Top Image © Courtesy of Butler County Tourism
Maybe you’ve never heard of Butler County, Pennsylvania. That’s not too surprising. But perhaps what will surprise you is how this county, located 25 miles north of Pittsburgh, has impacted the lives of countless people across the United States.
You see, Butler County has played an integral role in the birth of the nation, defending it during World War II (as the birthplace of the Jeep), welcoming the world of immigrants who helped build the country, and preserving its history in the form of small-town hamlets.
It was a young Major George Washington of the British Army who, in 1753, was dispatched to Ft. LeBoeuf in Erie to demand that the French evacuate the region. During his trip, Washington, who would later be the U.S.’s first President, passed through what would become Butler County on his way to and from Ft. LeBoeuf.
This trip is documented through “Washington’s Trail 1753,” a Western Pennsylvania driving tour that not only details the mission—including Washington’s escape from death that would have altered the course of the country—but passes through several quaint towns, which developed afterward and preserve their history.
Founded in 1804 by the religious freedom-seeking Harmony Society of German Lutheran Separatists, Harmony’s Landmark District retains the old world architectural character of a German Village and includes more than 50 buildings. Several specialty shops occupy older structures and make for a charming shopping stop.
If you’re looking for sweets or other eats, make time for Neff Haus Ice Cream, Wunderbar Coffee and Crepes (located in a historic opera hall), and finish with dinner and craft beer at the Harmony Inn.
Saxonburg is a can’t-miss stop in Butler County. Founded in 1832 by German immigrant brothers F. Carl and John A. Roebling, Saxonburg is a small town big on charm. John Roebling, the inventor of the wire rope and designer of the Brooklyn Bridge, envisioned a blend of agriculture and light manufacturing.
Visit the Saxonburg Museum, shop at Red Door Antiques, pick up locally sourced gourmet jams at Batch, beers at Conny Creek Brewing, and dinner at the Saxonburg Hotel, which once hosted President Woodrow Wilson.
German aristocrat Detmar Basse founded picturesque Zelienople in 1802 and named it after his daughter. Today, Zelie, as the locals call it, thrives as a small-town gem. A bustling business district featuring restaurants, craft breweries, and shops has some people describing the town as similar to Mayberry of Andy Griffith Show fame.
Shops such as Curio, Eva Bryn Shoetique, Boutique 16063, The Strand Theater, and restaurants like Kaufman Tavern, ShuBrew, Della Terra, and Burgh’ers Brewing bring a mix of new and old while paying homage to the town’s beginnings.
Make sure to visit the 1808 Passavant House, the home of Detmar Basse’s daughter Zelie, which is now a museum that tells the story of Zelienople’s history.
Butler County: Americana
Above all, Butler County embodies Americana in the best way possible, with every corner of the county steeped in history and undoubtedly American characteristics. The residents, shop owners, and officials in Butler County understand that and celebrate it joyfully, boasting of their history. They invite all to visit their rolling hills through agritourism, camping, hiking, and other outdoor activities on water or land.
These small-town communities are loaded with quaint shops and restaurants and are somehow even more welcoming than their outward charm appears. In the end, Americana may not define Butler County, but Butler County defines Americana.
The county has museums and many historic locations which interpret the area’s past. Special events and reenactments offer living history as well.