a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Mon City Renaissance Man

Plumbers advertise their wares on Main Street in Monongahela in a photo in the Taylor collection at the Monongahela Area Historical Society.

By Scott Beveridge

MONONGAHELA, Pa.  – William Playford Taylor could have been called the Renaissance Man of Monongahela a century ago, having been a dental surgeon, inventor, traveler, stage show producer and collector of everything.

And he wanted to make sure his legacy was remembered through 42 large scrapbooks he assembled over his lifetime in a fashion only he could have understood at the time.

“I thought I was a collector of useless things,” said Noel Sawyer, vice president of the Monongahela Area Historical Society, which owns the Taylor collection.

The books for years were rarely shown to the public for fear the pages would fall apart. That day has come as the paper holding the collection disintegrates while the society attempts to duplicate in a digital format the rare documents, which define the historic city through the eyes of its upper class.

“There was a lot of idle rich in Monongahela and they got around,” said Charles Talbert, a program director at the society. The local wealthy, he said, contributed to Taylor’s collection as people learned about what he was creating.

Taylor went as far as to clip and save mundane local newspaper advertisements, including one announcing the January 1919 showing at the Anton Theater in Monongahela of the movie “A Hoosier Romance,” starring Thomas Jefferson and Colleen Moore.

However, he also kept old photographs that are important to American history, including one of Benjamin Parkinson, whose uncle of the same name was indicted for high treason for his participation in the Whiskey Rebellion in the late 1700s. Beside the photo is a copy of a document signed May 3, 1797, by President George Washington pardoning the elder Parkinson for his role in the farmers’ revolt on a national tax on the whiskey they produced.

The rebellion was quelled in Monongahela in 1794 on a bluff overlooking the Monongahela River where the Parkinsons once operated a ferry.

“It’s just like opening a time capsule,” Sawyer said of the books prepared between 1902 and 1954.

“This is like a pictorial history of everyone and everything that went on in Monongahela during that time,” added society President Susan Bowers.

Taylor was born in Washington County January 19, 1882, and went on to earn his degree to practice dentistry at the University of Pittsburgh. He married Delnorta Frye in 1903, and they had two children, Harold and Mary Virginia.

A few years after his marriage, U.S. Patent Office records indicate he invented a roller coaster powered by gravity. He also collected more than 20,000 advertising cards that came with packs of cigarettes or in cans of coffee, according to an old story in a Rotarian publication. Later in his lifetime he became a public speaker on the evidence he collected to support his belief of life on other planets.

“Something strange has invaded our atmosphere,” he was quoted as having said during a speech on flying saucers at the Charleroi American Legion.

Unfortunately, Talbert said, the books were not organized neatly and have no table of contents. Many of the photographs only carry a name, leaving the society questioning their connection to the local story.

Sawyer said he is considering placing copies of the photos in the storefront windows of the society’s museum at 230 W. Main St. beside a sign asking for help in identifying the people in the images. He said he also wants to offer Ringgold High School students extra credit for helping to copy and input the scrapbooks into a searchable computer database.

“What good are they sitting in a box?” Bowers said.

The society has expanded its museum hours. It is open from 3 to 8 p.m. Tuesday; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday; and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday.

Click here to see two more photos from the collection.

(This story first appeared in the Observer-Reporter  newspaper in Washington, Pa.)

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