Small Town Memories

Recording memories of the SHARPSVILLE, PA, area in little stories from the 1940s to the 1970s

Category: Celebration

SENIOR HIGH SCHOOL TRADITIONS

Much has been written on the pros and cons of following traditions. Some see traditions as stifling growth and creativity. But traditions can also be seen as helping us to connect with the past and giving us guidance and comfort as we go forward. Here are some of the traditions that led us Seniors toward graduation in the 1950s. They are the same traditions, with only slight variations, that helped many others before and after our time to get through those final years of high school.


Senior High School Traditions

Ann Angel, dressed for the prom.

Ann Angel, dressed for the prom, 1958.

The Junior-Senior Prom

The Class of 1958 was responsible for planning and setting up the Junior-Senior Prom that was held in 1957. The following year we attended the Spring Fantasy Dance designed by the then Junior Class.

In 1957, the subject was “Calypso,” inspired by the popularity of Jamaican influence at the time in music and film. Remember Harry Belafonte’s “Banana Boat Song” or “Day-O”?

After much hard work by most of our class members, the ordinarily mundane gymnasium interior magically became a tropical Caribbean island, complete with two young boys in island garb sitting in an open-sided straw hut. It was a dreamlike time for all — the guys in their rented white-coat tuxedos and the girls in floor-length or quarter-length gowns of several layers of pastel tulle — as we dined and danced to the music of Joe Cann and His Orchestra.

Sharpsville High School Yearbook, "Devil's Log," 1958.

Sharpsville High School Yearbook, “Devil’s Log,” 1958.

Yearbooks

It’s surprising how longstanding some high school traditions can be! Leafing through my mother’s 1935 yearbook, my daughters’ from the 1980s, and my own in 1958, I’m reminded of the French saying, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” These three generations of yearbooks recorded similar subjects: student photographs, of course, and those of students participating in sports, activities in the arts and many of the same types of clubs.

And there were the handwritten autographs by fellow students in each book expressing the same kind wishes and remembrances: “Don’t forget all of our good times…,” “To a real swell friend and classmate…,” “Remember those trig classes and how we suffered,” “Wishing you the best in your future” and so forth.

 Class Rings

The class ring was a big deal in the 1950s, particularly if you had a sweetheart who would then wear it on a chain around the neck (or wrapped in tape to fit his or her finger) to signal that the two of you were “going steady.” I don’t think I ever actually wore my own ring, but it does show the wear and tear of having been in the possession of my then one-and-only.

Today, a teenager can price-check rings in an assortment of stores, including Walmart, but Jostens Inc. was our sole provider in the 1950s and 1960s. (Jostens started the class ring tradition over 100 years ago!) I don’t recall the exact price of my blue-stone, 1o-karat, gold 1958 SHS ring, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t even close to the 3-digit prices of today’s rings! (Read about a “found” class ring below.)

(Click on above photos to enlarge.)

…And All Those Other Senior Traditions

Then it was October and time for the school homecoming game (alas, the Blue Devils lost to Meadville), followed by the homecoming dance. These activities were reigned over by the Pigskin Queen and her two attendants who were voted for by students from a group of six that had been pre-selected by the football squad.

Along with attending proms, assembling yearbooks, and getting our class rings, the Sharpsville High School Class of 1958 continued to slog through the usual senior-year schoolwork, such as taking exams and writing our theses. Many of us attended a class trip to Washington, DC, others put on fundraising events to pay for these activities, and we all paid our various fees, ordered commencement invitations, acquired caps and gowns and practiced the graduation ceremony.

And on the designated Class Day, we celebrated our achievements by acting as wild and carefree as we knew how, 1950s style. First, we dressed alike in the obligatory class outfit: blue and white striped sailor blouse and hat for girls and white pants or shorts. The boys dressed similarly, except for their striped shirts. Then, (I read this in the 1958 Devil’s Log yearbook but don’t recall it), we presented a Class Day Program for the Juniors that featured “dancing, singing and jokes.” And lastly, we noisily cruised Sharpsville streets in decorated cars for the rest of the day looking for something else to do. As I recall, I don’t think we were very successful in the latter activity. In any case, we tried hard to make it a day to remember and I guess, in that, we were successful.

Despite the passage of time and changes in styles and technology, these high-school traditions live on. We’d love to read about your memories of this special time in our lives, when we were preparing to bravely leave our teen years behind and take on whatever adulthood would bring.


