Friday, September 30, 2016

The J. B. Higbee Glass Company

September 29, 2016

The Bridgeville Area Historical Society kicked off a new series of audience-friendly workshops, eponymously called “Second Tuesday”, to remind each of us that they will be scheduled at 7:00 pm on the second Tuesday of each month, at the History Center in the old Pennsylvania Railroad Station in Bridgeville.

Our first subject was the J. B. Higbee Glass Company, and there certainly appear to be lots of folks interested in it.  The Higbee Glass Plant produced glass tableware in this area from 1907 through 1918 at which time General Electric purchased it, primarily to manufacture light bulbs.

The workshop began with a discussion of the process for making glass, a simple one involving heating a mixture of sand (silica), soda, magnesia, and alumina to about 3100 degrees Fahrenheit and then pouring it into moulds to form finished pieces of tableware. The moulding works by inserting the exact volume for the finished pitcher or vase into the mould and then blowing it against the surface of the mould.

The J. B. Higbee Glass Company was the successor to Bryce, Higbee and Company, a joint venture of John B. Higbee and two Bryce Brothers, which built a plant in Homestead in 1879.  The company prospered until 1907 when a combination of financial problems blamed on Charles Bryce and a disastrous flood that destroyed the plant drove it into receivership.

John B. Higbee’s son Orlando (Ollie) was able to acquire the equipment and moulds that had survived the flood.  He incorporated a new company, named for his deceased father and decided to locate it in Kirwan Heights in a new industrial complex being developed by the Bridgeville Land Development Company (C. P. Mayer).

The Higbees were long term residents of this area, having a large farm in the area now known as Mitchell’s Corner. Larry Godwin brought a copy of the excellent Upper St. Clair Arcadia book, which he wrote, and showed us a photograph of a log house called Higbee School which may well be the first school west of the Alleghenies.

John B. Higbee married a neighbor, Jennie Espy. They had two sons – Ollie and Joseph – and a daughter, Clarinda.  She married William Wilson Lesnett, the gentleman who built the well-known octagonal barn on Lesnett Road, adjacent to their homestead.

The Lesnetts had two daughters, one of whom, Sadie, married Harry Schneider, a union that produced four sons – Bill, Ed, Dick, and Jim – and a daughter, Clarinda.  We were fortunate in having Dick Schneider at our workshop, as well as Clarinda’s son, Harry Smith. Their contribution to the discussion was very much appreciated.

A unique characteristic of J. B. Higbee glassware is their “bumblebee” trademark, which is imprinted at the center of every piece produced in Bridgeville.  The letter “H” is embossed on one wing of a bumblebee; “I”, on its body; and “G”, on the other wing. Committed J. B. Higbee collectors insist on examining pieces to confirm authenticity by looking for this trademark. Harry Smith reported that the New Martinsville Glass Company ended up with the Higbee moulds when J. B. Higbee Company sold the plant to General Electric. They were allowed to use the bumblebee trademark, without the letters H, I, and G.

J. B. Higbee Company produced a remarkable variety of glass tableware in at least a dozen different patterns. They were sold in Higbee stores in Pittsburgh and New York and by catalogue. Each pattern was patented, preventing any competitor from copying it. We also examined one of Ollie Higbee’s seven patents for one of the very first thermos bottles. Thanks to Dana Spriggs, the Historical Society has one of these bottles in its Higbee collection – we were all glad to examine it.

An important resource for any collector of Higbee glass is a book entitled “Bryce, Higbee and J. B. Higbee Glass” by Lola and Wayne Higby. There are a few of these available on the Internet at a reasonable cost. It is an outstanding book with an impressive amount of information on the two companies and the many patterns and pieces they produced. The Higbee collection at the History Center includes a paperback copy of the book.

The National Depression Glass Association’s website lists twenty eight organizations interested in collecting specific types of glassware, including the well-known Duncan Glass Society in Washington, Pa. and the previously unheralded National Toothpick Holder Collector Society in Archer City, Texas. So far, there is no organization of Higbee Bumblebee Glass collectors, suggesting an opportunity for the Historical Society to occupy a special niche.

