The Hays Family Journey:  A Message from James M. Deibel

This story is about honoring my father and discovering the rich history of the Hays family from which he descends.

 On February 7, 2012, our family gathered in Tyler, Texas, to celebrate my father’s 84th birthday. Before dessert, my father announced that he wanted to travel to Pittsburgh to see the grave of his mother, who died in 1929 in McDonald, Pennsylvania when he was eleven months old. The family, although somewhat astonished, acknowledged his announcement and agreed to accompany him. “As you already know, I do not know if I ever had any relatives in Pittsburgh,” said my father. “As a child I spent summers with my grandparents in Donora, Pennsylvania, where my grandfather was the superintendent of the open hearth mill for American Wire and Steel Company. I got to know my aunt Mildred Eyman Bryce and her son Teddy from my visits. After my return from World War II, I buried my grandfather in April 1949. It was the last time I ever saw Mildred. My father, my brother Bill, and I traveled to Pittsburgh, stayed at the William Penn Hotel, and saw many people, none of which I knew as family.  I lost touch with Mildred after she married Alan Robinson, moved to Cleveland, and then finally to Florida.”

The next day while driving back to Dallas with my son, James, I could not stop thinking about what was said the prior evening.  Knowing that Dad had previously conducted extensive genealogy on the Deibel family back in the 1970’s and traced our roots back to 1560 in Lollar, Germany, I began thinking of how significant it would be if I could discover any existing relatives on his mother’s side.  In the following days, I began my research on Ancestry.com with the only record document in my possession – the 1949 death certificate of my great-grandfather, John Harold Eyman.  The journey began when I found a copy of an 1880 U.S. Census record of my great-grandfather John Harold Eyman, who lived in Wilkins County, Pennsylvania (now Braddock County) with his parents and seven siblings.  Over the next five months, I located approximately sixty living descendants of the eight Eyman children.  My great-grandmother Flora Edna Hays married John Harold Eyman, and I located approximately one hundred living descendants of the Hays family. 

While researching the Hays family, I discovered much about the family history going back to Baltimore County, Maryland. Abraham Hays, Jr., our patriarch, forged the Allegheny Mountains nine years after the Battle of Fort Duquesne in 1767.  I also discovered, through the invaluable help of a fellow genealogist and now dear friend, the existence of the Hays Mansion, which a retired college professor, Dr. Mark Draper of Rockville, Maryland, had purchased in 2004. His goal was to save the magnificent mansion from demolition and restore it into a bed and breakfast.

In preparation for my trip to Pittsburgh, I wanted to provide my father with the research that I had prepared and find a local historian who could share some insights into the Hays family as well as a glimpse of their impact on the Industrial Revolution and Pittsburgh society.  My research for that historian was eclipsed by my calling renowned historian and author David McCullough, who had grown up in Pittsburgh.  Mr. McCullough, who now lives in Massachusetts, introduced me to Andrew Masich, CEO and President of the Senator John Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh.  Upon receipt of my letter detailing my research, the background on the Hays Mansion, and plans for our trip to Pittsburgh, Andy invited us to lunch at the History Center.  After our tour of the Heinz Center, Dr. Draper invited the Hays descendants to a tour of the Hays Mansion in Munhall, Pennsylvania, approximately a fifteen-minute drive from downtown Pittsburgh.  After reaching out to many descendants from both sides of the Eyman and Hays families, we were delighted to hear that Dad would meet at least twenty of his mother’s relatives on our trip.