Found Class Ring

In the days of Angel’s Casino, someone in our family found a class ring while cleaning up the dance hall after a record hop. My father, originally intending to find the owner, put it in a box and apparently forgot about it. Recently, the ring was found again among his possessions by my brother, Mike Angel. It features the letter “H” (possibly Hickory High School?] on a red stone and the date 1962. Three-letter initials are engraved on the inside of the band. If you think it belongs to you or someone you know, please let us know in Comments.

“H” Found Ring, 1962.

"H" Found Ring, 1962. Side view.

“H” Found Ring, 1962. Side view.


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THE DAY THE CANADIANS CAME TO TOWN

There must be something deep in the primordial souls of girls in their early teens to be drawn like a magnet to certain individuals of similar age, whether a rock star or movie idol or perhaps just someone who looks and acts very cool.

This story, originally described in detail in my 1955 diary, tells of such an encounter by several of us Sharpsville girlfriends with a group of Canadian boys, how it affected us at the time, and how – and maybe why – those feelings are still remembered over sixty years later. (Actual names of the Sharpsville individuals mentioned in this story have been replaced by initials unless permissions have been granted to use full names.)


Source: Pixabay

Source: Pixabay.com

November 11, 1955. We still called it Armistice Day, although this national holiday was renamed Veterans’ Day just the year before. On that day, Sharpsville, like many other towns and cities across the country, commemorated the World War I peace agreement with an Armistice Day Parade down Main Street.

My girlfriend JC and I, were just happy for a day away from school. Shivering in the brisk cold air of a Friday afternoon, we joined other onlookers next to a judge’s stand set up in front of the Gordon Ward Appliances store.

The usual flag-waving and baton-twirling groups, veterans’ clubs, and civic organizations stepped smartly past us, including the Sharpsville High School band and a marching unit from George Junior Republic, a nearby boys-only institution. Then one particular group grabbed our attention. To us, there was nothing “usual” about this regiment of approximately 40 young guys in uniforms nor their name and origin. As their banner told us, they were cadets affiliated with Governor General’s Horse Guards in Toronto, Ontario. I learned much later that the Horse Guards had a long history of active service in the defense of Canada. Since WWII, the organization volunteers its service on United Nations missions augmenting Canada’s Regular Army. The boys in this parade weren’t riding horses, but their red and blue uniforms and soldierly bearing were quite enough to impress us.

When the last of the parade passed by, JC and I headed for the football stadium to watch a special marching exhibition by the cadets scheduled for later in the evening. On the way, we kept our eye on those Canadian boys who were milling about, their brightly-colored uniforms standing out on the wintry gray streets and sidewalks — and who were also watching us. We soon came upon two other school friends, JW and JG, who shared our interest in these visitors from another planet. JW, the more brazen of the four of us, summoned enough nerve to call out to several of the cadets complimenting them on their marching. This was all that was needed for several of the boys to cross the street and join us. Then the fun really began.

sharpsville_canadian2

Ann Angel & Larry, a Horse Guard cadet, Sharpsville, PA, November 1955.

For the next several hours, we walked around town, talking and laughing and joking and teasing, until we ended up at JG’s house, tired but too engrossed in each other to give up yet. One of the boys had a camera that was passed to JG’s mother to record our get-together in black-and-white photos, which served forever after as confirmations of this momentous occasion.

But all good times have an ending, and, like Cinderella’s, ours ended at midnight when the boys courteously walked us to our respective homes. My house was located next door to a dance hall that my Dad owned. There, a reception was being held for the parade participants, complete with food and dancing. Larry, the guy I found myself paired with by that time, and I stopped in and he introduced me to even more of his cadet buddies. When one of the boys asked me to dance, I felt as if I were in a Disney movie.

When Larry and I finally arrived at my door he asked for my pink chiffon scarf “‘cause in Canada that’s what the girls give to the boys.” He gave me his address and said “so long” instead of goodbye because “saying goodbye would mean forever” and he planned to return in a few months. What lines! But I soaked them up like a brand new sponge.

In my next diary entry, dated Monday, November 13, 1955, I gushed, “All us kids do now is talk about those Canadians. And no wonder! They beat Sharpsville boys by a mile.” Of course, the cadets had the advantages of being exotic “foreigners,” looking smart, and, above all, they had paid flattering attention to us. We never tired of going over each detail of that night — as we met at Sandy’s over pizza or at Crick’s Drug Store over phosphate sodas and a shared bag of Wise potato chips. In the process of reliving the fun we had together and the hopes of capturing it again in the future, we became close friends, probably the best overall outcome of the whole experience.

