Thursday, June 15, 2017

Francis Marion Oyler June 15, 2017

Copyright © 2017 John F. Oyler

June 15, 2017

Father’s Day

Every year, when Father’s Day arrives and I begin thinking about my father, I realize I should record what I know of his life in a column. This year I planned ahead and was able to compile a modest biography of him.

Francis Marion Oyler was born in Quincy Township, Franklin County, Pennsylvania in 1891, the youngest of eight children, six of whom (five boys and a girl) survived childhood. Before he was a year old, his father was killed in an accident while working for the Cumberland Valley Railroad.

His mother was left with a farmhouse, some outbuildings, and five or six acres of farmland. With the help of her family, the Smiths, who lived on an adjoining farm, she was somehow able to keep the family together and see the children through to adulthood.

One of my father’s favorite books was “Five Acres and Independence”, a self-help book popular in the Depression. I am sure it reminded him of his youth when the family subsisted on a large garden, a couple of hogs each year, and a flock of chickens. To quote Hank Williams, Jr., “Country folks can survive!”

My father was able to graduate from Quincy High School in 1910 and then taught school in the Quincy Elementary School until the Fall of 1911 when he went to  Cumberland Valley Normal School (now Shippensburg State University) for a two year program in teaching. Following this he taught grades 5 to 8 in the United Brethren Orphanage school in Quincy for a year. In the Fall of 1914 he enrolled at Penn State in their Civil Engineering Department.

His college career was interrupted after three years by World War I. He was among the first men to be drafted and was sent to Camp Grant, Illinois, for infantry basic training. Fortunately, at this time General Pershing had been to France and had concluded the existing railroad system could not support the AEF. He had everyone in the service with either engineering training or experience working for a railroad reassigned to building a new (Army) railroad.

He was assigned to the 35th Engineers in La Rochelle, France, and spent his time overseas assembling railroad cars from subassemblies shipped from the United States. He returned in time to go back to Penn State in the Fall of 1919 and to graduate in 1920.

We think he initially took a job with the Pennsylvania Department of Highways but soon moved to the Pennsylvania Railroad. He had assignments in the Maintenance of Way Departments at Gallitzin, Renovo, and West Brownsville before becoming Supervisor, Maintenance of Way at Gallitzin in 1929.

In 1926 he was involved in a horrible accident in Erie. According to a newspaper clipping in the November 17, 1926 Kane Republican, “He was crushed between two cars … and was so badly hurt that he is not expected to recover”. Fortunately the prognosis proved incorrect.

When he was assigned to the Renovo Division he lived in a boarding house (Sis Troxell) in Emporium. One of his friends there was Philip Klees, a fellow World War veteran who had been gassed during the war. Through Philip he met my mother who at the time was a widow with a young son, Wilbur Bingeman.

They were married in 1930 and moved into the large railroad building close to the Gallitzin Tunnels. He was very proud of the Gallitzin responsibility which included the Horseshoe Curve and the tunnels. In later years I met two of the track gang members who worked for him and was pleased to hear how well liked and respected he was.

The next year he was transferred to Dunkirk, New York, where I was born. That assignment ended in 1934 with a transfer to Pittsburgh. My parents and I moved into “the little stone bungalow” at 823 Bank Street, which we rented from Johnny Capozzoli on behalf of Silhol Realty.

One of my memories of those days is the 1936 St. Patrick’s Day Flood. My father showed up at home in midday to change clothes and pack a bag; a train was trapped inside a tunnel somewhere in Ohio. Three days later he returned home, exhausted and filthy dirty, carrying a long handled axe he had acquired. He promptly went to bed and slept for many hours.

At some point in these years my father decided that a job immune to regular transfers and the upheaval of moving was preferable to a career, so he transferred to the engineering department. I’m sure my imminent enrollment in first grade and the eagerly anticipated arrival of my brother Joe played a big part in this decision.

He was a passionate gardener and was frustrated at the lack of space at our Bank Street home to have a garden. One year he started a garden “over the hill”. Each evening we would walk down Chestnut Street to Chartiers and then go down the hill to a spot close to Chartiers Creek. Close by was a small natural pond that providing water for a garden.

Thanks to frequent tending the garden prospered and was approaching harvest when a severe summer storm forced the creek out of its bed and washed out the garden completely. I am sure this expedited his decision to find a new home with enough room for a real garden.

In 1937 we moved into 1953 Lafayette Street, a nice three bedroom two story brick house designed by architect James Wallace. It had a large, level backyard which soon became a highly productive garden. The 40’ by 40’ garden it provided was still not sufficient for my father; on several occasions he spaded up plots in nearby vacant lots to plant corn.

He was an excellent gardener, easily embarrassing the efforts of our neighbor Holland Russell (and later Joe DiMarco) to compete with him. We supplied the whole neighborhood with tomatoes, cucumbers, and squash and always had enough green beans, lima beans, carrots, corn, and peas to keep my mother busy canning.

Following President Roosevelt’s re-election in 1936 unemployment spiked again, approaching twenty percent. The railroad responded to this by temporarily furloughing employees, including my father. I have distinct memories of his frantic efforts to find another job, faced with a mortgage on a new house.

Fortunately he was able to find a good job with the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, as resident engineer for two of the contracts (between Donegal and New Stanton) for the original construction of the highway. Ironically, the training for this assignment was back at Shippensburg.

This was a job he enjoyed considerably although it required him to live in a rooming house in Mt. Pleasant, commuting home only on Wednesday nights and weekends. On one of the Wednesday night trips home he announced that I was going back with him the next morning. I spent a memorable two days with him, bouncing around the jobsite in a pickup truck and getting rides in a bull dozer.

The construction was nearly completed when he was called back by the railroad. He worked in the Panhandle Division engineering office until he suffered a stroke in 1956, a few months before his planned retirement. During this period I had a lot of opportunities to accompany him on local jobs, frequently functioning as a surveyor’s helper.

