Hollabaugh Family Pushes Forward After Devastating Loss
By Alex J. Hayes | Photography by Casey Martin
As a young boy, Bruce Hollabaugh loved the outdoors.
His parents, Brad and Kay, recall him spending countless hours exploring the family’s orchards north of Biglerville with a Chicago Bulls cap on his head. Salamanders, frogs, and fish captured his attention as did the many fruit-bearing trees.
Bruce returned to Hollabaugh Bros., the family business, after graduating from Penn State University with degrees in horticulture and Spanish. He taught many people, including his wife, Amanda, and children how to farm. Their 16-year-old son Gabriel was Bruce’s irrigation apprentice, lessons that proved invaluable when complications from a brain tumor took Bruce’s life in March 2022.
“He is taking pride and ownership knowing that’s what Bruce would want him to do,” Amanda says of Gabriel. “He is doing such a good job.”
Daughter Evangeline works in the farm market, and son Fineas regularly helps there on busy days and in the field during the summer.
Born April 1, 1980, Bruce’s love for agriculture was apparent from an early age. He asked his father question after question while following him around the 500-acre farm. He did whatever jobs were necessary, including drilling holes in soap so his sister, Ellie, could insert twist ties. The brother-sister team then hung the soap on trees to deter deer.
“He would never let me run the drill, I always had to do the twist ties,” Ellie Hollabaugh Vranich remembers.
Family bonds were strong, but the Hollabaugh family extends beyond those who share their bloodline. Longtime employees Jose Mateos and his sons are extremely close to the Hollabaughs, and Bruce’s death deeply impacted them.
“Brad used to say ‘This boy is going to make me poor because he eats so much,’” recalls lifelong colleague José Mateos.
Bruce was working on the farm full time at age 11, but upon graduation from Biglerville High School, he yearned for knowledge that could not be acquired in Adams County. He enrolled in Penn State University where, interested in more than farming, Bruce joined the men’s glee club and later the concert choir. A fellow choir member quickly attracted his attention.
“We were complete opposites with the common interest in singing,” Amanda says. “I wanted to end up in New York; he wanted to end up here.”
The woman from outside of Philadelphia unfamiliar with small town life quickly fell in love with Bruce, his family, their business, and Adams County.
“We would learn from each other how to be better people,” says Amanda. “We made a really great team.”
Bruce’s Penn State experience helped the family farm as much as it did his love life. The Hollabaughs were primarily tree farmers at the time, but he convinced the family business’ board of directors to add asparagus and blueberries to the product line.
“So many times, he came flying through the door and either called a professor at Penn State or got out his books because there was an issue with the soil or another problem,” Kay says.
Four years after Bruce secured a Penn State degree, his sister did the same. Ellie’s studies focused on agribusiness management, and she returned to Biglerville with dreams of expanding the family’s retail market. Her brother had his doubts, but he trusted her business skills more than he did her ability to operate a drill years earlier.
A sibling ride through the orchards one day put his mind at ease.
“He said, ‘I trust in you, I believe in you. I need you to tell me that making this huge investment into this company is the right thing to do for our business,’” Ellie says.
“It showed me that he had as much trust and confidence in me as I had in him.”
Bruce managed all aspects of production, including personnel and machinery, but he knew he could not do everything himself. He trusted his team to help make the business a success.
“He wasn’t just the boss, he was a leader,” Oscar Mateos says. “He showed us by example. We gave him our respect, but he earned it.”
The approach made Bruce’s father proud.
“Without the team, we don’t have anything,” Brad says. “He worked with the people so well and developed a relationship that was so positive.”
Always eager to learn, Bruce became chair of the State Horticultural Association of Pennsylvania’s research committee, which guides key research for the fruit industry in the Mid-Atlantic region.
“It was a way for him to exercise his brain differently than the work on the farm,” his father says.
Bruce was also active in his children’s activities, and he and Amanda made sure at least one of them was at every game, concert, or scholastic event. In 2019, he decided to help other children by accepting a seat on the Upper Adams School Board.
“He was always trying to make the best decisions he could for the kids,” Amanda says. “He really didn’t have time to be on the school board, but it was important.”
