Song of Slippery Rock

Photos by David Aschkenas Working the land is still a way of life in Butler County. A tractor rakes mowed hay into rows for drying in the sun before baling. Working the land is still a way of life in Butler County. A tractor rakes mowed hay into rows for drying in the sun before baling.
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This “Song” even has lyrics — of a sort — in the form of Jack M. MacDonald’s How Slippery Rock Got Its Name, written for the town’s 1975 sesquicentennial:

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Settler: Gosh all hemlock!What do I see? A redskin pointin’ his gun at me?

Indian: That’s right, Pale Face… since I’m discovered, don’t move a step. I’ve got you covered.

Settler: I’m travelin’, Varmint. I’m on my way. My hair won’t hang from your belt this day…

Indian: There’s no use hopping from stone to stone, my tomahawk cleaves the toughest bone.

Settler: This Eliza act is durned realistic. Pardon me, Varmint. That’s anachronistic.

Indian: That two dollar word may be your last. I’ve got you, White Man. Your future’s past.

Settler: Ha, ha…you fell. With all your talk, you didn’t see that slippery rock! Listen, Varmint, for many a week I hunted a name for this blamed creek. When I saw you skid for half a block, I knew right then t’would be “Slippery Rock.”

Native Americans — whose pardon we beg for the lingo’s political incorrectness — aren’t the only objects of historical slapstick. In other accounts, the Father of Our Country himself, orone of his officers, takes the pratfall.

Suffice to say, the place lives up to its name: I am obliged, if not overjoyed, to report that I personally slipped and fell on my nether regions twice while exploring the banks of Slippery Rock Creek on a recent lazy, languid afternoon. In the silence of the woods, there was nobody around to see or guffaw except beautiful fluorescent-​blue dragonflies the size of hummingbirds — and they guffaw so quietly.

What I foolishly slipped on might better be dubbed Slippery Mud, but neither that nor “Slimy Pebble” (an actual early name candidate) would have had the same ring or inspired a popular cult following. The town’s name is so beloved, far and wide, that there’s a national market for Slippery Rock University sports products. Announcing SRU scores has been a wacky tradition at University of Michigan football games and Washington State basketball games since the 1950s.

But more on the humorous moniker and its origins later. First, some factoids:

Slippery Rock is a charming, small-​town haven with a top-​notch college, located in the rural splendor of Butler County, bordering Allegheny, just 50 miles north of Pittsburgh. It’s an area that some wiseacre Philadelphians derogatorily refer to as “part of the Midwest,” but, I’ve come to find out, it really was. If you don’t believe it, click your mouse or your heels and take a trip to the Slip, where you can see for yourself the only prairie eco-​system in Pennsylvania at Jennings State Park.

It’s an amazing place, left over from the monumental glaciers that scoured the land, removed the soil and exposed the bedrock a million years ago, depositing fine sand and silt from the glacial meltwater. Subsequent climate change produced a warm period that let Midwestern plant and animal species extend into Pennsylvania. But as the climate grew gradually cooler and wetter again, forests replaced the prairie areas, except for the “relict” ecosystem at Jennings — sole remnant of our ancient geological past.

The only protected public prairie reserve in the Commonwealth, the 20-​acre park is home to the spectacular “blazing star” flower, among other distinctive prairie plants and animals, including the endangered massasauga rattlesnake. The reserve was named for Dr. Otto Jennings, Pennsylvania’s renowned botanist, who rediscovered the area in 1905 and pushed for its acquisition and protection by the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy.

Dorothy and Toto would feel almost at home there — with relatively little danger of tornadoes (although a category 5 cyclone with wind speeds of 300 mph touched down 18 miles from Slippery Rock in 1985, killing 18 people and injuring 310).

I was telling a friend of mine in Wichita about all this, and she said, “Isn’t that where the Frank Lloyd Wright house is?” Close but no cigar. Fallingwater vs. Slippery Rock — an honest mistake.

In fact, the feeling we’re not in Kansas is correct: There’s no shortage of cornfields, cattle and dairy farms, but the hills around Slippery Rock are much too rolling to be in the Sunflower State. Nevertheless, it’s big-​time agricultural country — with more than a touch of the Wild West. The Buckhorn Ranch on Branchton Road, for instance, offers steer wrestling among its services.

