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Rooms for Rent - Slippery Rock

The Ben Franklin Inn was the historic home of Jerusha Bigham. It is “grandfathered” as the official Slippery Rock rooming house with 8 private rooms (See our story below). Located along the George Washington heritage trail on Franklin Street. For over 50 years this rooming house has been the college home of hundreds of grad, undergrad residents and teachers attending Slippery Rock University (SRU) – a private room with friendly students nearby.

A Story of Ben Franklin House

This house at 323 Franklin Street in Slippery Rock was built by Jerusha Bingham about 1900; her family owned most of the West side of Main Street, known as The Bingham Block. She lived on a plantation near the I-79 Exit to Route 108. She passed on before she could move into the house and the first family living here were the Taylors. Jerusha is the one who decided on the beautiful brass carved door knobs and latches for each room and for the ornamental fireplace in the parlor. From the layout of the rooms it appears that the house did not have a dedicated indoor bathroom, but it was added by the Taylors soon by taking half of the second floor rear bedroom. When work was being done on the parlor plaster wall in 2008 it was found that some of the horse hair in the plaster was from a red haired horse from 1900.

The Taylor family lived here for a couple generations until in the 1960s they sold the house to Anna and John Gress who lived on Water Street behind the house. Anna and John rented the house to college students and finally sold the house to Francis (Jack) Schmitt in 1988; he continued to rent to college students and teachers. For over half the life of this house it has been the home to hundreds of college students. Jack Schmitt gave the house the name Ben Franklin since it is located on Franklin Street, which is the main road to Franklin, Pa. which is named after founding father of the United States Ben Franklin. Because this house has been used continuously as a rooming house for so long, it appears to be the only legal rooming house left in Slippery Rock and is permitted to rent to seven unrelated people. A rooming house is a unique type of historic housing where each resident has their private room but share the common spaces such as the kitchen and the bathrooms. A rooming house is a very efficient kind of residence and does not cost the residents nearly as much as seven private apartments, or even if they are shared. Residents can save money and have essential privacy by living in a rooming house which is well managed.

One member of the Taylor family, Frederika Johnson, who lives in Texas, has offered the following glimpses into how her family lived in this house in the early part of the 20th Century.

In the summer, the front porch became our living room – grass rugs, a couch, two or three bamboo chairs, coffee table and end tables, a long porch swing and - ashtrays. Since we were right on the main drag and nearly everybody walked to where they were going, there was always a pitcher of lemonade in the refrigerator. Everyone that went by was invited up to the porch and offered a glass of lemonade. During the day, we played either badminton or croquet on the flat backyard. There was a huge Weeping Willow tree at the end of the backyard and that was my dollhouse.

In the spring, all the curtains came down and the bright green wallpaper cleaner came out. The curtains were washed, starched and tacked onto curtain stretchers…wooden frames with the sharp ends of tacks coming through. The curtains were stiff enough to lean against the wall when they came off. Then they were dampened, ironed and hung back up for another year. The wallpaper was cleaned by dragging balls of the wallpaper cleaner over the surface. When the bright green turned to greenish gray, it was given to my cousin and I to play with like Play Dough.

We had a big grape arbor in the backyard, loaded with big dark purple grapes. Late in the summer, Mother, Aunt Ruth and the housekeeper would put up grape juice and grape jelly and store it in the basement cupboards.

Each fall, the coal truck would come and Grandpa would open the coal chute on the side of the house and a great mountain of coal would come tumbling down into the basement, near the furnace. The house was heated by rising air and fireplaces. The air would come up through hot air registers. Not much was left to warm us upstairs. So we kept warm with a fireplace in Grandpa’s bedroom (right front room as you face the house) and my room, just across the hall. The one and only bathroom had a little gas heater and Mother, Aunt Ruth and I would all cluster in there to get dressed on cold mornings.

In the winter, we lived in the “little living room” with the fireplace. Coal was carried upstairs daily. Grandpa started the fires in the Fall and each night would bank the fires with embers that just needed a little encouragement to come alive and wake up in the morning.

For fun in the winter we sat at the dining room table and played board games. ALL kinds of board games. On that side of the house, with the living room and dining room as one room, we had a baby grand piano at each end. My mother was a pianist and violinist and Aunt Ruth and Aunt Lillian played piano too. So we would have some fine piano duets there, Grandpa taught me to schardish up and down that room while Mother played for us. Just beside the bay window, Grandpa kept a huge, gorgeous old safe (Hidden behind a screen). He was Secretary/Treasurer of the Worth Mutual Fire Insurance Company and that was their safe. Grandpa also was a surveyor/engineer. His father had helped map out most of that area of Pennsylvania.

