PITTSBURGH — Hard by a 230-year-old log house, seven barred rock hens nibble on leaves that Keith Kaiser pokes through a fence. Ox eye sunflower is not their normal feed, but they don’t seem to mind. The Pittsburgh Botanic Garden has lots more growing nearby.
Heirloom chickens and log houses are not common sights at botanical gardens, but they fit right in here.
“This is an educational space,” says Kaiser, the 460-acre public garden’s executive director. “We think about the early settlers and their connection to the plants and the land.”
The botanic garden’s Walker-Ewing-Glass House dates to 1784.
The restored log structure and another nearby in Collier reflect the roles of the Walkers and Ewings in taming this part of western Pennsylvania. In 1772, brothers Gabriel and Isaac Walker migrated from Lancaster County and claimed this land. Both fought in the Revolutionary War and were arrested for their roles in the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794.
Isaac Walker’s daughter married William Ewing and several generations later, Edward Ewing Glass added his name to the house’s pedigree, said Jerry Andres of Findlay, the president and archivist of the Pioneers West Historical Society (www.pioneerswesthistoricalsociety.org.)
The society holds its quarterly meetings in the Walker-Ewing Log House, which is even older than the one in the botanic garden, with construction beginning in 1762 and lasting for 25 years. It will be open for the tour along with the McAdow-McAdams Wilson Log House and the Coventry and Killbuck Lodge log cabins.
In 2013-14, the Pittsburgh Botanic Garden replaced their log house’s roof with cedar shake shingles, repaired the stone steps, refinished and replaced floors and doors and added lighting.
The Walker-Ewing-Glass Log House is the centerpiece of the garden’s Heritage Homestead and staff members give demonstrations in and around its huge stone fireplace and on a replica loom and spinning wheel.
The land around it is also used in educational programs. A stone-enclosed raised bed contains patches of rye, barley, wheat and oats, reflecting crops early settlers would have grown. Scattered around the yard are heirloom apple trees. Cultivars include “York Imperial,” “Yellow Pippin,” “Spitzenburg,” “Summer Rambo” and “Nittany.” Some were commonly grown at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s farm in Virginia.
Colorful “chicken tractors” are lined up by the coop, ready for use. When the birds are inside, they feed on grass and insects while also aerating and fertilizing the ground. Handles allow staffers to move the tractors around.
Even the chickens are heirlooms — barred rocks first appeared in the mid-1800s and were prized for their hardiness, gentle dispositions and egg-laying.
“We get a number of eggs each day,” Kaiser said.