It’s hard to believe that around the time Sharon, Pennsylvania, was first settled c. 1800, 500 yards up the west hill was considered “The West,” or more accurately, “The Western Reserve.” In those early days if you wanted to get somewhere you rode a horse, drove a horse-drawn buggy, sailed in a ship, or walked. The 1800s, however, was a century of change. If you were born about the same time Sharon was founded and lived to be 100, you would see life-changing advances in transportation, primarily in steamboats, trains, automobiles and in the increased number of canals and roads.
There were many small communities in western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio, but they were all isolated from each other. It really was not much different from how it was back in Europe since antiquity. Many communities over there, a mere fifty miles apart, often barely spoke the same language. Here in Pennsylvania and Ohio, the advent of one thing began to tie all the communities together — the stagecoach.
In the late 1700s, the French began to expand the ancient Indian trails so that they could build a series of forts in western Pennsylvania to protect their land from the British: Fort Presque Isle in Erie, Fort Le Boeuf in Waterford, Fort Machault in Franklin and Fort Duquesne in Pittsburgh. (Concerned by reports of French expansion into the Ohio Valley, the British senta young George Washington right through our area in 1754 to negotiate with the French.)
By the War of 1812, as troops began to travel on foot to Erie, it became clear that better roads were needed. Turnpikes were being built all around the region. It was inevitable then that stagecoach lines would begin to pop up. The first stagecoach lines began to appear here around 1817. The stagecoaches were not initially received very well. In Ohio, when the Conneaut-to-Poland stage line came in, people were so leery of it that they protested.
Soon other lines sprang up. The Franklin & Warren (PA) stage line had three routes in the region. The route between Mercer and Warren, Ohio, ran right through the Shenango Valley. The stagecoach named “The President Jackson” left the Greentree Inn in Mercer at noon, then stopped in Sharon, then Charleston where the horses were switched out with a new team. This was done Nascar-style every 12 miles with teams switching out in under 10 minutes and passengers rarely even getting out. The route continued through Sharpsville, Sharon, Brookfield and Vienna, and ended up in Warren, Ohio. The miracle of the stagecoach: 31 miles in only 8 hours! Or at least that’s how long it was supposed to take.
The “dean of the Mercer-Warren stage line drivers” during the 1860s was the rough-riding, independent Mike Malhony. Even though it was his job to be prompt, Mike was one of those guys who wasn’t exactly tied down to any schedule. Sometimes the stage would leave at noon, sometimes closer to 1:00. Many passengers who were trying to get to the stage stop in Sharon (Tom Porter’s Tavern) often arrived an hour late.
In the 1840s, Randall D. Wilmot opened up a stagecoach stop on the other side of Warren, Ohio. The complex had a bar, store and lunch stand. Randall, somewhat of an eccentric marketing genius, named the area “The Center of the World.” When the railroad made “The Center of the World” obsolete, Wilmot moved to Cortland, Ohio, and opened a grocery store called “The End of the World.” (If you travel Route 5 on the other side of Warren you’ll still see a road sign that reads “The Center of the World,” where an unincorporated community of a few houses still exists.)
As stagecoach lines grew, so did communication between towns. Travelers from bigger cities carried “gossip” and often newspapers with them that small-town folk could read. Villages that were once isolated now had a lifeline to the rest of the region. The post office, realizing horses were now antiquated, began using stage lines to send mail. (The number of post offices in Pennsylvania rose from only 3,000 in 1815 to 28,000 in 1860.)
The life span of the rough-and-tumble stagecoaches was relatively short. In the earlier years of the 1800s, they contended with the Erie Canal. In later years, railroads offered relatively luxurious travel accommodations and were faster and cheaper than the stage lines. In many places around the country, the stagecoach lines lasted until the automobile knocked them out, some even lasting until World War I.
We all have some image of the stagecoach era in our psyche, something akin to Jimmy Stewart sauntering up to help a pretty pioneer girl off the stage or John Wayne in the classic Western movie, Stagecoach. But the next time you get into your SUV with heated seats and electronic stability control remember this quote from the 19th-century American author Washington Irving on stagecoach travel…
There is certain relief in change, even though it be from bad to worse! As I have often found in traveling in a stagecoach, that it is often a comfort to shift one’s position, and be bruised in a new place.
If you travel on the William Flynn Highway to Slippery Rock, PA, you can see an old stagecoach stop and tavern. The Old Stone House was constructed in 1822 by John Brown as a resting place for weary travelers on the busy Pittsburgh-to-Erie Pike. Go to oldstonehousepa.org for more information about this stagecoach inn and history museum of rural life.
— Eric Bombeck (SHS 1979), South Pymatuning, PA.
Bombeck, Eric. The Way It Was Newspaper, Facebook, June 2019.
“Tales of the Mahoning and Shenango Valleys.” Recordings made in the 1950s by The Industrial Information Institute, Inc., Youngstown, OH, 1951-10.
For an eyewitness account of stagecoach travel, read Roughing It(American Publishing Company, 1872), a semi-autobiographical book by Mark Twain. With his rough-hewn humor, Twain tells of his jarring ride over potholes and ruts from Missouri to Nevada.
In October of 1938, WPIC, the Shenango Valley’s first radio station, came on the air. In its early days radio was seen as a high-brow medium. Stations played classical music, endeavored to educate the public and were rarely crass.
In an effort to involve the community, WPIC put in phone lines from Sharon and Hickory High Schools directly into the studios. Students could now do broadcasts from the schools. More than one high school kid got a job at WPIC because of this. (Joe Prelee, who went on to a storied career in NYC radio, got his start this way.)
The following is a transcript from a WPIC broadcast from Sharon High School on June 23rd, 1950. Miss Mary Lee, the historian being interviewed, was 89 years old at the time of this broadcast, meaning she would have been born around the beginning of the Civil War. She was old enough to have heard some of the stories she tells from people who were here from the beginning. Enjoy this oral history of Sharon as told by Miss Lee in 1950 to two fifth-grade students. — Eric Bombeck
THE HISTORY OF SHARON
Date: June 23, 1950 Time: 9:15-9:30 AM Music
Announcer: Good Morning boys and girls, we are broadcasting from the auditorium of the Sharon High School. It is our pleasure to have with us this morning, Miss Mary Lee, a former teacher and very well-known resident of our city. I don’t believe she would mind my telling you that she is 89 years old. She is going to answer some questions about the history of Sharon, which will help you in your study of Sharon.
Jane White and Bob Smith, two children from the fifth grade, Prospect Heights School, will interview Miss Lee. Miss Lee has lived in Sharon for over fifty years and has done extensive research work on the history of Sharon. The children of Sharon are required to learn something of Sharon’s history and this is the first of a series of programs to be presented in this history of Sharon.
Announcer: Jane, do you have a question you would like to ask Miss Lee?
Jane: Miss Lee, will you tell me who was the very first settler of Sharon?
Miss Lee: William Budd was the first settler. He was known as “the Father of Sharon”
Jane: Where did William Budd come from?
Miss Lee: Budd came to Sharon from Washington County, Pennsylvania. That is on the other side of Pittsburgh.
Bob: About what year did he came and where did he make his first settlement?
MissLee: Bob, history books tell us he came in the spring of 1796 when George Washington was serving his second term as President of the United States and the nation’s capital was located in Philadelphia. Young Budd’s plot of land included 400 acres and he built his log cabin on what is now the northeast corner of Washington Street and South Irvine Avenue. Later, he built a cabin nearer the river, at what is now 61 South Main Street and spent some time hunting and trapping before he returned to Washington County to marry sixteen year old Drucilla Hultz.
Bob: To what kind of cabin did young William Budd bring his bride?
Miss Lee: The log cabin was a story and a half high. The loft was reached by a ladder, there was a puncheon floor, a clapboard roof and greased paper windows. Bob, if you would like to know more about these cabins, you might look it up in the World Book. It will go more in detail than I can on this program.
Jane: Miss Lee, what did the Budds do if they wanted some groceries or supplies?
Miss Lee: Jane, we are told that the Budds produced nearly everything they needed except for farming implements, ammunition and salt. If they needed these, they had to go to Pittsburgh. In those days, it took them three weeks to go. A barrel of salt was worth twenty bushels of wheat. The only roads were the streams and narrow wavering paths made by wild beasts and Indians. Deer were common, wolves howled at night and occasionally a black bear was to be seen on the trip.
Bob: Didn’t the Budds have any near neighbors that they could borrow from rather than making this long trip?
Miss Lee: Yes Bob. In 1798 Charles and Frances Reno settled east of the Shenango River and north of William Budd’s, around what is now Reno Street, down near the Junior High School. The Bentley’s the Stokley’s, the Hoaglands, McBrides and Loves all moved into the valley and, in spite of hardships, these pioneers had come to stay. On May 23, 1798, the second generation made its first appearance, in the tiny person of James Bentley, the first white child born in Sharon.
Jane: Miss Lee, what do you know about the early homes of Sharon?
Miss Lee: We know the earliest homes of the pioneers were log cabins. Then, these were replaced by frame homes. In 1851, long rows of company houses were built for the people who were working in the iron mill. In one of them, over thirty years later, there grew up a Welsh immigrant boy, who was to become the first Secretary of Labor and afterwards, a Senator of the United States, James J. Davis.