I think he enjoyed this job although it lacked the variety and excitement of his earlier assignments. It did allow him to come home each evening and work in the garden and to share the day by day activities in which my brother and I were involved.

Being a farm boy at heart my father always carried a pocket knife; in my memory, a Barlow. I inherited the habit, feeling uncomfortable if I don’t have my Swiss Army knife in my pocket. The biggest difference between us is that his knife was always perfectly sharp, so sharp that a significant part of the blade had been worn away by constantly sharpening.

Once we were old enough to enjoy flying kites he showed us how it really should be done. In those days engineering drawings were made on linen cloth covered with paper. Properly “washed out” the linen was perfect material for box kites, covering splines cut from orange crates. We had many happy days flying kites with him.

Up until he had his stroke one of his greatest joys was small game hunting, taking Joe or me along to flush out rabbits or pheasants from brush piles. He carried a “poacher’s gun” in the back pocket of his hunting coat. It was a twenty caliber
Stevens that could be disassembled into two parts. Its barrel was sawed off to shorten it and the stock similarly made smaller.

Whenever he spotted a rabbit sitting in a clump of grass, he would pull out the gun, assemble it, insert a bullet, and hand it to Joe or me to shoot the rabbit. Quite a thrill for a child too young to hunt legally!

In addition to meeting our mother there, he enjoyed his stay in Emporium because the bird hunting was so good. Joe is convinced he hunted ruffed grouse there; I thought it was quail. At any rate he was proud of his ability to flush a covey of birds and to get one with each barrel of a double barreled shotgun.

He also enjoyed “shooting mark” and even set up a short indoor range rifle range in our basement. By opening the door to the coal cellar we were able to set up a target thirty or thirty feet away from the rear wall and fire “twenty twos” into it.

He recovered from his stroke sufficiently to be able to enjoy five more years before dying in 1961 a few months before his seventieth birthday. Ironically Philip Klees, whose health had been precarious as a result of his World War I experience, lived long enough to come to Bridgeville for the funeral and to buy a round of drinks at the Legion Hall in my father’s memory.

My biggest regret about his life is that he passed away before his grandchildren were born. He loved kids and would have been thrilled to know them.

Although he has been gone over fifty five years he is constantly in my thoughts. Every time I pass a decaying downed tree in the woods I remember the Sunday afternoon drives we used to take. We would go south on the Washington Pike and turn off on some obscure side road. Suddenly he would pull off the road and remove a bushel basket and a shovel and head off looking for such a log.

He called the decaying remains of logs “woods dirt” and was keenly aware of its value as a supplement to the soil in our garden. I suspect that block of ground on Lafayette Street still contains the most nutritious soil in Allegheny County.

Recently when I dug up a tiny plot at my wife’s headstone in the cemetery, I sensed my father shaking his head as soon as my foot engaged the shovel. He was skilled at all the chores farm did, and he really enjoyed spading a garden, one more thing I failed to master. Splitting firewood into kindling is another skill I never picked up; I think of him each time I attempt it.

He was thrilled with technology. He talked about the miracle of being able to hear Madame Ernestine Schumann-Heink sing “Stille Nacht” from New York, on the radio. Years later he was thrilled by watching Don Larsen pitch a perfect game for the New York Yankees in the 1956 World Series, on television.

He was always annoyed that both Francis and Marion could be considered girls’ names. His names came from the Revolutionary War hero, Francis Marion, ”the Swamp Fox”. His family, and my mother, called him Marion. Railroad associates called him Frank. He frequently signed his name “F. M. Oyler”, perhaps in mild rebellion.

Of all the things he could do well, best of all was his skill as a father. My brother and I are eternally grateful we had him as our father. Happy Father’s Day, Dad!

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Rite of Passage June 8, 2017

Copyright © 2017 John F. Oyler

June 8, 2017

A Rite of Passage

I spent an extended Memorial Day weekend in Champaign, Illinois, attending the celebration of my grand-daughter Rachael’s Bat Mitzvah. Although she and her parents are in the process of moving here from Champaign, logistically it was much easier to have it there than here.

Rachael, her mother Elizabeth, and I made the eight hour drive to Champaign one afternoon and evening after Rachael came home from school. When Elizabeth and Mike were married they were living in St. Louis, both teaching at Washington University. That was a ten hour drive from here, following I-70 to Indianapolis, then on to St. Louis.

The Champaign drive follows the same route to Indianapolis, then cuts  northwest on I-74. It has been a few years since I made the trip by car; this trip was certainly full of memories of past excursions.

We made our accustomed stop at Bob Evans in Zanesville, Ohio, where twelve year old Rachael was insulted by being offered a “Kid’s Menu”. Fortunately the Bob Evans in Columbus where we stopped on the way back automatically sensed the maturity she had demonstrated in the Bat Mitzvah and gave her an adult menu.

As is my custom I complained to the Bob Evans manager about the décor. When we first began stopping there I was quite pleased with the franchise’s policy of decorating each restaurant with historical photographs relevant to the location. When the one was built in Kirwan Heights, they followed this custom by requesting pictures from the Bridgeville Area Historical Society.

A few years ago Bob Evans management redecorated all the restaurants, replacing the historical photographs I liked with bland, generic Ohio farmland depictions. I think this was a major mistake and have made a point of complaining about the decision whenever I stop at a Bob Evans. One wonders if any of the local managers pass the complaints on to management.

The weekend was the occasion for a large family reunion.  Rachael’s father’s side, the Finkes, included at least a dozen and a half aunts, uncles, and cousins, congregating from all directions – Louisville, Kentucky; North Hampton, Massachusetts; Cornell University; Knoxville, Tennessee; and Philadelphia. A major motivation for Rachael to experience the Bat Mitzvah was her observation of several such events for her Finke cousins.

