Thursday, January 26, 2017

The C P Mayer Brick Company January 26, 2017

Copyright © 2017       John F. Oyler

January 26, 2017

The C. P. Mayer Brick Company

The Bridgeville Area Historical Society’s January “Second Tuesday” program was a comprehensive review of the C. P. Mayer Brick Company, brickmaking in general, and the unusual hobby of brick collecting. Based on the variety of comments and questions it is obvious this was a popular topic.

The facilitator began with a brief overview of the brick-making process. Raw materials include sand (silica), clay (alumina), lime, magnesia, iron oxide, and water combined in fairly specific proportions. The mixture is then ground very fine; mixed well; and fired at temperatures well over 2000 degrees Fahrenheit.

The Mayer Brick Company mined shale on the site where the brick yard was located in Kirwan Heights, close to the place where Mayer Avenue crosses the Wheeling and Lake Erie Railroad today. The brick yard was built there in 1903 to take advantage of the shale deposit, a deposit that included all of the necessary constituents for good brick in the right proportions.

The shale was ground up on a Stevenson Dry Pan, screened on two Dunlap screens to remove oversize particles, mixed with water in a Freese Pug Mill, and fed into a “brick machine” which extruded a continuous strip of wet material eight inches wide and three and a half inches high. At some point a cutting machine separated the strip into individual bricks of the correct width.

The unfired bricks were then loaded onto pallets and transported into ten drying tunnels where the moisture content was reduced to about five percent. They were then loaded into six Wilson kilns where they were gradually heated to maximum temperature, a process taking forty eight hours. The exhausted waste heat from the kilns was used as a source of energy for the drying tunnels.

At its peak the Mayer Brick Company could produce either 20,000 paving blocks or 30,000 of the smaller house bricks in a day. They employed forty workers in the winter, expanded to sixty in the summer. William Der was the superintendent. It operated until the early 1950s.

As an example of brick-making before the days of mechanization, the facilitator showed a short clip from the movie “The Last Brick-maker in America”, a wonderful film starring Sidney Poitier in the eponymous title role as a master craftsman made obsolete by modern methods. It neatly shows a one-mule-power pug mill, hand molding individual bricks, and batch firing in a primitive furnace.

Mr. Mayer was a leader in every venture in which he became involved; brick-making was no exception. The facilitator showed several examples of his contributions to the “Common Brick Manufacturers Association of America”, as reported in technical magazines. In one case he advocated that the Association form an insurance company strictly for their own members, a recommendation that was eventually implemented. Mr. Mayer also received patents for two brick-making inventions – a turn table to facilitate positioning bricks in the kilns and a compressed air system to remove particles of unfired brick from the pieces before they were fired.

The mention of the Association prompted a member of the audience, Judy Oelschlager Dames, to tell us about a memorable experience her mother had in 1924. Employed as Mrs. Mayer’s companion, Judy’s mother travelled with them by train to Los Angeles for the Sixth Annual Association convention. One of Judy’s most precious possessions is her mother’s ticket booklet which describes the trip in great detail. It will be the subject of a future column.

The fact that one of the facilitator’s numerous eccentricities is his hobby of brick collecting is fairly widely known. He gave a brief description of IBCA (the International Brick Collectors Association) and some of the unique characteristics of this hobby. Brick collectors are not allowed to purchase bricks; bricks are acquired by finding them or by trading them with other collectors. Brick collections take up a lot of space for storage and require pickup trucks for transport, a dramatic difference from stamps or baseball cards. Nonetheless it is a rewarding pastime, enjoyed by a very special group of people.

The local IBCA representative is Jean Bear, a resident of Washington, Pa. She is easily the most knowledgeable person in the Association with regard to Mayer bricks. The facilitator showed a photograph of a small part of her collection, which included thirty six different designs of Mayer paving bricks.

There is a local (Bridgeville) legend that the Mayer Company provided bricks for the Indianapolis Speedway in 1909, stemming from a trip Mr. Mayer is reported to have made to Indianapolis at some point. The facilitator explained that there is considerable documentation that “the Brickyard” was paved with bricks supplied primarily by the Wabash Clay Company in Veedersburg, Indiana, supplemented by five other Indiana brick yards. There is no evidence that the Bridgeville yard was represented in this venture.