In 1864 Sharon was becoming a good-sized town and brick homes were replacing the frame ones. Some of these are still standing on East State Street. The brick home, opposite the Golden Dawn store on the corner of North Oakland Avenue and East State Street, where the Sample Funeral Home is located, is one of these homes.
The first stone house to be built in Sharon is still standing on Dayton Way, just across from the Wishart planning mill. The second stone house to be built was the Buhl Mansion, now the home of Mr. and Mrs. Henry Forker, East State Street.
The house which was occupied by Gariety Funeral Home, at the corner of Washington and South Water Avenue is considered one of the oldest buildings in Sharon. This house which has been remodeled and enlarged many times was originally a log cabin.
Bob: Miss Lee, surely if the people of Sharon were interested in building nice homes they wanted a name for their village.
Miss Lee: Oh yes, Bob. William Budd took care of that in 1815. Tradition tells us that he was worried about that, so he decided to choose a name from the Bible. He put three names in a muslin covered box. The third name drawn was “Sharon.” We do not know whether he had in mind the plains of Sharon or the Rose of Sharon when he selected the name.
Jane: We know in the very beginning the Budds had to go to Pittsburgh for their supplies but when did they finally get some stores in Sharon?
Miss Lee: Well, Jane, in 1815, Elias Jones bought 100 acres of land north of State Street, west of the Shenango River. He built a distillery and a storeroom and became Sharon’s first distiller, innkeeper and postmaster.
In 1818, the first bridge was built over the Shenango River at the cost of six hundred dollars and then wooden sidewalks were built so the shoppers could visit Jake Cozadd’s shoe shop or Elias Jones’ store. The mail now came twice a week from Mercer by stagecoach instead of horseback. The Sharonites who made the great trip to see General Lafayette at Mercer twelve miles away, in 1824, came home to a village whose streets were unlighted and choked with dust or deep mud. By 1825 new names had appeared in Sharon, and new faces in business houses. “Daddy” Washington Porter kept store at the southeastern corner of State Street and Water Avenue where the news stand is now located. David Budd had a new tavern. Sharon was still a log settlement but it was home to people who had faith in the future and the courage to make the future bright.
Bob: Miss Lee, I thought Willson’s furniture store was one of the oldest stores in Sharon. When did it have its beginning?
Miss Lee: You are right Bob. It was in 1845 that James Willson, a Brookfield boy, stood on the top of the West Hill and looked down into the valley and then toward Brookfield Center, trying to decide whether he would start his business in the flourishing Ohio village or in the smaller Pennsylvania settlement below on the muddy Shenango River. He decided that the new covered bridge, the building though only a single-track affair, twenty feet wide, would enable Sharonites to get across the river, beyond the city limits, where expenses were less. From that boy’s decision sprang Sharon’s oldest family business, now known as the Willson Furniture Store.
Jane: What were some of the other businesses that were established about this same time?
Miss Lee: Jane, I have been told that many people were interested in establishing banks, The Shenango Hotel with eighty-six rooms, a drug store by Reno and Espy, a music store by W.C. DeForest, a cloak and millinery shop by Mrs. Mark Cohen and many other shops.
Bob: We have learned in our study of geography that people cannot live in a community unless they have some way of earning a living. How did these early pioneers make a living?
Miss Lee: Bob, everyone must work if they want to earn a living and these Sharon pioneers were no exception.
In 1802, Benjamin Budd gave Sharon its first industry. Budd built a saw and grist mill on the east side of the river in the southern part of the present Sharon. The mill was operated by power furnished by a dam in the river. In 1822 Clark built a flour mill on North Water Avenue and in a few years he put in fulling and carding machinery. In 1810 coal was discovered near Sharon and at first, it was used in the homes for fuel but later it was used in the iron mills. 1846 was the outstanding year in the development of the blast furnaces. Six blast furnaces were built in the Shenango Valley to make pig iron with charcoal and native ores. In this same year Frank Allen began his experiments at the Clay Furnaces, where he succeeded in substituting coke for charcoal, and finally, in using the raw coal as a fuel, a discovery which greatly influenced Sharon’s future.
Sharon had a tremendous boom in the ‘50s. The rolling mill started in 1851 and soon was turning out forty-five tons of pig iron weekly, at a cost of $18.00 a ton.
These are just a few of the early industries that were carried on, which enabled the early settlers to earn a living.
Jane: As I look at this beautiful auditorium where we are now, it makes me want to know something about the early schools of Sharon. Miss Lee, I imagine you too are interested in the early schools.
Miss Lee: The two-million-dollar school system of today is a far cry from the first log cabin school in 1800. It was then that Thomas Rudge used the birch switch as the first teacher in the new community.
At present, there are ten public school buildings in use. The first of the schools now in use was East Ward, built about 1880, South Water Avenue and the Prospect Heights Schools in 1904, Russell Street was constructed in 1908, Jefferson Avenue in 1909, the Senior High in 1923-1924, Wengler in 1927, Junior High in 1929 and Thornton Avenue in 1929.
Daniel Hates, a Revolutionary War veteran, began teaching in 1803 in a log house erected for the purpose, on what was known as the Hoagland Place. This was one mile north of the present State Street, about the same time a log building was erected for school purposes near where the Baptist Church now stands on West State Street.
Besides these schools, there was a schoolhouse built of round logs that stood on the north side of State Street.
The first brick school in Sharon was built in 1850 near the present site of the Pennsylvania depot. In the early 1920s the building was turned into a railroad roundhouse.
Jane, as you can see, the people of Sharon have always been interested in education and want the very best for their boys and girls.
Bob: Miss Lee, they tell us the church is the greatest factor on earth for the building of character and good citizenship, and it is a storehouse of spiritual values. Without a strong church, neither democracy nor civilization can survive.
Do you think these early settlers believed this?
Miss Lee: Yes, Bob. These early settlers were very much interested in starting a church. Again history tells us that on June 24, 1804, the Baptist Church was organized with nineteen members – the Hoaglands, Morfords, Renos and the four Bentleys, and the rest of the early settlers. Morford and Hoagland were deacons. Services were held in groves, barns and houses for three years. Within a year after the church was organized, Adam Bentley, with an ox-team, went to New Jersey, four hundred miles away, to bring back Reverend Thomas Jones who was willing to come if his expenses were paid. The parsonage was a log cabin on the farm of Wayne B. Wheeler.
In 1807 William Budd donated land for the church and the graveyard. The land extended west from the present site of the First Baptist Church. Later, Mr. Budd gave an adjoining lot to the Methodists and the two lots were thrown together for the general use of the town.
Jane: I know you can’t tell us when all the churches in Sharon were established but I would like to know when the First Presbyterian Church was started. That is the one I go to.
Miss Lee: That is my church too, Jane. It was organized in 1844 with twenty-four persons present.
Bob: I go to the Sacred Heart Church. Do you know when it was organized?
Miss Lee: Why yes Bob. In 1859, a Sharon Mission was started in charge of Father Hartman. Father John O’Keefe was the first pastor named for the Sharon congregation. Services were held in the homes of members pending the erection of a rectory, after which mass was celebrated in a room in the parsonage. In 1854, the cornerstone was laid for Sacred Heart Church on a plot of ground donated by Dr. J.M. Irvine. The building was pushed rapidly because the congregation was growing steadily with the arrival of new people in town, attracted by the rapid development of the iron industry.
Jane and Bob, that is all the time I have to tell you about Sharon’s early growth but if you would like to hear more about the building of the Erie Canal and about the wonderful contributions made to the community by Mr. and Mrs. Frank Buhl, I will be only too glad to tell about them sometime again.
Announcer: Thank you Miss Lee for giving us this interesting information. I am sure we will all look forward to your next visit.
Goodbye everyone, this is station W.P.I.C. signing off for the Sharon Public Schools, which can be heard every Tuesday morning at 9:15.
–– Submitted by Eric Bombeck, (SHS 1979), South Pymatuning, PA. Transcription and photographs from WPIC Archives, courtesy of The Way It Was Newspaper.
You’re in for a special treat! This month’s guest writer, Gary Conti, shares with us a three-part story: Parts I and II tell of his Italian family, their immigration and life in Sharpsville as Italian-Americans. Finally, Part III describes a visit to the land where it all began.
Gary was born in 1963 and has been a lifelong Sharpsville resident. He grew up on South Second Street until he was 16 years old, and recalls the “good family friend Mary Caracci and her family who lived down the hill on North Second Street. I used to go there with my Aunt Theresa to visit Mary and accompany my aunt when she cleaned the offices of Cattron Communications.” After graduating from Sharpsville High School in 1981, Gary worked at Container Products and Howe Industries for about a total of 16 years.He is currently an employee of United Parcel Service (UPS).
Join Gary as he takes us on his grandparents’ journey from Pofi, Italy, to a new life in Sharpsville, a journey made by the many far-sighted and courageous people who came to America in the early years of the twentieth century.
THE CONTI FAMILY
Part I: From Pofi to Sharpsville
By Gary Conti
Gary Conti, age 5. Sharpsville, PA, c. 1968.