But seeing those young guys ever again was not to be. As fervently as they had promised in their letters, even telegrams, that they would return and as much as we hoped it would be true, time stretched into months, then a year, without so much as a glimpse of them again. The number of letters and photographs we exchanged dwindled along with our initial excitement until the memories moved into the background of our minds. When I finally realized this was the case, I asked my diary, “Now what will we do?” In hindsight, I can answer that. We can –and did– live out the rest of our lives in even more compelling ways and in far different places than we young and innocent girls could ever imagine.

EPILOGUE

In 1992, I traveled through Pennsylvania with my daughter and husband, stopping at the places I had lived long ago: Wheatland, Sharpsville, and Cleveland. In Sharpsville, I had a delightful reunion with two friends from my school days, one of whom was featured in this story. My friend and I reminisced about the Canadian Boys Event of 1955 and the range of emotions we felt at the time. Not only did those and many more shared memories reignite that long-ago friendship but they also indicated to us how much we have — and haven’t — changed in the sixty years since that time.

–Ann Angel Eberhardt (SHS 1958), Phoenix, AZ, March 2016


TOM THUMB WEDDING & THE PHC

In 1946, when my brother, Michael, and I joined other children for several Saturdays at the imposing Protected Home Circle Building to practice walking down an aisle as pretend wedding participants, I don’t think we really understood what it was all about. On the day of the Tom Thumb Wedding, however, I’m sure I felt quite elegant when my mother tied matching ribbons in my hair and dressed me in a homemade pink chiffon gown adorned with flower appliques. My brother was decked out in a little tuxedo, also sewn by my mother, and probably wishing he were back home climbing trees in his front yard instead of participating in this curious ceremony.

The Protected Home Circle (PHC), which sponsored the mock wedding, was a fraternal life insurance company founded in Sharon, Pennsylvania, in 1886. The company not only provided insurance benefits to families, but also sponsored social, patriotic, and religious activities for young people as a deterrent against juvenile deliquency. I recall my brother and I, at a very young age, attending ballroom dancing classes and watching a puppet show during a Halloween costume party in that massive four-story white brick PHC Building.

But the Tom Thumb wedding was the big show. This elaborate event consisted of 52 little boys and girls none older than 12 years except the teenaged “cleric” and his two attendants. Looking at the photograph of this wedding party, taken 70 years ago, I can imagine once again the long trek down the aisle between chairs of proud parents and other relatives, in step with Richard Wagner’s “Wedding Chorus.”

In the lead would be the numerous bridesmaids in long dresses of a variety of pastel colors and styles escorted by groomsmen in black attire. Six of the bridesmaids, including a pair of twins, carried bouquets of flowers which must have ranked them higher than the rest of the bridesmaids.

Next were the tiniest of the tots. First the flower girl wearing a wide-brimmed hat and carrying her little basket of petals that she scattered on the bride’s path. She would have been accompanied by the ringbearer, distinguished by his white suit and short pants, and carrying the white satin pillow with the rings.

Then the main event: the lovely bride on her “father’s” arm, the long train of her gown held by a page, another wee boy dressed similar to the ring-bearer as they walked slowly towards the officiant and groom waiting on the “altar.”

Tom Thumb Wedding sponsored by The Protected Home Circle, Fall 1946.

Tom Thumb Wedding sponsored by The Protected Home Circle, Sharon, PA, Fall 1946. Michael Angel is in top row, directly between bride and groom; Ann Angel is third from right, top row.

The bride did not hold a bouquet, at least not in the formal photograph taken afterwards. Instead, it appears that she is holding a prayer book. The photograph doesn’t give much indication that we were enjoying the occasion, so maybe Mike and I were not the only ones who were just cluelessly playing our roles as we had been trained. After “vows” were exchanged and the photograph taken, we filed out in the proper recessional order and then headed with our parents for the reception in a banquet hall.

Reception following Tom Thumb Wedding., sponsored by The Protected Home Circle, Sharon, PA. Fall 1946. Ann & Michael Angel seated at table, 4th and 5th from left. Mother, Susie Angel in upper left corner.

