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Mr. Mayor with a cherry on top

Gary Hughes, mayor of Harrisville and owner of Hughes Penn Gold Ice Cream, dishes up the scoops of vanilla on a cone at his store. Shane Potter/Butler Eagle

Gary Hughes has always had the scoop on Harrisville borough. That’s how he got elected as mayor nine years ago, by scooping ice cream and listening to residents’ problems.

As the third generation owner of Hughes Penn Gold Ice Cream, Hughes said the business keeps his finger on the pulse of the community.

“That’s how I got the job to begin with. People were coming in to the store to tell me their troubles,” he said. “When it came upon the time of election, they said, ‘Everyone’s going to him anyway; let’s run him for mayor.’”

Hughes was born and raised in the borough. He has married and raised his children there as well.

“I’m 71 years old now, so I’ve been here a while,” he said.

The family ice cream shop has been in the same place since 1927 and was passed down by generation, eventually ending up in the hands of Hughes. From being an 8-year-old sweeping floors and scooping ice cream in his grandfather’s store, Hughes has seen many sides of his hometown.

“It’s almost a little more like a modern-day Mayberry,” he said. “We’ve been able to maintain everything we need to survive. I always say, if someone put a gate around Harrisville and said we’re not allowed to leave, we’d survive.”

Hughes explained the amenities of Harrisville include a fire company and police department, grocery store, gas station, bank, hairdresser, butcher, restaurant and park and walking trail.

“We’re able to live off of Harrisville if we want to, I think that’s good in today’s modern world. Since I’ve been mayor, we lost the elementary school due to low enrollment around seven years ago, but it sat idle only one school year, and Slippery Rock University has used it for physical therapy grad programs. That has attracted a few college students to move into town.”

On the job

Being mayor of such a place is more than just scooping ice cream, Hughes said. As mayor, he also supervises the police department, and will often have officers stop by the store to ask him questions.

Hughes attends council meetings as well, speaking frequently with the council president.

“And I’ve never missed a council meeting,” he said. “We had a rough time for a while, not having enough council people. For a while, I dreaded going to meetings, but I hung in there. Things are improving now, and there’s room for more improving.”

One unexpected responsibility Hughes has as mayor is one he never would have guessed he would enjoy.

“Not too long into (being elected) someone approached me me about having me marry them ... If someone would have told me at the beginning that was part of the job, I would have said to find someone else. It turned out to be one of, if not the most, satisfying thing I do,” he said.

Hughes has married 31 couples in Harrisville in nine years.

“And 30 of them are still together,” he said.

Changes

Harrisville draws folks with varying interests, according to Hughes, given its location off Route 8.

“The three main attractions, I believe, are the Family Tradition, a home-style restaurant, our gun shop, and Willie’s Smokehouse. I’m finding out the walking trail we have is a positive thing for our community. And I shouldn’t leave out Autumn Grove rehab. We’ve been getting a lot of calls for people coming to our facility in Harrisville,” he said.

Sheetz gas station has proved another attraction in itself. Hughes said the updated building being built is the third on that property.

These attractions weren’t always what brought people to the borough, Hughes said. When he was younger, the Cooper-Bessemer Engine plant in Grove City employed most of the town.

“When I was growing up, you practically knew everyone in town ... everyone’s dad worked (there),” he said. “Now I’d say I know half or three quarters of the people in the community.” The borough’s population is 969, according to the 2020 U.S. census.

Community events still abound, with the four churches of Harrisville hosting lunches for college students once a month, as well as gatherings in celebration of Independence Day, Christmas and Halloween. Hughes said he oversees these yearly.

Accomplishments

Since his election, Hughes said he has worked closely with the Harrisville Police Department, helping it acquire a new police car, bulletproof vests, and assault rifles.

The department also has extended coverage to Marion Township under Hughes’ leadership and worked alongside Slippery Rock borough’s mayor, Jondavid Longo, on various projects.

His service to the community extends beyond those accomplishments.

“I’m also on the task force working with 22 municipalities on helping Superior Ambulance Service. We want to make sure Superior Ambulance is sustained for a long period of time. We’re finding out a heck of a lot of services throughout the commonwealth have dried up.”

Moving forward, Hughes has goals to reach the mark of 100 years in the family ice cream business. Surprised by his election all those years ago, Hughes said he also hopes he continues making the best of every opportunity to serve Harrisville borough.

“I think my attitude is always we’re all passing through this world, so whatever I can do to help someone, I’m there,” he said.

Gary Hughes, mayor of Harrisville and owner of Hughes Penn Gold Ice Cream. Stands in front of the sign for the store just off Main st on Thursday morning. Shane Potter/Butler Eagle
Gary Hughes, mayor of Harrisville and owner of Hughes Penn Gold Ice Cream has many different flavors to pick from for any ice cream lover. Shane Potter/Butler Eagle

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