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Mountain Home Magazine

Farm, Family, and Faith

Jun 01, 2023 09:00AM ● By Steve McCloskey

After thirty-three years of teaching and nine decades of farming, living the good life comes naturally to Ed Heyler. It’s his roots, kind of in his blood, starting in one end of Tioga County and ending up in the other.

A drive across Route 49 through the Cowanesque Valley in northern Tioga County reminds you just how beautiful the land, and life, can be in Pennsylvania’s Northern Tier. Starting in Lawrenceville, heading west and following the Cowanesque River, the two-lane Route 49 serves as Main Street for the communities of Elkland, Osceola, Knoxville, and Westfield. These communities proudly fly the American flag. Many display banners honoring their hometown heroes who were in the armed services. The landscape is both majestic and tranquil, traversing mountains and valleys that include long stretches of flat, fertile fields spanning the river’s floodplain. There is no place quite like it in Tioga County.

Nearly Time Out of Mind

It also serves as a time portal of sorts. Self-service egg and plant stands dot the route. You pay on the honor system. Things seem a bit less hurried. These places have been settled a long time. You sense life is old here, but in a reassuring way that doesn’t seem obsolete. Farm life and farm values still have deep roots.

When you get to the Ed Heyler farm on the outskirts of Westfield it looks, at first glance, like many others along the Cowanesque. The 120-acre farm extends from Route 49 to the hills sloping down to the water. The big house and the numerous outbuildings appear to be well used, but are also well maintained. A four-wheeler sits idle by the back door. You sense this is a place where memories have been made.

It’s also where the time portal opens. Ed has just returned to the house after spending much of the morning chasing his herd of beef cattle in the pasture. That doesn’t seem too impressive until you realize that he is certainly one of the few, perhaps only, soon-to-be ninety-eight-year-olds on earth—or at least in the Cowanesque Valley—who is still chasing cows on a four-wheeler.

Seemingly defying time, Ed doesn’t look the way you’d expect of someone his age, and he acts even younger than he looks. Dignified, still erect in his stance, and full of a farmer’s dry wit, Ed is welcoming, warm, and easy to talk with.

“The only thing I ever really wanted to do was farm,” Ed explains, sitting in front of a wood-burner in his living room. He’s done other things, of course, but he’s achieved that goal. In 2022 he received the prestigious Distinguished Service to Agriculture Award from the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau. It’s one of the Commonwealth’s highest honors. But Ed has achieved much more satisfaction in his roles as loyal husband, loving father, caring teacher, lay minister, community advocate, and advisor to countless friends and neighbors. A humble man, he’s one of the most iconic, well-known, and greatly admired citizens in the valley. He is someone everyone trusts and respects.

The Good Life Begins

Ed was born on the now almost 200-year-old Heyler family homestead in southern Tioga County, sandwiched between Liberty and Morris in Nauvoo. Though he came into the world four years before the start of the Great Depression, Ed’s childhood memories are nothing but positive.

“It was a good place to grow up,” Ed recalls with a smile. “We didn’t have many modern conveniences, but we had everything we needed to have a good life.” That good life improved when the farm finally got electricity. Ed was a freshman at Liberty High School. He remembers well the day his family replaced the kerosene lamps with light bulbs in the house and barn.

Farm life meant you didn’t travel much. A shopping trip to Williamsport or a rare drive to see a movie at the Arcadia Theatre in Wellsboro was the extent of his universe until he graduated from high school. He volunteered for the Army Air Corps in the waning days of World War II.

His service training took him to Florida, and later Texas, where he was learning to maintain the B-29 Superfortress. “When the war ended, they came into a training session and announced that if you wanted to muster out early your training ended that day, or if you wanted to remain in the service you could choose to do so,” Ed remembers. He chose to return to the good life back home.

While Ed was eager to get back to the farm in Nauvoo, he was even more pleased to see his girl. Before joining the service, Ed had met Dorna Mudge, from Covington. Dorna’s sister taught at the two-room schoolhouse close to the Heyler farm and knew Ed. She thought that Ed and Dorna would make a good couple. It proved to be a correct assumption.