We are very pleased that she decided to undertake this responsibility, especially because it gave her a deep understanding of the heritage of her father’s family and people. Learning Hebrew was easy for her; she already is fluent in Japanese. Studying the Torah and learning about the early days of the Israelites is equally rewarding. I hope she shows the same interest in the heritage of her mother’s side of the family some day.

My daughter Sara and the rest of the McCances drove all the way from Fort Collins, Colorado, in two days, stopping in Omaha overnight. Although Sara was here several months ago, I had not seen the rest of the family since Christmas. Sara reported that, when they began to discuss buying special clothes for the event, fifteen year old Ian announced that he would like a suit, so he could “look sharp like Grandpa and Uncle John”.

His wishes were granted and he did indeed win the “sharpest dresser” contest hands down. Twelve year old Nora and nine year old Claire looked great in their new dresses, but, after all, that is what we expect from girls. Unfortunately my son John and his family were unable to join us.

The ceremony was long, but quite interesting. Rachael has performed as a musician so many times before large audiences that she participated in the service with no sign of nervousness. A pianist (Rachael’s teacher), a cellist, and a gifted female vocalist provided the music. I wished there had been an opportunity for Rachael to play violin with them on at least one occasion.

That evening there was a dinner in the temple for all the friends, neighbors, and family – nearly one hundred persons in total. Family tradition is to prepare the dinner themselves, rather than risk trusting a caterer. We witnessed the preparation of it the day before the ceremony and were impressed with the way everyone, including two young ladies obviously auditioning to become Finkes in the future, chipped in and churned out dish after dish of delicious food.

Following the dinner there was a party honoring Rachael. It was quite loud, provided by a “D J”, in accordance with Rachael’s playlist. One of the guests asked me what I thought of the music – my response was “So far I haven’t heard anything that remotely resembles music!”

Fortunately my tastes were not typical of those young folks at the party, including my own grandchildren. Nonetheless I continue to be grateful that I was young at a time when music was melodious, harmonious, and sentimental. To each his own! By coincidence, that was the title of a big hit for Eddy Howard in 1946, very popular at teen age dances that year.

After the dinner and party the leftovers were transported home and served admirably at an open house the following morning. In addition to all the family members I was impressed with the large number of neighbors, friends, and colleagues who came to compliment Rachael on her achievement.

All weekend I felt a wee bit sad that my sweet young granddaughter had begun to make the gradual transition to adulthood. Fortunately the morning we were packing to drive back here the combination of fatigue and constant stress of the weekend finally got to Rachael. She threw a tantrum over some trivial problem, and I knew we will still have our spoiled little girl for a few more years.

The day we drove back was the first anniversary of my wife’s passing. Some cultures mandate a mourning period of one year; that certainly would not be sufficient for me. She was in my thoughts all weekend. At one point I was about to enter the sanctuary when I got a strong message – “For heaven’s sake, get your hands out of your pockets. You’re not in a pool room!”

Even when I was with a group of people, her absence made me feel alone. I was reminded of the Langston Hughes lyrics to Kurt Weill’s song, “Lonely House”. “Funny, how you can feel lonely, with so many people around”.

All told it was an exciting weekend with a wonderful performance by Rachael and a rewarding opportunity to see family and old friends. Nonetheless, when we pulled off I-79 at the Bridgeville exit, my reaction was “I am glad I am home.”

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Spring Comes to "My" Woods June 1, 2017

Copyright © 2017          John F. Oyler

June1, 2017

Spring Comes to the Woods

For the past forty eight years it has been my privilege to live across the street from a fifty acre park, much of which is woods in its natural state. Thirty years ago my doctor, concerned about cholesterol, prescribed two things for me – some magic pills to be taken each evening and a brisk two mile walk once a day. I compromised, replacing the brisk two mile walk with a pair of nonchalant one mile walks in the woods each day, accompanying our dog.

That dog is gone, plus her two successors, but my walks have continued. Mentioning the term “brisk” in the same paragraph as my walks would bring a chuckle to anyone who knows me. Incidentally I have made up for the breakdown in athletic exercise by adding a third component to my prescription – one glass of red wine with every evening meal. I am grateful to my Italian friends for discovering that red wine is an effective way to combat cholesterol.

There is a suspicion that my enjoyment of the twice daily walks in “my” woods is based upon a latent desire to emulate an English Lord, patrolling his manor. Could be, although I see myself more as the forester or gamekeeper in a manor that has thousands of Lords owning it.  In the British TV series “Monarch of the Glen”, that function was performed by a man called “the ghillie”. I do indeed enjoy checking up on everything regularly, especially as I watch the seasons change. Spring is particularly rewarding as old life is renewed and new life appears.

I frequently begin my trek by walking up our street four or five houses to a point where a trail enters the park at its northeast corner. The woods run roughly east and west with the north/south width being about a quarter of the east/west length. I like to begin climbing a hill along the east edge of the park. It used to be a very easy climb but the dramatic increase in gravity as I have grown older makes it difficult enough that I prefer to conquer it at the beginning of the walk while I am still relatively fresh.

About halfway up the hill I pass “fossil rock”. This is a very interesting flat rock, perhaps two feet square, with a fascinating collection of tiny ribs on its face, primarily in a dendritic pattern. I can’t prove it is a legitimate fossil, but it certainly is easy to postulate that millions of years ago a small branch from some Paleozoic Era tree got trapped in a layer of swamp mud and fossilized. Fortunately the rock is too heavy for someone to move easily, so it remains in its spot, a would-be artifact three hundred million years old.

The south edge of the park is bordered by a busy highway; fortunately there is a well-established trail along the ridge line paralleling the road. We have an aerial photograph of this area from 1939; this trail is evident on it. The upper trail crosses a seep, making the walking a little sloppy whenever recent rainfall has caused the water table to reach ground level.

