Explorers from near and far flock to former prison for tours

CRESSON, Pa. (AP) —

As Jason Cole and Ally Held moved on a recent Saturday through the former State Correctional Institution at Cresson, they paused often to comment on the property’s state of decay or set up the perfect photo, noting how fascinating it was to see the deserted buildings up close – and legally.

“I’ve always been someone that’s been into hiking, and I’ve dragged him along,” Held said.

It was the Danville couple’s second trip to explore the old prison that now features paid tours organized by Big House Produce, which operates at the facility.

Held and Cole sported Nikon D3500 cameras with 18- to 55-millimeter lenses and wandered from one building to another – stopping frequently to document the abandoned rooms, crossing paths with other explorers and stopping to wonder about who might have passed through the same areas they currently occupied.

“You come here … and you get a taste of what life might have been like,” Cole said.

With each building they walked into, it became more and more obvious that several years had passed since anyone had inhabited the prison. Paint peeled away in large chunks from the walls, the smell of dampness invaded every room, ceiling tiles had collapsed to the floor and broken glass filled doorways.

“I think when you go through the buildings, some give you a somber sort of feeling,” Held said.

The couple became interested in urban exploration – the act of investigating abandoned areas – last year after watching videos of other enthusiasts on YouTube.

They decided to try their hand at it and started searching for nearby places to do so, which is how they came across the old prison in Cresson, which was closed by the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections in 2013, with the property sold in 2016 to Carl Weaver, of Smicksburg, for $600,000.

Big House Produce

Lauren Freeman and her husband, K.C., have a lease to own agreement with Weaver to provide their hydroponic business, Big House Produce, a permanent home. The Freemans started their farm in 2019 at the old prison and run it with their family’s help.

“The prison buildings are perfect for controlled environment agriculture,” Lauren Freeman said.

That’s because the buildings are “tight” and easily temperature-controlled.

The family’s plan was initially to grow lettuce, but they saw the demand for varying crops and have moved in a more diverse direction – including hemp. Opening the old jail cells and associated structures to tourism wasn’t in their plans until Bedford County native Beth Price contacted them.

Lauren Freeman said a large portion of the first year was spent keeping away trespassers and vandals who were drawn to the abandoned facility. After discussing the matter with Price, the Freemans decided to provide those interested in exploring the area the opportunity to do so.

“I call this place my Disneyland,” Price said.

Price, who goes by Urbexphotomom on Instagram, said she’s interested in exploring and studying history, which is why she wanted to visit the former SCI-Cresson. She’s become a regular visitor and also volunteers to help with registration and cleanup.

The others offered the same reasons for why they signed up.

Before it was a prison

The property hasn’t always housed inmates. Previously, it was a tuberculosis hospital that opened in 1913 and later a state school for the mentally handicapped, with the prison beginning operations in the 1980s.

Price found that information fascinating and convinced the Freemans to let others who shared her vision onto the property.

The first open tour was held in May.

Visitors have to sign waivers and register for their tours at www.bighouseproduce.com, then show up at their designated time. They can spend an hour to several hours roaming the 34 acres, and the cost is dependent on the time they spend there. The only place that’s off-limits is the former juvenile building, because that’s where the farming operation is.

“At the first event, it just blew up,” Lauren Freeman said of the level of interest.

From all over

Since May, explorers from all parts of the country and beyond have signed up for the monthly tours, including guests from Oregon, New York, Louisiana and Ontario, Canada.

“I did not expect to have an underground tourist attraction,” Lauren Freeman said.

Shayne and Audra Oliver, from The Dank Team Explorers, made the 10-hour trip from Massachusetts to explore the abandoned buildings.

“It’s pretty cool,” Shayne Oliver said.

The two travel all over the East Coast, investigating deserted areas. They were mostly looking forward to seeing the old cells in Cresson.

“More people should do this,” Audra Oliver said.

Another out-of-state visitor was Matt Zinzi, who goes by The.IZ on Instagram. He also was drawn to the old prison and has become a regular and volunteer.

“Seeing dozens and dozens of people come in is mind-blowing,” Zinzi said.

On Saturday, from about 9:30 a.m. on, vehicle after vehicle pulled up to the main gate and parked in the nearby lot until nearly all of the spaces were full.

Lauren Freeman said they average around 140 visitors when they give tours and keep the groups to about 65 guests through staggering times to avoid overcrowding. The most she’s seen since starting the venture is 300 people in one weekend.

Future tours in September and October include those hosted by Ghost Hunts USA, who visited the property in July.

There are also plans to convert one of the buildings into a museum and another into a bed and breakfast, as well as expansion of the hydroponic operation.

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