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By DONNA THOMAS donnat@leader.net

Sunday, January 21, 2001     Page: 1B

KINGSTON TWP. - The mines that helped to make the Conyngham family fortune might be gone now, but the farm that started out as the family's summer home still operates.
    William L. Conyngham, a prominent Wilkes-Barre businessman, purchased the 400-acre operation from Joseph Harter in 1881. More than 100 years later, Wyoming Valley residents can buy fresh milk or a scoop of fresh ice cream from his great-grandsons.
    Hillside Farms Dairy, the producer of nationally known ice cream, was once a hobby for the gentleman farmer and his family. His great-grandsons Frank and Will Conyngham turned the Trucksville farm into a dairy bottling and ice cream business in the 1970s.
    ``My grandfather simply wanted a place to (go to) get out of the valley,'' said Bill Conyngham, who, at 80, is still involved in the farm.
    ``He tried Harveys Lake, and they didn't like it,'' Bill said. ``They also tried a lake in the Poconos. Finally Mr. Harter saw my grandfather in Wilkes-Barre and said, `I heard you're looking for a summer home.' My grandfather said, `We gave up the idea and I think we'll travel.' ''
    Perhaps when his grandfather took a carriage ride to Trucksville to see Harter's property, the coal broker was reminded of the farm his family once owned in Wilkes-Barre near present-day Conyngham Avenue, named for the farm. Maybe it's in the family's blood, as it owned several farms in Ireland before members came to the Wyoming Valley.
    The family's main business in America was providing mining supplies to the anthracite industry. That business eventually evolved into the Eastern Pennsylvania Supply Co., a multimillion-dollar distribution center for plumbing materials.
    But through all those changes, the Conynghams have continued to run the farm.
    Today the land is a green oasis in a sea of suburbia, where other farms once surrounded the area. It survived, said Bill Conyngham, because at least one family member has always had an affection for the land.
    ``It's such a part of the family fabric that it would be tough to dissolve it,'' Will Conyngham said.
    The farm has come a long way from chilling cans of milk in well water and hand milking. From the early 1900s to 1950, milk was cooled that way before it was transported, Will said.
    Will, 52, can remember spending summers on the farm as a child and watching his uncle's horses dragging logs from the woods.
    ``When I was little, there were still three of them out there,'' Will said. ``It was a thrill to watch a 2,000-pound animal pull logs.''
    Will and Frank share a love for a place that their father, Bill, still harbors.
    ``I cannot remember not being interested,'' Bill said. ``My brothers were always 80 percent in the wholesale plumbing business and 20 percent in the branches of the farm they were interested in. I spent 80 percent in the farm - a little more than half my time working.''
    Almost five generations of family members have enjoyed a summer home, raised dairy cattle - and had a good time. This was no hardscrabble farm family eking a living off the rocky land.
    The Conynghams are the descendants of John N. Conyngham, a Philadelphia lawyer, and Ruth Ann Butler, a Wilkes-Barre native. John became a Luzerne County judge when the county encompassed Lackawanna and Wyoming counties.
    The coal-brokering business led the Conyngham family into a mining supply business that made the family a lot of money in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
    The company eventually switched gears in the 1940s to a plumbing supply business, which has been the family's primary enterprise for years.
    While the wheels of the Conyngham fortune churned, the farm sustained itself. Hillside Farm sold its milk at the farm and the milk was delivered to Wilkes-Barre by horse and carriage.
    Each summer, the Conyngham kids come to the farm to work and play in the fields.
    And though their family's history in the Wyoming Valley can be traced to 1823, the Hillside cows' ancestry can be traced back pretty far as well.
    In 1885, the farm imported a new kind of cow to the farm called a Holstein-Fresian. She was named Superb. Holsteins are the black-and-white cows that dot rural areas around America.
    Superb's arrival was recorded in the dairy Holstein-Fresian Association books 114 years ago. Superb turned out to be a great producer of milk and offspring. Hillside Farm's herd is one of the longest-continuing herds in the country. Hillside ice cream is still made from the milk of her descendants.
    Today, Hillside is one of the few active dairy farms in Luzerne County and one of two bottling operations in the county.
    ``I'm so grateful that I've lived for 80 years and it's still there,'' Bill said. ``I have 13 grandchildren and a number of great-grandchildren, I don't suppose it will (be around in 100 years.) I think eventually it will go to a subdivision.''
    Bill reconsidered that comment, when looking back on his two sons, Will and Frank, as teenagers growing up in the '50s and the '60s.
    ``I have sons that I certainly wouldn't have thought either one of them would have been interested when they were younger.''
    Donna Thomas-Morelli, a Times leader staff writer, may be reached at 829-7222.
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