Next month “Second Tuesday” will occur on Valentine’s Day, February 14. We plan to discuss “Downtown Bridgeville in the 1940s”, focusing on the businesses on Washington Avenue in those days. We meet at 7:00 pm in the History Center, on the corner of Station and Railroad Streets.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Putting Christmas Away January 19, 2017

Copyright © 2017       John F. Oyler

January 19, 2017

Putting Christmas Away

I spent most of the first full weekend of this month “putting away Christmas”, carefully wrapping up our precious collection of artifacts that constitute our family’s Yuletide heritage.

This was a difficult Christmas for us, the first since my wife’s passing. Nonetheless it was a joyful occasion with our house filled with grandchildren and their parents, eleven in total.

Holidays and family were always important to my wife; consequently Christmas was her favorite time of year. She particularly enjoyed hand-crafting things for the holidays, apparently a tradition in her family. One year she hand-painted overboards, to be placed on top of door or window sills. We found four in our set of Christmas decorations and were happy to display them.

My favorite is an inch thick board about five inches high and thirty inches long. It is a stretched out Nativity scene, a black silhouette on a white back ground with the stable and manger in the middle, wisemen arriving in the left side, and shepherds and angels on the right. Then there is a colorful Nativity scene on a shallow arch shaped board, with the background carefully gouged away between the border and the figures. Another shallow arch shape features colorful figures – three people building a snowman during a snow fall. The fourth is a deeper arch shape with a lion lying down and cradling a lamb. We treasure these artifacts of her art work.

Lai An is now three and a half years old, the perfect age to enjoy the holiday. Interestingly, her strongest memory of her grandmother is making and decorating Christmas cookies last year. I was quite interested in her mother’s reaction to witnessing our family’s somewhat eccentric Christmas traditions. Victoria is highly intelligent, well educated, and widely travelled, but I am sure our specific Christmas customs must seem extremely unusual to someone who grew up in a traditional Chinese family.

Putting away our massive collection of windup toys brought back many memories. I recall buying the first set of three at Grace’s store, on Bower Hill Road, when our children were toddlers. I was able to acquire a small band, one toy for each child. It consisted of a dancing bear shaking rattles, a monkey playing cymbals, and an elephant enthusiastically beating on a drum.

Later that Christmas season we visited Bill and Janet Sabina, friends who had three boys a little bit older than our children. They also had a fine collection of windup toys displayed neatly on a window sill. That inspired me to blackmail Santa into finding a new windup toy for each of our children each year, a tradition that spawned a collection numbering in the dozens – Santas, kittens that roll over, trolleys and trains, etc. The oldest windup toy we have predates our collection – a seventy five year old Ferdinand the Bull that my brother-in-law Jack Shaffer gave our children when he learned of our interest in windup toys.

Another flood of memories was generated by the act of removing ornaments from our tree and packing them away. The first year we were married, before our children began to arrive, we had a small tree decorated with thin wooden ornaments my wife had painted. Each one – nutcracker, toy soldier, rocking horse, etc. – has a special memory for me.

Later on we added ornaments with photos of each of our children and special souvenirs we picked up during our travels. I especially like some straw characters we found at a Scandinavian festival in northern Pennsylvania. One year the craft was converting wine bottle corks into ornaments by gluing hair and beards on them and painting faces on them.

At some point my wife got the inspiration to collect pieces of driftwood that were the right shape and the ingenuity to paint Santa faces on them. These too we proudly display at Christmas and marvel at her imagination and skill to produce unique pieces of artwork.

A few years ago I got into carving “pencil people” from long one inch square pieces of wood. Fortunately my wife was able to paint them distinctively and disguise the amateur level of my work. This produced tall, thin characters with their arms pulled in close to their bodies. One is a fine Santa, twelve inches tall, clutching a small Christmas tree in front of him. Another pencil people set that I admire is of the Three Wisemen, each with distinctive crowns and beards. At about the same time I also did a family of eight Pilgrims, each with remarkably grim faces.

