Cultural Crossroads: There’s Something Special Happening in Millheim
Something special is happening in Millheim, and you can feel it on the streets.
Well, maybe it is more that you can feel it on the street, because, really, there is only one major road through town.
Millheim is a small community of around 900 people. But on that street in this rural community in Penns Valley, there really is something happening.
You can feel it in the brightly painted mural outside of The Elk Creek Cafe & Aleworks. You can feel it in the storefronts filled with small businesses. With an art gallery, a coffee shop, a wine shop, and a meat market, this is a town that is bustling with life. You can feel it in the click-clop sounds coming from the horse pulling an Amish buggy down Main Street. And you can feel it up in the scaffolding as carpenters repair old buildings, giving them new life.
If you haven’t been out lately to the small town on Route 45, about 30 minutes from State College, it’s worth the trip. And if you have taken that journey, you know the magic that is in the air.
Rooted in Milheim
There are no televisions in the Elk Creek Cafe & Aleworks and after a work day you can find a mixed group of people doing something that is a novel idea these days: talking to each other face-to-face. All week long people flock to the place for the food, the beer, and the community.
A young fisherman from out of town might pick up a conversation with a farmer who has lived in the valley his whole life. A young couple who came from State College for dinner might listen as a grandmother from Spring Mills talks about what Millheim used to look like. Weekends often highlight a bigger-than-expected musical act or a pop-up beer garden.
Owner Tim Bowser wanted his brewpub to be a place where people got together and talked. Political debates, farming updates, and arguments about music, along with neighborhood gossip, all seem to be part of the conversation surrounding the warm wooden bar, so it looks like he got what he was looking for.
“That is just this valley,” Bowser says. “It is a special place. There is nothing here that wasn’t here before. We just wanted to have a place where people could be together and enjoy each other’s company. Community – that is what this is all about.”
CLICK HERE for an aerial view of Millheim.
Bowser remembers stopping at the historic Millheim Hotel years ago for the pizza they served, and thinking that if there was a good product, people would come out. The hotel is still drawing a crowd, but the Elk Creek has carved a whole new niche.
The main dining room at Elk Creek is surrounded by huge windows that let in an amazing glow of light that highlights a rotating gallery of artists on the wall. Over the course of a meal it is not uncommon to see an Amish buggy pass by, nor is it uncommon to see political activists rally on the street outside.
Beer lovers flock to the pub, and foodies come to taste the locally sourced food, with the farming community of Penns Valley providing many of the main ingredients.
“What I learned when I started looking into starting a brewpub is that some breweries are good at beer and some are good at food. We wanted to be good at both. I thought if we could do that, people would make the journey to come here,” Bowser says.
It has changed the town.
“This town … is busy again – because of Tim and the Elk Creek,” says Curt Bierly, whose father started an appliance store in 1925 that still operates on Main Street next door to Elk Creek. Bowser’s “philosophy is that if you have a brewpub and an art gallery, than the town will thrive, and so that’s what we’ve got now and the town is thriving.”
(Photo by Darren Andrew Weimert) Tim Bowser (left, with brewer Tim Yarrington) wanted Elk Creek Cafe & Aleworks to be a place "where people could be together and enjoy each other's company."
It is odd that a town of 900 people has an art gallery. But the Green Drake Gallery and Arts Center is a big part of life on Main Street. With a gallery open on the weekends, Karl Leitzel uses the center to provide a home base for a thriving arts community. Leitzel grew up in next-door Aaronsburg.
“The Elk Creek was the nucleus of the revival that happened here,” Leitzel says. “A small town needs businesses that bring people in and the Elk Creek does that. That brings in people to the gallery, allowing artists in the area to have a spot to get their work out there.”
Leitzal credits the area’s natural beauty along with its location between Penn State and Bucknell universities for attracting educated and artistic people.
“People from the university came to live off the land, per se, in the 1970s. I think what you see is that’s now trickling down with the artists in the area,” Leiztel says. “Now we have artists, musicians, much more so than you would think.”
“People love this area because of the ridges and valley and creeks that run through it,” says fisherman Charlie Boyer, who has lived in the valley for 48 years. “Penns Creek, Elk Creek, Pine Creek are a huge draw. Hunting, trapping, fishing are all a huge part of the draw. I love it here.”
