ONCE UPON A TIME
a young Navy lieutenant serving in the Pacific in World War II decided to run for Congress—in absentia. He was elected to the House of Representatives, and then re-elected 13 more times, becoming a fixture in local politics as well as the chairman of the Pennsylvania House delegation.
Along the way, his flamboyant lifestyle included residences in Dormont, Mt. Lebanon and Upper St. Clair, properties in Washington and Greene counties and a passion for collecting art, antiques and oddities. He maintained a farm in Mt. Lebanon off Shady Drive East, where he raised cattle, sheep and “quackless ducks.” The property today is the site of the Main Line development.
His name was James Grove Fulton. He was the son of a banker, scion of a prominent and deep-rooted South Hills family, graduate of Harvard Law School, World War II Navy veteran and publisher of seven suburban newspapers, including the Mt. Lebanon News. He was also a never-ending source of good copy for those papers. For 28 years and 14 terms in the House of Representatives, he was the soul of Republican politics in Mt. Lebanon. His gregarious personality made it seem as though he knew everyone in town. According to his obituary in the Pittsburgh Press, “Whenever three South Hills residents got together, Jim Fulton was probably one of them.”
The Suburban Farm
Although his voting address was Espy Avenue in Dormont, “Fulton’s Farm,” off Shady Drive East, was his main residence. An actual working farm in the heart of Mt. Lebanon, Golden Pheasant Farm, as Fulton called it, had livestock and large vegetable gardens. He leased the historic Snyder-Bockstoce House, where he lived, from the Mt. Lebanon Cemetery Association, a privately owned company on whose board he served. A 1963 newspaper account of the City Farmers Club, a group for gentlemen farmers, notes that he raised ducks, fowl, sheep and cattle on a 30-acre farm in Mt. Lebanon.
In the ’40s and ’50s, Lee Klingenberg grew up in a house on Shady Drive East whose yard backed up to Fulton’s Farm. He remembers playing softball and football and sledding on the property in the winter with his neighbors.
“There were probably around a dozen or so children that participated in one time or another in what that farm provided in the way of entertainment,” he said. “To the best of my knowledge, Mr. Fulton never objected to any of those activities, as long as we confined ourselves to the pasture and didn’t wander up onto his residential area.”
Ironically, Lee Klingenberg now lives in Main Line, which is built on the very property where he played as a child. “I remember the sheep that waltzed past the back of our house. There was also a horse or mule, chickens, ducks and obviously a cow, which provided dry cow pies that we used as bases for our ball games! As a budding artist, whenever I had the chance, I would wander over to the far corner of the farm where I would sketch the ducks in the big pond there.”
A Center for Entertainment
Fulton’s historic residence, built between 1835 and 1850, was the second-oldest house in Mt. Lebanon. The first owner of the rambling red brick house in the Greek Revival style was farmer John Snyder. Henry Bockstoce bought the property in 1854 and operated a nursery there before selling the house and property to Mt. Lebanon Cemetery around 1880. Fulton seems to have begun leasing it around in the late ‘30s.
The farm was the site of countless gatherings, both indoor and outdoor, because Fulton was generous—and politically savvy—about offering it to a variety of organizations. He sponsored everything from wiener roasts for Young Republicans to a square dance for supporters of Dwight Eisenhower in 1952, attended by Eisenhower’s brother Earl, to rallies for Republican women. He invited 600 guests to a reception in 1946 for Pittsburgh Symphony conductor Fritz Reiner, during which the traffic jam at the front was so great that the guest of honor had to be brought through the back door. On a visit to Pittsburgh in 1962, Pennsylvania First Lady Mary Scranton was feted at a luncheon at Fulton’s Farm, where she had to climb on a chair to address the overflow gathering.
In 1958, Jim Fulton entertained Queen Frederika of Greece and her daughter at Golden Pheasant Farm. For the occasion, he hired a shepherd to roam the grounds, tending the sheep with a crook. In a newspaper account, one of the guests reported, “He must have invited every Greek within 200 miles.”
A Passion for Collecting
The house was also filled with Fulton’s extensive and eclectic collection of art, antiques and curiosities. He brought back artwork from overseas trips he took in Congress and filled his Washington home and office to overflowing, sometimes blocking his own filing cabinets. On a trip to Madrid, he managed to acquire a rare Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington, which hangs in the Capitol today.
In Pittsburgh, he bought a pair of stone piers in the Monongahela River left over from a demolished Wabash Railroad bridge. Although he proposed various uses for them, they remained untouched until his death and are still there today.
Fulton had a well-deserved reputation for personal favors; he could not have maintained his seat from a district where Democrats eventually outnumbered Republicans without keeping his supporters happy. In addition to lending his property for political meetings, he appeared regularly at fish fries, wedding receptions, neighborhood carnivals, church suppers and any other gathering where voters might be found. He was known to convince the Air Force to fly Vietnam veterans home for weddings; obtain flags flown over the Capitol for veterans’ organizations; persuade astronauts to visit high schools in his district and personally escort South Hills visitors on tours of his Rayburn Building office and the Capitol.
His remarkable life ended in October 1971, when he died of a heart attack at Walter Reed Army Medical Center after a day of debating humane treatment of prisoners of war on the floor of the House. At his death, he was dean and chairman of the Pennsylvania delegation in the House, the ranking member of the House Science and Astronautics Committee and a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee. Along the way, he championed abortion rights, civil rights, labor unions, the metric system and funding for the space program.
Mt. Lebanon Cemetery sold the Fulton’s Farm property to a company that began to plan and build for what became the Main Line Homeowners’ Association.
Selling Off the Estate
Since he died without a will, more than 1,000 art objects were sold at auctions in Washington, D.C., and Pittsburgh in 1972. Among them were swords, Royal Doulton toby mugs, a 1613 Bible and other rare books, 17th, 18th and 19th century paintings, antique Chinese porcelain lions, tapestries, cannons and a black basalt bust of George Washington signed by Wedgwood. His estate also included a 75-acre property in Washington County with Native American mounds and the remains of an outpost from the French and Indian War.
Mt. Lebanon Cemetery sold the Fulton’s Farm property around 1988 to a company that began to plan and build for what became the Main Line Homeowners’ Association. Despite a pledge to preserve it, Semper Construction, which then owned the property, allowed the house to deteriorate and then severely damaged it when they moved it to another location within the property. Mt. Lebanon’s commissioners reluctantly gave permission for it to be torn down in 1991. Bricks from the house were sold as fundraisers for Mt. Lebanon Library.
James Fulton is buried in Mt. Lebanon Cemetery, not far from the place he called Golden Pheasant Farm.
Images from the collections of Historical Society of Mount Lebanon