish the cabin.
In July, we all took a week’s vacation from our jobs and met up at the cabin. Some of us spent two weeks there, but I could only take a week off. We worked from dusk until dawn building what is now our cabin. My Dad had masterminded the plans for the building and he acted as the foreman, instructing each of us as to what to do and showed us how to do it. My Mom, two brothers, sister, and myself built the cabin!!! Every once in a while we would have a guest helper — a friend of my Dad’s or a neighbor would make the trip to give us a hand. This was definitely not something I would ever volunteer for again in my life. But the memories of that week, spending it with my family and taking on this project was something I would never change.
That summer I learned how to use a circular saw, a table saw, and I could pound a nail into place with only three strikes of the hammer. My Dad had me cut all of the notches in the roofing frames, using a small electrical saw for precision. The roof took us more than half of the week to complete, because we made all of the frames by hand! And, with the assistance of both brothers and my Dad, we hoisted the 32, 300-pound ceiling frames into place, and I nailed the backside into the frame of the cabin. Tommy got the job of balancing on the scaffolding nailing in that side of the frame, while I got to stand on the secure flooring of the loft! Bob and Dad held the frames into place while we secured them. And not once did my Dad ever check our work and worry that we didn’t do it right — he trusted us and knew that we would do it as he showed us how to. And when darkness came at nine o’clock, Mom and Debbie had dinner ready by cooking over an open fire. We would be beyond exhausted!
But that didn’t stop Tommy and me from going night fishing. We would lather up with bug spray, take the lantern and head down the lake. We would have millions of mosquitos swarming our light, but not once did we get bit. We could have made a commercial for Off Bug Spray! And then we’d come back two hours later and crawl into bed, not even taking a shower. Honestly, I can’t imagine where my mind was at that time. I guess we were having such a good time that it really didn’t matter.
We spent the remainder of the summer going up to the cabin every weekend until we closed up the cabin for the Winter. Even my sister’s fiancé, Scott came up and helped put shingles on the roof one weekend. I remember one beautiful late Summer day when the sky was as blue as you can imagine, I was sitting on the roof, and I could see out over all of the trees, because they still were not taller than the cabin at that time (from the tornado). And, It was A M A Z I N G ! And while we worked hard when we there, we always found the time to sit back and enjoy the beauty around us.
That was the same weekend that Dad and I took a break and spread a blanket on the grass next to the cabin to relax for a bit. I remember clearly that I was eating Cheerios from the box with a glass of Coke. And Dad said to me, “I wish my Dad could see this,” and I looked at him and knew how much he missed him. I said, “Dad, he knows what you’ve done here, because he watches over you and all of us. This place is special for him too. He loved it up here as much as you do.” And my Dad smiled — he had the most amazing smile and his eyes would sparkle when he smiled. “Wow,” he said, “I am seeing a new side of my daughter that I didn’t know about.” It was a very special moment between the two of us.
I also learned how to run electrical wiring and install outlets. My Dad and I went up one weekend as the weather was turning cold, and we wired the entire cabin — something else I would never do again in my life! But now I cherish those precious moments I had with my Dad. I am so glad that I spent that time with him. For none of us knew that he would be gone way too soon and never have the chance to enjoy the cabin for himself.
We continued to finish the cabin over the next several years. This included putting the log siding on the outside of the cabin and then painting it — and repainting it — and repainting it! Even my fiancé (at the time, now my husband) got roped into that! The inside of the cabin was finished with wood siding cut by the Amish and Dad and Bob put in hardwood floors and ceramic tiles in the kitchen. There is a loft that can sleep many or a few and also includes a full-sized pool table that overlooks the kitchen and the living room. There are two bedrooms and a full bathroom. My Dad built a fireplace using stone that he gathered just for it. The roof was finished with four skylights to bring in light everywhere in the cabin, and Dad built custom wagon wheel lights from a photograph. Bob really worked hard finishing the inside when he went up every week. I was dating Tom at the time and now had new priorities.
Bob did a lot of the work in the years that followed the initial building. He did the finishing and the woodwork — he cut and laid the ceramic flooring. He built a wood-fired pizza oven, getting the instructions from Italy — making us incredible homemade pizzas when we would go up. He did the landscaping and even put in his own grape vines for making wine. Bob goes to cabin almost every week as a place to get away from things — for peace and serenity.
It was Thanksgiving 2001. My Dad, Mom, Bob, my husband, Tom and myself spent Thanksgiving at the cabin. We always had these dreams of spending the holidays there. But with the possibility of getting snowed in — we’ve never done it. I could only imagine how beautiful that cabin would be with Christmas lights and a live tree on the porch! Anyways, 2001 was the year we were married, the year I was first diagnosed with endometrial cancer, and of course, Nine-Eleven (9/11). Little did we know that this would be our last Thanksgiving with Dad. I have a very special photograph of that day. He passed the following Spring on May 23, 2002.
Dad really was an A M A Z I N G man with endless imagination and creativity — along with the ingenuity, intellect and engineering skills to actually pull this off. This is something only people dream of doing — and he made it happen. Or maybe it’s not even something most people would ever even consider — that their family of six could build a cabin. It seems crazy to me even now as I think about it. But I know for certain, that when we go to the cabin, Dad is with us. This cabin was his legacy for us.