Reception following Tom Thumb Wedding, sponsored by The Protected Home Circle, Sharon, PA, Fall 1946. Ann & Michael Angel seated at table, 4th and 5th from left.

Marriage of Livinia Warren and General Tom Thumb (Charles Stratton), February 10, 1863, at Grace Episcopal Church, Manhattan, New York, NY.

Marriage of Livinia Warren and General Tom Thumb (Charles Stratton), February 10, 1863, at Grace Episcopal Church, Manhattan, New York, NY.

Tom Thumb weddings were originally inspired by one of showman P.T. Barnum’s many publicity events in the late 1800s. Barnum promoted popular museum attractions that included performances by the little person Charles Stratton, an actor whom Barnum renamed “Gen. Tom Thumb” after the English fairy tale character who was no larger than his father’s thumb. Barnum arranged and funded an actual wedding of Charles Stratton to equally minute Lavinia Warren in the winter of 1863. Their sensational wedding was a welcomed diversion for the country during the dark days of the Civil War. Soon after, re-enactments of this diminutive wedding, featuring children, became popular as youth activities or fundraisers across the country and, after rising and falling in acceptance for over 150 years, continue to be held to this day.

The Protected Home Circle Building has its own story. According to John Zavinski’s article,”Fraternal Group Rose From Ashes of ’36 Sharon Fire,” in the April 2011 issue of Life & Times, an original yellow-brick castle-like building of the same height was destroyed by fire on April 21, 1936, after just 33 years of existence. Exactly a year later, on the same East State Street location on the Shenango River, a cornerstone was dedicated for the construction of today’s art deco building.

As of early 2000s, after a change to mutual life insurance and a short-lived merger, the PHC company is no longer in operation. Today the building, now known as River Walk Place, is owned and occupied by Gilbert’s Risk Solutions, a venerable local firm that also sells insurance.

The Protected Home Circle (PHC) Building, Sharon, PA. June 1993. (Click on image to enlarge.)

Michael’s little black tuxedo also had a second life. Almost ten years after the Tom Thumb wedding, it was worn by my younger brother, Patrick, in Sharpsville’s annual Halloween parade and afterwards in a costume contest that was held at Angel’s Casino. He was awarded the prize for wearing the Best Costume on Boy Under Six.

 – Ann Angel Eberhardt, SHS 1958, Phoenix, AZ


For more information, see:

Benjamin, Melanie. “America’s Royal Wedding: General and Mrs. Tom Thumb.” THE BLOG on Huffpost Style. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/melanie-benjamin/royal-wedding_b_850540.html (accessed 01-30-2016). Internet resource.

Benjamin, Melanie. The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb: A Novel. New York: Delacorte Press, 2011. Print.

Weeks, Linton. “The Wondrous World Of Tom Thumb Weddings.” http://www.npr.org/sections/theprotojournalist/2014/11/15/363787614/the-wondrous-world-of-tom-thumb-weddings. Internet resource.

Zavinski, John. “Fraternal group rose from ashes of ’36 Sharon fire.” Life & Times, April 2011, page 22. http://www.zavinski.com/columnnowthen/pages/1104-nowthen.pdf (accessed 01-30-2016). Internet resource.


A CHRISTMAS KINDNESS

A CHRISTMAS KINDNESS

Here’s an extra story this month to honor the season
and wish you contented, peaceful, and charitable holidays. 

christmas-tree-pixabayWhat’s Christmas without a fir tree festooned with garlands and shiny ornaments? This was the approach my brother Mike and I decided to use as we gathered enough courage to ask Dad for that essential icon of the season. After all, it was Christmas Eve and we didn’t yet have a Christmas tree.

We knew Dad appreciated the traditions of Christmas, but only simple non-commercial ones: Handmade decorations on a tree brought in from the woods and Mom’s Christmas dinner. And he always happily greeted the annual visit of a Sharpsville Service Club Santa Claus. But we weren’t sure where a store-bought Christmas tree would fit into his thinking.

Dad owned and operated a printshop that occupied the first floor of our home on North Second Street in Sharpsville, PA. He loved that shop, took pride in the good business he had established, and worked hard at it day and night. So when we came to him with our request for a tree, he was, as usual, busy feeding paper into the noisy printing press, printing a last-minute order and trying to meet a deadline that allowed no time to tend to the details of Christmas. As the press continued its rhythmic clatter, he reached into his pocket and handed us two dollar bills, challenging in his tough-love way, “Okay, then. Go get yourselves a tree.”

