a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

IUP Trombone Choir

The Indiana University of Pennsylvania Trombone Choir performs "Peri-dots," by Norman Bolter, with student conductor George Joyce at Rehoboth Presbyterian Church in Rostraver, Pa.

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Peoples' town

An early 20th Century photo of Brave, Pa., after Peoples Natural Gas Co. established a compressor station in the Greene County community.


Greene County in Pennsylvania has been experiencing a Marcellus Shale natural gas boon for the past few years, but it's all old hat for the folks there in Brave.

Brave had its own natural gas boon nearly 100 years ago, when Peoples Natural Gas Co. of Pittsburgh decided this little hamlet on the banks of Dunkard Creek was the perfect place to build what became the largest gas compressor station in the world.

"It was nothing then, just a few farmers," said Jerry Blue, a retired engineer who grew up in Brave but now lives in Ohio.

Blue frequently returns to his hometown and he and a group of fellow Brave natives share a keen interest in its history. The group of amateur historians parlayed their knowledge into a book, "A Village Called Brave," which is in its second printing.

Just as the compressor station featured prominently in the lives of Brave residents until it closed in 1959, the station is also a big part of the book.

James Hoy, a Brave native now living in Virginia, was the main editor, but at least a half dozen other people contributed articles, photographs and personal accounts during the three years it took to write it.

Folks from this oddly named town, which straddles the Mason-Dixon Line in Wayne Township, gather at the fire hall every June to swap remembrances of what it was like growing up in Brave. At one point, someone suggested they ought to commit these stories to paper.

"I think we looked at each other and realized that we're the last link to the past and when we're gone, all of this history is gone," Blue said.

The book has several personal essays of life during the compressor station era, from 1906 to 1959.

The accounts offer rich, private details about everyday life not seen in most history books, such as playing baseball in the field near the elementary school, sewing baby clothes out of feed bags during the Great Depression and swimming in the town's swimming hole, an area between the upper and lower dams of DunkardCreek.

Peoples Natural Gas Co. built those dams as part of its cooling system. Pipes were placed at the bottom of the creek and the dams created a large pool of water to cool the gas. In the process, the hot gas heated the water, giving Brave residents their own heated swimming pool.

The company also directly or indirectly contributed many other amenities that were considered quite modern at the time. The village had a public water and sewer system, telephone service, an elementary school and an ice plant.

"The company was the community. Almost everybody that lived there worked there. It was a thriving, self-contained little community," Blue said.

Peoples Natural Gas Co. built its compressor station in 1906 to pump natural gas to factories in the Pittsburgh area. Before then, the little village in southern Greene County barely had enough people to justify a post office.

That fact didn't stop Mary Coen, who became the village's first postmaster, from asking for permission to open a post office around 1890.

She called the post office Brave. No one is quite sure where she got the name, but the best guess is she named it after her family dog.

When Peoples Natural Gas Co. built its station, Brave was changed almost overnight. The company provided jobs for about 100 men, so the early landowners divided their tracts to provide homes for the workers. Various stores, churches, inns and other businesses sprung up in the ensuing years.

The compressor station brought prosperity to the tiny village, but it also brought tragedy. In 1917, a malfunctioning valve sparked a huge explosion that could be heard as far away as Morgantown, W.Va., and Waynesburg. Six men died and five others were injured. The survivors carried scars from the explosion for the rest of their lives.

Despite the explosion, the plant and the town continued to grow. "A Village Called Brave" cites an article in the Blacksville High School student newspaper that speculates Brave was destined to grow into a bustling city.

"Unfortunately, it went the other way," Blue said.

Peoples Natural Gas Co. expanded its network of pipelines in the 1950s, eventually making the Brave station unnecessary. The company closed the station in 1959.

By 1965, Accurate Forging Corp. acquired the station and turned it into a brass forging plant. That plant provided much-needed jobs for the people of Brave, but it was never quite the driving force behind the town as the compressor station once was. Cerro Fabricating Products Inc. now owns the plant and a small number of employees still manufacture brass parts in the buildings.

Blue noticed that the town has deteriorated over the years and he fears not much will be left of Brave in a generation or two.

"I think it will go the way of Kuhntown or Pine Bank or Hero. There will be a few houses there, but not much else," he said.

Copies of "A Village Called Brave" are available through the Greene County Tourist Promotion Agency office.

Cara Host is a writer at the Observer-Reporter. This story first appeared in the spring issues of its Greene County Living magazine.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Easter wasn't Easter without beet eggs

Pennsylvania Dutch pickled beet egg. (Scott Beveridge photo)
By Scott Beveridge

An Easter never went by in our house without beet eggs in the refrigerator.