We also of course produced a variety of other Santas, many of them based on patterns in “How-to-Carve” books that I acquired. Some of my favorites were based on patterns in a book on carving gnomes and dwarves. In most cases, Nan’s painting disguised the flaws in my carving.

In 1988 we undertook a new project, carving and painting “primitive” characters for a Nativity scene, beginning with a simple manger containing the baby, and Mary, kneeling to one side. In addition to retaining a master set for ourselves, we made copies for various members of our family, probably ten or twelve each year. Mary and the manger were followed, in succession, by Joseph, a shepherd, the Three Wisemen, a camel, and finally in 1995 by an angel. The theme was strictly primitive, although the camel and the angel were beginning to approach being semi-realistic. The peak of my primitive skill was the shepherd, who stands holding a (primitive) sheep in his arms. One of the recipients of the shepherd confirmed the primitive quality of my work by asking “Why is the shepherd holding a loaf of bread?”

The next year we embarked on new project – “The Peaceable Kingdom” – the animals in Edward Hicks’ famous series of paintings based on Isaiah 11, verses six and seven. In order we produced the wolf and the lamb, the leopard, the goat, the calf, the lion, the fatling, and the bear, before giving up by our inability to carve an adequate “small child”. This Christmas we set up our Peaceable Kingdom adjacent to the Nativity Scene.

The skirt around the base of our tree is another homemade treasure – green felt with a red border and richly decorated with felt cutouts of appropriate holiday symbols – snowmen, bells, candles, etc. It too is a cherished relic that has been lovingly folded and put away for another year.

Lai An appears to have inherited some of her grandmother’s love for crafts. Christmas Eve we stretched a cord along our mantle and used it to hang our twelve stockings. The next morning she shared our fun taking the stockings down and examining the things Santa had placed in them. A day later she was happily cutting up construction paper with her childproof scissors. When she realized that one of her pieces was shaped like a stocking she promptly got up and attempted to hang it from the cord on the mantle.

We weren’t sure what to expect when we set up our Christmas candle carousel. It is a modest wooden one with the heat from four candles driving a propeller which then turns the table below it and allows a parade of angels in a circle. The candle stubs we had were sufficient to get it moving and provide the desired effect. I think I like it better than the elaborate fancy ones that are advertised in catalogues today.


My wife’s Christmas cactus showed buds on Christmas day, but was two days late coming into full bloom. I suspect it too was in mourning like the rest of us. As I fondled each memento before packing it away my thoughts were dominated by precious memories of better days.


Thursday, January 12, 2017

Brigeville Area News RIP January 12, 2017

Copyright © 2017       John F. Oyler

January 12, 2017

The Bridgeville News, RIP

We think the first newspaper in Bridgeville was published by C. P. Mayer sometime around the turn of the twentieth century; we have no record of its name nor the duration of its existence. We also know that, at least in 1918, John W. Knepper published a four page weekly newspaper called “The Bridgeville Signal”; again we have no record of its duration.

We also know that publication of “the Bridgeville News” was begun in 1926 as “a means of helping Francis P. Cavanaugh through college and University”, according to a document entitled “Ethnographic Survey of Bridgeville” written by Alex D. Karaczun in 1992 as a “Rivers of Steel” project.

The same source documents four moves for Bridgeville Publishing Company before finding a permanent home on Jane Way in 1937. That is the location I remember from my high school days when I used to provide the paper with reports on the activities of our athletic teams. This was my first exposure to censorship because of commercial conflicts. I wrote an article reporting the victory of our football team over Cecil, which Mr. Cavanaugh rejected because he was afraid it would alienate his customers in the Cecil area. Being a typical teenage rebel, I promptly resigned in protest. This rash incident nipped my career as a sports journalist in the bud and doomed me to a future as a Civil Engineer (a future for which I was much better suited, fortunately).