We must have known the very place we could buy a tree and perhaps even proposed it to Dad. There was a shop on West Ridge Avenue, across from the then Sharpsville Junior-Senior High School, that had several Christmas trees on display outside its front door. I don’t recall what sort of business it was, possibly one that sold televisions. Snow must have been on the ground, as my brother brought his Flexible Flyer sled with us, as we trudged up the steep and icy Second Street hill to the store.

sharpsvillle_sledding-pixabayWe selected the perfect tree, then asked a young salesman if we could purchase it with our two dollars. He hesitated, then told us to wait a moment while he went inside the store. He returned, saying “Sure, you can buy one!” We suspected that he had received permission from his boss to sell the tree to us two little kids at a very reduced price.

We hauled our precious tree home on the sled, carried it up the steps to our home, and set it up in the living room. The family spent Christmas Eve decorating it with our collection of mostly homemade (of course) decorations and enjoyed Mom’s delicious home-cooked Christmas dinner the next day.

It’s been 60-plus years since we experienced that good-hearted gesture by the staff person and the storekeeper. I’ve always wished I could thank the two of them for enabling us to have a tree, but for more than that. It was a simple act of kindness that defined for us the essence of Christmas, the sort of Christmas spirit that Dad was trying to teach us.

–Ann Angel Eberhardt (SHS), Goodyear, AZ, 2014

For more holiday stories, go to:
A Sharpsville Christmas
Sharpsville’s Santas


SHARPSVILLE’S SANTAS

‘Tis the special season, when houses and stores are decorated in lots of red and green, when yuletide music is in the air, and when I think of Christmas visits by a Sharpsville Santa Claus to our home in the 1950s. 

Luminarias at Desert Botanical Garden, Phoenix, AZ. 2014. Photo by Adrian Major.

Luminarias at Desert Botanical Garden, Phoenix, AZ. 2014. Photo by Adrian Major.

Now that I live in southern Arizona, where the weather is warm and sunny at Christmas, it takes the appearance of those decorations and music to remind me that it’s even December. Here, instead of hosting Santa visits, one of our family traditions is an evening at Las Noches de las Luminarias, presented annually by the Desert Botanical Garden. We stroll pathways lined with luminaria bags and towering cacti adorned with twinkle lights while serenaded by a wide variety of musical groups — from handbell ringers to jazz to mariachis — along the way. 

On this blog site last year Judy McCracken (SHS 1960) wrote of her fond memories of visits by Sharpsville Santas in a narrative titled “A Sharpsville Christmas.” The following is another recollection of that beloved tradition.


'"Welcome" sign at entrance to Sharpsville on Sharon-Sharpsville Road. Photo taken during a 1993 visit.

‘”Welcome” sign at entrance to Sharpsville on Sharon-Sharpsville Road. Photo taken in 1993.

How can memories of Sharpsville, Pennsylvania, not include Santa Claus visits to our homes on or around Christmas Eve! Is there any other town in the United States that has supported such a delightful program with such regularity for so many years as Sharpsville has for 66 years?!

This annual tradition began in late 1948 at a Sharpsville Service Club meeting when George F. Mahaney Jr., a local lawyer, told his fellow members about a Christmas custom in his own neighborhood. For several years on Christmas Eve, he and a friend donned Santa Claus costumes and paid calls to families with children. He suggested that this project be expanded to cover the entire borough of Sharpsville. The idea was adopted and implemented that very year when approximately 10 volunteer Santas hit the streets the night before Christmas.

Since then the project grew to involve 40 Santas by 2001. Not only have some members been Santas for over 20 years, succeeding generations of the same families have also been Santas to succeeding generations of children.

It works like this: Before the eventful night, dozens of volunteers spent hundreds of hours recruiting participants, providing supplies, planning routes, coordinating activities, making popcorn balls, and alerting residents to turn on their porch light if they wish to welcome a Santa into their home.

Early in the evening on a day or two before Christmas, the Santas-to-be met at a designated location, such as the borough’s fire station in the 1950s or at a base of operations provided by the Sharpsville Veterans of Foreign Wars in the 2000s. There they suited up, studied their routes and instructions, and threw their sacks of popcorn balls over their shoulders as they piled into their “sleighs” for a night on the town, sometimes accompanied by Mrs. Santa. According to the Indiana (PA) Gazette on February 4, 2001,

A door-to-door Santa visits Pat Angel at his home on Second Street, Christmas 1955.

