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Pennsdale farm reaches bi-centennial mark

By Carol Sones Shelter - | May 5, 2021

CAROL SHETLER/The Luminary (Left-right): Larry, Matt and Jacob Fry represent the fifth, sixth and seventh generations on ‘Ownbrook Farm’ along Pond Road in Muncy Township. Owner Larry Fry noted that April 18, 2021 marked the 200th year of family stewardship.

MUNCY TOWNSHIP-“Ownbrook Farm,” currently owned by Larry Fry of Pond Road, Pennsdale, has reached Bi-Centennial status. This family tied to lands in Muncy Township recently marked its 200th year on April 18, 2021. The account of linage from Henry Ritter to the present includes numerous family accounts, including wives and mothers who sacrificed to maintain ownership.

The saga began with Henry Ritter who purchased from George Long and wife, 100 acres for $3000.  Previously, that same acreage had been passed down over the years from Samuel Wallis, one of the earliest settlers to the area. 

Ritter, age 29 at the time of purchase, was born in 1792, likely in Lancaster, County, Pennsylvania, according to family genealogist and descendant Nancy Fry Doutt. “As a child, Ritter and his family moved to an area west of Selinsgrove in what is now Snyder County. In January 1819, Henry wed Elizabeth Kessler with the couple’s first child born in Union County,” Doutt said.

Here in Lycoming County in 1821, the young family lived in a log cabin situated near a spring originating on the farm. Later, a larger house was built on the property.  During their fifteen years of marriage, a total of eight children were born to the couple before calamity struck with Elizabeth’s death in 1835. Youngest daughter Sarah was but a year old. Left a widower with young children, Ritter took as his second wife, Anne Webb, a member of the nearby Quaker Community. No offspring was born to this union.

In 1845, Henry Ritter built what he referred to as “the big house” becoming the main home for future generations. For 54 years, Ritter farmed the land raising flax and doing carpentry work for others. Local women were hired to turn flax into homespun which was the owner’s main income. According to his journal, money was loaned to neighbors becoming another revenue source.

CAROL SHETLER/The Luminary Larry Fry (left) and brother Sam in the forefront of an Oak Tree near the Southeast boundary of the Bi-centennial farm along Pond Road near Pennsdale. The Oak was identified in a 1783 land map which preceded the 1821 arrival of Henry Ritter the ancestor who had established Larry Fry’s 200-year-old family farm.

Henry died at home on March 28, 1875.  He was interred at Hall Cemetery as were his two wives; daughter Elizabeth, who’d died at age 18; and son William who expired as the result of wounds suffered at Spotsylvania during the Civil War.

Family historian Doutt, shared the fates of the first family’s remaining children. Three moved from the area while remaining locally were daughters Catherine, who wedded Civil War photographer David Guinter; Sarah wed Peter Reeder of Hughesville, a State Legislator; and Mary wedded William Watson, the couple destined to carry on stewardship of the farm.

When Henry Ritter died, the farm was left to his children, but only Mary and husband William Watson had an interest in living there.  Mary was the first wife of record showing strength in making tough decisions. Her husband was not the business man her father had been thus other ways were found to hang on and pay the taxes. They rented the other home for extra income, many being summer residents from the Philadelphia area.  In 1898 when William died, Mary became sole owner of the farm.  At about that time, only child Agnes married Rufus Rigney, a Virginian whom she met when he came north with a threshing crew.  He took great interest and turned the farm into a dairy.

When Mary Ritter Watson died in 1919, Agnes became owner.  She and Rufus had parented four daughters:  Mary died at age three of meningitis; Emily married and moved to the Montoursville area; Rachel graduated from Mansfield State College with a teaching degree, married and lived with her family near New Columbia, Union County;  Ruth, mother of the current owner, remained on the farm.

When Ruth had been in her late teens, her father left the family returning to the South. Wife Agnes took a stand refusing to sell the farm and move with him to Virginia. Again, strength in seeking alternate solutions were found by Agnes when she and Ruth moved off the farm to a rental home in Pennsdale. While there, the farm was rented out in order to pay taxes.  Following Agnes’ death, Ruth married Clifton Fry moving to the farm.  Ruth’s sisters, having no interest, signed off on any ownership. In 1934, with the help of a government loan of $3000 and a mortgage, Clifton and Ruth Fry moved their family to the “big house” and the farm again became a source of income. “When my mother inherited the farm from Agnes, it was in pretty bad shape. She and dad started over again,” Doutt said.

photo provided Making wise decisions during tough times earned some of these photographed as ‘Strong Women.’ (Standing left-right): Emily Rigney next to mother, Agnes Watson Rigney, and Agnes’ mother Mary Ritter Watson. Sitting, Agnes’ daughters Ruth Rigney, later wife of Clifton Fry Senior and mother of current owner Larry Fry, and Rachel Rigney in photo about 1915.

Here, the fifth generation was born; Clifton Junior, Nancy Doutt, Sam, Judy Calistri, and twins Richard and Larry. The children attended Bush Hollow one-room school where Miss Bessie Shaner was the last teacher before students were sent to the newly built school at corner of Village and Wentzler Roads.

The sons participated in Little League sponsored by the Roland Ritter American Legion Post. Father Clifton served several years as coach, even cooking at week-long baseball camps. Summers saw cousins visiting a week or more at the farm, children of their father’s sister, the Cyphers family of the Wilkes-Barre area.

In 1946, the addition of a pond to drain a swampy field created a safety hazard for the youngest children, so the mother had Judy teach the twins how to swim. The pond site provides a relaxing spot for extended family to congregate.

“Ownbrook,’ the name given to the farm, was decided when the dairy’s Holstein cattle were registered. The form required the farm to have a name, so Ruth settled on ‘Ownbrook’ after it was learned her first choice of ‘Springbrook’ had been taken.

As for current owner Larry Fry, he said, “When I was young, I wanted to get as far away from this farm as I could. At Penn State, I earned an engineering degree and after a few years, looked at my boss and decided I didn’t want to work like that. I returned to the farm where for a time, brother Sam and I were partners.” The two acquired several neighboring farms before dissolving the partnership, dividing the properties with Larry remaining with the family’s original farm.

Consequently, Sam purchased the former Wyno Farms Dairy Store along Route 220 where jug milk was sold. Getting in a quip, Sam who retired in 2010 said, “Everything I own I owe to udders.”

In 2014, Larry sold the cows and now there are no animals. Crops consist of 130 acres of corn, the same in soybeans, and 50 acres of hay. As has happened in the past, the elder farmer moves to the little house. Currently, the main farm house’s occupants are members of the sixth and seventh generation being son Matthew and grandson Jacob Fry. For the future, plans are to continue with the three generations of men tilling the soil, thanks to firm stands by their foremothers.