Along this trail is a collection of large boulders, a spot where our children would play and pretend to be knights of old and their ladies. It reminds me of a similar pile of boulders that existed on the southwest corner of the Bank Street/Winfield Street intersection eighty years ago. It was apparently leftover raw materials for the construction of a nearby stone house. We called it “Keys Rocks”, a corruption of McKees Rocks.

The upper path is also the location of the first big display of wild flowers each Spring. A carpet of golden blooms extends for thirty or forty feet on both sides of the trail. I have concluded that these flowers are “lesser celandine”, a moniker that would seem more appropriate for a collection of small islands in the Caribbean than for a wildflower.

In Ireland the lesser celandine, a member of the buttercup family, is known as pilewort because it roots are effective at treating hemorrhoids. For fear of offending my Irish friends and my daughter Sara’s in-laws, I will refrain from making the obvious sarcastic comment. At any rate the pilewort is a welcome sight along the trail early in April each year. Later in the Spring pink and white phlox take over.

Historically the upper trail exited the park about halfway along the their southern edge. Years ago I cut a path so our boxer, Maya, could stay within the woods rather than taking her out onto the sidewalk. It was obviously a good decision for that trail has become a standard route ever since.

Thirty five years ago the community elected to build a soccer field in the middle of the eastern half of our woods, a decision that was vigorously opposed by folks living close nearby and by nature lovers in general. We were among the ring-leaders of this group in an unsuccessful effort to preserve the park as a natural treasure. It is not the only “lost cause” with which I have been involved.

Close to the middle of the woods, in an area the Conservancy is attempting to reforest, we planted a tulip tree last Fall in memory of my wife. I visit the tree each time I am in the park; it is an appropriate reminder of my wife’s love of nature. The tree is about fifteen feet tall, protected by a sturdy cage I installed when a buck scratched its bark trying to run the velvet off his antlers.

Formally a tulip poplar, Liriodendron Tulipfera, the tulip tree was an obvious choice for this purpose. We had planted four tulip tree seedlings around the deck of our cottage at Conneaut Lake and soon saw it converted into a virtual tree house, with branches full of large tulip shaped leaves in every direction. We hope this tree grows as rapidly as they did.

In the same general area is the last bittersweet vine in the woods. The Conservancy has declared war on invasive species. Their vision for the park is a traditional second growth Eastern woodlands forest, with a minimum of understory growth. There is an Asian bittersweet vine that girdles mature trees with tentacles that are several inches thick, eventually the host tree.

We have no disagreement with removing those vines from the woods, but we hope this remaining vine which is too busy trying to survive to take on a mature oak or maple will be successful in its efforts. I harvested ripe bittersweet berries for my wife and her sister as autumn decorations for years – I hope the sprig I have in a vase on our living room mantle is not the last one I harvest.

We also are supportive of the Conservancy’s efforts to remove Japanese knotweed and garlic mustard. These are both “jungle plants”. They are unattractive, and grow quite tall and thick and choke out all other vegetation. In recent years the dog walkers and nature lovers have done a good job of pulling out the ones that are close to the well-travelled paths.

Fortunately these efforts still leave a few pockets of thickets, nearly impenetrable areas filled with briars and jungle plants. They too are part of nature and I hope we leave them a place to survive and to thrive.

Honeysuckle is another invasive species about which I am ambivalent. The Conservancy has cut down a large number of honeysuckle bushes and painted the remaining stubs with something to ensure they don’t come back to life. I hope we can spare a few honeysuckles; I think they add a lot to the woods, especially when they bloom.

The western half of the park is a classic Western Pennsylvania hollow, carved by a tiny stream that runs down its center. Before the soccer field was constructed the stream was fed by a swamp (we environmentalists would call it a wetland), that provided a constant supply of water year around. Now the stream disappears halfway along its course whenever we have a dry spell. Too bad, it is a marvelous place for small children to play and learn a little bit about hydrology.

There is a nice trail on each side of the hollow. We frequently take the path on the southern side on our way out and its partner on the north side on the way back. This year the Mayflowers popped up on April 11, right on schedule, and bloomed early in May, also on schedule. The blooms appear on the plants with forked stems, and will produce Mayapples later this summer.

The northern path is the home of the trillium. The white ones bloomed late in April; the wine colored sessile variety, two weeks later. There are several dozen white trilliums in this area, but only two of the sessile plants that we can find. We keep hoping they will proliferate, but there has been no evidence of this in recent years.

Although we don’t know of any native dogwoods in the park, the Conservancy has planted a pink one and a white one in an area they are trying to reforest. It was a real treat to see them in bloom this year. Another treat is a native rhododendron in a tiny, brush filled gulley that was covered with bright red blossoms, begging for a location where it could be admired.

Our woods seem to have an unusually large number of downed trees. Many of these are large black cherry trees that seem to be susceptible to being uprooted by high winds. For some reason their root systems are very shallow, perhaps because the underlying bedrock is so close to the surface. Occasionally a healthy tree fractures at a discontinuity, a weak spot. Five years ago a rugged sycamore lost its top, leaving a stump sixty feet high – apparently the result of a mini-twister. It immediately sprouted a new set of limbs and is prospering despite its unorthodox appearance.

Folks whom I meet in the woods ask me if I am going to get another dog; my response is “I don’t want to have to have another old dog put to sleep.” This opinion was reinforced recently when I had to do just that to our twelve year old cat, Dozey, because of massive kidney failure. Sad to lose another link to my wife; the only pet left is Dozey’s sister, Caput.

We have enjoyed watching a Pileated woodpecker this Spring. Its distinctive deep, rhythmic drumming evokes memories of Indian tom-toms in these woods centuries ago. This particular bird has found a bountiful banquet table at the top of a dead tree near the west end of the park.

A trek around the exterior of the park provides the trekker with about a mile and a half recorded on his Smartphone and the satisfaction of forty five minutes spent enjoying nature at his leisure. It doesn’t take much imagination to understand how the Lord of the Manor feels, after all!