The second Tuesday of October is the 11th; we are looking forward to another opportunity to discuss a Bridgeville history topic that evening. Our subject will be the Greenwood neighborhood; we are currently working hard to locate folks who are better acquainted with it than we are.

The Pittsburgh Botanic Garden

September 22, 2016

My daughter Elizabeth, my grand-daughter Rachael, and I visited the Pittsburgh Botanic Garden one recent Saturday afternoon. Getting there turned out to be a bigger challenge than we anticipated. Google Map took us out the Parkway to the Campbells Run exit, then southwest to the site. Right after we encountered a sign saying two miles to the Botanic Garden, we ran into another informing us that Baldwin Road was closed.

No problem, we will detour down McMichael to Rennerdale and take Noblestown west to Pinkerton and we’ll be home free.  This we did and were rewarded with a sign saying half a mile to the Botanic Garden, which initiated the sarcastic “That was a long mile and a half!” Almost immediately we encountered a very large tree down across Pinkerton – foiled again!

Confused, we turned around and headed back toward Noblestown Road. There we encountered a man in a Volkswagen who flagged us down and inquired if the road to was indeed blocked. When we confirmed that it was, he replied, “I am the bartender and am going to the Botanic Garden. If that’s where you are going, just follow me.”

Bar tender at the Botanic Garden? Nonetheless we did follow him through narrow, winding back roads till we finally got onto Pinkerton Road on the other side of the Garden and quickly reached our destination. There we found a large group of people who obviously were attending a wedding, and who eagerly awaited the arrival of the bartender.

The Pittsburgh Botanic Garden is the outgrowth of the Horticultural Society of Western Pennsylvania, a well-meaning group of landscape architects and horticulturists who got together in 1988 to effect horticultural improvements in the Pittsburgh region. Their dream of creating a botanic garden came to fruition in 1998 when Allegheny County offered them 432 acres in Settler’s Cabin Park, an area that had suffered from decades of surface and deep coal mining.

They formed a not-for-profit organization, the Pittsburgh Botanic Garden, to take on the challenge of reclaiming this land and remediating it for use as a massive horticultural facility. A major task was removing the remaining coal on seventy two acres of the site and returning the surface to arable land. This “daylighting” process is finally close to completion.

An equally difficult problem was the presence of abandoned mine drainage and its pollution of the water supply on the property. I was aware of this problem because of a senior design project a group of our students did twelve years ago. Someone from the Horticultural Society had contacted us and inquired if we could have some students study several infrastructure problems associated with the botanic garden they were planning

At that time the proposed site was southwest of the current location, on McGill Road, rather than Pinkerton. We were asked to study access alternatives to the McGill Road site and to recommend a remediation system for an abandoned mine (acid) drainage problem at a source in Kentucky Hollow.

We assembled a team and put its environmental engineering members in contact with Dr. Bob Hedin, whose company, Hedin Environmental, dominates the acid mine drainage remediation field. Our team made numerous visits to the site before coming up with a design, with the help of Hedin Environmental, for a system that would convert this problem stream of water into a useable resource.

The McGill roadway design and the abandoned mine drainage remediation design were submitted to the Horticultural Society folks and helped them justify going ahead with the planning of the Botanic Garden. The final location of the Garden is on Pinkerton Road, and the acid mine drainage remediation system treats a source in a different hollow. 

I was particularly eager to inspect the actual system that Hedin Environmental eventually installed and was frustrated that there really was very little to see. The outflow from the treatment system feeds Lotus Pond, a lovely small body of water currently sporting blooming water lilies. The Pond is the centerpiece of an Asian-themed environment, complete with cherry trees, a classic arched Oriental style bridge, and the beginnings of a Zen garden. It is easily the most impressive thing we saw.

Turns out the Zen Garden is built on top of an underground reinforced concrete chamber housing the acid mine drainage remediation system. The chamber contains 450 tons of limestone. The polluted water is fed into the chamber where the acid in it reacts with the limestone and is precipitated. The remediated water then is discharged into the pond at a rate of less than ten gallons per minute. I am pleased that this final design is so similar to what our students had proposed in 2004.