Ever since I was a small child, people would see or hear my last name and ask if I was related to this or that Conti. My answer was that I really did not know. Conti is a very well-known name throughout Italy. Now I have an answer: If they didn’t come from Pofi, Italy, and end up in Sharpsville, Pennsylvania, then we are not related. But it wasn’t until 2007 that I learned this answer.
Opening a Treasure Chest
One snowy January day in 2007 I sent an email that opened a treasure chest of facts that is still full to this day. I sent this email to a man named Tony who spent half the year in his hometown of Pofi, Italy, and the other six months in Toronto, Canada. He was putting together a reunion in Pofi of bloodlines around the world the very month we would be going there in October of 2007. I sent the email and, thinking I may never get a return reply, I left the room to make some coffee. When I came back to the computer, I found how wrong I was. I not only had a reply in minutes but one that told me I had hit the target. “Do you know the Scurpa’s?” he asked. Only all my life! In fact, I found out my grandmother was related to them.
The recipient of my email inspired me to learn how to research. He taught me how not to trust the years on the headstones of Italian graves. Because records in Italy were lost in wars, earthquakes, fires, and other calamities, the birth and death years on the headstones were mainly those that family members thought they knew. This derailed research he had done seven years before. He also introduced me to the Ellis Island Records websiteas well as telling me where to write in Pofi and what to say. Within a couple hours, I began hitting paydirt!
The only things I had going for me were the names of my grandparents who died decades before I was born, the name of the town and a few things my aunt taught me.
My Grandfather’s Path to Sharpsville
Italy, showing the location of Pofi in the province of Frosinone. (Source: NASA Space Goddard Flight Center.)
My grandfather was Luigi Conti, born in Pofi, Italy, in 1893 to Francesco and Francesa Giorgi Conti. He and five other men, ages 17 to the 40s, left their village in April of 1913 for Naples where they boarded a ship called The Prince of Piedmont. They made the trip across the ocean and arrived in New York on May 2nd. My grandfather and two others, a Scurpa and Luigi Gori, his best friend, headed to Sharpsville. They were following a path from towns south of Rome — Pofi, Castro dei Volsci, Ceccano, Ceprano and Falvaterra — that had already been made years before.
The men of the southern area of Italy were mostly farmers in what was known as “The Land That Fed Rome.” They and those farther south were forced to give a share of their crops to the Italian Government, which was then used to feed their own families who lived in the region to the north. To this day, this practice is not taken well by the southerners as it became, as a result, almost impossible for them to make a living. Somewhere along the line Sharpsville became known to the people of this area as a place where they could thrive and the push across the Atlantic to our town was on.
When my grandfather arrived in Sharpsville his petitioner was Luigi Gori’s older brother, Giacinto. Luigi went to work at the old Valley Mold & Iron which was at one time the largest ingot mold foundry in the world. He worked there for many years as a molder.
My Grandmother’s Arrival
Marriage of Mattia Recine and Luigi Conti, St. Bartholomew Church. Sharpsville, PA, January 1917.
My grandmother was Mattia Recine Conti, the daughter of Giovanni and Carmine Vona Recine. She did not come to America until December of 1916 and her trip across the ocean was a bit of historical significance. Because World War I was in full force at the time, her ship, the Caserta, had big guns mounted on top. At certain points on the sea, the crew would engage in target practice for possible attacks by U-boats (German submarines). I could just imagine my grandmother’s reaction to that as a passenger!
My grandmother’s voyage was the Caserta’s last trip across the Atlantic, as the vessel company, out of safety concerns, stopped its operations until after the European Conflict.
I have gone over her ship manifest many times only to conclude that she made the trip across with strangers. It’s amazing to me how a woman could make that rough trip alone.
Mattia Recine arrived at Ellis Island in New York City a few days before Christmas of 1916 and, on New Year’s Day, she married my grandfather at St. Bartholomew Church in Sharpsville. I have never found out if they knew each other back in Pofi and always wondered if the Scurpa’s had something to do with the marriage. The only clue I found was a couple of years before she came to America, my grandfather was livingat Alice Row*, with another man whose last name was also Recine.
(*Alice Row was a group of Valley Mold row houses located off North Mercer Avenue on Cedar Street in Sharpsville. “Alice” was the name of a furnace at Valley Mold. The building no longer stands and the site is now used by a dealership to store used cars.)
Beginning Life in Sharpsville
Frank Conti, my father, c. 1936, Sharpsville, PA.
My grandparents’ first child, Sebastian (known to the family as “Sub”), was born in 1918. He was followed a year to the day afterward by Theresa, then Mary, Rosa, my father Frank (left photo) and then Tony. Even though they were born here they spoke little English when they started school.
I came to learn over the years that my grandfather Luigi was a no-nonsense guy who ruled in the old-school way: Punish first then move on. Do what you are told and stay away from his garden! My Aunt Theresa used to tell me how he would sit on the porch at night with a radio and a bottle of homemade “Dago Red” and claim that he could hear Rome on the radio. Anybody who has ever had that homemade wine knows that hearing Rome from Sharpsville after a couple of drinks is possible! Besides the wine he was known for working in that garden, ruling the home and smoking those little Italian cigars that he would always send the kids to get for him.
Funeral for my grandmother Mattia Recine Conti, c. 1937. The children in front are my father and Uncle Tony Conti.
At a very early age, my aunts and uncles lost their mother, my grandmother, (in c. 1937) and their father (in 1945). My father was 9 and my Uncle Tony 7 when their mother died. I never knew a lot about her other than she was good with the kids and kind with many friends in the Italian community of Sharpsville, as you could see in the photo by her casket. My Aunt Theresa and Uncle Sub had some of their teenage years taken away and quickly became very close as brother and sister.
Uncle Sub was the first of my father’s siblings to move away from his childhood home. He found work in the iron mill and married Mary Josephine Sabella in 1937. They lived on Seventh Street just above where Rossi Barber Shop was.
Later, Uncle Sub moved back to Cedar Street when he took my father in. My father told me many times that the Seventh Street house was where he had his first Thanksgiving dinner. I guess Italians did not take part in that tradition early on.
My Uncle Tony is another one for the record books. Because of very poor health as a child, he was not expected to live past teenage years. They found a hole in his heart on a checkup right on the front lines during the Korean War and he was sent to Japan and then home. He later had the first successful open heart surgery in Cleveland. He will soon be 88.
What I learned from Magdalena Scurpa
Aunt Theresa Conti Gula and my grandfather, Luigi Conti, c. 1941.
Magdalena Scurpa, who was related to my grandmother, took my aunt Theresa under her wing and made sure the connection to Italy lived on. As a young kid many years later I would sit at my aunt’s kitchen table listening to her stories as she made sauce, bread and pizzelle (traditional Italian waffle cookies), as well as fried dough. Man, do I miss that stuff!
She would tell me how the Italians feared The Black Hand, a name given to an Italian organized crime group that blackmailed Italian business owners and struck fear into Italians. It mostly operated before Prohibition and, yes, even in Sharpsville, Sharon and Farrell. It was known around the country and it really took hold in Hillsville near New Castle.
She told me of the time the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross on the hill above the town of South Pymatuning because all immigrants and African Americans lived in the old neighborhood at the lower end and that cross was in clear view. The story I hear, though, is that the Klan members didn’t stick around after starting it!
Growing up and hearing family stories made me feel like I was a part of it all. It was and still is special to me. I have never forgotten where my bloodlines came from and their struggles.
[Right] A pizzelle press in action. Source: Photo by (and courtesy of) Jacquelyn Stager, author of “Life Between the Buns: Pizzelles Anyone?”, a blog that includes a recipe for pizzelles. (Accessed 2018-10-20).
Next month: The Conti Family, Part II: An Italian-American Christmas, A Golden Childhood.
Ciao, amico mio! Those Italian words and others were well-known in our small town in the 1950s, whatever one’s heritage. First and second-generation Italians made up one of the largest ethnic groups at the time in Sharpsville and their language and traditions were by then part of our culture.
Between c. 1880 and 1924, more than four million Italians immigrated to the United States, half of them between 1900 and 1910 alone. The majority were fleeing rural poverty in Southern Italy and Sicily and seeking work in America’s factories, steel mills and coal mines and help build this country’s roads, railroads, dams, tunnels, and other infrastructure. Today, the descendants of Italian immigrants who stayed in the U.S. are still a large part of Sharpsville’s population at 14.1%, second only to German ancestry at 16.2%.
Italians, like many foreign groups newly arriving in our country, were not always accepted graciously by those already living here. Ralph C. Mehler II of the Sharpsville Area Historical Society, writes in the Society’s March 2017 newsletter (page 1),
Then as now, economic anxiety over the supply and demand of labor mingled with irrational fears over the mores, customs, and religion of foreigners. Thus, we see a report from 1898 about “trouble at Sharpsville” on account of immigrants being employed for the construction of the new water works. “Six citizens have been arrested for interfering with them.” These workers, however, weren’t Mexicans or Muslims, but the first arrivals here from Italy.