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Bridgeville High School History Part One May 25, 2017

Copyright © 2017          John F. Oyler

May 25, 2017

Bridgeville High School, Part One

The Bridgeville Area Historical Society’s “Second Tuesday” workshop this month focused on the early years of Bridgeville High School in the first of a series of programs dealing with the history of the school, which graduated its final Senior class in 1960.

The facilitator began the program by reviewing what we know about the first school buildings in the Bridgeville area. According to research done by Dorothy Stenzel, the first school was on Presley Road; it was destroyed by a fire. Next came one on McLaughlin Run Road, close to the location of the McLaughlin Run Park today. It operated until 1858; the building it occupied was destroyed by the massive flood of 1874.

It was followed by the Fryer School, located at the east end of Baldwin Street before it was extended across the creek to meet McLaughlin Run Road. It is believed that the building that housed the school was moved when the street was extended and was repurposed as a residence.  

The next school was in a frame building on the corner of Hickman and Locust Streets; teachers there were Harry Couch and Sadie Rogers. When it was replaced by a two story building on Washington Avenue in 1894, Macedonia Maioli acquired it to serve as a warehouse for a wholesale liquor distributorship.

The first Washington Avenue building was replaced by a two story, twelve room brownstone building in 1904. In 1910 a third story and four more rooms were added to the brownstone.

He chose to begin with a 1908 photograph, purported to be of the first BHS graduating class. It showed five students and their teacher, Mr. Allen W. Kelly. According to the 1907 Polk Business Directory, Mr. Kelly and his wife Louise lived on the corner of Chess and Station Streets. We think he was also the Principal of the school. The students were Mary Melvin, Grace Lesnett, Mary Jones, Leith Baird, and Edna Fryer.

Mary Melvin married a gentleman named Smith and moved to Chicago where she became a homemaker. We presume she was the daughter of contractor Allen Melvin and his wife Adeline who lived on Gregg Avenue. Grace Lesnett had a long career as a school teacher in this area; she married a man named Shaw. She was the daughter of T. Dell Lesnett, grew up in the Lesnett homestead on Lesnett Road.

Mary Jones was the daughter of carpenter Amos Jones and his wife Emma, who lived on Railroad Street. She became a school teacher and was a fixture at Washington Grade School into the 1940s. We presume Leith Baird was the son of George and Ella Morgan Baird, whose home was on the corner of Chess and Station Streets. He is reported to have moved to Florida and become a salesman.

Edna Fryer was the daughter of undertaker Amos Fryer, whose home and establishment were on Washington Avenue. She became Mrs. Landis, a homemaker in North Girard (Erie County).

The Class of 1909 boasted twelve graduates, including Raymond Lutz. He was the son of Joseph and Elizabeth Lutz, who lived on the corner of Murray and Washington Avenues. Raymond became a dentist who practiced for many years in Bridgeville.

The BHS Class of 1910 was made up of eight students, including Abigail and Sarah Lesnett. There was a turnover of teachers that year. George Cheesman began the year, then resigned. His replacement, R. N. Hosack, didn’t last much longer, as he too resigned. Fortunately he was replaced by Joseph Ferree, who was still going strong at the High School into the early 1950s.  Abigail and Sarah Lesnett grew up in the Lesnett homestead on Lesnett Road. Sarah had a long, distinguished career as a teacher in the Bridgeville area.

In 1911 the high school added a third year. Seven students elected to graduate in 1911; the other four stayed the third year and were the class of 1912.

Casper Picard went to Weirton as a mill-worker. His grand-daughter, Suzie Picard, was in the audience at our workshop. The Picard family, parents Michael and Katharine, are listed in the Polk Directory as living on the Washington Pike; we believe this was in Kirwan Heights.

William C. Hopper is listed in the 1911 group. His parents, William P. and Annie, lived on Elm Street. William C. married Flora Hockenberry; they were our neighbors on Lafayette Street and their sons William and Donald were childhood playmates of ours. Their father worked in Pittsburgh for the Eugene Dietzgen Company, a prominent supplier of engineering tools.  

The 1913 Class was small, consisting of only three students. A postcard addressed to Mildred Lackey Crum provides a photograph of the faculty for the entire school in 1913, plus names of most of them. They were Mary Jones, Ms. Hewitt, Joseph Ferree, Romaine Russell, Cecelia Sullivan, Ida Porter, Lucy Jeol, Hannah Hockenberry, a lady identified as “Cronemeyer”, Miss Retta  Jones, Elizabeth Dinsmore, Mr. McAnlis, and Nell Roach.

The Class of 1914 made up for the small class of the previous year, boasting twelve graduates. Eva Betschar became a school teacher, according to the 1926 Yearbook. Hobart Chivers married classmate Lorraine Silhol and moved to Fredonia, New York, and became a mill-worker. Chivers was the son of constable John J. Chivers and his wife Sarah. They lived on Hickman Street. Miss Silhol was the daughter of Ferdinand and Josephine Silhol. Mr. Silhol was operating the wholesale liquor business at the corner of Hickman and Locust Streets.

Doyce Gallagher is described in the 1926 Yearbook as a mill worker. He was our neighbor on Lafayette Street in the 1940s, father of Carol and Lois. His parents, miner John T. Gallagher and Elsie, lived on Dewey Avenue.  

We know that Mildred Lackey married Park Crum, and lived on the corner of Elm and Chartiers Streets. Their children were Fred, Eileen, and Jimmy. Mr. Crum had an operating gas well in a field behind their house.

Ralph Picard, probably the brother of William, Class of 1911, was “killed in a Flannery explosion”

Nine students made up the Class of 1915. Estella Paul, daughter of David C. and Hannah Paul, who lived on Washington Avenue, became a bank teller in Bridgeville, later married a man named Cook.