A door-to-door Santa shares a popcorn ball with Pat Angel at his home on Second Street, Christmas 1955.

Helpers drive the cars and keep one house ahead of Santa to tell parents of the impending visit and learn names and Christmas wishes of the children. If parents want Santa to deliver a gift to their child, they leave it on the porch.

I warmly recall those stops at our house on Second Street during the 1950s, announced by the jingle of bells and a resounding “ho-ho-ho”. I was a teenager who felt too “grown up” to join the fun, but I took great pleasure in observing Santa’s cheerful interaction with my two younger brothers.

Even though the Service Club members knew they needed to be “ready for anything” when they entered a home as a Santa, they have described the experience as rewarding and uplifting when they saw the excitement and wonder on the faces of the children.

The visits must have indeed inspired happiness in the hearts of young and old alike and the hope that this simple but meaningful community tradition would be around for future generations to enjoy.


Besides recording my own memories of the Santa visits, I used information from the following sources. You are welcome to send in corrections, additions, or your own recollections.

“Jolly volunteers head out every Christmas Eve; Sharpsville kids guaranteed visit from Santa”, Feb 4, 2001 – Indiana (PA) Gazette, February 4, 2001.

“Santa really visits every home in Sharpsville”, Observer-Reporter (Washington, PA), December 2, 1981.

“Sharpsville: It takes more than eight tiny reindeer”. The Herald (Sharon, PA), Dec 26, 2000.

“What’s it like to be Santa?” by Joe Zentis, staff writer. The Herald (Sharon, PA), December 26, 2000.

“Where Faith Defies Reality.” In a December 2004 Herald essay, Mary Claire Mahaney shared memories of her uncle, George F. Mahaney, who inspired the idea of Sharpsville’s Santas and worked as one when she was a little girl.

Sharpsville Service Club Facebook page [no longer in operation].


See Also:

A Christmas Kindness
A Sharpsville Christmas


–Ann Angel Eberhardt (SHS 1958), Goodyear, AZ, 2016

A SHARPSVILLE CHRISTMAS

CHRISTMAS EVE IN SHARPSVILLE, PENNSYLVANIA
SHARPSVILLE SERVICE CLUB
1948
Judy McCracken

A Sharpsville ChristmasI was six years old, my sister Sandy was four. Our older sisters, Mary Lou (14) and Joyce (11), were partners with our parents in this wonderful Christmas season of church, gifts and lots of secrets from their little sisters. Party time!! This year of 1948 was the first year of the annual home visits by Santa Claus and his helper to every home in our little town on the night before Christmas, Christmas Eve. My memory of that magical night is still super clear, so first I’ll describe it to you from my six-year-old eyes. Then I’ll give you the factual background I learned years later about how this wonderful gift to the children of our town of 5000 people came about.

My mother began decorating the house for Christmas, inside and outside, weeks before December 25. Christmas was HER time, continued joy carried over from her own growing up years in the same town. The surrounding towns had a contest to reward the homes with the most novel, dramatic and exciting outdoor Christmas displays featuring lighting and decorations. This was a big deal. Winners with pictures of their winning homes were featured in the area newspaper and competition was keen. My parents and grandfather built a plywood sleigh with reindeer, Santa sitting in the sleigh, all painted pretty realistically and propped up on the roof of our house. My mother was the first, I think, to cover our front door with a cloth with shiny gold glitter she had glued to it. There were red wreaths in every window with red bulbs in them, turned on every evening at dark. All of this was lit up with huge spotlights in the yard connected to big, fat electric cords running all over the yard and into electric sockets IN the house through slightly open windows; no outside sockets those days. Our house won honorable mentions several years running, always disappointing but at least the efforts were recognized and our family’s name was in the paper.

A Sharpsville ChristmasInside the house, a real Christmas tree was set up by our dad but our mother decorated it all herself, no help, thank you. It was HER passion. She hated to cook but this was the season and many relatives and friends would descend on our home to spend their Christmas Eve with us. Thus we smelled delicious fudge, her famous pecan rolls, cookies, homemade eggnog, baked ham, all manner of treats prepared days ahead. Our dad was responsible to get the liquor and beer and lots of it for one of our Irish clan’s reasons for the season.