The July 2018 newsletter of the Sharpsville Area Historical Society tells of the 1904 flood that washed away the bridge over the Shenango River near the feed-mill. Several of those who were standing on the collapsing bridge were plunged into the river and at least four drowned. Strangely, this disaster has faded from the town’s memory and merited just passing attention by the contemporary press. One newspaper at the time reported that “The four unfortunates were Italians whose names cannot be accurately identified.” Even follow-up reports did not attempt to find the names of the drowned. The article notes that while language barriers contributed, prejudice was certainly behind the indifference.
Italians in Sharpsville: 1950s
St. Bartholomew Roman Catholic Church, 311 West Ridge Avenue, Sharpsville, PA. (Source: saintbartholomews.com)
By the 1950s, such “troubles” were a thing of the past for the Italian community. Instead, the Italians’ contributions of customs, food, language and entertainment became a welcomed part of everyday life for all. What 1950s resident can forget the savory pizza at Walder’s Tavern at 111 Main Street!
I remember my mother of Scots-Irish descent strictly following our Italian neighbors’ practices of foregoing meat on Fridays and refraining from hanging laundry on Sundays. We non-Catholics were curious about their genuflecting whenever Italian-Americans passed their church on foot or in a car, the mysterious sooty cross on their foreheads on Ash Wednesday, and their worry over which pleasure to “give up” for Lent. I often felt left out of this special part of our society but I was glad I wasn’t restricted by the Pope’s list of forbidden movies that my playmate had to follow. Instead, I could watch any movie I wanted to at the neighborhood’s Ritz Theater (for better or worse)!
Most impressive to me was the gaiety of the wedding receptions in Angel’s Casino, the building next door to my home. There the guests ate, drank, sang, danced the Tarantella and played the Italian betting game Morra under my bedroom window until long after the bride and groom left at midnight.
There were a few occasions when I accompanied friends to the St. Bartholomew Catholic Church, now over 141 years old, on Ridge Avenue. I remember attending Christmas Mass at midnight and experiencing the beauty and serenity inside the dimly-lit interior, with its vaulted ceiling, tall stained-glass windows and the smoky-sweet smell of burning incense.
Italians in Sharpsville: The Italian Society
In many communities, early immigrants, like “birds of a feather,” created clubs and places where they could come together to enjoy and preserve their old traditions. Sharpsville had the Italian Society which eventually created the Italian Home. According to Ralph C. Mehler II of the Sharpsville Area Historical Society (SAHS), the group was founded in 1913 and officially known as the Societa Italiana di M[aria] S[anta] Generale Gustavo Fara.
“General Fara Society on Firm Basis.” The Sharon (PA) Telegraph, 1924. Courtesy of the Sharpsville Area Historical Society.
Mehler provides a newspaper article about the Italian Society’s early days. It appeared in the 1924 Sharpsville Golden Jubilee Supplement to The Sharon Telegraph (page 5) and is transcribed as follows:
GENERAL FARA SOCIETY ON FIRM BASIS The General Fara Society today is one of the leading fraternal organizations of Sharpsville, its membership including 75 of Sharpsville’s leading Italian citizens.
The society was organized June 2, 1913, by George Rosati, Maurice Stigliano, Carmelo Palazzio and Joseph Ciolto (Ciotolo?)
Since it was organized the society has undergone many hardships. Its membership at one time being reduced to eight men.
Members declare the society is on a sound financial basis today, largely due to the efforts of Thomas Muscarella, the president. During the last year, the membership has been doubled through the energetic work of Muscarella.
Italians in Sharpsville: The Italian Home
Also from Mehler:
The Italian Home we all know (now the Sharpsville American Legion, 617 Main Street) was built in 1950. Yet, earlier on that lot was a commercial building containing in 1912 a barber shop and a vacant store, and two stores by 1929. A newspaper notice from September 16, 1935, notes that land was transferred from Vic Palazzo to the club. This earlier building was smaller and up against the sidewalk, unlike the building from 1950 which was larger, more modern and set back from the street.
We (SAHS) have a funeral photo, with a large crowd of (Italian) mourners gathered around an open casket on the steps of St. Bartholomew’s. Many had sashes, which I assume were meant they were officers in the Italian Home. Also in our collection is an August 12, 1914, edition of The Sharpsville Advertiser. It reports that “Members of the Italian Beneficial Society of Sharpsville are preparing for a great doings on Sept. 8, when they will celebrate the day of St. Mary of Ancona with religious services, a big parade, general picnic outing, addresses and a grand blowout at night in the shape of fireworks.”
The Italian Home was Sharpsville’s only ethnic home, in contrast to the large number of them in Farrell. (Italian, Slovak, Greek, Serbian, two Croatian, two German, Hungarian.)
American Legion, 617 Main Street, August 2014. Source: Google Maps.
Non-Italians were evidently welcome at the Italian Home as well. Ralph Mehler remembers “going to a dance there in 8th grade (1975), but it was always somewhat of a mystery.” My diary of 1956 mentions attending record hops at the Italian Home, one of which took place in January, “a lively party” given for the kids of Westinghouse strikers.
In a narrative written in 2013, Irene Caldwell O’Neill (SHS 1960) recalls visiting the Italian Home in her childhood:
A large building in town available for parties and receptions was the Italian Home on Main Street.
My young brain assumed it had been built by a coalition of Italian immigrants as a place they could meet, socialize, and retain their sense of community in a foreign land. Now I wonder if it wasn’t privately owned and rented out to whoever paid the price.
A large percentage of the Shenango Valley’s population was first and second generation Italian, drawn to our town by employment in the steel mills. On most Friday and Saturday nights, the music of accordion bands and happy laughter poured from its open doors to the adjacent sidewalk.
No one could live in our town without having Italian friends or neighbors and sooner or later you’d be invited to a happening at the Italian Home. I was invited to more than one event by the family of my elementary school friend, Susan Dunder. I remember eating … fabulous homemade pasta as I wondered what everyone was saying in the unfamiliar language.
Do you have additional details about Italians in Sharpsville? If you would like to share your experiences of living as (or among) Italian-Americans or your memories of the Italian Home, please send us your story. (Also, photos would be great!) Click on “Leave a comment” at the end of this story or send an email to email@example.com.
When I was a kid, our family didn’t see a doctor on a regular basis as most of us do today. In fact, we had to be in need of vaccination or really, really sick or injured before our parents called on the doctor’s services. One reason for avoiding a doctor’s visit was that private health insurance was unaffordable for many in those days and employer-sponsored health insurance plans were usually unavailable, including for my family.
In the 1940s when we lived in Wheatland, PA, the family doctor would come to our house with his black satchel full of medicines and instruments in hand.
By the time we moved to Sharpsville, the reverse was true and continues to this day: an appointment would be made to visit the doctor at his place of practice. If it becomes the norm that doctors visit us via computer, we will have come full circle in a way!
As we continue to follow Pete Joyce’s memory journey around 1920s Sharpsville in honor of Dr. Nelson Bailey’s arrival in town at that time, we learn who lived and worked in this small Pennsylvania town and how active it was in those early days. We also better understand the contributions its citizens, and particularly Dr. Bailey, have made to the community, some whose names still resonate today.
Reminiscences of Sharpsville
In Honor of Dr. Nelson Bailey (continued)
A speech presented by Peter Joyce to the Sharpsville Service Club, 1979
(The text has been slightly edited for clarity.)
Around the corner from Mahaney’s was Abrams the cobbler, Engles Bakery, J.V. Minehan’s Dry Goods Store. Then the Racket Store and C.N. Oates for papers, magazines and confections with an outdoor popcorn machine.
Then Lou Burckhart’s Meat Market and O.B. Law’s Grocery Store. I never saw Mr. Law smile. He had a son who was a lawyer but seemed to spend most of his time reading spicy novels over at Reichard‘s Drug Store. Now we are over to Norman Mertz restaurant where the railroaders ate.
Then over to the ballpark at Shenango and Walnut where the American Legion would hold carnivals to raise money for their home. Hear and see Ray Kane, Bill Hart, Joe Donohue, Ed Davies, Dr. [James] Biggins, [Harry] Pebley and Frank Callahan, the greatest barker of them all. Patriotism was strong and beautiful and inspiring and the Vets used to speak at the schools on Armistice Day, then there would be the parades. We all knew [the lyrics to] “Johnny Get Your Gun,” “Over There” and “How Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm After They’ve Seen Paree!” ….
Across the road from the ballpark was Mike Nathan’s coal and feed supply. Later it became Bill Lee’s then Parker & Lee. And, on down Walnut street was Andy Bombeck, the contractor.
The people of Sharpsville were good churchgoers. Father Miller was at St. Bartholomew’s, Rev. Spink at the Grace Reformed, Rev. Cousins at the Methodist Church, Rev. Gossell at the Baptist, Rev. Hills at the United Brethren and Rev. Woods at the Presbyterian Church.
[Above right: First United Methodist Church, 148 E. Shenango St., Sharpsville, PA, c. 1940s. Courtesy of Gail Nitch Hanes.]
Wade Mertz was doing some building and selling coal and feed, etc. Tim Holland had a new auto agency for a beautiful car called the Dixie Flyer. [Left: Dixie Flyer 1916-1923. Source: AllCarIndex.com]
Stiglianos were baking delicious Italian bread. Ben Jackson was running the Boiler Works making Sharmeters [clock-faced gas pumps. Click here for a photo and history of this Sharpsville Boiler Works product.]…
…and the Menkes were running three blast furnaces at Shenango Furnace.