And the kids needed to act quick if they turned their attentions away from their chocolate and wanted to eat one of those hardboiled eggs marinated to a pink color in beet juice, beets and onions. The adults on mom’s side of the family always gobbled those eggs up as if there were no tomorrow.

I never knew any explanation for why my mother concocted them, or why her sisters and brothers were hooked on them, other than those eggs tasted great. It wasn’t until this Easter approached that I began to wonder about that tradition and also decided to make a batch of them at my house.

So I asked my mom’s sister, Bonnie, about them and also turned to the mighty Google for answers.

“Our mother always made them for Easter,” my aunt said.

My grandmother was Iva Dail Coughenour Hart, a native of Dunbar in Fayette County, Pa. She would store her eggs in a crock in the back of a kitchen cupboard, my aunt Bonnie explained. My grandmother’s eggs turned so dark in the beet liquor that even the yokes turned pink, my aunt said.

Meanwhile, web searches indicated the recipe is peculiar to Pennsylvania and particularly the Pennsylvania Dutch, early German immigrants to North America. They also introduced beets to the continent.

My mother’s tradition began to make sense because Iva’s family had claimed to be descendants of the Pennsylvania Dutch.

She and my mom, June Hart Beveridge, also were experts in using common sense approaches to raising their children.

Having a big jar of beet pickling juice in the kitchen made perfect sense. It created the ideal place to add shelf life to all of those colored eggs the children ignored beside the chocolate bunnies, jellybeans and Peeps in their Easter baskets.

The Harts also carried with them a bevy of superstitions that some might consider to have been silly.

“It was bad luck to rock an empty rocking chair,” my mom often said, repeating the phrase she heard from her mother.

It’s also annoying as hell when a brat sits there rocking an empty chair and ignores a parent's instruction to stop. But that kid might pause and think when a parent warns that such behavior will bring the curse of bad luck upon his heads.

Another often repeated superstition around our house involved bad luck for placing shoes or a hat on the kitchen table. Well it’s also unsanitary to set shoes that might have just stepped on dog poop where you also place your dinner plates.

The other day Aunt Bonnie revealed another one that her mother repeated.

“You wash your hair on Good Friday and you won’t have a headache all year,” she said.

I wondered if that wasn’t something immigrants came up with to inspire their natty-haired children to scrub themselves off good before church on Easter Sunday.

Back to the beet eggs, …

Unfortunately mom did not leave behind her recipe for them when she died in May 2010.

The Internet revealed scores of recipes, and nearly each one is different from the other. She likely just opened a can of beets and tossed its contents into her Tupperware jug with some salt, sugar, onions and an equal part of vinegar.

Others take the time to boil fresh beets and add to the juice such ingredients as horseradish, cinnamon, pickling spices, brown sugar and apple cider vinegar.

Anyone who is familiar with my recipes on this blog would know that I often take the lazy man’s approach to the kitchen.

I found a jar of gourmet pickled beets at the local grocery store and mixed it with the following: a dozen hard-cooked eggs; one large, chopped white onion; a few cloves of garlic; two tablespoons of horseradish; 10 whole peppercorns; several sprinkles of ground sea salt; a cup of cold water; and one cup of apple cider. The beets were jarred by the Safie Specialty Foods Co., and they were excellent. Peeling the eggs was the most time consuming part of the project.

The eggs tasted just fine but I would have rather had those this Easter from my mom’s kitchen.

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Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Rare housecleaning adventure turns up odd ashtray collection

By Scott Beveridge

Regulars who pop into this blog probably don’t need to be reminded it has a collection of stories about weird places and things.

Take, for example, the one about a strange fascination people have with Stephen Foster’s slave’s big toe on a statue outside the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh. And there are story here, too, about a strange-looking lamb with three hind legs that supposedly was born on a farm near Taos, N.M., and a Pittsburgh bar that sees a need to stock four toilet paper dispensers in the commode stall in its men’s room.

This post would not be complete without mentioning a story that touches on an artist who makes keychains featuring severed Barbie doll limbs, and sells them in recycled cigarette vending machines.

However, I stopped short of writing here about the freaky woman who was wearing a big hair black wig, parts of which were styled into a beard and mustache for her appearance at a Pittsburgh craft show.

But folks who don’t know me have no clue, until now, that I also collect odd things, including ashtrays, the smaller the better.  I have nearly 30 of them, even though a cigarette hasn’t touched my lips since 1980, when I kicked a three-pack-a-day habit.