I was just one of series of high school sports reporters who supplied the paper with articles; my brother did the same chore when he was a senior. Apparently my successors were more rational than I; I am not aware of any of them resigning in protest. A few years later my mother was a volunteer at the Bridgeville Public Library and was very proud of being able to provide the paper with reviews of new books as they were acquired by the library.

In1953 Mr. Cavanaugh sold the paper to John McCracken and Ralph E. Hennon, an experienced pressman from Oakdale. McCracken sold his interest in the paper in 1958, and a partnership of Mr. Hennon and Custer G. Papas took over. Papas had worked for the paper for about ten years, primarily as a linotype operator. When Mr. Hennon encountered health problems in 1966, Papas bought his interest and became sole operator and publisher of the Bridgeville Publishing Company.

In 1977 the Knepper Press acquired the Bridgeville Publishing Company and continued to publish the Bridgeville News, now called ”the Bridgeville Area News”.  The Knepper family has a long history of newspaper publishing in the Chartiers Valley, including the brief episode in Bridgeville mentioned above. Their first paper was the Mansfield Item, which commenced publication in 1873.

I wrote a series of columns a few years ago, based on microfiche archives of the Mansfield Item at the Carnegie Historical Society. There were a few news items about Bridgeville in most issues. Occasionally Mr. Knepper would make an effort to recruit customers and advertisers from Bridgeville and would put out an issue filled with Bridgeville gossip. It doesn’t appear the effort was very successful.

In 1894 Mansfield and Chartiers Boroughs merged, forming a new community, which they named Carnegie. The Mansfield Item followed suit, being renamed the Carnegie Item. In 1905 John C. Knepper attempted to diversify by starting a new paper, the “Valley Signal.” We don’t know much about it; it may actually have been called “the Chartiers Valley Signal”. It survived until 1908 when it apparently was merged with “the Item”, generating a new name, “the Carnegie Signal-Item”. I wish we knew more about the individuals in the Knepper family and the convoluted history of this paper.

In 1989 Gateway Newspapers, a Monroeville firm specializing in small weekly community papers, acquired the Bridgeville Area News and the Carnegie Signal-Item and continued to publish them. “Water Under the Bridge” made its first appearance in the Bridgeville Area News in November 1993. Its title was “An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving“; it dealt with our family’s annual trip to my father’s home near Chambersburg each Thanksgiving.

In 2005 Gateway was purchased by Trib Total Media, the parent company of a number of newspapers including the Pittsburgh Tribune Review. In the summer of 2008 they decided to terminate publication of the Bridgeville Area News. The final edition featured a cartoon of a disconsolate columnist leaning over a bridge and watching the water flow under it for the last time.

Eighteen months later the Bridgeville paper was miraculously resuscitated as was my journalistic career. The paper was now to be distributed by mail, along with the Pennysaver, to a much broader audience, one that included readers in South Fayette and Collier Townships, as well as those Bridgeville residents who had been unable or unwilling to pay for the paper in its earlier form.

These past seven years have been quite rewarding for me. I regularly encounter folks who recognize me from my picture in the column masthead and comment on something I have recently written. Unfortunately the changing situation in the print media industry appears to have caught up with us again. Our younger generations prefer to get their news electronically, and the market for hard copy newspapers has declined accordingly.

Trib Total Media has recognized this and reorganized to accommodate it. Last month they ceased to publish print copies and have concentrated on producing a very effective website in their place. Along with this change they have re-evaluated the local community market and elected to focus on a smaller number of local papers, a decision which once again has doomed the Bridgeville Area News.

It is their intention to replace the existing Carnegie Signal-Item and Bridgeville Area News with a single paper, the Signal-Item, serving the middle Chartiers Valley area, including Bridgeville. At this time “Water Under the Bridge” will continue to appear in the new paper. The new news editor of the Signal-Item, Bobby Cherry, has an impressive track record, as can be seen by his work with the Sewickley Herald, a local paper that provides much more relevant news than we have seen in this area for years.