Once a week the chamber is flushed out and the sediment on the limestone is washed down to a pair of settling ponds, well below Lotus Pond. The net result of this remediation project is impressive and should serve as an incentive for further efforts to reduce the impact of acid mine drainage in the Chartiers Creek watershed. The Lotus Pond restoration project received the 2014 Governor’s Award for Environmental Excellence, a well deserved honor.

At this time the Botanic Garden has concentrated its efforts on the sixty acres that make up the Woodlands Garden; we spent most of our time there. The trails are pleasant and there is sufficient signage to help everyone identify trees and plants in it. The complex also includes extensive flower gardens, a “Heritage Apple Orchard”, and a log house dating back to 1784.

When I think about all the pleasure I have received from my twice daily walks in the woods near our house, I realize the remarkable potential of the Pittsburgh Botanic Garden for Allegheny County residents who are not as fortunate as I am.  Imagine looking forward to the first trillium bloom of the Spring, the maturity of may apples in the Summer, and the glorious carpet of oak and maple leaves in the Fall.

It is always a special treat for me to visit a completed project and realize that some of our students have made a relevant contribution to its implementation.

Bill Norcik September 15, 2016

September 15, 2016

Bill Norcik

I was saddened to learn of the passing of Bill Norcik. I was a year ahead of him at Bridgeville High School and Penn State and always considered it an honor to be considered his friend.

I first became aware of Bill in the spring of 1947.  I had recently become exposed to the sport of soccer in gym class and thought it might be fun to try out for the high school team, as a tenth grader.  The good news is that a soccer team needs about two dozen players merely to put on a full blown practice.  The bad news is that substitution in soccer is significantly limited; the bench warmers don’t have much of a chance to ever play in a game.

Nonetheless we were issued uniforms and allowed to sit on the bench during home games. One of my fellow bench warmers was a small ninth grader from Heidelberg named Bill Norcik. It was obvious to me that, despite his size he was an excellent athlete, especially for soccer.

Early in the season we were enjoying watching a game from the bench when one of our players was injured. The coach leaped up, eyeballed us potential substitutes, and shouted “I need a left-footed kicker”.  Bill raised his hand and said “I’m a left-footed kicker!” Coach looked right through him, ignored him completely, and sent someone else into the game.

For the next seven years, every time I saw Bill do something special in a soccer game, I remembered that incident and chuckled.  Thirty years later when my son told me they were looking for someone to coach his fifth grade soccer team, I volunteered immediately, confident that I wasn’t the worst soccer coach ever.

In those days high school soccer was played in the late winter and early spring on dirt fields that were either covered with mud when it was wet or small rocks and broken glass when it was dry.  I remember several occasions when we ran through puddles covered with ice.  We wore heavy leather boots that got even heavier with wet mud; this was also true of the balls.  A strong kick by a fullback was lucky to get to midfield.

That year was the extent of my soccer career, although my picture shows up in the 1948 (next year’s) BHS Yearbook. Content for the Yearbook was collected early in the year, too early to properly cover the Spring sports – soccer and baseball.  When the time came for taking a team picture for soccer I was rewarded for my previous year’s peonage by being included in the photograph, between two legitimate athletes – Joe Stalma and Bill Norcik. I guess that was the peak of my athletic career.

The BHS teams Bill played on in the next three years were quite respectable, culminating in a team that ended the season with a WPIAL championship only to have it vacated because of their use of “some ineligible players”.  The final three games of that season were all played against South Fayette.

Teams played each other twice, home and away. Both Bridgeville and South Fayette used the same field as its home field.  The first game was postponed till the end of the season because of weather.  BHS won it 1 to 0 on a goal by Lou Cimarolli, then lost the second game, in the rain, by the same score.

This left both teams with identical 8-1-1 records, forcing a playoff.  Norcik won the game in the final quarter with his third goal of the game, for a final score of 3 to 2. I don’t know the story about the ineligible players – it probably was associated with someone playing Junior Soccer concurrently.