I started to purchase them at flea markets in the 1980s when I was dirt poor and they could be had for as little as a buck apiece. It struck me then that ashtrays were once fashionable and many had been produced by any number of fine glass factories that once operated in and around Pittsburgh. I suspected at the time that ashtrays might someday grow in value as collectibles in a society that was beginning to frown on smoking.

I had forgotten about these ashtrays until Sunday, while spring cleaning and they turned up stored in a bag in a corner of the spare bedroom in my house.

They really are cool. One was molded in green Depression glass at an Anchor Hocking Co. factory. There is another shaped like a crab to advertise Frenchy’s Fine Seafood Restaurants in Florida. Someone even gave me a space age one coated in Chartreuse, nonflammable rubber, as if it's a good idea to smoke let alone park a burning butt in that thing.

My favorite in the collection, shown above, likely was made in the 1940s to promote Stoney’s beer brewed by the now-closed Jones Brewing Co. in Smithton Pa., a business founded by the family of actress Shirley Jones.

I will confess this is not my only collection of odd things, but plan to save the story of my having an inability to throw away business cards for a future blog post.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The miniature, mechanical craft ambassador

By Scott Beveridge

PITTSBURGH – A Pennsylvania crafter is hoping people will develop a healthy addiction to cigarette machines.

Lynne Kropinak has recycled two of the vending machines with hand pulls into devices to dispense inexpensive, handmade crafts in boxes the same size as cigarette packs.

“Get a healthy habit. Support the local craft scene,” said Kropinak, of Cecil Township, Washington County.

She repainted and decorated the machines purchased on eBay and rotates them in such places as: Bocktown Beer and Grill, a hip craft beer bar in North Fayette Township; and the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh on the city’s North Side. The illuminated, behind-glass displays that once advertised Marlboro or Pall Mall smokes have been replaced with hand-cut paper designs in the Art Deco style. The machines bear the name Craft-O-Tron.

She got the idea from Art-o-mat® inspired by Clark Whittington, who began in 1997 using recycled cigarette vending machines to dispense art and culture in Winston-Salem, N.C. The concept since has spread across the country, selling art created by nearly 400 artists from 10 countries.

“I loved the idea and thought, ‘Why not do it with crafters in Pittsburgh?’” said Kropinak, a mother of six sons, who also creates whimsical lamps from recycled items in a company she named Brought Back to Light.

“It’s sort of a miniature mechanical craft show that travels around like a craft ambassador.”

She also uses them to promote the dates and locations of craft shows, such as Handmade Arcade, where she was found Saturday among 120 local crafters selling their wares at David L. Lawrence Convention Center in Pittsburgh.

Among the items sold in the Craft-O-Trons are crocheted pierogies, bracelets, earrings crafted from small plastic replicas of Heinz pickles and keychains decorated with dangling Barbie doll arms and legs. Each "pack" sells for $5. The said keychain, left, is the work of Nikki Telladictorian, who refers to herself as a "small arms dealer."

One of the machines will be relocated in May to Big Jim’s Roadhouse on Cecil-Hendersonville Road in Hendersonville.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Talented without an ear for music

This piano just gathers dust and junk in my home.

By Scott Beveridge

A childhood music teacher of mine once told my parents that, of their three children, I was the one who possessed talent.

There was only problem, he said. And then he told them I lacked the discipline to ever play an instrument well.

And he was right because, by junior high school, I had taken piano, drum, trumpet and trombone lessons without having learned how to play any melody on them in a manner that brought music to the ears.

I had tried out for the band in seventh grade and was not offered a chair after a different music teacher walked away, having only listened to me attempt to play a few bars of a Herb Alpert tune on the brass. Today I remember seeing him then rolling his eyes and having had an expression on his face as if he wanted to plug his eardrums.

That audition came after my having spent two years in elementary school taking Saturday morning piano lessons in the dank basement of an old bank building in Donora, Pa. I walked more than a mile, across the Monongahela River on the wobbly Donora-Webster Bridge to find old Miss Watkins seated on one of her piano benches, with my lesson grade book in hand.

She would sit there beside me, passing small farts, often, between my attempts to balance nickels on the back of my hands while playing her assignments on the piano. To be polite, I pretended not to hear her flatulence. She then licked and pasted small stars in my book in colors that indicated I had poor or, sometimes good, skills on the keyboard before she sent me home.

Nonetheless she taught me how to read music, a skill that set me above my classmates when yet another music teacher periodically arrived at Lebanon Elementary School. Yes, I boasted to my classmates there, I could easily identify the notes on the scale that went along with the phrase, “Every Good Boy Does Fine.”

Miss Watkins had wonderfully imprinted in my brain the ability to look at music notes and then find them on any number of instruments. It’s a skill that has survived even to this day.

