Big Creek Valley before Beltzville Lake - Part 3
AL ZAGOFSKY/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS "I was in sixth grade when we had to move," said Cindy Mertz Lafaw (left) standing with her mother, Faye Strohl Mertz. "We were devastated because we loved where we lived." In the background is the breast of the Beltzville Dam, and to the left is Faye's parents' family farm which was taken by the state in 1966.
(EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the last of a three-part series on the village of Big Creek Valley, whose hundreds of villagers were displaced to create Beltzville Lake.)
"I was in sixth grade when we had to move," said Cindy Mertz Lafaw. "We were devastated because we loved where we lived."
Her grandparents, William and Myrtle Strohl, had heard rumors about the project to dam the Pohopoco Creek, but in late January, 1966, the state had a general meeting, and soon everyone living in or near the lands to be flooded in the Big Creek Valley was told to move by June 15.
"They had to find property and relocate by then," Cindy said. "The state's offer of compensation was very little. My grandparents had 52 acres including several buildings, and they got $25,000."
Her great-grandparents settled the property in the 1840 fledgling days of Big Creek. "My entire family settled in this valley," Cindy said. "Some 60 to 80 people belonging to our family had to move when Beltzville Lake was built."
Cindy's mother, Faye Strohl Mertz, was born in 1927 on the family farm. "My dad had a milk route and we delivered to Packerton, Mauch Chunk and Nesquehoning. I went with him whenever I could. We had 14 cows. His dairy was named Pohopoco Pride Farm. I helped with canning, butchering and everything that a farmer does. We raised corn, wheat and oats, and had an apple orchard and a huge garden which we took to market."
The Strohl house foundation sits just feet away from the roadway to the Beltzville Dam control tower. Although the property was taken to build Beltzville Lake, when the lake was filled to its operating level, it stopped just short of the homestead. Before the lake was formed, the homestead was about 100 yards from Pohopoco Creek. It was steeply downhill from the homestead to the creek, a feature that made the property desirable for a dam.
After Faye married Robert Mertz, they moved about a mile upstream from the Strohl homestead to land near the covered bridge. Like everyone else in Big Creek Valley, Faye, Robert and their three children were given five months to relocate. "My father worked for a Bethlehem Steel contractor, and on many a Sunday afternoon my parents would take us for drives looking for homes closer to Bethlehem. We never found anything we liked."
Although they were ordered to vacate by June 15, 1966, they weren't able to find a new home so quickly. They finally left on December 27, 1966.
"My dad had trees growing in the valley," Cindy said. "He wanted the trees, for lumber to rebuild. At first they said he could have the lumber, but a week later they said that he couldn't have it."
"Later, they were all pushed over and burned," added Faye.
"If they wanted anything from the buildings, they had to use the money they received to purchase back portions of the buildings for salvage rights," Cindy said. "My grandfather purchased his house and barn. He took the lumber out of the house, the doors and the windows to use in the construction of his new house. He also moved some of the outbuildings and the top of the barn. They put it on flatbed and moved it to North Weissport."
"We weren't allowed to take any of the small trees that my dad was raising," Faye said. "One day, I was driving up the road and I saw men in cars from New Jersey stealing his trees." She sent them on their way, and then returned to gather them for herself.
Ironically, Faye's father, a carpenter, wanting to be near his farm and the homes of his neighbors, took a job helping to build the control tower for the dam.
The 950-acre Beltzville Lake was completed in 1970. Most of Big Creek Valley is underwater. All that survives are Buck's Covered Bridge and the Big Creek Church both built in 1841.