The beauty of the area is hard to match, Boyer says.
Fly-fishers come from around the state and even the country to fish in its steams, and a natural spot to stay is in the heart of Millheim.
The Penns Valley Conservation Association has made it a priority to keep that area as natural as can be. PVCA director of operations Joshua Brock says Penns Valley has some of the best fishing in the area.
“This is a special place, and we are trying to keep it that way,” Brock says. “It goes with Millheim, which is kind of revitalizing. The PVCA wants to keep Penns Valley the beautiful place it always was. It brings people here, the natural beauty. It is important to protect it.”
Sounds of the valley
Larry Wolken remembers when the radio meant everything to him. After living in Washington, D.C., for many years, he noticed something was missing when he moved to Penns Valley with his family.
“There just wasn’t a good local radio station,” he says. “I feel like every community needs a radio station where you can share news with the community. It is like the voice of the people, where you can share information and be connected.”
WSOV-Sounds of the Valley fills that void.
Wolken, general manager of the station, understands that in today’s world of podcasts and internet radio, the idea of a local station broadcasting on radio waves might seem as quaint as a milkman to some people, but maybe that is why it fits in with the valley. And while all those other outlets might offer a view to the world that is important, a local radio station gives the community something different. Soon the station will be streaming online so the sounds of the valley can be heard around the world.
You can’t help but feel at home at the IngleBean Coffee House. The log cabin-type atmosphere calls out for a person to come in to grab a cup of coffee and relax. It feels nice and welcoming and fun. That is just the kind of vibe that owner Dennis Alan is going for.
Alan came to the valley after living in New York City for years. Fed up with the hustle and bustle, he moved to Millheim in hopes of “homesteading” in an area that he calls among “the most beautiful in the county.” He loves the small community where he can get to know people, and that is why he is glad to be in charge of the Inglebean.
The space now offers an open mic night on Fridays that brings many local musicians and entertainers in to celebrate.
All morning long, people stop by for coffee and talk.
“I just fell in love with this area. The people, it is special. I want to keep that going at the shop, this small town community of people who care about each other,” Alan says.
The butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker
“Time kind of stands still here,” Boyer says. And he is right.
There is something quaint about seeing a butcher in the heart of town. Known for its homemade smoked products and freshly cut meats, the Penns Valley Meat Market has been serving customers for 42 years and has seen the town change.
“It is great, all the things that Elk Creek has done for town. It brings in people. There used to be a lot of empty storefronts. Now look at it out there. It is busy,” says market co-owner Nathan Bierly.
Bierly remembers running around the store when he was 6 years old and says things in the meat market remain the same as ever. Accepting only cash and keeping things simple allows the market to keep costs down.
“This is still a small town. People are nice and care about each other,” Bierly says. “But it is growing thanks to Elk Creek. Some of the older folks might not like the changes, but it is good for the town.”
Across the street is a candle shop. On another block is a barber, next to a fireplace stovetop store. Up from town a short way is Hosterman and Stover, a hardware store that has been in the area for more than 100 years.
People travel from all around to stop at Burkholder’s Country Market to find down-home foods that they might not be able to get other places. The grocery store is a baker’s dream with bulk products, and co-owner Russ Burkholder says the hot food bar is as popular as ever.
With many young Amish cooks and bakers, the store offers home-style fare that is hard to find anywhere else in the county, Burkholder says.
Having a ball
It is hard to believe that Bremen Town Ballroom used to be the home of a rowdy bar. The historic space on Main Street was renovated by Joshua and Erin McCracken, who now run their catering business out of the kitchen in the back.
The ballroom serves as a meeting place, housing farmers markets, workshops, town meetings, along with live music and other events. With a rustic but elegant feel, the ballroom is a great mix of Millheim old and new.
After traveling around the United States as a musician, Erin McCracken found Millheim as the perfect place to settle down, raise their children, and start a business.
“There is so much music here, so many great artists. I don’t know how that happens, but it did,” McCracken says.
“There is just a feeling here that is special. I can’t really explain what it is, but it is here.”
(Photo by Darren Andrew Weimert) "Dance church" at the Bremen Town Ballroom.
Vincent Corso is a staff writer for Town&Gown and The Centre County Gazette.