So, flash forward - into my forties – on the day I decided to return to the piano. I found a century-old hardwood piano in the local newspaper classified advertisements, purchased it and found a mover to take it home.

It took eight husky men to carry that Krakauer Bros. of New York piano with hand-carved decorations up the steep hill to my house.

One them, out of breath, uttered, “I’d better see you in the orchestra next year,” after the movers had set that piano in place in my front hall.

My immediate goal was to learn how to play the pretty piano solo accompanying Patsy Cline in her hit, “Crazy.” Much to my surprise, I soon learned the song had been written by Willie Nelson and his sheet music did not carry the notes in the Cline tune.

Still, I practiced and practiced and learned how to roughly play about half of "Crazy" before shutting the keys on what soon became a dusty piano.

I could have saved a lot of money on that thing, had I heard the sage advice that one music teacher offered my parents decades before they would let me in on their secret.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Police sometimes hide what's inside on days like this

Clairton police Officer Ben Salvio passes a flame to California Borough police Officer Tracy Potemra-Hudak tonight at a prayer vigil in Clairton for one of its patrolmen, James Kusak Jr., who has been hospitalized in critical condition with gunshot wounds he suffered in the line of duty Monday. Kusak, 39, worked with the Washington County Drug Task Force and formerly served as a police officer in Cecil and Peters townships. (Beveridge photo)

By Scott Beveridge

CLAIRTON, Pa. – Police officers on their difficult days sometimes don't have much to say.

Others use laughter in the face of crisis to "hide what is inside," a police chaplain said tonight, while hundreds of cops gathered to pray for a Clairton, Pa., patrolman, who suffered critical injuries in a shooting Monday in the line of duty.

"These times are tough," added Clairton Police Chief Robert Hoffman, at the candlelight vigil in a local park to hope for the recovery of officer James Kuzak Jr.

Kuzak, 39, was shot three times while responding to a home invasion probably linked to drugs after his having been on the job part time there for less than a month.

One shot struck Kuzak, of Bethel Park, in the left armpit and below the protected area of his bulletproof vest. The bullet traveled through a lung, severed his spinal cord and lodged in muscle, most-likely leaving him paralyzed below the waist, his friend said tonight. Another bullet caught him in the right hand and remained in his elbow. The third grazed him after striking his police radio. The loss of blood has resulted in Kuzak undergoing blood transfusions and a call for blood drives to meet his needs at UPMC Mercy Hospital, Pittsburgh. Police have two suspects in custody.

"(Kuzak's) road to recovery will be long and difficult," Hoffman said. "The men of the Clairton Police Department will be there beside him. He is truly a cop's cop."

Clairton is an especially tough place to work for police officers. Its air reeks of pollution from U.S. Steel coke production in a mill town whose downtown is in shambles and has been known over the years to also be frequented by prostitutes. Shootings have become almost as common as the smoke that billows from the mill stacks.

Meanwhile, the old stone park lodge near where the vigil was held is run down as elected officials there deal with a shrinking tax base.

Yet police officers from throughout southwestern Pennsylvania packed the nearby pavilion to show their support for Kuzak and his family. A half-dozen or more police canines howled and barked as people offered prayers for the officer, who cared for cadaver dogs.

Kuzak's mother, Bev, could barely speak through her tears as she thanked the law enforcement community for its support of her family while her son battles his injuries.

"In my heart, he's nothing but a special man. I'm sorry, sorry," she said, before losing her words. 

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

We drew our water home by hand

My cousins Terri, right, and Denise, goof off in the 1970s around our backyard hand pump that went from having been an ordinary kitchen utensil to becoming a symbol of home before it disappeared this year. (Scott Beveridge photo)

By Scott Beveridge

WEBSTER, Pa. –The old cast-iron hand pump in our backyard wasn’t there for decoration in the 1960s.

We needed that contraption to draw water for drinking, cooking and the bathtub, mostly on those long, hot July and August summer days when our rain-fed cistern had run dry.

My obsessive-compulsive dad was especially cranky during dry spells and would grumble about the expense of water at the kids who dawdled too long over an open sink faucet with the cistern level dropping.

“Running water is gold down the drain,” he’d bark, repeating a phrase rattled by his father during the miserable Great Depression.

It’s impossible, now, to imagine our having relied upon the water that pump supplied in our scrappy village of Webster along the Monongahela River near Donora.

No one apparently had told our grandpa, who lived there before us, it was a bad idea for him to dig a hole below the outhouse directly upstream from the spring that fed the pump. 

Needless to say, the family’s privy would soon contaminate the spring water and require the family to boil it for drinking.