Shenango Blast Furnace, Sharpsville, PA. Source: Excerpt from “This Is Shenango,” 1954. (Courtesy of the Sharpsville Area Historical Society.)
The best baseball was played at Joyce Field, near Leona and Hazen now. The streetcars ran every 15 minutes to Sharon. Telephones had come to Sharpsville in the late 1880s and connected the Sharpsville Furnace to the Pierce Coal Co. The first public telephone was at Skip Reichard’s store. The first directory showed only eight subscribers in 1887 and 15 in 1890.
When I look back I think our greatest loss is that we no longer are producing characters. Where are the old Skin Troutman and young Skin, Reptile High Tree, the Turkey Murphys, Blair Boys, Pete Lyden, Squaw Long, Mike Tobin? If I had only written down their stories.
Well, this is the Sharpsville that Dr. Bailey came into. Going as you did from Jamestown as the son of a doctor, to med school, to internship, then to Sharpsville.
You brought with you a lovely, gracious, kind and patient wife, an ideal partner for a young doctor. You‘ve lived on Locust Street, Ridge Avenue, corner of Main and Mercer, before settling where you are.
[Above right: Residence of Dr. Bailey on the northwest corner of North Mercer and East Main, 1930s. Courtesy of Gail Nitch Hanes.]
Children came in God‘s good time and blest your union. I don’t know whether to describe you as an old-time doctor or a new-time doctor. We all knew that at all times you were a wonderfully kind and generous man. During the Depression, you suffered with the people, but you gave of yourself and to the community. You were the Mercer County Medical Doctor, President of Buhl Hospital and the Mercer County Medical Society. You are a splendid father with a real dedication to the Hippocratic oath. Both your hands and your heart were involved in an act of love to heal—yet never was vanity on display. Your life revolved around your family, your profession and your golf. When you came here we had just dedicated a new High School. The Class of 1922 had 18 graduates, up ten students from 1918.
You have witnessed many, many improvements in this town. Your profession has changed enormously, and our great country has discovered its social responsibility. It’s a long time from Warren G. Harding and his “Return to Normalcy” to Jimmy Carter being “Born Again.” It‘s a “helluva long time,” is the way Dr. Bailey would say. You have witnessed two world wars, the Depression [and] the convulsion of the 60s, yet common sense prevailed.
The Sharpsville Service Club is proud of you, Dr. Bailey. You are everything that a citizen and doctor should be. You are a credit to your community and we are all so happy that you adopted us 56 years ago. And, we wish you many more years of health and happiness.
For a transcription of an interview with Dr. Bailey, go to: “Jamestown Horse-and-Buggy Days Recalled,” The Herald, Sharon, PA: July 17, 1979, page 28. (Courtesy of the Sharpsville Area Historical Society.)
— Permission to reprint Peter Joyce’s speech was granted by
The Sharpsville Area Historical Society.
Dr. Nelson John Bailey was born in Jamestown, PA, on March 24, 1892, to Winona E. Bailey and Myron D. Bailey, who was also a physician. Nelson was one of six children.
Bailey attended Grove City College and The University of Pittsburgh. He was graduated from Jefferson Medical College (now Jefferson University) in Philadelphia. When he was ready to enter practice in 1920, his father wasn’t well, so he took over his father’s practice until 1923.
When Dr. Bailey started practicing medicine in Sharpsville in 1923, he moved into the former office of Dr. Addison E. Cattron who had died in 1923. The office was built onto the side of Cattron’s house, in which Mrs. Cattron and their three daughters continued to reside.
As of 1940, Dr. Bailey was living on North Locust Street, Sharpsville, PA. By 1942, his home was located at 116 Mercer Avenue. His business was always at 61 East Main Street.
Dr. Bailey and his wife, Georgia J. (1893-1968), had two sons, Nelson C. and Hugh M., and two daughters, Harriet Jane and Margaret W.
Dr. Nelson Bailey died on October 24, 1988. He was buried in Riverside Cemetery located on the east side of South Mercer Avenue, Sharpsville, PA.
Longtime residents of Sharpsville can tell us a lot about the history of this Pennsylvania borough. Please welcome Donna DeJulia, a 1960 Sharpsville High School graduate and our guest writer this month. She fondly describes her father, a hard-working steel mill worker whose parents had come from Italy, and her mother who saw Sharpsville as a place in which to settle down and raise a family in peace and security.
MY PARENTS IN SHARPSVILLE
By Donna DeJulia
Ladle in the Homestead Steel Mill.
I was born and raised in Sharpsville, Pennsylvania, as my father was. His family came from Italy and bought a house at 42 North Eleventh Street down by the railroad tracks. All my life he had told me wonderful stories about his upbringing. Even though they had very little it sure sounded like he and his family had a lot of fun.
Dad told me how, when they were dirt poor and had nothing to eat, he and his brother broke into a train and stole cans of Spam and pineapple that were for the troops overseas during World War II. They took these canned goods and buried them in their backyard. The Conrail police came and searched in vain for the stolen items. In any case, the DeJulias were no pillars of the community! And they had so much Spam and pineapple that my Dad would never eat those two foods for the rest of his life!
When my parents married, they settled in Sharpsville where Dad worked at Shenango Inc. steel mill for over 40 years. A bricklayer by trade, he would climb into those big ladles (like the replica in the Sharpsville town park) and line the inside with brick before they poured steel into them. Even after the owners, the Shenango Group of Pittsburgh, went bankrupt and sold the plant to its employees in 1993, he was still going over to the mill and training people.
It’s funny how two words can be so complicated … “About Mom.” I could describe her physically…but that tends to change with time and it doesn’t entirely answer who she is. Her hair color fades and her waistline grows and then shrinks. There is also this wrinkle in her brow that is deepening every year. Her body is stiff when she awakens. If she doesn’t get a cup of coffee and her bra on first thing in the morning she can’t think.
All this is from years of stress and happiness both from raising her children and grandchildren, not to mention the couch campers that would hang out in her house. Random people have always slept and ate at my mom’s house. You may stop by in the morning and find a foreign body lying on a couch or floor, bundled in a blanket, not realizing who they are until they rise. They could be friends of her four children or friends of her 14 grandchildren. Who knows why they felt more comfortable in her home than in their own homes. If nothing else, there was always someone in Mom’s home with an ear to listen to whatever crisis they may be going through at the time.
My mother lived in Sharpsville for 50 years. She still had her original telephone number she got in 1958, so I guess that would indicate a sense of stability. She may not have had beautiful furniture, a refrigerator full of food or even a lot of personal belongings. The pipes under the kitchen sink were broken, her porch roof fell off and the carpet was shabby, but we still called it home. But one thing she does have is a lot of love and understanding to share and she is always there for her children no matter what they are going through.
About Mom?… Maybe her personality is a clue. She believes in the magic of the moment and that everything in life happens for a reason. What the reason is, is really none of her business. That is for God to know. But she trusts in him and feels he know what he is doing. She believes that laughter heals. She believes in hope. She likes looking way up into trees and examining each leaf that God has created. She believes that children are meant to be heard and have feelings and thought just like adults, but sometimes they are just not given the opportunity to express it. She enjoys a good book. It can take her anywhere in the world and she never has to leave her home. She does not like bigotry or racism and she can barely tolerate ignorance when it comes to diversity. She believes that all people are created equal and are entitled to their opinion just as long as it does not harm others. I learned from her that for the most part there is good in every person. Sometimes you have to look real close, but it is there. This is a glimpse…about my mom.
All Mom ever wanted to do was to live in one house, raise all of her children and have them go to one school district. You see, she moved all over as a child and attended 22 different schools, so that was her and my father’s dream. After 45 years of marriage her husband had passed on and all of her children are grown. Her job in her falling-down house was done. It was time to move on and take care of herself. This is something she has never really done because she has always taken care of everyone else. So, Mom is no longer in Sharpsville, she has left Mercer County to start a new life, a well-needed life that revolves solely around her. It is about time!
Well, on the 12th of July my father has been gone for 10 years. I have this dreaded fear of losing the memories I have of him. The red flannel shirt he always wore. The way he rode through town on his bike and everyone knew him. How he spent the 68 years of his life in Sharpsville, working, raising children and spending quality time with his family.
I rarely remember the man getting angry but when he said to do something, you did it. I remember the fascinating stories he would tell how he and his seven siblings grew up on Eleventh Street in Sharpsville. He was not an educated man, he could hardly read, but he was the smartest man I ever knew. If it was broken, he could fix it. He took people’s malfunctioning VCRs, TVs and any other things that he felt was worthy and fixed it new. He would then give them away after they were repaired, never taking money for them. He had collected so many extra bicycle parts that every kid in town would bring their bikes to be fixed. After he died I had 6 broken VCRs in my closet. I just couldn’t throw them out, not now! Dad may be back to fix them. It was a good three years before they made their way out to the trash.