Communicating mostly through letters during Ed’s service days, the relationship grew. When Ed returned home, he initially worked the first winter cutting logs before taking a job in the Wellsboro glass factory. But he was looking for a farm. Dorna asked why he would pass up the chance for a free college education provided by the GI Bill. It was, she reasoned, the chance of a lifetime. After thinking over her suggestion, Ed came up with a proposal which in turn would lead to a proposal. He would take classes at Penn State to become a secondary agricultural education teacher, but he wouldn’t do it alone.

“If I was going to do it, we were going to do it together,” Ed explains. “I was a little homesick when I was in the service and didn’t want to be homesick again.”

They married on May 17, 1947. Ed and Dorna got to know each other really well after moving into a cramped twenty-foot trailer in State College. Both of them got jobs at a local nursery to make ends meet, with Dorna staying on at the nursery after Ed started classes. She loved the job. Her passion for the nursery business became a lifelong occupation, something they would share all their lives.

They had each other while they were in State College, but not much else. Their time at Penn State was special and lasting, though, and it instilled in both of them, and for their future family, the importance of education. All five of their children earned degrees in higher education, with Sam and Dick graduating from Penn State. Dan attended Penn State before transferring to Williamsport Area Community College to become a mechanic. Marty, who graduated from the University of Georgia, and his family have a farm adjoining his dad’s. He, Sam, and Dick followed their father’s footsteps and became teachers, with Marty replacing Ed as the ag teacher at Cowanesque Valley High School. Little sister Nancy graduated from Bloomsburg University and serves as the head of nursing recruitment at Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester. Their successes in their professional and personal lives is one of Ed’s greatest joys.

By taking classes through the summers, Ed had graduated early. There was an ag teacher position opening in Westfield that would start in January of 1950. The couple felt a sense of relief when Ed was offered the position, and packed up the car to move north to Westfield. On the way, they stopped by the farm in Nauvoo to see Ed’s folks. There Dorna, who was pregnant, told Ed’s mother that she was experiencing labor pains. Ed’s mother insisted she go to the hospital in Wellsboro. The next day was one Ed and Dorna would never forget. It marked the arrival of their first child, Sam, and Ed’s first day of teaching in Westfield.

Farming Again

A fallow farm came up for sale on the outskirts of town, and Ed and Dorna found themselves back in the farming business. They felt that running a dairy herd would be too much of a challenge with the time requirements of teaching, so the couple bought chickens and sold eggs to help make ends meet. The business grew to nearly 2,000 laying hens, with Heyler eggs shipped to New York City on one of the railroads that ran through Westfield. But their side enterprise became part of the collateral damage inflicted when the railroad stopped service to the city.

The egg business was gone and their family was expanding. Ed and Dorna explored ways to generate extra income while also keeping their hands in farming. Dorna’s passion for the nursery business seemed like the most logical choice.

So they built a greenhouse.

Starting on a small scale in 1953, the nursery business grew into a family and community tradition that lasted for sixty-six years until 2019 and the onset of covid. It was a community gathering spot as much as a business. Folks from up and down the valley stopped in every spring to pick out plants and talk with Dorna. The business also instilled responsibility in the Heyler children. They returned to help, even as they themselves were approaching retirement age. Ed still raises plants for family and friends, and starts seeds for the Guthrie Community Garden in Sayre.

More of That Good Life

Retiring as a vice principal at Cowanesque Valley High School in 1983, Ed started putting more time and attention into another way of making a positive impact on the lives of others.

“A minister heard me talk and offered the opportunity to speak from the pulpit,” says Ed. “That was about fifty years ago, and I’ve been offered opportunities to speak at different churches in the valley when needed since then.” Right now, he’s booked for at least four services this year.

Some of those speaking opportunities were funerals. Ed figures he has done about 100 so far, with some folks already asking in advance for him to perform their service.

His presence at any service seems special but none more so than when family is involved. Allen Heyler is one of Ed’s six grandchildren. He’s an elementary teacher at R.B. Walter School in Tioga Junction. When Allen got married, he asked his grandfather to do the message at the wedding.

