McMurray Dairy Bar has a storied history in Peters Twp.

Published Feb 19, 2014 at 6:41 am (Updated Feb 14, 2014 at 1:30 pm)

One era ended and another began Feb. 10 when ownership of the McMurray Dairy Bar in Peters Township changed from one family – the Duckworths – to another – the Heislers. Some of the faces in the store are the same, while others are new. The name tags display Heisler’s Market, as do the cash register receipts, yet some employees continue to wear baseball caps at the deli counter that state McMurray Dairy Bar.

The famous baked ham will continue to be sold, along with the equally famous ham salad. Bethel Bakery and Bread Works baked goods are in the same place, as are products from private vendors. Many of the regulars continue to eat lunch, drink coffee and get caught up on the latest news at the tables and chairs scattered about.

There is a history associated with the Dairy Bar that a change in ownership and a new name cannot erase.

Tom McMurray was raised in the township and still resides in his boyhood home, not far from the Dairy Bar. Like members of the Duckworth family, his roots run deep in the community and the Dairy Bar played, and continues to be, a big part of his life.

“That was the center of the township,” McMurray said of the former building at the intersection of East McMurray and Valley Brook roads. “Everyone was there.”

He always met a group of friends for coffee at the Dairy Bar every Saturday. Now, he said, the coffee group is gone, but McMurray retains the memories.

As a young boy, McMurray said he would get on his bicycle in the summer and ride all over the township, stopping at the Dairy Bar several times a day.

“We’d go there after games, and there was a post office and they’d sell cigarettes in the day, and you’d go there every day because you always saw people you’d know and spend time catching up on what’s going on,” McMurray said.

Eventually, times changed and the Dairy Bar moved to a new building, taking along the baked ham recipe and some of the memories, but as McMurray said, “The new building was not the same Dairy Bar.” One of the things that didn’t make the move was the ice cream counter. When asked, McMurray said his favorite food memory was the milkshakes.

Like the McMurray family, the history of the Duckworth family goes back a long time and in some instances, the two families are intertwined. Wallace McMurray, Tom McMurray’s grandfather, was the first person to mail a package from the new post office in the Dairy Bar on March 15, 1957.

The land on which the Dairy Bar sits was once a blacksmith shop opened in about 1890 and owned by the Simpson family. A general store was added around the turn of the century, complete with a pot belly stove and cracker barrels.

When automobiles came into vogue, gasoline pumps were installed in about 1927, and later the McMurray Barbeque opened, owned by C.A. Herbertson, the great-grandfather of the last Dairy Bar owner, Gary Duckworth. In 1949, Donald Duckworth and his wife Peg, Gary Duckworth’s parents, assumed ownership and renamed the business the McMurray Dairy Bar.

For 64 years, the Duckworth family operated the Dairy Bar. Now, the infamous store is owned by the Heisler family, that also has a long history of operating grocery stores. Current owner, Ed Heisler Sr., said his grandparents operated a “mom and pop” grocery store and that his ancestors met while working in the store. Ed Heisler also owns a Shop ‘N Save in Carrick and his sister owns a Shop ‘N Save in Mt. Lebanon.

Like Heisler’s relatives, love also bloomed in the Dairy Bar as Gary Duckworth met Carol Opferman when she worked in his parents’ store. They were married for 38 years until Carol Duckworth’s untimely death Jan. 31, just 10 days before the business was sold to the Heisler family. Heisler said the sale had been in the works for about a year so the couple could enjoy retirement and spend time together away from the daily grind of operating the store.

A telephone call to Gary Duckworth was not returned.

The philosophy of the two families is similar: provide the customers with convenience at a fair price and close to home. The convenience goes back as far as the late 1920s.

When the gas pumps were installed about 90 years ago, it was the only place to buy gasoline between Washington and Pittsburgh. Situated on what was then named Washington Pike, the road was the main route between Pittsburgh and Washington. The story goes that during the heavy snow in late November 1950, Donald Duckworth drove food to stranded customers on his tractor. His wife, Peg, is said to have crawled on her hands and knees from the store to the gas pumps to provide fuel to a road plow so the driver could continue to spread ashes.

In the snow of 1993, the store remained open as long as possible to provide staples like milk, bread and diapers to customers, most of whom walked to the Dairy Bar.

When the business outgrew its space in the late 1950s, Donald and Peg Duckworth built an addition at the rear facing Valley Brook Road, giving the original Dairy Bar more of a superette flair.

In 1987, Donald and Peg Duckworth retired and moved to North Carolina. Their son, Gary, and his wife, Carol, took over.

The business continued to prosper and the old building was demolished to make way for a more spacious, modern store. McMurray said his son, who worked at the Dairy Bar for a time, watched Gary Duckworth operate a bulldozer to destroy the Dairy Bar sign – he still has a piece of the original sign in his garage.

A new, red brick building with a mansard roof sprang up around 2000. Several of the employees, Gary and Carol Duckworth and much of the equipment made the transition. But for many, the new building didn’t have the memories and the delicious aroma of the old store with its slanting floors, baked ham oven and well-worn counters.

But, there was a new generation that began to travel through the automatic doors of the new store to either the grocery side or the deli counter with the hot lunch case and its daily specials.

Kevin Lavorgna grew up in Peters Township and remembers riding his bicycle along East McMurray Road in the 1960s to the Dairy Bar, then back home after having a Coca-Cola. Now Lavorgna, a mail carrier, stops at the Dairy Bar whenever he has a break from his local delivery route.

During a recent lunch break, Lavorgna said, “It’s where I can take a 10-minute break and get something to eat and drink.” He was worried about the employees keeping their jobs after the transition. Heisler said “most” of the former employees were retained.

“I like eating here because I run into people I haven’t seen for a while,” Lavorgna said as he munched on a slice of pizza.

Larry Lewis of North Strabane Township was eating a piece of the well-known Dairy Bar fried chicken during lunch a few days before the store changed hands. His wife, Gretchen, was a friend of Carol Duckworth, Lewis said.

“This place is not the same without her,” he said. “She always found the time to say hello.”

The couple often shops for groceries at the store and occasionally, he stops by to have a piece or two of chicken.

“This is really convenient, even for us in North Strabane. Gretchen is all for local entrepreneurship and I agree with her,” Lewis said.

Heisler said there will be changes, and he knows not everyone likes change. But, give the new owners time, he said, while the lighting is updated, new equipment is installed and some new items, like gluten-free products and a salad bar, are introduced. The shelves on the grocery side will be stocked with staples like canned soup, dairy products, an expanded produce section and paper products.

He hired a chef to enhance the menu. The tables and chairs will be replaced, but he is hoping the people seated around the tables will remain the same familiar faces catching up on the latest news.

The sign outside will be changed to Heisler’s Market. But to many of the customers who have shopped at the store for years, time will be needed to call it anything other than the Dairy Bar.

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