The final class we covered in this first workshop was 1916. It consisted of nine students. We have a photo of thirty four students labelled “Classes of 1915 and 1916”, a photo of three girls in graduation robes holding a 1916 BHS pennant, and a photo of one of them (Bernadine McCaffrey) holding the pennant.

Miss McCaffrey was probably the daughter of Justice of the Peace Simon McCaffrey and his wife Margaret. They lived on Washington Avenue. She became a stenographer, then married barber Pete Conroy. The Conroys lived in Greenwood and had two children, Pat and Bernadine.

Clara Weise was the daughter of coal mining magnate Edmund Weise and his wife Alma. The Weises came to Bridgeville in 1913, eventually built a large house at 1200 Bank Street. Clara was the fifth of their nine children, the first to graduate from BHS. She married T. Walter Jones, Class of 1918. They lived at the corner of Dewey Avenue and Chartiers Street; Their children were Tom and Marian.

The first BHS history workshop came to a close with the discussion of the Class of 1916. The next workshop will be at the History Center at 7:00 pm on Tuesday, June 13, 2017. We hope to cover all the classes between 1916 and 1926 in that workshop.

This document is the residue of a lot of editing of a draft version about twice the length of this one. Contact me if you would like a copy of the long version. I suspect it ultimately will be the first chapter of a book on the history of Bridgeville High School.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

An Old Bridgeville Scrapbook May 18, 2017

Copyright © 2017          John F. Oyler

May 18, 2017

An Old Bridgeville Scrapbook

Old scrapbooks are valuable sources of historical information. Ed Wolf, the very capable archivist for the Bridgeville Area Historical Society, recently found one in the Society’s archives that is a treasure house of information.

The origin of the scrapbook is unknown, but the old newspaper clippings it contains tell us a lot about many of the legends upon which our current perception of Bridgeville’s early history is based. All of us history buffs realize that we never do know the true story of what happened in the past; instead we know what our predecessors have told us, orally and in written words.

Our understanding of early Bridgeville history is influenced heavily by stories from the Lesnett family heritage as reported by Daniel M. Bennett and by stories from the Poellott family that were repeated to Jimmy Patton by his uncle John Poellott. The Poellott information is well documented in correspondence between them. This scrapbook contains equally well documented information from the Lesnett/Bennett source in the form of old newspaper clippings.

One clipping, a reprint of an article originally published in the December 16, 1920, Carnegie Signal-Item, recounts a description of Bridgeville in 1855 as reported by Mrs. John Caldwell to her daughter, Mrs. Bennett. It contains two historic gems – confirmation of my long time wish that the Bridgeville bridges had been covered bridges, and a clarification of the function of the toll house on Washington Avenue.

According to Mrs. Caldwell, a descendant of the original Lesnett family in this area, “As you entered he village from the southern side, it was over an old covered bridge whose boards were so loose and made so much noise that you imagined your next step would precipitate you into the water of Chartiers Creek below”.

And, from the same article, “As you left the village at north or ‘lower end’, it was over a covered bridge”. Since these statements are included in an article which contains so many of the other trivia from Bridgeville’s early history, we feel justified concluding that the classic structures that gave our community its name were indeed covered bridges.

This gives me the opportunity to speculate on the specific type of covered bridge these might have been. Ithiel Town patented his “Town Lattice Truss” in 1820. It depends upon a large number of intersecting diagonals that give the appearance of a diamond shaped lattice. The same year Theodore Burr patented his “Burr Arch Truss” which combines an elegant arch with a conventional King Post truss. Both designs were popular at a time early enough to produce a bridge described as “old” in 1855. I think I will be greedy and pretend that the south bridge was a Town Truss and the north one a Burr Arch Truss.

The other interesting detail in this specific article was a description of the toll gate on the Pittsburgh and Washington Turnpike in the heart of the village in 1855. Just north of James Street, on the east side of the Pike, “The next place was the toll gate and the residence and shoe shop of Thomas Roach, grandfather of the Roaches in the vicinity. The toll gate and the customary long pole, which descended and barred your way, until you had paid the desired nickel of those days, and Mr. Roach, who was also the gatekeeper, was very alert as to his duties”.

It certainly is easy to wonder about the logistics of toll collecting. Was the toll gate applicable for foot traffic, or did it just apply to wagons and carts? At a nickel a car, a toll gate across Washington Avenue in front of La Bella Bean would generate a handsome revenue stream for the borough.

Although he didn’t mention the toll gate, John Poellott’s description of Bridgeville in 1859, as recorded on page 21 of the Historical Society book “Bridgeville”, is remarkably similar to this Caldwell/Bennett account.

We will report on some other interesting information from this scrapbook in a future column. Suffice it to say these two items alone make it a significant artifact. We are grateful to the unknown donor of this scrapbook and hope its example encourages others to consider the Historical Society when it comes time to clean house and discard things of this nature.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Roberto Clemente Museum May 11, 2017

Copyright © 2017          John F. Oyler

May 11, 2017

The Roberto Clemente Museum

The Bridgeville Area Historical Society program meeting for April was a presentation on the Roberto Clemente Museum by Vince Mariotti. Located in the rehabilitated Pittsburgh Fire Department Engine House 25, in Lawrenceville, the museum houses “the world’s largest exhibited collection of baseball artifacts, works of art, literature, photographs, memorabilia, and related materials which focus on Roberto Clemente, his teammates, his personal life, and his humanitarian causes.”

The engine house was originally acquired by Duane Rieder and renovated for his use as a photographic studio. When the Pirates hosted the 1994 All-Star Game at Three Rivers Stadium, they decided to sponsor a special exhibit honoring Clemente. Mr. Rieder visited the Clemente family in Puerto Rico and was able to borrow an impressive collection of artifacts and memorabilia for the exhibit.

