Ex-welder wants to stop wayward cars


February 25, 1993|By Katharine Seelye | Katharine Seelye,Knight-Ridder News Service

GRANTVILLE, Pa. -- For nearly a year, Violet Hobaugh has been operating out of her branch office.

She lives about 7 feet up in a maple tree, with a large branch jutting through the ceiling of her 5-foot-by-5-foot green clapboard treehouse. She roosts up there most of the time, even in winter, with her kerosene heater, a coffee jar full of mini candy bars, a container of crackers and a small jar of peanut butter.

Mostly, she snacks, mends old clothes and counts the cars that veer out of control on the narrow, winding road below.

Like the frontier men and women of yore, Ms. Hobaugh, who will be 76 next month, is staking a claim. First it was to save her tree from demolition by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDot). Now, she says, it is to protect her house, which stands about 15 yards behind the tree, from cars flying off the road and into her front yard.

Ms. Hobaugh has become a local legend, the woman who stood up to PennDot's chain saws. She has numerous visitors, especially on Sundays. The elderly patients at a nearby nursing home recently asked their bus driver to take them to visit Ms. Hobaugh -- who lives on a rural road about 20 miles northeast of Harrisburg -- so they could cheer her on.

But if she represents a vanishing breed of fiercely independent, rural homesteaders, she has also stymied PennDot's efforts to make the road safer, raising questions about the boundaries between individual liberty and public responsibility.

In her prime, Ms. Hobaugh was a welder by day and a waitress by night. She sold real estate on the side. A great-grandmother and twice divorced, she now spurns the modern world. She uses an outhouse. She has no phone. There's electricity only in the house, which she uses to make coffee. A woman suited more to the 1890s than the 1990s, she has few possessions other than a '65 Chevy truck.

"It's like me," she said. "It's on its last legs. But the motor works."

Ms. Hobaugh trundled down from her tree the other day to speak with a visitor. In the frigid afternoon, with temperatures in the mid-20s, she was wearing three pairs of pants, three pairs of socks, three sweaters and a brown nylon coat. Her white hair flipped out from beneath her red knit cap, pulled low over her rosy face.

"I'm not protecting the tree; I'm protecting my house," she explained as cars zoomed by, some honking, a passenger giving her the thumbs up. But, in the past, several cars have left the road and ended up in her front yard. She insists that the tree -- with her in it -- can keep cars from smashing into her house.

Isn't that putting herself in danger? And does it make any sense?

Ms. Hobaugh jabbed her wooden crutch into the snow.

"What the hell!" she demanded. "Name one thing I've got to live for. Just tell me. One thing."

Over the course of the afternoon, her mood would thaw. She would allow that she expects to live to 105. And she inadvertently mentioned a few things that might be worth living for.

Meanwhile, she has left Greg Penny, a spokesman for the PennDot district office, hamstrung. The first issue was drainage. PennDot wanted to remove two trees so it could improve the drainage on Gravel Road, which was slowly eroding. PennDot took down one tree, but Ms. Hobaugh moved into the other. Mr. Penny told her last May that he wouldn't touch her tree, but Ms. Hobaugh remained. In a Feb. 3 letter, a district engineer told her that PennDot didn't even own the right of way, so it "couldn't" remove the tree.

Ms. Hobaugh doesn't believe it.

So she remains in the tree, insisting now that the drainage ditch be fixed and that PennDot install a guide rail to protect her house. Mr. Penny said the area doesn't meet the criteria for a guide rail -- there's no room for drivers to regain control of their cars without redirecting them into oncoming traffic.

Many observers say the tree itself has become irrelevant -- that Ms. Hobaugh is staying in it and making new demands just to keep in the public eye.

But what of safety? Samuel G. Weiss Jr., the solicitor of East Hanover Township in Lebanon County, said several area residents have complained that the "spectacle" of Ms. Hobaugh in her tree have caused numerous accidents because people stop to gape or chat.

PennDot disputed this, saying the accidents are caused by the poor road surface.

Mr. Penny said PennDot's latest idea is to resurface the road with an anti-skid material, but Ms. Hobaugh said this won't get her out of her tree either, and the plan is on hold.

Back at the treehouse, Ms. Hobaugh turned chatty.

In a flight of fancy, she speculated about what she would do if she won the lottery, even though she doesn't play it:

"I'd take care of Dawn first," she said of the woman who delivers her Meals on Wheels, "so she doesn't have to work anymore. Then I'd take care of my great-grandchildren's education. Then I'd give the rest to my children. I don't need anything."

She is planning for the future after all -- come spring, she plans to build an addition to the treehouse.

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