The high school teams were bolstered by players from Heidelberg and Beadling who had acquired significant experience playing Junior Soccer. I remember in particular Harry Prandini, Lou Kwasniewski, Joe Comini, Charlie Pollock, Bernie Sypien, Harry Kurinsky, and Andy Schoen.

Semi-pro soccer was a big attraction for us kids on Sunday. The Morgan Strassers (later, the Pittsburgh Indians) played their home games on our field.  It was enclosed by corrugated metal sheeting, with a hole at one end so kids could sneak in free.  The games were well attended, mostly by first generation immigrants who were passionate about the sport.

The year I was a Sophomore at Penn State, Bill Norcik, Bob Harris, and Emil Borra arrived on campus as Freshmen; Bill and Emil, to play soccer, Bob, to play basketball.  Freshmen were not allowed to participate in varsity sports in those days, so they became involved in Freshmen teams.

Soccer was a Fall sport at the college level at that time. When the Freshman soccer team was organized they realized they lacked an experienced goalie, so Bill and Emil persuaded Bob to join the team in that position. He played it well until basketball practice started, then switched sports.

Early in the basketball season Bob suffered a leg injury severe enough to end his aspirations for stardom in that sport; consequently it was an easy decision for him to try his hand at varsity soccer the next year. He proceeded to excel as a goalie for three years on very good teams, lettering each time.

Bob and I were “best friends” in high school. My dormitory room was close to the athletic complex, making it easy for me to watch practice and go to games. Consequently I became close friends with all three of the BHS boys, as well as some of the other varsity players. I was especially proud of the fact that our high school had contributed three key players to a nationally ranked team.

Bill Norcik was a major contributor to those Penn State teams, also lettering all three years. The action photograph in the yearbook, La Vie, for his senior year shows Bill attempting to score on a goalie from Duke.

My brother remembered coming to Penn State in 1952 when I was a senior and watching the BHS boys on the soccer team play Navy.  He also noted that Bill’s obituary reported that his nickname was “Crusher” and wondered if that name came from Heidelberg or was a consequence of the Bridgeville propensity for nicknames.  Incidentally we called Bob Harris “Luman”, because there was a major league baseball player named Luman Harris in those days.

Lou Kwasniewski rode the school bus from Heidelberg to BHS each day with Bill Norcik. Lou remembers Bill as a good friend, a fine soccer player, and an all-around outstanding human being.  I think that is an impressive legacy for Bill to leave.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks, September 8, 2016

Copyright © 2016       John F. Oyler

September 8, 2016

The Nighthawks

When my son John and his family invited me to visit them in New York, they asked me if there was anything specific I would like to do.  My reply was that I would like to see and hear Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks.  I had already confirmed that they played Monday and Tuesday nights at the Iguana Restaurant.

I had seen Giordano and some of the men in his band at jazz festivals and have several of the Nighthawks’ records.  I was also familiar with their involvement in movies – several Woody Allen films including his most recent one (CafĂ© Society), “The Aviator”, and “Finding Forrester” – as well as in the HBO series “Boardwalk Empire”.

When I got to New York and we began to investigate the possibility of seeing the Nighthawks I researched the Iguana Restaurant and was discouraged to learn that it is a well-known Tex-Mex restaurant, hardly the normal place for a jazz band that plays music from the ‘20s and ‘30s.  Nonetheless we made reservations and showed up there fifteen minutes before the 8:00 pm show time.

My concerns were aggravated when we walked into the restaurant – it certainly was not the venue I associate with classic jazz. We were directed up a staircase to the second floor, and suddenly everything looked better.  A small dance floor, a reasonably large bandstand with a few tuxedoed musicians shuffling around, and busy waiters threading their way between tables crowded with enthusiastic fans.

Our table was down front, very close to the musicians.  We placed our orders and then began to inspect the musicians.  Giordano leads the band while providing a remarkably effective bass line – sometimes with an upright string bass, sometimes with a tuba, and sometimes with a bass saxophone. Keeping track of what he is playing is worth the price of admission alone.