Nothing is more important to farm and ranch families than their kids. 4-​H clubs abound in the area, taking youngsters on field trips to Gettysburg and the Shanksville Flight 93 memorial. Kids’ Rodeo Day (July 26) at the Clearview Mall (15 miles south of Slippery Rock) includes such contest categories as Roping Tricks and Best Dressed Cowboy & Cowgirl, while the annual Big Butler Fair in nearby Franklin Township boasts serious horseplay. This year, a half dozen of the winners came from Slippery Rock (others from nearby Chicora and Connoquenessing) in suchcategories as “western equitation, western pleasure, English pleasure, cloverleafbarrels and showmanship.”

They don’t shoot horses, do they? No, they don’t. But they shoot bears. Butler Eagle outdoor columnist Jay Hewitt reports the state bear population to be upwards of 15,000 these days, with a 20 percent increase in the “harvest rate” last year. Pennsylvania bear hunting season has an archery-​only portion — a much more sporting alternative to the firearms variety. Seems that bears are particularly fond of the epicurean delicacies available in the suburban areas, farms and beekeeper operations around Slippery Rock.

They’re also quite smart. Hewitt’s state-​of-​the art bird feeder, advertised as “the squirrel’s dilemma,” turned out to be “the bear’s delight.” They just deftly detached the thing from its iron-​pole anchor, and ate their fill. “On another occasion,” he says, “two bears pushed our tote garbage cans around like they were on a shopping spree [and wreaked] havoc throughoutthe neighborhood.”

A bear recently live-​trapped near Slippery Rock weighed in at 322 pounds. and was gingerly relocated to a less populated area.

Cows, horses, bears — not enough (or unusual enough) quadrupeds for you? Then check out Arcadian Exotics at Branchton and Route 138. They offer mini-​donkeys and pygmy goats.

I guess it’s about time to talk about people instead of animals.

Paleo-​Indian hunters, the first humans in the Slippery Rock area, arrived some 15,000 years ago, following the retreating glacier in search of wooly mammoths and giant ground sloths. (Their relentless pursuit of those easy targets is believed to have hastened their extinction.) SRU archaeological explorations have unearthed Upper Woodland natives’ campsites and pottery shards dating between 20001600 B.C.

By the 17th century, the Seneca Nation of the Iroquois Confederation controlled the area, but by the middle of the 18th, both France and England claimed it. The Venango Trail (which lies beneath present-​day PA Rte. 528, connecting Pittsburgh to Franklin) was traveled by such stellarfigures as Tecumseh, George Washington and Lafayette.

The struggle for control of this key trade-​and-​transportation artery reached fever pitch in 1753, during the French and Indian War, when young Washington — as an officer of the Crown — was sent on one of his earliest campaigns to confront and contain the local French-​affiliated Indians.Following the Venango Trail, Washington and his men crossed Slippery Rock Creek at what was then called Flat Rock Falls.According to legend, the creek got its new name when the horse bearing Washington himself (or one of his British colonial troops) slipped and fell on a large smooth rock during the crossing.

Other accounts, however, attribute the name to the Delaware Indians with whom Washington was sent to treat. A colonial negotiator and a Moravian missionary in Washington’s party both mention the “Kuskuskies” of the Delaware clan, whose village two miles west of the present town is where a peace treaty with King Beaver and other chieftains was signed. Those natives reportedly called the creek “Weschachachapehka” (say it 10 times, and it’s yours) — meaning “slippery rock,” derived from the tendency of the water’s many stone riffles and rocks to collect slime. Some held as much as an inch of it.Wrote one of the chroniclers: “Sloping ice or soft soap was scarcely as slippery.”

In any case, after the Revolution, the area surrounding the stream officially became Slippery Rock Township, one of the four original townships in Butler County (formerly a portion of Allegheny).The little town was called Centerville, located, as it was, halfway between Butler and Mercer on what was then the Butler-​Mercer Pike. Not until 1900 was its name Slippery Rock, to conform with the creek and the post office.