In 2006 the Pirates hosted the All-Star Game in their newly completed PNC Park home. As part of the festivities Commissioner Bud Selig presented the Commissioner’s Historic Achievement Award to Clemente’s widow, Vera, who had come to Pittsburgh for the ceremony, accompanied by her three sons. Rieder’s reunion with the Clemente family led to the decision to establish a museum in Pittsburgh in honor of Clemente’s baseball and humanitarian careers.

The speaker began by recounting the strange story of how the Pirates acquired the twenty year old Clemente in the 1954 rookie draft. He had been heavily scouted by the Brooklyn Dodgers, New York Giants, and Milwaukee Braves as a youthful “phenom” in his native Puerto Rico. Brooklyn signed him as a “bonus baby”, a player whose signing was for an amount greater than the permitted $6,000 (Clemente’s bonus was $4,000), realizing this obligated them to keeping him on the major league roster for two years or run the risk of losing him in the rookie draft.

The ’54 Dodger roster was full of outstanding players, none of whom they were willing to sacrifice for an unproven rookie, so they sent him to Montreal in the hope that no one would recognize his potential. Pirate pitching coach scouted the Montreal Royals that summer, in an effort to evaluate another Dodger prospect, Joe Black. While there he observed Clemente’s skills throwing and batting in practice and wondered why he wasn’t playing in regular games.

Sukeforth advised Montreal manager Max Macon that he suspected subterfuge and told him the Pirates would surely use their first pick in the upcoming rookie draft to select Clemente. Once that news was out, the Royals inserted him in their lineup and his immediate success ensured his forthcoming transfer to the Pirates.

The Pirates did indeed draft him that Fall and had no difficulty finding a room for him on their major league roster. He played well enough in 1955 to earn a starting position in the lineup of a mediocre team. By 1960 he had begun to display his potential and the Pirate team had improved enough to earn a spot in the World Series against the New York Yankees. The story of their classic “underdog beats favorite” performance, capped by Bill Mazeroski’s dramatic ninth inning home run is well known to all local sports fans.

According to the speaker those early years in Pittsburgh were difficult for Clemente. He did not interface well with the local media personnel, partly because of his aloof personality and his broken English, which they ridiculed. The Pirate roster was full of fan favorites – All-American boys like Dick Groat, Vernon Law, Bob Friend, and Mazeroski; folk hero types like Smoky Burgess and Bob Skinner; and outright oddballs like Dick Stuart and Rocky Nelson.

Following the World Series win, Clemente was reported as being resentful of the fan adulation received by Mazeroski and Groat. The next year he won the first of four batting titles and began his remarkable streak of twelve straight years winning a Gold Glove, in recognition of being the best fielding right fielder in the league.

Mr. Mariotti related an example of Clemente’s difficulties with the press. He supposedly asked veteran sports writer Joe Tronzo if he was the best right fielder Tronzo had seen. Tronzo replied, “Of course not, you are the third best.” When asked who the first two were, the writer replied, “Paul Waner, sober; and Paul Waner, dead drunk”.

That story rang a bell with me. Long after Waner had retired from the major leagues, he played sandlot ball with Dormont in the Greater Pittsburgh League. I have his autograph which I acquired after watching him play in an exhibition game in Bridgeville. And my recollection was that he was indeed inebriated in that game. Casey Stengel is reported to have claimed that Waner was the best base runner he had ever seen. “He can slide into second base without breaking the pint whiskey bottle in his back pocket!”

Through the 1960s Clemente’s performance day in and day out was outstanding, both at bat and in the field. He continued to have problems with Pirate management regarding his salary. His total reimbursement for eighteen years of stardom was less than three quarters of a million dollars. Of course he was not alone in this situation; fellow Pirate Elroy Face had to work as a carpenter in the off season to make ends meet.

The speaker exemplified Clemente’s pride in his talent by recounting an incident from the filming of the movie “The Odd Couple”. A key episode in the film required the Pirates to hit into a “5-4-3” triple play against Oscar Madison’s favorite team, the New York Mets. Clemente was selected to be the batter, but each time they filmed the play his pride did not permit him to run slow enough to be thrown out at first. Eventually he was replaced as the batter by Bill Mazeroski.

The climax of Clemente’s career was his remarkable performance in the 1971 World Series against the Baltimore Orioles. Someone commented that the films of that Series looked very much like a Roberto Clemente highlight reel. The next year he thrilled his fans by getting his 3000th hit, a distinction achieved by only eleven players before him. One of the eleven was Paul Waner.

Late in December 1972 the capital of Nicaragua, Managua, was devastated by a severe earthquake. Clemente immediately began organizing emergency relief aid flights. When the first three flights were diverted to allegedly corrupt governmental officials, he decided to accompany the fourth one and ensure the supplies got to the needy people. He chartered a Douglas DC-7, which had a questionable maintenance history and an equally questionable flight crew. The plane was overloaded by 4200 pounds and barely was able to take off. Ten minutes later it crashed violently into the ocean, killing everyone aboard.

Clemente’s best friend, Orlando Cepeda; his Pirate team-mate and protégé. Manny Sanguillen; and Caribbean League team-mate Tom Walker all had offered to make the trip with him, but had other commitments that spared them his fate. Walker, of course, is the father of ex-Pirate second baseman Neil Walker.

The next Spring the Baseball Writers’ Association of America held a special election to posthumously elect Clemente into the Baseball Hall of Fame, waiving the mandatory five year waiting period due to the circumstances of his death. The only other player to receive such a waiver was Lou Gehrig.

The May program meeting for the Historical Society will feature Dr. Carelton Young, discussing the subject of his book “Voices from the Attic – the Williamstown Boys in the Civil War”. The meeting will be held at 7:30 pm, Tuesday, May 30, 2017, in the Chartiers Room of the Bridgeville Volunteer Fire Department, on Commercial Street.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

These Young People Today May 4, 2017

Copyright © 2017          John F. Oyler

May 4, 2017

The Class of 2017

One of my responsibilities with the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Pittsburgh is coordination of our Senior Design Projects program. In their final semester our Seniors are required to participate in a semester long team design project. Ideally these projects are based on real world problems, constraints, and data.