Upon our arrival, we met members of the Eyman family from Great Falls, Virginia, and Champion, Pennsylvania. We had a spectacular time looking at family pictures and learning about our family history in Pittsburgh.  The next day, we drove to Weirton, West Virginia, and met relatives who had known Dad’s grandparents and grew up with them. Flora and Cora Hays were sisters.  They would spend most weekends at each other’s homes either in Donora, Pennsylvania, or in Richmond, Ohio.  The following day, we gathered at The Senator John Heinz History Center and met fifteen Hays family members who had traveled from the Cleveland area, Steubenville, Ohio, eastern Pennsylvania and Pleasant Hills, PA to have lunch, meet Andy Masich, and take the tours.  While being informed about the status of the Hays Mansion and the family’s desire to understand the options for saving it, Andy was very articulate in providing us with the probable scenarios associated with the ultimate fate of the historic structure.  He went into great detail describing how a museum must be operated. Significant endowments need to be in place to establish a museum of Hays family history and artifacts; otherwise, such a project would be unfeasible.  Generally, the cost of running and maintaining a museum far exceeds revenues generated by paid tours.  If items of historical significance were discovered during the restoration process, then the archaeologists would have to confirm their relevance and provide forensic proof that, in fact, historical significance exists.  Aside from that, he let everyone know that if the Hays Mansion were to be saved, the Hays family descendants would need to save it.  We then took a tour of three sections of the museum that took us from post-colonial America prior to the formation of our country when our ancestors arrived along the banks of the Monongahela River in 1767, through the Industrial Revolution and into modern America. It was a fascinating experience!  Afterwards, we drove to the Hays Mansion and toured the skeleton of what had been the largest dwelling in Homestead/Munhall for over a hundred years.  The mansion had not been lived in for many years but the window to the past evidenced the opulence and grandeur of the industrialists and farmers who at one time owned land adjacent to it as far as the eye could see. The Hays family opened the first coal mine, floated the first riverboat, opened the first steel mill and were the power brokers of the mid-to-late 1800’s along with the Carnegies and Mellons in Pittsburgh.  These families became the backbone of the Industrial Revolution in our country.  The feeling of most family members present was heartbreak and sadness that this grand dame of a structure, perched on a hill with panoramic views of the Monongahela River Valley, was destined for the wrecking ball and with it, the heritage of the Hays family.  After coming back home, I realized that what David McCullough had told me earlier was to become my passion. His parting words to me were “Do not stop doing what you are doing in your research.”  I continued my research on Ancestry.com to create a perpetual documentation of my ancestry and find long-lost relatives.   Months passed and in mid-November 2012, I received a phone call that Harden Place was on the Borough of Munhall’s Council agenda for condemnation and future demolition.  I called Dr. Draper and discussed his outlook based on the pending events.  On November 23, 2012, the Borough of Munhall condemned the mansion for demolition and provided a 120-day window of time in which to save it. Otherwise, its fate would be sealed.  In another conversation with Dr. Draper, I expressed my interest in saving the mansion and described my months of research and the validity of the conclusions Andy Masich had expressed at our luncheon.  The blessing of that day was the fact that Dr. Draper had heard exactly what Andy said and was most interested in exploring the alternative of selling the mansion to the family given that I could muster enough interest from my relatives. In December 2012, I successfully entered into a contractual obligation to purchase the Hays Mansion with the intention of reaching out to over 350 living Hays descendants whom I have found through my research. Along my journey, I have met family members who, upon hearing my story, have marshaled forces to assist me in this noble cause.  Mr. Hugh Morley Zimmers, a licensed architect in Pennsylvania, has taken the lead role in all matters regarding the rescission of the condemnation and the staging of a critical path for the restoration and renovation of the mansion, state and federal historic landmark designation and coordination of field verification by Design Alliance, a large, Pittsburgh-based architectural firm that will provide preliminary plats, renderings and ultimately, construction drawings for the project. Many other family members have referred competent labor to handle the immediate needs attendant to our goal, including but not limited to graphic design, cleaning, landscaping, policing, securing and assemblage of art and artifacts of the family’s history. Based on the hard work of local Hays descendants, Mr. Joe McKay of Pittsburgh, PA and many other volunteers, the borough council rescinded the condemnation on June 19, 2013.

This is a monumental task.  It will require the hearts, souls, and sweat from many Hays family members to see it through.  This is our time in history, once assembled, to prove to the world that saving our heritage means something.  My journey has been one of honor and faith. I hope that you not only appreciate the significance of our forefathers’ legacy, but also the legacy we will leave for our children and grandchildren.