Unfortunately at this time there are no plans to continue distribution of the paper to Collier and South Fayette Townships, a decision that I hope will be reconsidered. We are planning to continue to archive our columns with the Bridgeville Area Historical Society and on my personal blog site,

I am grateful to Trib Total Media for providing me with the opportunity to write this column for the past several decades; I hope they will continue to provide Bridgeville with a quality weekly community paper.

By my count the most recent version of the Bridgeville News was under its eighth different management. Does this cat have a ninth life? Or have I missed one somewhere along the way and its nine lives are used up?

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Catfish January 5, 2017

Copyright © 2017       John F. Oyler

January 5, 2017


Veteran readers of this column are aware of my fascination with Catfish Path, the ancient Indian trail from what is today Washington, Pa., to the Ohio River, roughly following the Chartiers Creek valley. The southern terminus of the trail was Catfish Camp, allegedly named for a Native American whose name, in the language of the Delawares was Tingooqua. I have assumed there was someone with that name, but never knew for sure that he actually existed.

Last Fall when I attended the re-enactment of the termination of the Mason-Dixon Line survey, I was surprised to see a re-enactor portraying a Delaware named Tingooqua, who was called Catfish by the English. When I asked the re-enactor, Ed Robey, what he knew about the real Tingooqua, I was rewarded with a fine collection of articles about him. Not only was Tingooqua a contemporary of the earliest settlers in this area, he was an extremely significant contributor to the history and heritage of our region.

The most relevant reference was in “The Journal of Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon”. I had acquired a copy of it but had not yet been able to read it in detail. Sure enough, early in October, 1767, they report “About two miles west of the Monaungahlea we were paid a visit by Catfish, his nephew, and squaw”. This was indeed the encounter that we had seen the re-enactors reproduce.

The Journal then reports that the chief of the (Iroquois) Indians accompanying the surveying expedition parleyed with Catfish, presented him with wampum, explained the purpose of their mission, and convinced him of their peaceful intent. Catfish, a Chief of the Delawares, was described as being “very well dressed, nearly like Europeans”.

Colonial Records of Pennsylvania describe a meeting in Philadelphia on December 4, 1759, in which two Delaware chieftains, Teedyuscung and Tingooqua, met with Lieutenant Governor James Hamilton. Tingooqua, who called himself a messenger from the Kuskuskes Nation, presented the Lieutenant Governor with four strings of wampum and declared that the “eleven nations on the west of Allegheny” supported the peace treaty Teedyuscung had negotiated with the Penn family and that they looked forward to many years of peace in the future.

According to Paul W. Wallace’s “Indian Paths of Pennsylvania”, New Kuskusky Town was located about where New Castle is today. It does appear that Tingooqua’s permanent village was at that location and that Catfish Camp was a temporary camp used by travelers.

Boyd Crumrine’s “History of Washington County” documents the existence of Catfish Camp in what is now downtown Washington and also mentions “a small stream entering Chartiers Creek” named Wissaameking, the Delaware word for Catfish, at that location. This information is reported on the Jefferson Township website currently and amplified by reporting that Tingooqua moved his camp several times as settlers built cabins near it. Incidentally, in several documents Tingooqua is also referred to as “Wissameek”.

Tingooqua was even a character in a well-known historical hoax. In 1945 a committee from the Greene County Historical Society published a three volume history of the early days in that area based on old documents allegedly uncovered by a man named William Horn. Included was an improbable version of the well documented 1749 expedition of French Canadian Celeron de Blainville in which he buried lead plates documenting France’s claim to the Ohio Country.

In contradiction to a large body of documentation on the location of these plates, several of which have been located, this document reports that several were buried in Greene County, by the equally improbable combination of de Blainville, Peter Chartier, Christopher Gist, and Tingooqua. I am surprised they didn’t include George Washington!

A committee of local historical societies investigated the Horn papers and concluded that they had all been forged. In 1946 they published an article reporting their findings, which have not been refuted. Being included in a fraud certainly reinforces the proof that Tingooqua was a real, contemporary person.

I am pleased that my mythical Chief Catfish has been replaced by a flesh and blood Native American, a significant contemporary of the first settlers in this area. Perhaps I should refer to Catfish Path as Tingooqua’s Trail in the future.