In December 2021, Bruce started to slow down. Doctors found a brain tumor and removed it in January.
“He was healthy as an ox,” Kay says. “It was a hard rehabilitation for him. He was used to being active and involved.”
Bruce and his mother texted daily, and one day the former runner said he was having trouble walking. Kay said she would walk with him. But the opportunity never came.
Bruce reported to work on March 11, 2022. He and his father discussed the spring planting season for two hours. His mother thought he looked drained, and lovingly ruffled her son’s hair.
“He said ‘I have such a bad headache,’” Kay remembers.
Bruce told José he was tired, had a headache, and could not talk much. Doctors discovered complications from Bruce’s surgery and admitted him into the hospital.
“He told me ‘I know you will be fine,’” José says. “Those were the last words I heard from him.”
Bruce died within 48 hours. Hundreds of people attended a vigil held at the family farm that weekend, and those closest to him greeted people for five-and-a-half hours at his wake.
“I told his children, ‘This is a testament to who your dad was and how the community feels about your dad and our family,’” Kay says.
The Hollabaughs had no time to mourn.
“Ever since I married into this business, I have hated March,” Kay explains. “In March, everything starts, absolutely everything.”
Family members often lay awake at night thinking about their beloved Bruce, but also his unfinished tasks, such as ordering posts, clips, and wires for the farm.
“Even the bees, Bruce ordered the bees,” Kay says.
They had no other option and quickly adapted the motto “For Bruce, we will farm.”
“Now he is not here, I feel an even stronger drive to make this business soar for him,” says Ellie.
Hispanic ‘Family’ Members Feel Void
Bruce Hollabaugh was a Caucasian man from Biglerville, but his dark tan and Spanish fluency often fooled people.
“His Spanish was so good, people would ask him where he was from,” says Hollabaugh Bros. employee José Mateos. “He would say he was from Biglerville, and they would say, ‘No, are you from Mexico?’”
Bruce knew his Hispanic friends’ language and respected their work. He served as a volunteer translator in the Upper Adams School District and advocated for Hispanic needs. When translating, he took the time to explain what the teacher meant rather than simply repeating the words.
The Mateos family visited Bruce at Penn State Hershey Medical Center shortly before his death in March 2022. His mother, Kay, explained before the visit that Bruce was unconscious and “hooked on too many machines that I never wanted to see our son on.”
“These three men came and prayed over him, cried over him, and loved over him,” Kay says.
They were there for their friend, who had been there for them so many times in the past.
José fondly recalls Bruce’s reaction when a Hispanic family was mistreated.
“He said, ‘Please do not ever do that again, they are my people,’” Jose remembers. “He was always there for us.”
Bruce’s empathy made him a popular person within the Hispanic community.
“Every single time he would go do a translation, he would put himself into the person’s shoes and tell the story as if it were his,” José says.
Spanish is a complicated language with many dialects, but Bruce took the time to understand them so that he could communicate with all his employees.
“I think I worry about that the most from a business standpoint, that link to the crew,” says Bruce’s widow,
The Hollabaughs respected the Mateos family’s strong Catholic traditions.
“They treated us like family,” Jose says.
Kay and her daughter Ellie Hollabaugh Vranich quickly corrected José.
“You are family,” they say simultaneously.
“You sweat with them, you get wet with them, you weather the storm, literally and figuratively,” Ellie adds. “You become family; it doesn’t matter the blood that runs through your veins.”
The Hollabaughs continue to farm without their beloved Bruce, but heavily credits the Mateos family for making their work possible. “We couldn’t do half of what we are doing right now without these three men,” Ellie says as José and his sons, Oscar and Hector, sit across from her.
Shortly before his death, Bruce convinced the family to buy a machine to pound posts into the ground.
“Bruce passed away before we ever got to use it,” Kay says. “Oscar broke it in for him.”
The personal connection will remain strong as the Hollabaughs enter their second season without their beloved Bruce.
“It changes your perspective on life in general, when you have stories like these and the connection to people who come from so many different places with so many different backgrounds,” says Ellie.