It would take a few more years for the local board of heath to determine the folks in Webster needed to boil all of the spring water in the area to destroy any E. coli it contained.

It’s even harder to imagine that my two brothers and I – the youngest then a toddler – had bathed in that water on those days when water conservation was a high priority in our home.

We were dropped into recycled bath water, which was first used by our parents in the tub mom would then top off with boiled water from a teakettle.

Eventually public water was brought to town in the early 1960s, rendering useless our hand pump, underground water storage tank and the outhouses in the neighborhood.

Yet mom held onto her pump that stood a stone’s throw from our back porch since the late 1800s. She found a section of a round concrete underground street drain about 18 inches wide, and planted it on its side at the base of that pump she painted fire-engine red.

Mom then filled the turned-up drain with dirt to create a planter in which she nurtured beds of hens and chicks, morning glories and other flowers.

The pump went from having been an ordinary household utensil to a nostalgic landmark that helped to define home.

Young cousins dressed in their best clothes for church on Easter Sunday would proudly stop beside that pump to pose for family photographs. Others spent the summer afternoons of their awkward teen years dancing around that pump, hoping to attract the attention of potential suitors.

Happy memories about such pumps were shared the other day among a group of older women taking in a lunch at Monongahela Senior Center.

“I’ll tell you a fond story about our pump,” said Lois Phillips, 84, of Monongahela. “We always had water and we didn’t have to pay a utility bill. We were fortunate.”

Gertrude Gray, 62, of nearby New Eagle, giggled and said she took pride in her pumping skills.

“I had fun with it,” she said. “I used to get water and throw it on my brothers.”

My father and mother kept their pump freshly painted, alternating its color between forest green and white, until they died in 2007 and 2010, respectively.

The relatives have grayed while others have moved on. About a month ago I went looking for that pump after my parents’ estate had fallen into limbo. I was looking for closure.

But the pump had disappeared like a late autumn rose snitched from its thorns before the first frost of winter.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Play ball

The start of the 2011 Major League Baseball season is an appropriate time to show off this antique photograph of players in the Mon Valley, Pa., area circa 1910. All I know about the shot is that I pulled it from a newspaper editor's trash in the 1990s while we were cleaning out the files at the old Daily Herald in Monongahela. Some of the guys, shown above, might have played for nearby Donora, given the "D" sewn on a couple of their shirts. Click here to look at a bunch of other old or vintage photos in my collection.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Soured by Pennsylvania's ridiculous liquor laws

By Scott Beveridge

PITTSBURGH – Pennsylvania appeared to be stepping out of the Dark Ages when its lawmakers permitted the sale of six packs of beer at select grocery stores two years ago.

The store in Pittsburgh with some of the best brew turned out to be a Giant Eagle Market District, which stocks top shelf craft beer in its “cafe.” The megagrocery store gets around the state’s liquor laws, though, by pretending to be a bar where customers can only purchase single serve food items prepared at its nearby food gallery. The sale of groceries, something as insignificant as a quart of milk, is not permitted in the fenced-off beer department.

Regardless, the store in Robinson Township quickly became a regular stop, a place where I could easily satisfy my odd taste for a gourmet chocolate brownie or cupcake washed down with a good India Pale Ale.

That convenience has come to an end. The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board and store’s management have decided a couple of cupcakes are not single serve food items. Two cupcakes have to be purchased at a different cash register in the store, the cafe clerk said Thursday.

“I have always paid for them here,” I replied.

“Not anymore,” the clerk said, while aiming her bar code reader at the six pack of Dark Horse Brewing Co. Crooked Tree IPA that I had selected. The two raspberry iced cupcakes were set aside, with instructions to pay for them around the corner at the coffee bar.

“How could they not be single serve food?” I said. “I could easily sit down over there and polish off a half-dozen of them.”

“They’re not,” she said. “They’re from the bakery. I cannot sell them to you.”

Now this has to sound ridiculous to those of you who live anywhere else in the union, in any number of states where beer is commonly sold in grocery and convenience stores.

Here in Pennsylvania a guy often has to walk into a dark beer garden wrenching of cigarette smoke to buy a few bottles of beer to take home to drink. And most often the selection is limited to boring six packs of Budweiser or Coors Light or 40 ouncers of Colt 45.

Or, he has to travel sometimes a good haul to a place called a distributorship, where beer is only sold by the case or keg.

So I take my IPA and two cupcakes over to the woman at the coffee bar, while working en route on those anger management skills.

That clerk took one look at me, rolled her eyes and said, “I know. You are frustrated.”

Then she said something about her having just taken one of the store’s employee classes on selling beer and decided the rules are too complicated.