Most semesters we have between forty and fifty students each semester, subdivided into six multi-discipline teams. The students specialize in one of six disciplines – Construction Management, Structures, Environmental Engineering, Transportation, Geotechnical Engineering, and Water Resources. Matching the requirements of each project to the specialties available on the assigned team is always a challenge.

On the final day of class we hold a day-long Colloquium in which each team has the opportunity to spend an hour presenting the results of their efforts to a large audience of students, faculty, family members, and visiting engineering practitioners. This year’s Colloquium was particularly impressive, and I am extremely proud of the students and their accomplishments.

Perhaps the most impressive of this semester’s projects was implemented by a team of Environmental Engineering students who studied a problem of great interest to me – the pollution of Chartiers Creek by abandoned mine drainage. They selected two nearby sources – Scrubgrass Run and Woodville – and designed a practical, cost effective system to remediate them.

The reddish-orange color in the polluted streams leading into Chartiers Creek is produced by tiny particles of ferric iron oxyhydroxide, the same mineral as normal rust. Remediating the pollution requires oxidizing ferrous iron to ferric, producing the oxyhydroxide, and then allowing the tiny particles to settle out in large settling basins, and then trapping the even smaller particles in vegetation in constructed wetlands.

The team proposed to capture the discharge from the two sources, totaling about 400 gallons per minute, and transport it in a system of pipelines to a three acre site near the confluence of the old creek channel and the current one, just south of Heidelberg. Introducing the flow into the settling ponds over a series of weirs will introduce enough oxygen to convert the ferrous iron to ferric; several days of retention time in the settling ponds and wetlands should be sufficient to remove almost all of the solids.

The technology for this process is currently working very effectively at the Wingfield Pines remediation site between Bridgeville and Mayview, where over 1500 gallons per minute are successfully processed. The team estimated that their system could be installed for about $500,000, an investment that certainly appears to be warranted.

Another team, composed primarily of Geotechnical Engineering students, did a comprehensive design of the site-work, underground mine remediation, and foundation design required for a hypothetic commercial/light industrial complex to be constructed close to the Parkway West. It was based on an actual project recently completed by an engineering firm which employs three of our recent alumni as Geotechnical Engineers.

These alumni provided the team with the actual data they used for their project, including the soil and rock samples from the test borings they made. They also mentored the team throughout the term, following a chronological sequence identical to that of the real-world project. The resulting design included shallow foundations, drilled caissons, removal of semi-hazardous soil, grout injection into an abandoned mine, design of two MSE (mechanically stabilized earth) retaining walls, and slope stability analyses.

A team of Structural and Transportation students expressed an interest in designing a parking garage. They met with the University Facilities engineers and were advised to investigate a site on O’Hara Street adjacent to Thaw Hall and the intersection with Parkman Avenue. They then proceeded to design two alternative garages – a conventional precast concrete garage housing 530 vehicles and a steel frame structure equipped with an automatic stacking system that would handle about 1050 vehicles.

Thanks to our contacts with the Massaro Construction Company, the team was able to tour the new precast concrete garage being erected near Heinz Field and get a first-hand view of its design details. Their cost comparison of the two alternatives indicated that the cost per parking spot was fairly similar independent of the design concept.

A multi-discipline team tackled the challenge of connecting the popular Duck Hollow hiking/biking trail with Hazlewood and, consequently, the network of trails throughout the rest of the city. Their solution is a double switch-back ramp leading from the trail to the deck of the Glenwood Bridge and then on into Hazlewood or to the new Almono site development.

Coincidentally a day later, approval of the new switch-back to connect the Eliza Furnace trail with the riverside trail to the Point was announced. It will be quite interesting to follow its development and compare its detailed design with the one our students produced. The closer our projects come to real-world projects, the more rewarding they become.

Another real-world problem locally is congestion on the Parkway East approaching the Squirrel Hill Tunnel, partly because of conflict between vehicles trying to exit the Parkway onto Beechwood Boulevard and vehicles entering the Parkway a few hundred feet before the exit. A multi-discipline team studied that problem and produced what appears to be a feasible solution to it.

Their design begins with a round-about at the south end of the new Greenfield Bridge, feeding an access ramp to the Parkway descending along the side of hill to a point which significantly increases the weave distance between the two points of conflict. There has been considerable discussion regarding the use of the round-about, a concept with which most local people are unfamiliar. Closer to home, it will be interesting to see how well this concept works when it is installed at the intersection of Lesnett and McMillan Roads with McLaughlin Run Road.

The final project was the design of a workable potable water treatment system for an indigenous village in Panama. It consists of a roughing filter (primarily layers of crushed stone) and three slow sand filters, with a daily capacity of 5,000 gallons. The team built a successful pilot plant in our hydraulics lab to confirm the adequacy of their design.

Our faculty is deservedly proud of the Senior Design program and the students who pass through it. Every effort is made to motivate the students to apply the skills they have acquired to real-world problems they have not previously encountered and to develop innovative solutions to the problems.

In contrast, I recently received a newsletter from my (graduate school) alma mater reporting on CMU’s equivalent senior design project program. Last Fall their seniors “designed and built a dragon containment system that allowed the tethered dragon to roam freely within a 20 foot radius while not allowing movement of the structure itself”. Included was a photograph of one of the projects – a piece of pipe sticking out of a pile of sandbags. I am reminded of my mother’s advice – “If you haven’t anything good to say about something, it is best that you remain silent”.

My continued optimism about the future is reinforced by my observation of this group of very special young people (our Pitt students, not their CMU colleagues).  They are admirably equipped to make a positive contribution to our society and almost certainly to all the different cultures that make up Planet Earth.