Hectic holidays

There was never a big crowd for our Thanksgiving dinner. Just Grandpa, Aunt Ruth, Mother and me. Sometimes our housekeeper if she didn’t have family of her own, and sometimes the other sister, Aunt Lillian, Uncle Hinesy and Sherdy. I’m not sure what is there now, but, as you come in the front door, on the right, on the other side of the wall there was our big living room and dining room (opening off the kitchen). That was where the two pianos were. We would set up the dining room table and set it family style and have stuffed turkey and the trimmings. We did this both for Thanksgiving and for Christmas. Our Christmas tree was just beside the gas fireplace in the living room. Always a live tree and tall! Grandpa wedged the tree trunk into a cement block and tightened it up with blocks of wood. Mother, Aunt Ruth, and I decorated it and I still have some of the ornaments. I couldn’t WAIT for Christmas morning and usually to bed early so it would come sooner. It was agony waiting for the grownups to have their coffee and I was SURE they drank coffee slower on Christmas mornings. Santa’s milk and cookies were always in the “little living room” and they were always gone. After we opened our gifts, I’d hightail it across the street to the Boozel’s to see what they got and drag them over to my house to see my loot. The rest of the day was spent playing with my toys or just mooning over everything I got.

Grandma Taylor made my mother her pet. She was a very strong and tall woman. She always wore long black taffeta dresses with long sleeves. One Christmas Mother got skates (you know the kind that can be made to any length and clamp on your shoes) It was too cold and icy to go outside to skate and Mother was pouting. Grandma Taylor bundled them both up in coats, and took them down into the basement, strapped the skates onto her own shoes and, stumbling some but finally flying around the small space with black taffeta flying around her ankles. Once she had done it, the taught Mother how and Mother skated in the basement most of Christmas day.

Here’s one of my own stories

When I was in high school, Aunt Ruth taught me how to dance. HOWEVER, none of the boys I knew could dance. So she pulled up the rugs, got Mother to play the piano and taught all the boys my age that she could get in there to dance – so I’d have someone to dance with at school. It gave a fine boost to my popularity, since Aunt Ruth didn’t teach any of the girls to dance. Hehhehheh.

Where we slept

I slept in the room on the second floor left side. Grandpa had the room on the right front, and Mother slept in the middle room. Aunt Ruth had the little room in the back next to the bathroom. We had a clawfoot tub in the bathroom but no shower and Aunt Ruth wanted a shower BIG TIME…so she had one put in the basement. Of course, it was really cold down there a lot of the time, but I loved braving it in the winter. Mother and Grandpa had nothing to do with the shower.

Jack, I’d heard that the house had been torn down and grieved greatly. When I came back last month I was delighted to hear that it was there. Thank you for caring for it and about it. Your tenants were so gracious about letting me walk around and look. The kitchen was spread across the entire back of the house. We had a big round oak table where we ate all our meals, except for special occasions when we ate in the dining room. In the kitchen we had the stove, refrigerator, table and chairs. That was directly off the cement back porch. Next to the kitchen was the pantry with another sink, and lots of cupboards for our dishes, etc. Our “little living room” was where we spent most of our time during cold weather, all cozy by the fire place. The long windows looked out at the front porch. I am having such fun dredging up these old memories. Rambling again; more next time. Tomorrow I’ll collect some photos.

About the House Now

A cookie jar is kept filled in the kitchen where all residents use for preparing meals and sometimes eating together. Each of the eight private rooms is furnished with a full sized refrigerator, so with a microwave each room becomes an efficient private living area. One of the bathrooms has a soaking tub with shower; the other bathroom has a shower. And there is another powder room. There is a washer and dryer for the residents. The front porch is furnished as an outside common room in summer and the back deck is also furnished for the enjoyment of residents and friends. There is a covered patio under the back deck, where bikes can be secured. The property is mostly grass but includes 48 trees and many ornamental bushes, as well as 16 gardens each with different kinds of plantings. On the right side of the backyard is a small spring-fed stream with frogs; this winds around the East and North sides of the property and goes on toe empty into Wolf Creek. A fire circle for small gatherings and some wood are in the far Western corner of the backyard. Off-street parking is beside the backyard along a row of Siberian Elm trees. Some residents, especially the Undergraduates, stay for four years and some stay for one year. Most residents are graduate students and some college teachers have resided here. Jack tells the residents at the first house meeting that they are the “last residents ever to live here, and they are also the first residents off all that are to come.” This home has been a good home to have lived in.