Driving from Richmond, Va., to the bucolic borough of McClure for a "unique" vacation at Mountain Dale Farm 10 years ago, Keadron Higgs couldn't anticipate the lure the area would still have on her family years later.
"It's my place. It feels like home," said Higgs, a single mother who has vacationed with her daughter, Ashley, at Ken and Sally Hassinger's farm every year for the past decade since finding the vacation spot on the internet.
At the time, Ashley was 8 years old and Higgs, a violin teacher, was searching for a "unique farm experience" instead of the standard beach vacation. She chose the Hassinger's Mountain Dale farm for its wide variety of animals and secluded location.
They arrived at the farm at nightfall and Higgs said she was initially "spooked" by the isolation.
She quickly found out that while the farm is secluded enough to let her and other guests unwind from a frenetic city lifestyle, the area has plenty to offer, from Knoebels Amusement Resort, T&D Cats sanctuary, boating and other outdoor exploits.
That is what the Hassingers were counting on when they purchased the 165-acre farm outside of McClure in 1976 with the intent of offering visitors a retreat and a chance to work on a real farm.
In the mid-1970s, communal living where groups of people would live and work together for a single purpose was still being pursued by some.
"It never works," said Ken Hassinger with a laugh.
The couple quickly dropped the idea of relying on visitors to help them work the farm, but the temporary retreat idea worked well and has flourished over the last four decades as the Hassingers raised a son, Issac, and daughter, Ashley, while opening their property to visitors from around the world.
"We started with 10 buildings, including the house and the main barn," said Ken Hassinger, with a sweep of his hand.
Today, there are nine separate cabins of various sizes, all equipped with full kitchens and bathrooms, and a new banquet hall added last year used for weddings, reunions and other large gatherings. The grounds also feature three ponds and a number of animals, including geese and peacocks.
Ken Hassinger, who has held many jobs, including pastor and auctioneer, has a passion for reclaiming everything from old buildings to signs and has repurposed materials to create the cozy cabins.
A former teacher, Sally Hassinger still puts her talents to work educating visitors about farm life.
While visitors may be seeking an adventure in an isolated part of the country, the Hassingers have since added television sets and locks on the cabins.
"They want rustic, but not too rustic," said Ken Hassinger.
Mountain Dale Farm is one of the area's hidden gems, said Susquehanna River Valley Visitors Bureau Andrew Miller.
Word of mouth and the internet has helped get the word out about the business, Sally Hassinger said.
"Part of the draw is that people from other countries want to see how Americans really live," she said. "They are looking for an American experience."
One man from France returned for several years every summer, sometimes out of the blue, to spend a week or so hanging out on the farm.
A Washington, D.C. couple rent a cabin every July 4 and spend nearly all their time in the cabin, reading and relaxing.
"We are so off the beaten path, it's a place to get away, to recharge your batteries," said Ken Hassinger.
For regular visitors like Juniata County native Vera Barker, the farm is a way for her to reconnect with her roots and share the rural experience with her daughter, son-in-law and two grandsons, Max and Zane, who live near her in North Carolina.
They began spending a week at Mountain Dale in 2008 when the boys were 3 and 5 and for the first couple of years, Barker would bring her aging father out of the assisted living center in Juniata County to spend time at the farm.
Barker said it was an ideal way to bring the different generations together particularly since her father was a retired employee with the county Cooperative Extension Office and was comfortable in the farm setting.
Now that her grandsons are teenagers, Barker said she anticipated they would grow weary of the slow-paced farm vacation where they would largely ignore electronic devices and loll in the field at night looking up at the stars, build campfires and help the Hassingers with barn chores morning and night.
Barker said she was more than pleasantly surprised when they suggested taking the annual trip in July even though their parents are unable to get away.
"The valleys in Pennsylvania are home for me and now they have this soft spot for Pennsylvania, too," she said.
Higgs has had a similar experience with her daughter at Mountain Dale and hopes the family vacation tradition will continue for generations.
"I like to get up in the morning with my coffee and sit on the porch. It's so peaceful," said Higgs, who has urged other first-time guests to give in to the solitude. "I tell them, 'Just wait. Sit with it. You'll see the magic in it.'"
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