When people think of small Pennsylvania towns, they often aren’t aware of the jewels that may be found there.
Such is the case with Mifflinburg. Recently, my wife and I made a day out of it, starting with a morning hike in the Tall Timber Natural Area before enjoying a repast at the Rusty Rail Brewing Co. and finishing up with a visit to Penns Creek Pottery.
Tall Timber Natural Area is located at the base of Jacks Mountain, about an hour north of Harrisburg. There, we hiked the Swift Run Trail along the creek. There are some ups and downs, but most of the easy-walking trail follows the creek through a forest of white pines and other hardwoods, then up the mountain. Listen for the musical calls of the thrushes and other birdsong along the way.
Once you finish your hike and the appetite begins to build, it’s an easy, 20-mile drive to Mifflinburg. Turn left off of Route 45 at 8th Street and, in half a block, you’ll see the Rusty Rail Brewing Co. on the left, located in a historic, red-brick building. Inside, you’ll find everything you need to fuel back up. You can even relax with some pool or darts and even take in a dose of Pennsylvania’s industrial past.
The Rusty Rail occupies an enormous, century-plus-old building that, over the years, has made everything from automobile bodies to pool tables to kitchen cabinets.
A few years ago, brothers Paul and Eric John decided to convert the cavernous building into a brewpub and events space, which entailed a complete redesign and remodel, as well as an enormous investment. General Manager Rich Schrader said that they used many existing elements during the renovation and construction, repurposing materials and objects to reflect the industrial heritage of the building and the town.
Next, they recruited a team—chef, brewer, restaurant manager, events coordinator and brewery/sales manager—to lead the different areas of the operation.
“Like any startup, we had our share of turnover, but, overall, we have retained the largest portion of our original staff,” Schrader said. “We had to find a rhythm with the team. On our busiest days of opening the restaurant, 350 customers a day seemed like a lot. Two years later, we are serving over 800 people on our busiest days.”
The restaurant now smokes its own meats, bakes its own breads and creates its own bases, sauces and desserts. The specialties of the house include smoked brisket, cheesesteak spring rolls, Asian veal short ribs and venison meatballs.
Beer-wise, the brewery has six core brands, including an IPA, a pale ale, a blonde ale, a stout, a witbier and a lager, as well as various seasonals. In the near future, the Rusty Rail plans to start brewing sour and barrel-aged beers and to add canning to its packaging.
“The production and distribution side of the brewery has grown tremendously,” Schrader said. “We are present in most of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and we plan to continue to expand into surrounding states and beyond.”
The Rusty Rail’s events side—for weddings, live music and other happenings—also has grown substantially, which should be enhanced further once an outside pavilion and beer garden are complete.
“The future looks very bright,” Schrader said.
One of a Kind
After our meal, we ventured down to Penns Creek Pottery, located on Route 104, about 3½ miles south of Mifflinburg—right on your return trip to Harrisburg. Owners Bill and Sharon Lynch have been at this location since the late 1970s.
“We moved to Mifflinburg in 1978 and didn’t know a soul,” Bill said. “The ice jam of February 1979 flooded our home and workshop, and recovering from that natural disaster was quite a job. It took at least six months to put things back together, while trying to establish a market for my pottery and a brand for myself.”
Another challenge was restoring the 200-year-old, water-powered flourmill on the property and turning it into a production studio and retail gallery. The mill was in derelict shape after ceasing operation in 1951 and serving as a chicken coop for many years. They set a goal for themselves—making and selling pottery in the mill within a decade.
They met that goal and, over his career, Bill has earned many prestigious honors, including the Phil Patterson Memorial Award for Outstanding Design and Craftsmanship from the Pennsylvania Guild of Craftsmen.
“I think pottery is so important today because we live in an increasingly impersonal world,” he said. “Most of what we use today in our everyday lives is made anonymously, often in factories halfway around the globe.”
People are hungry, Bill said, for things that are not mass-produced—that are one of a kind and made locally.
“Everything I make at Penns Creek Pottery is sold right here,” he said. “Visitors can see pots being made as they browse through the collection of finished pottery, and they can meet the potters and learn something about the process while they shop. People really like that.”
Once you leave Penns Creek Pottery, consider a stop at Shade Mountain Winery. It’s right on the way back to Harrisburg and a perfect way to end your day trip.
Tall Timber Natural Area: Follow Route 322 West until you reach Thompsontown, then exit at Route 333. Drive north on Route 333 until the road intersects with Route 235, then enjoy a scenic drive over Shade Mountain until you reach the tiny town of Troxelville. Turn left at the sign for the Snyder-Middlesworth Picnic Area and follow the road, partially paved, partially gravel, until you reach the area.
Rusty Rail Brewing Company, 5 N. 8th St., Mifflinburg. Visit www.rustyrailbrewing.com or call 570-966-7878.
Penns Creek Pottery, 30 Pottery Lane, Mifflinburg. Visit www.pennscreekpottery.com or call 570-837-3809.
Shade Mountain Winery, 16140 PA Route 104, Mifflinburg. Visit www.shademountainwinery.com or call 570-837-3644.