When my father died on July 12, 2002, I was devastated. It was so unexpected. He was a healthy vibrant man at the age of 68. He rode his bicycle at least 10 miles a day. It was a weekly routine to peddle through town on trash day looking through people’s garbage to see what he could salvage, being the great repairman that he had turned into being after he was forced into retirement in 1990 at the ripe old age of 57. He would scout around and then in the evening he would have my niece take him around in the car and pick up those televisions, VCRs, stereos and anything else that could be restored. He did not drive, never possessed a drivers license and could not read but was able to fix anything that was slightly fixable.
Well, that morning he apparently got up early like he always did. He ate half a bologna sandwich, then got on his bicycle and proceeded to peddle through town. When he arrived at the bank he started to ride through the parking lot, clenched his chest and died before he ever hit the pavement.
Today, every now and then when I am home alone. I can sometimes smell the faint smell of Havana Blossom Chewing Tobacco and Old Spice aftershave. It happened just the other day. I was lying on my bed resting and the window was opened. A small breeze blew across the little room and that smell hit my nose. I felt grateful and full of life. Those times that it happens is when I know my dad is visiting and telling me everything will be okay.
When my father died I really became interested in the history of Sharpsville and have done quite a bit of research on it. Now when I go through the town everything looks different than it did in the 1970s. The buildings look smaller and the population has declined. The sign still stands near the Sharon line stating that Santa Claus visits every house on Christmas Eve. The town still has only one traffic light and the new police station has no jail cell to hold local wrongdoers.
My favorite bench with my initials carved in it has been removed from the town park. The old City Hall has turned into a floral shop. (In June 2017, a fire that originated in the basement badly scarred the City Hall and shut down the floral shop.) And I will never understand why Pierce’s mansion was torn down to build a housing complex. I remember when trains passed by my house daily and I hung out at the fire station and watched HBO on TV. No matter how the passing of time impacts the town it will always be my Sharpsville.
After the Civil War, General James Pierce created a new business district in the area of Mercer Avenue and Shenango Street. However, the town of Sharpsville was growing so rapidly that Pierce found it necessary to lay out additional lots to accommodate the need for new housing. According to Gail Nitch Hane’s PowerPoint presentation, “Sharpsville – Then & Now:” “Since it was assumed that the street lying at the foot of the hill would replace Mercer Avenue as the town’s major thoroughfare, it became Main Street.” This promising outlook for Main Street may be why a request for the street’s first concrete sidewalk was granted in 1882.
Indeed, Main Street was a busy place in the early years. The Sanborn Map Company’s insurance maps of Sharpsville from 1895 through 1912 (found here on the Sharpsville Area Historical Society’s site) show a variety of businesses. Depending on which year you choose, just between Walnut and Second streets you can see buildings for a General Store, Grocery, Chine’ (Chinese?) Laundry, Dentist, Music & Millinery, Insurance Office, Meat, Notions, Drugs, Tailor and/or Bakery.
By the 1950s when I lived in Sharpsville, Walnut Street had become Sharpsville’s concentration of businesses but there were still a number of enterprises along Main Street, intermixed with homes. The following are a few of the services, businesses and people that I recall, some still around, some lost to the ages.
The businesses I visited most often were Ritz Theater on the corner of Main and First streets and Isaly’s Dairy at Main and Third. (They’ve been covered in several other posts on this blog, such as here for the Ritz and here for Isaly’s.)
Also, my dad frequently took our car or truck to the Snyder & Freeman car dealership, auto body shop and gas station at 12 Main Street and we often bought our groceries at Johnson’s Market. (For a photo of Johnson’s Market, go to the May 2016 Newsletter of the Sharpsville Area Historical Society.)
Dr. Nelson Bailey was our family doctor as well as the school doctor. My mother was good friends with Helen Belonax who owned Helen’s Beauty Shop in the same building as the theater. Also near the theater, at 111 Main Street, was Walder’s Tavern where we teenagers enjoyed pizza that we could purchase by the slice and my brother still recalls their delicious steak sandwiches here. None of these businesses nor their buildings exist today, except Dr. Bailey’s old residence at the northwest corner of N. Mercer and E. Main.
Vintage fire truck in front of old Municipal Building, Main St., Sharpsville, PA. Source: “Sharpsville – Then & Now” by Gail Nitch Hanes.
Current Volunteer Fire Department, Main Street, Sharpsville, PA.
Current Borough Building, 1 South Walnut St., Sharpsville, PA.
Click on image for enlarged view.
Sharpsville Municipal Building
“Hello, this is Mrs. Angel calling about a fire.” This telephone call greeted each of the Sharpsville firemen day or night in the 1950s, whenever there was a need for the volunteer firemen’s service. My mother’s voice, in her southern accent (she was born and raised in the Appalachian mountains of Kentucky), was immediately recognizable by the firemen, who then drove themselves to the site of the conflagration, joining those whose turn it was to stay overnight at the station. My mother was a member of the “women’s auxiliary” of Veterans of Foreign Wars, one of the civic organizations that my father belonged to. This phone duty was no doubt was one of the auxiliary’s services.
A fire siren blaring in 1950s Sharpsville was a big occasion in our normally quiet town. The loud wail of the siren atop the Sharpsville Municipal Building and on the fire truck brought us kids running to Main Street to catch a glimpse of that red truck speeding by with firemen hanging on the sides. Our next stop was the fire station to read the truck’s destination scrawled on a blackboard, then we’d scurry back to our neighborhood with the news.
The Sharpsville Municipal building, known in the past as the Town Hall and to us in the 1950s as the Fire Station, still stands at 244 West Main Street, across North Third Street from the now vacant lot where Isaly’s Dairy used to stand.
“City Building, Sharpsville, PA.,” c. 1930s. Image on postcard, courtesy of Mike and Fredi Angel.
Built in 1904, the rectangular two-story brick structure that featured a gabled roof and a chimney served as the center of the town, housing not only a fire station but the police station, meeting rooms and even jail cells.
Most recently it was the location of the Sharpsville Floral and Gift Shop. Peggy Marriotti and her brother, Gary “Butch” Linzenbold bought the building from the borough about 30 years ago to continue operating a flower shop that was started by their father, Art Linzenbold, in 1963.
As the space was remodeled to accommodate the flower shop, the family thoughtfully retained some of the building’s original flavor, such as keeping the jail cells and the fire pole. They also set aside an area to display historic photos, maps and vintage items from past businesses which became a popular visitor attraction. One can still see the ghost of the original sign over the front door that reads “Sharpsville Municipal Building.”
Unfortunately, in June of 2017, a fire that originated in the basement badly scarred the building and shut down the floral shop, at least for the time being. The historical artifacts were salvaged and the shell of the building is intact, so there is hope that the building, at one time so important to Sharpsville’s civic operations, will be one day restored.
Not far away, in fact next door, the current Sharpsville Volunteer Fire Department is located in a modern one-story brick building with an attached garage for the fire trucks. However, in earlier years this lot held the home of the Robinsons. In his memoir, my dad describes how he knew Mr. Robinson:
…I was told of an empty garage building with a five-room apartment above. The building was at 29 North Second Street in Sharpsville, only two blocks away from the business area. The owner was Mr. Robinson, who was a 65-year-0ld retired auto mechanic who specialized mainly in brake repairs and lived with two older sisters in a house adjacent to the Fire Department. When I contacted the gentleman and explained my need [for my growing printing business now on Walnut Street], he offered me the garage space for $10 per month and I accepted… Early spring of 1946, I talked with Mr. Robinson about buying the building. He was pleased to hear what I proposed and offered it to me on a land contract. As long as I paid the same as rent, I would be handed a deed to the place in time…
Consequently, my brother and I would visit the Robinsons once a month on a Saturday to deliver our dad’s payment on the garage building, which Dad had begun renovating for his relocated print shop and for our family’s future home upstairs. Even at a young age, I could sense that crossing the Robinsons’ front porch and entering their home was like stepping back into another time, so antiquated were the furnishings. I particularly remember a large Tiffany-style stained glass lamp in their front window and a floor model radio that was always playing a baseball game. Even the three siblings seemed quite ancient to me. But they always heartily welcomed us kids and sent us home with not only a receipt but the previous month’s supply of the weekly Saturday Evening Post magazine. We would pull them home in our little red Radio Flyer wagon we brought for that purpose and I would happily leaf through them until the new supply the following month. At Christmas, the Robinsons would call us over to pick up our gifts, one for each of us three Angel children. I liked to think that maybe we were “adopted” by them because they missed having children around.
The Sanborn Map Company’s insurance maps of Sharpsville may carry a clue to Robinson family’s earlier history. During the years of the maps, 1895-1912, a “Robinson Brothers’ Table Factory” was located in the Second Street block behind the building that my dad purchased from the Robinsons.
The Robinsons’ home no longer stands, but part of it can be seen to the right of the Municipal Building in the vintage photo of the fire truck above.
Other families who lived on Main Street were known to us because they included children who were our playmates. For example, there were the Wasleys, whose house was, and still is, directly across the street from the old Municipal Building. Joe Wasley was my brother Mike’s best buddy. The two joined the U.S. Marine Corps after graduation and continued to be friends ever since. There were the Lockes who lived on the corner of North Second and Main streets. Their daughter had the best birthday parties ever!
William Weldon Electric Shop
Former building for the William Weldon Electric Shop, early 2000s.