I recognized Andy Stein, another remarkable musician who plays baritone saxophone when he isn’t playing violin (jazz fiddle?).  Trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso and Saxophonist/clarinetist Dan Levinson were also familiar faces, from Allegheny Jazz Society events I have attended.  The rest of the band was made up of reed players Mark Lopeman and Dennis Joseph, trumpeter Mike Ponella, Ken Salvo on guitar and banjo, trombonist Jim Fryer, percussionist Paul Wells, and pianist Simon Mulligan.

We had just started on our meal and I was beginning to feel that this was going to work out well when drummer Wells hit the downbeat for the first song and suddenly we were back in 1926! I have always been a fan of time travel, and tonight I had achieved it. Absolutely everything was exactly as I had imagined it.

I thought Vince announced the first selection as “90 in the Shade”.  Later research indicated that was the name of a 1915 Broadway musical by Jerome Kern that, surprisingly, did not include a song with that title.  Not to worry – it was wonderful, as were all the two dozen songs that followed it in the three set performance.

Asking me which songs I liked best is akin to asking me which grandchild I love most – they were all magnificent.  Maybe “Ring Dem Bells” from the first set, “Isn’t It Romantic” from the second, and “You’re the Cream in my Coffee” from the third.

Singer Carol Woods, fresh from a tour with “Chicago”, came up from the audience and sang “Orange Colored Sky” before belting “Blues in the Night”.  Another audience celebrity was society pianist and ‘20s music historian Peter Mintun. He sat in with the band and played “Riding High”.

And, finally, a gentleman whose introduction I missed grabbed the microphone and sang “Let Yourself Go”.  If there was any residual question about time travel, this man dispelled it.  He was dressed completely in white, with a red rosebud in his boutonniere.  I am sure that, as soon as the set was over, he hurried outside to get into Jay Gatsby’s convertible with Nick and Daisy, and then to speed off to West Egg.

Margaret Whiting’s daughter Deborah was also in the audience. In honor of her grandfather the band performed an outstanding version of his “True Blue Lou”.

The current Nighthawks take their name from the Coon-Sanders band, an extremely popular jazz band that performed from 1919 to 1932. Formed in Kansas City by drummer Carleton Coon and pianist Joe Sanders, the Nighthawks were the first jazz band to achieve popularity with late night (midnight to 1:00 am) clear channel radio broadcasts. They later moved to Chicago and New York and became famously nationally.

I remember my father talking about the Coon-Sanders band.  I assume he was aware of them because of their radio broadcasts and records, but it would be nice to think that he and my mother saw them perform in a nightclub in New York when they honeymooned there n 1930. The only thing I know about that trip is that my mother said they went to lots of baseball games.

I have listened to a number of original Nighthawks records and can attest to the fact that Giordano’s band is an appropriate descendant of them.  I think Coon-Sanders had similar instrumentation, ten pieces lacking only the fourth reed/violin player Giordano’s band uses. Their bass player was not as versatile as Vince – he only played tuba.

John’s comment was “This is terrific. Why did they quit playing jazz this way?” My response was that the evolution of jazz followed the same trajectory as other art forms. The early practitioners took a couple of concepts – syncopation and improvisation – and experimented with them until they perfected a simple, elegant approach to playing music, an approach some of us call “classic” or “traditional” jazz.

Then performers began to incorporate variations, primarily in harmony and rhythm, and developed “Swing”, “Bebop”, “Progressive Jazz”, “Cool Jazz”, and a dozen others.  I enjoy all of them, but none as much as traditional.

The three hours passed rapidly, suddenly it was 11:00 and Vince announced their final selection.  I can’t recall any other musical event I have experienced in recent years that was nearly as enjoyable as this evening. I hope we can re-engage our time machine again soon and travel back to the “Roaring Twenties”.

Coming attractions – I will moderate a series of monthly workshops on specific topics in Bridgeville area history at the History Center beginning at 7:00 pm Tuesday, September 13, 2016. The first one will deal with the J B Higbee Glass Company.