CRUM— Its remnants can be found along the twisted gravel roads – paths, really – in the wooded hills between Cairnbrook and Ogletown.
Hunting cabins, a cemetery and some crumbling foundations are all that remain of the village, a place that predates the Civil War. There isn’t much in terms of recorded history about the town, but an Internet search will land plenty of rumors at websites like ghostsofamerica.com and forgottenusa.com.
Though no one calls it home anymore, it still appears on most maps, sometimes spelled with a “b” at the end.
Welcome to Crum. Population: zero.
Most people know him as the voice of “Save the Mountain,” a grassroots effort to prevent a windmill project from coming to Shaffer Mountain. But Paint Township resident Joe Cominsky isn’t just one of the biggest local critics of wind energy – he’s an unofficial historian for Crum.
Cominsky and his family own 365 acres of what used to be part of the town. Though they keep the land unposted and open to the public, they have never, he said, been tempted to lease or sell.
“There (are) things that money don’t buy,” he said. “I’ve enjoyed that mountain. I’m a caretaker. I don’t own it.”
Cominsky can talk for hours about the history of the village. In fact, he has more to say about Crum than some of our local historical centers.
Mary Ann Naret of the Shade-Central City Historical Society said the society once had a booklet about Crum in the museum, but it recently went missing.
As for the Somerset Historical Center, it has no official file on Crum. The town receives barely a mention even in history books.
“Two Hundred Years in Shade Township, Somerset County, Pennsylvania – 1962” is a book published by the late N. Leroy Baldwin, a former Shade Township supervisor, in 1964. Baldwin notes that the former Crum post office was six miles east of Cairnbrook along the old Rocklick Road, which is now called Mount Carmel Drive. According to Baldwin, the office was established July 29, 1884, with Jesse Crum as postmaster. It shut down May 15, 1909.
Cominsky’s account of the town came through generations by word of mouth. Crum, he said, was established in the mid-1800s by families who worked mostly in logging. A grist mill was erected in 1833. And by the late 1800s timber baron E.V. Babcock become active in nearby Ashtola.
By the late 1800s residents had made a water impound. The village became home to two general stores, a post office, a saw mill, a church and two little one-room schoolhouses for first- through eighth-graders. A total of 55 children from 15 different families attended these schools, which were named Sandy Bottom and Rogers, Cominsky said.
Cominsky’s grandfather, an immigrant who came from the Carpathian Mountains of Czechoslovakia, bought his property at Crum cheaply from a few different landowners – some of it was purchased for as little as $2 per acre. He worked in the nearby coal fields and, with his wife, raised 14 children.
It was, Cominsky said, a thriving community for a period of time. But this came to a definitive end in 1926 when the Berwind Corp. approached landowners with lucrative offers.
The coal company, however, wasn’t interested in mining. Documents from the U.S. Geological Survey indicate that there are no profitable coal seams in the Crum area.
According to Cominsky, Berwind instead wanted to clear the mountain of residents to establish a private reservoir and pipeline system that would send water down the mountain for sale in Windber and Richland. The company wanted to tap this area because a lot of the other local waterways were contaminated by acid mine drainage from coal mining.
“This was a watershed,” he said. “(Berwind) had two sources of water: They had Piney Run and Shade Creek. And they wanted to get the population out of there so there’d be no pollution.”
“That whole area is a water aquifer,” he added. “It is basically laden with good drinking water.”
The water system was to be managed by the Richland Township Water Co., a Berwind subsidiary. Cominsky said the villagers were offered a fair price for their land. It was, he added, a chance for them to start a new life elsewhere, far from the hardships associated with the cold and secluded mountain.
“In came big money,” he said. “(Most people) were happy to go.”
His grandfather Steve Roman was not among them. When the dust settled, he and his family were the last remaining residents of Crum village. Most of this mountain area is owned to this day by Berwind and Wilmore coal companies.
“He wasn’t after the money,” Cominsky said. “He knew he had something here he didn’t have in Europe. This was unheard of – you could buy and own property.”