“He has shown me over the years how to be humble, kind, caring, and make time for everyone,” says Allen. “I’ve never heard him pass judgment on someone else or speak unkind words. There is always a place at the dinner table for anyone and everyone that stops or happens to be there, no matter family, friends, or just someone in need. As a kid I used to often borrow tools, shovels, rakes, or other hand tools, and he never cared, as long as they went right back where I got it from. He was willing to give the message during my wedding, and that is more special than most people know. At ninety-seven-years-old, it still amazes me the amount of effort he puts into making the world just a little bit better place, one person at a time.”

Ed’s ability to make people feel special makes an impression, no matter how young or old you may be. Allen’s son, Barrett, is one of ten great-grandchildren, and he already has lasting memories of his great-grandfather.

“Whenever we stop...if he is on the four-wheeler, he always makes room for me, even if we were just going from the front yard to the backyard. He used to also ask about how many cows would fit around my furnace, because when I was little and it was cold, I thought he should bring them in so they didn’t freeze.”

With few exceptions, the first thing anyone says around Westfield if you ask about Ed Heyler is “I’ve known Ed and Dorna Heyler my whole life,” and “the Heyler’s are a great family.”

John Painter Jr. heads one of the largest and most successful farming operations in the county and serves on the boards of numerous state and local ag-related organizations. He has known Ed Heyler his whole life, and played a role in the nomination process for the Distinguished Service to Agriculture Award. He becomes emotional when talking about the impact Ed and Dorna have had on him and on the community.

“Ed Heyler is a man of the community who commands a lot of respect for how he lives his life and how much he and his late wife, Dorna, have done for this area,” says John. “Ed doesn’t pass judgment on anybody, and welcomes everybody. Even at the age of ninety-seven, he is still making a lasting impact on our community.”

They Stayed for the Speech

At the conclusion of the banquet at the Farm Bureau Awards presentation last year, as the Distinguished Service to Agriculture recipient, Ed was the final speaker on the podium.

Three hours of speeches had left the audience a little restless and weary. But everyone perked up to hear what this ninety-seven-year-old man had to say. After giving the appropriate thanks and appreciation for an evening that was meant to be about him, Ed spoke from his heart:

“Now if you take a pool of water and throw a stone in it, the ripples go all over. If you do a good deed today and another one tomorrow, they’re going to go all over. And the ones that I make are going to come to the ones that you make. And pretty soon we’re going to have a much larger place. Soon we’re going to have a much better world. Stop and think for a moment. Maybe we can change Pennsylvania. Not from a red state or a blue state. Maybe we can change it to an O state—O for an optimist. The optimist gets up in the morning and he says, ‘Good morning, Lord.’ The pessimist gets up and says, ‘Good Lord—morning!’ Let’s be an O state. Thank you, you’ve been a good audience. You’ve listened to an old man’s hopes and dreams.”

His speech lasted five minutes and was greeted with thunderous applause and a standing ovation.

Among the multitude of people who pressed to congratulate him afterward were two of the servers. They explained they never stick around to listen to speakers, but they wanted to hear what he had to say and were touched by the message. Ed thought that was one of the best compliments he received, because it came from people who didn’t have to be there but just wanted to listen to what he had to say.

Dorna passed away in 2021 after seventy-three and a half years of marriage. “Dad was brokenhearted, and he still is,” Dick says. “But he’s a strong man with a strong will and strong faith, and so he keeps going. He has chores. He has his church. He has his farm. He has his family, and he has his community and people stopping every day to visit or ask questions about how to do something. As I tell you this, he is in the field driving his tractor and discing to plant corn.”

“Mom and Dad were role models for their kids and for the whole community,” explains Nancy. “They taught us the importance of family, kindness, empathy, and education. They functioned as a team for more than seventy-three years, and in doing so, and holding fast to their love of each other and friends and neighbors, they impacted hundreds of lives.”

Last year, Ed left his birthday party celebration early to go cut hay. As he approaches his ninety-eighth birthday celebration, he doesn’t really know how much time he has left, but he does have a plan.

After his last checkup, the doctors told him that the battery in his pacemaker has six years of life remaining. Ed plans to use all six years. And then perhaps get another battery.

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