Across and down the street a bit from the Fire Station was a brick building, still standing, that holds a particular memory for me. An electrical supply business was located in a narrow two-story brick building at 213 West Main Street, probably constructed in the same era as the old Municipal Building. When the weather was good, a man in a wheelchair, possibly the owner, had a habit of sitting in front of the store watching the world of Sharpsville go by. We felt he was, in particular, watching us kids as we passed by, making sure we were behaving. This building later was the home of Saborsky TV & Electronics Sales and Service and, from 2012 until recently, Stitch & Dazzle Inc.
Donaldson’s Funeral Home
Donaldson’s Funeral Home, Main Street, Sharpsville, PA.
Moving east on West Main Street, the next building I remember is a large, handsome white home with a wrap-around porch, known as [Alexander P.] Donaldson’s Funeral Home in the 1950s. Those of us who lived nearby regularly saw cars parked end-to-end on the side streets when a funeral was in progress. Angel’s Casino created the same problem during the record hops and wedding receptions, often making this a very busy area. The congestion caused by the funeral home, now the Donaldson-Mohney Funeral Home, was eventually alleviated when parking lots replaced some of the surrounding old buildings. Established in 1880, the Donaldson-Mohney Funeral Home is the area’s oldest funeral service provider. You can read about its long history here.
A low concrete and cinder block wall still runs between the North Second Street sidewalk and the Home’s well-kept lawn. Many times we teenagers would sit on that wall waiting for our friends to arrive or for the bus to show up.
After many childhood years of piano lessons with Professor King, I changed to a teacher who lived in one of the houses close to the Ritz Theater. The interior of his house was another one that seemed frozen in an earlier decade. His wife had died some years before and it seemed that nothing had changed in his house since then. He was a quiet, serious teacher, often giving me one of his music magazines from earlier days titled “The Etude” that contained the pieces that he was teaching me to play. I was intrigued by the old-fashioned ads that filled the magazines. I stayed with him until I went away to college. I no longer remember his name, but his good teaching provided me the advancement I needed for piano classes in college.
My recall abilities are not as keen as I wish they were, and resources, such as the Sharpsville Area Historical Society, Mercer County Historical Society and the Mercer County Office of the County Clerk, are far away from my current residence. If you would like to help out by contributing your memories of Main Street or any other Sharpsville subject, please feel free to send them as Comments. Or, even better, send a complete narrative to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and, if appropriate, I’ll see that it gets published.
James Pierce’s Iron Banking Building as it currently exists in c. 2013. Sharpsville, PA.
There was a lot of trust in the hearts of small-town citizens in the 1950s. In fact, I don’t remember if we even thought much about it. Trust was something that was taken for granted when doors were left unlocked overnight or we children ran about the neighborhood unsupervised. In those days, there were no such things as identity theft, car alarms or security cameras.
“King Edward Mild Tobaccos” Cigar Box, a handy container for many things.
An example of this was my father’s instinctive trust, not only in us kids but in small-town society in general, when he sent us to the bank each week to deposit cash and checks from his printing business. I can still picture my brother or myself, about 9 and 11 years old, carrying that yellow King Edward cigar box weighed down with rolls of coins and checks as we walked along the dirt path that ran between our Second Street house and the Erie Railroad tracks. When we reached North Walnut Street we would leave the path to turn left, cross the tracks, then take a right on East Shenango Street.
After another block or two, we reached a row of buildings that included the three-story First National Bank on the corner of North Mercer and East Shenango streets, less than a half-mile from our home. There, barely able to reach the teller’s window, we would slide the contents of the box under the teller’s cage, the teller would tally the items in a little bank book, date-stamp and initial the entries and return the book to us.
There was a bit of irony in those regular deposits that were earned by my father’s business. In earlier years, Dad was turned down by a bank’s employee when he asked for a loan to start up his printing business. Now that Dad’s business was doing well, each deposit must have been very satisfying to him.
James Pierce’s Legacy
Iron Banking Company, c. early 1900s.
First National Bank of Sharpsville, c. 1930s.
First National Bank of Sharpsville, c. early 1950s.
PNC Bank, c. early 2010s.
The Iron Banking Company building, built in 1871 by General James Pierce.
Corner of Mercer and Shenango Streets, Sharpsville, PA.
[Click on image for enlargement.]
As children, we weren’t aware that the bank building we visited, like the Pierce Mansion we passed along the way (before its demolition in 1952), was already four decades old and part of the James Pierce legacy.
The structure was constructed in 1871 by “General” James Pierce (1810-1874), president and principal owner of Sharpsville’s first bank, the Iron Banking Company. It was built to resemble the Italianate style of architecture popular nationwide in the mid- to late-1800s, with its rectangular shape and its row of seven tall front windows that were rounded on top. The Geddes & Pierce Foundry supplied the cast iron front of the building.
James Pierce’s presidency was followed by that of his son Frank (1852-1931). The Iron Banking Company was later converted to the First National Bank of Sharpsville in c. 1905. In 1964 it became a branch of the McDowell National Bank in Sharon. Later, the building housed other banking institutions, including a PNC branch until 2013. As of 2015, the first floor was occupied by Meadville Area ONE Federal Credit Union. The two brick buildings on North Mercer Avenue are now part of the Sharpsville Borough Historic District.
There was another reason we kids regularly visited Sharpsville’s First National Bank back in the 1950s. Hoping that we would develop a savings habit, Dad made sure we belonged to the Christmas Club, a program that banking institutions had developed to promote their services as well as holiday spending. He belonged to such a club when he was a young lad in Cleveland, Ohio, memories of which he recorded in his memoir, “Trivia & Me.” The setting was in the 1920s, a bit earlier than the Great Depression, the period Wikipedia indicates as the time the Club became widespread. Dad’s descriptions of the Christmas Club generally match those that I remember experiencing in the 1950s. He writes:
It was the era when banks sponsored Christmas Clubs. People — especially youth — were encouraged to deposit small amounts of money each week for 50 weeks. Banks solicited five cents or 10, 25 or 50 cents to do the double job of teaching people to save money and promoting Christmas sales for merchants. The banks would issue a passbook in which a teller would record the weekly deposits and then initial the entry. Two weeks before Christmas, one could withdraw the savings in cash (without interest) for a shopping spree. For several years I managed to join the 10 cents club and was awarded the joy of a cash harvest of $5 at Christmas time.
Even though the interest rate was low or nonexistent and fees were charged for withdrawals, I had a feeling of accomplishment when I received that check in early December. And the Christmas Club may have contributed to the way we siblings handled our finances since then, leaning more toward careful than spendthrift. The Club exists to this day, although primarily run by credit unions.
Pierce Opera House
For 40 years after Pierce’s bank building was constructed the 3,000-square-foot third floor served as Sharpsville’s cultural center, having been home to the Pierce Opera House. There is limited information about the shows performed in those early days, but it is known that the organization offered a variety of musical events and featured speakers. Once motion pictures became popular, they were shown as well.
In addition, the two upper floors were used for high school graduations during the late 1800s until c. 1920, an occasional basketball game in the early 1900s and as a meeting place for the Order of the Eastern Star and the Masons. The building also housed the original offices of the town’s early newspaper, “The Sharpsville Advertiser,” started by Walter Pierce, James Pierce’s son. After the 1920s this floor remained unused for some time.
In the early 2000s, Michael G. Wilson and his family began restoring the opera house which had been left neglected behind a concealing wall for some eight or nine decades. Wilson, owner of the building since 1999, had been a longtime Borough Manager of Sharpsville who retired January 2017. The Wilson family found — and preserved — much of the opera stage’s original trappings and equipment once the wall was removed. For photos of old-time ticket booth posters and graffiti, go to Sharpsville Area Historical Society’s “Opera House Pictures.”
Wanting to see the restoration continue in good hands, Mr. Wilson sold the building to Dr. Francisco Cano, an allergist/immunologist from Greenville, PA, himself professionally trained in operatic voice. Cano’s love of opera and the arts was a driving force behind the ongoing phases of restoration designed to house theatrical, musical, and opera performances once again. The first performance of the Pierce Opera House’s revival was in 2009.
The Pierce Opera House itself is worth the visit. This historic venue features beautifully restored woodwork, excellent acoustics, and a warm intimacy between the audience and the stage. Modern climate control and conveniences have been introduced to this 142-year-old local treasure.
The Valley Lyric Opera, which now resides in the Pierce Opera House, provides an excellent level and variety of programs. Past performances include the operas Aida, La Traviata, La Boheme, Rigoletto; musicals [performed by the Area Community Theatre of Sharpsville — ACTS] South Pacific, Man of La Mancha, as well as ballets, musical tributes to Neil Simon and Andrew Lloyd Webber and a host of other outstanding offerings.
Pierce Opera House has once again taken its rightful place as Sharpsville’s center for the arts. Visit them online for future developments and upcoming performances: www.valleylyricopera.org
Angel, August D. Trivia & me: an octogenarian mirrors his twentieth century. London, KY: August David Angel, 2007. Print.
