Seven decades later, farm is still used for recreation

First Posted: 7/21/2014

Seven decades after his death, the land Richard Harris transformed from a farm into an outdoor recreation center is still serving that purpose.

The owner of R.A. Harris Drug Store on East Main Street in Plymouth passed away in 1944 at the age of 57.

Along with his work as a pharmacist, Harris developed Forest Hills Park in Sweet Valley, which he ran with his wife, Alice Sutton Harris.

Today, the twin purposes of Forest Hills Park live on under the management of two public entities.

Harris Pond, a 35-acre lake, is managed by the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, which houses its Northeast Region there with three offices – law enforcement, outreach and education, and a gas biologist covering environmental services. Public fishing, under the state’s Big Bass Regulations, is available at the pond with a permit.

“I’ve seen quite a number of families, especially in the spring, people from the Sweet Valley area,” said Walt Dietz, PFBC outreach coordinator for the Northeast and Southeast Regions, who can often look out his office window and see people fishing. “It’s a locally popular area to fish.”

Ross Township continues the other outdoor recreational activities by leasing and maintaining 13.9 acres that include tennis and basketball courts and a baseball field.

According to Courtney Dickman, a property services technician for the PFBC, the township can construct and improve the recreation area. It manages that portion of the property as long as it does not interfere with fishing and boating and its use is for public recreation without any fees.

Joan Coolbaugh Britt, whose interest in local history has led to her being a source of information and photos for authors writing books on the subject, has photos of the property’s past which have been passed down through her family. Richard Harris and Alice Sutton Harris were Britt’s great uncle and aunt.

“I totally love history,” Coolbaugh Britt said while showing records, news accounts and photos about the property from a scrapbook.

After obtaining 225 acres of farm property, Harris dredged a swamp about 90 years ago to create what is now known as Harris Pond. He developed Forest Hills Park, which hosted private parties and clambakes at a facility on which he added amusement equipment, tennis courts, a swimming pool, a baseball field and an area to shoot clay pigeons. He also sold permits to fish at the lake.

“I loved to go out there as a kid,” said Coolbaugh Britt, a Dallas resident.

Coolbaugh Britt’s family helped keep the park going after the death of Harris until it was sold to Reverend Archibald F. Birdsall, of Shickshinny, and turned into a religious camp.

Birdsall started the Forest Hills Independent Baptist Youth Camp and Missionary Fellowship.

Dickman’s records show the facility operating as Hills of Hope Church Camp, a rehabilitation center for drug addicts, as late as December 1965. James J. Durkin and Hannah Jean Durkin, of Wilkes-Barre, then obtained the property and sold it to PFBC.

According to Dickman, the PFBC closed a deal to purchase 13 separate parcels, covering 234 acres, from the Durkins on Aug. 23, 1966.

A 2009 survey conducted by PFBC biologists showed that the most common fish caught from the lake, in order, were bluegill, largemouth bass, pumpkinseed, and black crappie.

Ross Township signed a lease in 1977 for the recreation park area. When that lease expired in 2000, Ross Township reached a new agreement with the PFBC, extending through 2025.

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