At about 4:00 p.m. on Christmas Eve, our dad disappeared and we had no idea where to or why but the house was abuzz. As soon as it was dark, about 5:00, my aunt and uncle would appear and put Sandy and me in the back of the car and spirit us away to see all the houses in the Shenango Valley decorated for Christmas. They had no children of their own yet so we were the surrogates and they treated us to so much fun. I remember that for some reason we had to be back home at 8:00 p.m. but I didn’t know why at the time.

Back into the house!! Wow!! What had happened!! Piles of presents were under the Christmas tree, lots of adult relatives and family friends had arrived and the eating and drinking had already begun. It felt overwhelming but beyond exciting. Sandy and I were escorted into the living room and all the adults surrounded us, staring at us. We were clearly the entertainment.

sharpsville_clipart_popcorn_ballThen there was a knock on the front door and palpable excitement stirred among the adults. Enter Santa Claus in full red and white attire, beard, big boots, lots of jingling bells on his belt and carrying a huge sack on his back. We were in awe, mouths open. He put Sandy and me on his lap, one at a time, and knew exactly what we wanted for Christmas! He told us he had already placed quite a few of our gifts under the Christmas tree while we were out viewing the Christmas lights and that he would be back later tonight, after we had gone to bed, with the big stuff. Then he gave us each a popcorn ball out of his sack, a fabulous and unknown treat to us in those days! He was happy we had been such good girls. We were also very painfully shy and had little to say to him, just gave him big grins and certainly our thanks as we were reminded to do by all the adults. Then he teased some of the “big people” and there was lots of laughing. He was accompanied by another man we didn’t know, billed as his helper, who was dressed in a long winter coat and boots and a cap against the cold night. The helper kept whispering to Santa and then helped him out the door.

Once they left, the party began. Our dad was STILL not home and we were told that he would return at 10:00 p.m., at which time we could open some presents. While we waited, our mother went to the piano and began playing Christmas carols. I can still see those big uncles, my grandfather, the aunts and all the other adults standing around her, beer in hands, singing with gusto and surprisingly good harmonizing. My mother was an excellent pianist/organist (she had played the organ at Mass up the street in the Catholic Church from the time she was eleven years old—she would be heading up there soon to play for Midnight Mass). Finally, our dad came in the back door, hailed by all of us like a conquering hero. Little did I know till years later that he was one of the Sharpsville Service Club volunteers and had been driving his Santa partner around town to their assigned home visits.

So how did those glorious Christmas Eves come about? In 1948, the Sharpsville Service Club, a men’s group, acted on the idea of one of their members, George Mahaney, Sr., to begin a project of visiting every home in Sharpsville on Christmas Eve with members dressed as Santa Claus, giving gifts or treats to each child. Eighteen of these men volunteered to be Santas and eighteen more volunteered to be their partners, dressed in street clothes, escorting their Santa via car to each home. This then called for Santa suits, wigs and beards to be made along with sweet treats to give the children from Santa’s sack. Myrtle “Mert” Caracci quarterbacked the effort to produce all of this.

The headquarters were in the Sharpsville Borough Building on Main Street and that facility became the production area, launch area and storage area for the annual Christmas Eve activity which would continue for decades. The volunteers met there, climbed into their Santa costumes, picked up their street maps, schedules, home visit assignments, and instructions for dealing with the children. The citizenry was alerted to the project and parents wishing a visit to their children were instructed to leave the porch light on. The helper would knock on the front door, chat with a parent to get the children’s names, gift wishes and special instructions, then return to the car to share the information with Santa. The helper would “coach” Santa in the house to remember all the data. Some parents even had a gift ready for Santa to give the child or children, to be complicit at show time. Parents sometimes gave Santa and helper gifts of thanks, or contributions to the Service Club in gratitude.

This wonderful event continues on an even grander scale to this day. It is now held on December 23 as finding enough volunteers willing to give up part of their own Christmas Eve became difficult.

Ask any child who grew up in Sharpsville if they remember anything special about Christmas Eve. Every one of them will tell you about those annual visits from Santa Claus. We believed all of it!! It was magical.

–Judy McCracken (SHS 1960), Mentor, OH, December 2014

For more wintertime stories, go to:

The Big Snow of 1950
A Christmas Kindness
Sharpsville’s Santas
A Story About Snow