During my earliest years in Sharpsville, 1950-1952, I would sometimes walk past a curious 5-acre lot adjacent to East Shenango Street. Standing in the middle of the lot, surrounded by large trees, was a long-abandoned but still elegant building that dated back to the mid-19th century. We kids knew it as the Pierce Mansion, but that’s about all we knew. After many years, it seems about time to learn more about the mansion and the man who built it.
The story of the Pierce Mansion is best detailed in General James Pierce’s biography that is part of a PowerPoint presentation, “Sharpsville: Our Home Town — Then and Now.” This extensive history of Sharpsville was researched and assembled by Gail Nitch Hanes. She began the project in late 2012 and completed it in time to present CDs of it as gifts to her fellow classmates at her 50th reunion of the Sharpsville High School Class of 1964. The following are excerpts from that presentation.
[General James Pierce, born in New Hampshire in 1810, died in 1871.]
General James Pierce was a truly remarkable man whose life ended abruptly but one whose accomplishments and contributions to Sharpsville were almost endless. He touched every life in some way and left a legacy befitting a man of his integrity, innovation, imagination, and, above all, unwavering ambition.
One need only to look around town to see evidence even today of General Pierce’s phenomenal success. Originally, there was his magnificent mansion which he built on five wooded acres on the north side of Shenango Street between North Mercer Avenue and Walnut Street. Many of us still remember it.
Much generic information about the Pierce mansion is readily available from several sources, but perhaps the most interesting is from first-hand knowledge of Mrs. Anna Garnack Zielke, [aunt of SHS ’64 grad, Mike Garnack] who, at age 16, began working at the mansion for sisters Ellen Pierce and Cecelia Pomplitz, the only remaining family.
[Pierce Mansion, built in 1874 by General James Pierce in Sharpsville, PA. Demolished in 1952.]
Anna worked for the sisters for 10 years until she left to be married. In a nostalgic article about Mrs. Zielke [run in The Sharon Herald on November 21, 2004], she recounted how the mansion rose three stories high with ornate decorative wrought iron along the roof edges, a tower located at the top center front of the house, and tall pillars along the edges of the roof — all characteristic of that era. The mansion consisted of 30 rooms, each having brick walls, heavy oak woodwork, and 13-18-foot high frescoed ceilings.
Mrs. Zielke recounted, “That house was beautiful inside. You could see your face in the woodwork.” The floors on the first level were of polished marble and ran from the front door to the kitchen. In every room of the house, there was a marble mantle of a different color. Oriental rugs were placed throughout the mansion. There was a library where the sisters enjoyed reading. The third floor was a large ballroom, which had been closed off, where the family had once entertained visitors. One room on the second floor was a laboratory where younger James, a chemist who lived in Charleston, West Virginia, worked when he visited Sharpsville.
Mrs. Zielke fondly remembered the Pierces as being very kind and simple people despite their wealth. They used large sums of their money to help the community, including setting up a special fund for people who could not afford food or for those in jail.
The mansion is long gone now, as are all the Pierces. However, stories will always be told of the family and the magnificent structure that was a Sharpsville landmark for many generations. [One very sad note: the General died without ever having lived in his mansion; Chloe moved in alone when it was completed in 1874.]
After Chloe died and the last Pierce left Sharpsville, the General’s mansion lay vacant and progressively deteriorating. Suggestions were made to convert it into a hospital or some other public building because, according to standards at that time, it was too large to continue as a single residence. None of these plans was carried out, and, sadly, the mansion was demolished in 1952 to make way for Sharpsville Gardens public housing which was part of the urban renewal project.
The remarkable life of General Pierce came to an abrupt end at age 64 on December 2, 1874. While Chloe was in Baltimore buying furniture for their almost completed new mansion, the General was walking through the house and somehow accidentally fell down the steep cellar stairs. He was moved to Mount Hickory where a week later he succumbed to complications and shock resulting from those.
He left behind his beloved Chloe, who died on August 16, 1886. at age 70, and five sons — Jonas J., twins Walter and Wallace, Frank, and James B., all of whom followed in their father’s footsteps, maintaining his various enterprises, and growing into prominent businessmen.
When General Pierce came to this area, there was but a handful of homes. His genius stimulated the coal, iron, railroad, and banking industries; his philanthropic endeavors built schools and churches, and funded social and civic organizations; his community concern and awareness created an atmosphere that promoted a way of life in which all Sharpsville residents thrived.
Because of the Pierce family, Sharpsville rapidly became one of the chief centers of the iron and coal industry in the country, especially this part of Pennsylvania. General Pierce left a remarkable legacy to the people of Sharpsville and the Shenango Valley. His “footprints” and those of his sons are obvious in every corner of our town and many areas far beyond its borders.
[An interesting fact: General Pierce is the great-great-grandfather of Barbara Bush [maiden name Pierce], wife of President George H. W. Bush. Jonas Pierce, the General’s eldest son, is her great-grandfather. Barbara visited Sharpsville in 1982 for the 100th anniversary of the building of the Universalist Church.]
–– Gail Nitch Hanes, Sharpsville High School Class of 1964.
Read more about General Pierce’s life, the family’s other Sharpsville residences (including one that now houses the Sharpsville Area Historical Society), brief biographies of the Pierce children and grandchildren, Barbara Pierce Bush’s genealogy, and Riverside Cemetery, the final resting place for many members of the Pierce family. All this on pages 11-21 of “Sharpsville: Our Home Town — Then and Now” by Gail Nitch Hanes.
Good news! A guest writer has kindly agreed to share her story of reconstructing the history of Sharpsville’s landmarks, including the Ritz Theater. Having been the Reunion Committee Chairperson for the SHS Class of 1964 for ten years (2004-2014), Gail Nitch Hanes painstakingly assembled a PowerPoint presentation as a 50th reunion gift to her class. Now her gift and the tale of its creation are available here for the enjoyment of all of us who wish to keep Sharpsville’s history alive.
This wonderful photo comes to us from the Mahaney Family collection. …A throng of Sharpsvillites had come out on August 26, 1950, for the Northwest Firemen’s Association parade. In the background is Walder’s Tavern, famous for its steak sandwiches (now the Marigold II), and the much-missed Ritz Theatre. As a second-run movie house then, it was showing the World War II comedy, “When Willie Comes Marching Home,” and the Joel McCrea-Veronica Lake western, “Ramrod.” [Photo courtesy of Gail Nitch Hanes, Ralph C. Mehler, and the Sharpsville Area Historical Society.]
Sharpsville and the Ritz Re-Discovered
By Gail Nitch Hanes
Have you ever thought about doing something special which would require research? In the process, have you discovered far more information than you ever imagined? And was your curiosity piqued enough to explore every avenue which opened yet another door?
Well, that’s precisely what happened to me in 2012 when I was trying to determine that “something special” which would serve as the perfect gift for the classmates of Sharpsville High School Class of 1964 at our 50th reunion scheduled for September 2014.
The original plan was to create a brief pictorial “Then and Now” PowerPoint presentation of our hometown- Sharpsville, but the project took on an entirely new scope when my need-to-know kicked in and it became apparent that there is far more to our little town than most of us ever really considered. Why not include the history of Sharpsville along with the photos? Now the fun began!
With the generous assistance of classmates, their families and friends, and especially Ralph C. Mehler of the Sharpsville Area Historical Society, I was able to collect photos of “Then” Sharpsville as it was when our class was growing up through the late 1940s, 1950s, and early 1960s…the businesses/buildings along the main arteries in town- Shenango Street, Walnut Street, Main Street, Mercer Avenue- and more. Using these photos, I set upon a three-day “Now” photo shoot of those same locations, taking most shots from the same angles.
When I arrived at one particular empty lot on Main Street, it became painfully obvious that a very important old photo was missing from all the rest…that of our beloved Ritz Theater. In my historical research of various sources, I found articles written by Ann Angel Eberhardt and other Sharpsville-ites as well as bits and pieces of speeches made by Pete Joyce referencing the Ritz. The history of the theater was as complete as it could possibly get. However, a photo did not seem to exist, although classmates “picked” the memories and photo albums of older relatives and friends. Alas,…my PowerPoint would be completed without that one very important piece…one held so near and dear by all of us. All I had to show was the now empty lot on which the theater once stood.
It wasn’t until late last year one of our classmates sent me a copy of a photo [which was eventually printed in the March 2017 issue of Sharpsville Historical Society Newsletter, having been part of the Mahaney family collection]. It was of a Northwest Firemen’s Association parade down Main Street on August 26, 1950. In the background stands the Ritz Theater- EUREKA!! Finally,…we had that elusive photo. Of course, I immediately relayed the photo to our classmates to a fantastic response by all.
I must admit that the “Sharpsville, Our Home Town: Then and Now” project renewed my deep interest in the history of our little town and just how important it was to the overall history of our county, state, country, and even the world [e.g. the pig iron industry via Shenango Furnaces…John Jackson’s oiler, and much more]. It has given gave me a new appreciation of just how much of an impact even a small town like ours can have, and the immense pride in having grown up in the middle of it all.
And to think it all started with one man’s dream. Thank you, General James Pierce!
–Gail Nitch Hanes (SHS 1964), Southington, OH, 2014.
Click on the following link to view the PowerPoint presentation of “Sharpsville, Our Home Town – Then and Now”: SHPVL – THEN & NOW