The Sandy Bottom and Rogers schools, however, closed with the dissolution of the town. This meant the Roman children had to go all the way to Ogletown for classes.
Cominsky said his uncle was just 10 years old when he was tasked with taking his brothers and sisters in the horse-driven carriage five miles down the mountain to Ogletown for class each morning.
According to Cominsky, the Roman family finally left Crum when his grandmother Mary died at the age of 87.
“She would not leave that house because she loved it,” he said.
It couldn’t have been an easy way of living. But the idea of holding onto this land at all costs has obviously stuck with Cominsky. It’s no surprise, then, that he kept with family tradition in holding out against corporate interests when Gamesa approached him with a windmill lease.
Cominsky helped launch a grassroots campaign to defeat the project. After five years of public meetings and legal challenges, this movement finally succeeded earlier this year when Gamesa announced it was no longer pursuing the plan.
“I believe that area there should be saved for future generations,” Cominsky said. “Thank God we didn’t (lose).”
The Crum/Oldham Cemetery
Those who know anything at all about Crum likely know it for its cemetery and lengthy list of urban legends. The Crum/Oldham Cemetery sits on 1.54 acres along one of the unmarked roads at Crum Ridge, a half-mile north of where the Crum post office once stood.
Tales of murder and the occult are commonplace in online discussions about the Crum ghost town and cemetery. The most popular myth – at least on supernatural-themed websites – is the story about Rebecca Crum.
“She and her family were thought to be local hexes, and she was dragged from her home by the locals and killed,” writes Ron Ieraci on his blog, hauntsandhistory.blogspot.com. “She was buried outside the cemetery proper, and her village of Crum was burned to the ground by the mob.”
The Daily American found no historic record of a Rebecca Crum in the community. And the story is a far cry from the account given by Cominsky. But it’s exactly the kind of rumor that has fueled the curiosity of ghost-seekers and party animals who have vandalized the cemetery during the years.
Windber resident Bill Oldham is part of the cemetery’s namesake and many of his relatives are buried there. He acknowledged that disrespectful visitors have been a problem – a gate and barbed wire fence were ripped down years ago – but said his family has put in countless hours maintaining the property.
“We’ve been mowing that cemetery for years, taking care of it,” he said. “We’ve taken care of it all these years and it really looks good.”
According to tax records, his great-grandfather Harrison Oldham was among the founders of Crum village. The family still owns 50 acres there.
Oldham’s father, Sewell, started a commission to look after the cemetery in 1947. His son, Richard, continues to serve as a caretaker of the grounds, which remain an active cemetery.
“There are more Oldhams in Crum Cemetery than there are Crums,” he said. “It’s referred to as the Crum-Oldham Cemetery.”
Oldham said he believes a lot of people in the nearby communities don’t even know that Crum ever existed.
“I’ve been going out there since I was a kid,” he said. “The old-timers know. The younger generation might have heard about it, but don’t know where it was.”
There is undeniable irony that Cominsky and Oldham continue to preserve what’s left of Crum.
Cominsky spent time, money and energy to help defeat the Gamesa wind farm that would have disturbed the character of this quiet slice of Somerset County. He still reverently refers to the place as both “Crumtown” and even “Romanville” because of his family’s ties there.
He said he’s amazed by the number of people who visit Crum Spring with water buffalos to take fresh mountain water.
“On any given day there’s at least 50 people who come and draw water from that spring, if not more,” Cominsky said.
Oldham also has a contemporary connection to the town his great-grandparents helped establish.
He is chairman and longtime member of the Windber Area Authority, a municipal water supplier that purchased the Crum-area assets of Berwind’s Richland Township Water Co. – the very entity that bought the original Oldhams out of their home.
And Oldham was among those on the Windber Area Authority board that voted down Gamesa’s proposal on authority-owned land.
The cliche is that time has forgotten places like Crum. Oldham, however, is among those who have not.
“It was quite a thriving little village,” Oldham said. “There’s quite a lot of history back there.”