Its first permanent settlers were Nathaniel and Zebulon Cooper, who came from Washington County in 1796, soon followed by an influx of pioneerswho would radically change the landscape through lumbering, agriculture andmanufacturing. In addition to the resources above ground, subsequentgenerations exploited those below the surface. Coal and gas reservoirs wereabundant, and mining became a booming industry: The Mt. Etna furnace was established in 1822, the Hickory furnacein 1836, then the Isaac Pearson foundry — functioning into the 20th century. The Wolf Creek woolen factory northwest of town manufactured carpets (at 50 cents a yard) and Kentucky jeans (37 cents) from 1845 not far from the carding factories and sawmills on Slippery Rock Creek.

By the beginning of the Civil War, the population had increased to a sizeable400 souls, serviced by two taverns, two blacksmith shops, a cast-​iron stove and plow maker, a tannery, a saddler, wagon-​maker, tailor, gunsmith, cabinetmaker and cooper. The community also boasted two shoemakers, two doctors and — thatultimate indication of stability — anundertaker.

While grand old Pittsburgh took a population dive in the last seven years (from 57th to 59thlargest American city), Slippery Rock took a big leap — from 3,068 in the 2000 census to 5,251 in 2007.That whopping two-​thirds gain makes it the fastest-​growing township in the state, though the figures may be skewed by a new 600-​unit complex near (but not officially part of) Slippery Rock University. SRU may also be responsible for skewing the town’s median age (23) and gender ratio. Guys, take note: For every 100 females, there are just 77 males.

SRU (a.k.a. “The Rock”), founded in 1889, is one of the largest and bestcampuses in western Pennsylvania, with611 acres and a 7,500 enrollment. Its distinguished alumni include Chuck Aber (a.k.a. “Neighbor Aber” on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood), and as noted above, it’s a sportscaster favorite. Slippery Rock is so popular with UM fans that on Sept. 29, 1979, it played in-​state rival Shippensburg at a jam-​packed Michigan Stadium of more than 60,000 fans — a Division II football game record. Among SRU’s many sports events and venues, the football team plays at Kerr Thompson Stadium, the baseball team at Jack Critchfield Park. Six members of the Slippery Rock Pride (men’s hockey team, now in their 37th season) were named Academic All-​Americans last year.

That’s in keeping with an All-​American town, whose big summer event on July 13 was an appearance by Bill Kazmaier, “The World’s Strongest Man” (19801982), fora YMCA day-​campers demonstration in which he pulled a school bus full of shrieking kids at YMCA’s Armco Park.

But it’s not all about old-​time Americana. In the past few years, artists and developers have been hard at work revitalizing downtown Slippery Rock. The Main Street area has added fresh sidewalks, eating-​and-​drinking places, boutique shops, art and sculpture installations and even a gazebo and waterfall.

Chief among the town’s old established restaurants are funky Camelot at the center of things (Main and Franklin), popular with students and travelers on a tight budget, and the more elegant Luigi’s (just down the road at 354 S. Main), whose vast menu includes Wisconsin cheese soup, “pizza-​rogies” and Chicken Kelly (sautéed in sherry-​mushroom sauce) — all top notch.

For dichotomous couples split between a rural adventurer and a shop-​til-​you-​dropper, the nearby Grove City outlets provide a consumer mecca of — or commercial pox on — the area, depending on your view.

Of all the legends abounding regarding the origin of Slippery Rock’s name, we’ve saved one of the most likely or convincing for last. A 1974 article by Virginia and Bill Lytle in “Pennsylvania Geology” asks: Why one particular rock among all slippery rocks along 49 miles of the stream in Butler and Lawrence counties? Its answer:

An 1874 geological report and map of the area indicated a natural oil seep at the point where an Indian path from present-​day Pittsburgh to New Castle crossed the creek. The “Slippery Rock” identified on that map was a flat piece of sandstone extending into the stream from a steep bank at the ford where travelers were more or less forced to cross. The Slippery Rock oil field was eventually developed there.But one excessively slick rock — coated with oil — seems to have given it the name.

How many other specific rocks, the Lytles asked, turned into towns and teams mentioned weekly on national TV during football season?

Barry Paris

Barry is an award-​winning biographer, film historian, Russian translator and contributor to The New Yorker and Vanity Fair. Among his books are Audrey Hepburn and Song of Haiti, the story of Dr. Larry and Gwen Mellon and their Albert Schweitzer Hospital.

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