Tuesday, June 16, 2009
A determined shopkeeper with penny candy
By Colleen Nelson
GREENSBORO, Pa. – Betty Longo's storefront windows are filled with
baskets, crocks, red geraniums and pale African violets.
Step inside her shop on Front Street in Greensboro, Pa. Penny candy, ice cream and fresh milkshakes await you.
This tiny borough along the Monongahela River is well on its way to becoming a tourist destination. Meet the woman who helped make it happen.
"Some people call me the town historian and I guess that's true," Longo, 83, admits, while rummaging on a shelf for a copy of the book she loves to show visitors.
Her book, "Memories of Greensboro, Pennsylvania: A People's History," published in 2007, is full of old photographs of Greensboro in its heyday as a 19th century pottery town. It includes newspaper articles, chapters from old books and federal historical registry listings. But, it is the people's history section, written by Longo from her own life and times, and from interviews of friends and neighbors, that tells what it takes to keep a town alive.
"My husband Jim and I bought the store in 1953. I got interested in history in 1955 when I found a ledger in the attic that belonged to Alexander Van Boughner. He owned this store and had a pottery business, too."
The ledger starts in 1883 and fills hundreds of pages with lists of what people bought, how much Van Boughner paid his workers and what got shipped on the river.
"It fascinated me and I wanted to learn more. So I started asking my neighbors because I saw so many of their family names listed."
Greensboro in the 1950s was full of families whose husbands and fathers worked on Lock Seven, or in nearby mines, Longo remembers. These were good times, when people got together to create Mon View Park, complete with a swimming pool and roller skating rink for the kids.
Longo was in the thick of it and her store became the place to gather.
"Every morning I got up at 5 a.m. and made nut rolls, cinnamon rolls, pies and cake to eat with coffee. At night people came in and drank coffee and talked, sometimes till 11 o'clock. My little one would come over from the house and fall asleep on the magazine rack. I didn't have enough sense to say I was closed."
But times were changing. Mines shut down and families moved. But the Longos stayed to raise three children and the store stayed open.
When Lydia Aston, a nurse advocate for rural health issues in West Virginia, bought the historic Reppert/Gabler House at the river's edge in 1975, Longo recognized a kindred spirit.
"She came into my store one day and asked me if I knew any place where we could build a clinic. I told her to talk to the people at the Monon Center and that got the ball rolling. That's how we got the Cornerstone Care clinics started."
When Lock Seven was removed in 1986, the water level in that stretch of the river rose 15 feet. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers declared the riverfront a higher flood plain, and in 1992, it began making plans to condemn all the buildings there, including Aston's historic home.
"We were all upset and had a lot of meetings at the fire hall but people were afraid. They really didn't know what to do. It was Lydia Aston who stood up to the Army Corps of Engineers and refused to let them condemn all those houses. She got me involved with talking to lawyers, going to court, all of that. She knew who to call and she never gave up. Lydia saved a lot of our history. We lost some houses, but the Corps fixed six of them and returned them to the borough and now we rent them. It's a wonderful story. I kept records and it's all in the book."
In 1992, Longo helped found the Nathanael Greene Historic Foundation, a non-profit organization that promotes the history of Greensboro and funds walking trails, community improvement projects, festivals and conferences.
Longo is still in the thick of it. And she still has an eye for a kindred spirit.
When borough council needed a new member, Longo began knocking on doors. Mary Shine's well-tended house caught her eye and Longo bided her time until Shine retired from teaching.
"I told her, 'If you want to keep this a beautiful town, you'd better get on the council.' Now look at her. She really knows how to get things done. It takes people who are committed to care for a community."
(Colleen Nelson is freelance writer and artist in Holbrook, Pa. She teachers creative writing at Bowlby Library in Waynesburg, Pa. Reprinted from Living in Greene County magazine, a publication of the Observer-Reporter)