Small Town Memories

Exploring the history of SHENANGO VALLEY, PA, one story at a time.

Tag: traditions

THE TWO GEORGE MAHANEYS Part II

by Ann Angel Eberhardt

This month marks the fifth-year anniversary of Small Town Memories! We’ve been going strong since August 2014 when the first post, “Coffee Stir,” was published. Who knew that so much history — this is our 78th post — could be gathered for a blogsite that focused mostly on life in one small town during one short period in the mid-20th century! Many thanks to those who joined with us to preserve and share the history of Sharpsville, Pennsylvania, and its surrounding area.

Stories contributed by Eric Bombeck, this site’s co-editor, are helping to expand the time frame and geographical area of Small Town Memories to include the Shenango Valley, a place that the Shenango Valley Chamber of Commerce describes as “a charming tapestry of small cities, boroughs and townships.” Stay tuned for Eric’s next story.

NOTE: Posts that have been published in the past are sometimes updated or corrected, so remember to check back on your favorites from time to time to see if anything has changed or something new, such as a photo or comment, has been added. The latest additions are photographs of Reynolds Drive-In and the pavilion at Buhl Park as they look today, submitted by Mike Angel on a recent return visit to Sharpsville, his hometown. Also, a second advertisement for Mahaney’s Clothing Store, submitted by Eric Bombeck, has been included in last month’s blog, Part I of “The Two George Mahaneys.”


“Young” George F. Mahaney

“Young” George F. Mahaney did not exactly follow in the footsteps of his father, “Old” George D. Mahaney, who was a well-known businessman and longtime Burgess of Sharpsville, Pennsylvania. Instead, Young George carved out his own notable path. 

George F. Mahaney: Memories of Early 1900s Sharpsville

In a 1979 interview originally published in The Herald, George F. Mahaney, born in 1908, remembers details of life as it was in Sharpsville in his earliest days. This interview can be read in full in the November 2012 Newsletter for the Sharpsville Area Historical Society under “Reminiscences of George F. Mahaney Jr.” Among the various bits of Sharpsville’s history that Mahaney related are the following excerpts:

  • In 1915, the only three places in Mercer County licensed to sell alcoholic beverages were located in Sharpsville: The Knapp Hotel on Main and Walnut streets run by Mahaney’s father, the Welch House owned by Martin Welch on Fourth and Main, and Pierce House, owned by James Pierce where the plaza is located now on Mercer and Shenango streets.
  • example of streetcar

    “Thornton Hollow Street Car and Public Bridge near Sharpsville, PA.” Used with permission from Wayne Cole, author of Ghost Rails XI: Shenango Valley Steel : Sharon Steel Co, ColeBooks, Beaver Falls, PA, 2014.

    All three hotels followed the law that liquor could not be served after 9 p.m. Special streetcars would arrive in Sharpsville around 5 or 6 p.m., packed with people to visit the hotels before the 9 p.m. deadline. The streetcar operated until 12:30 a.m. Sometimes the motorman would sleep in the streetcar because he had to begin driving it again at 5:30 a.m. to take people to work.

  • People would go to an Erie Railroad station at the foot of Mercer Avenue to board a Pullman train for New York City. This service ended in the 1920s.
  • Downtown Sharpsville had a number of meat markets in the early 1900s: Lamont’s, and Burchart’s, for example. The butchers Sam Faber and Jim Rose sold only meat, which they cut fresh as you waited. Mahaney recalls that the price of 1 1/2 pounds of veal was 45 cents.
  • Sharpsville’s grocery stores in the early 1900s included Holland’s, Mehl’s and Byerly’s. Groceries were delivered by horse and wagons and the kids knew the names of all the horses. There were also milk delivery by Deneen’s Dairy, ice delivery and an ice-cream salesman in a little horse-drawn buggy. Small cones cost a penny and large cones a nickel.
  • Sharpsville featured three livery stables, one on Second Street (which eventually became Hanlon’s Hall for roller-skating then Angel’s Casino for parties, dances and community meetings in the 1950s). The other two were on Main between Walnut and Mercer streets and on Mercer Avenue.

Mahaney continued with anecdotes concerning unpaved streets, gas lights, poolrooms, “Sharpsville Days,” railroad travel, movies, movie theaters, Pierce’s Opera House, vaudeville acts, sports, home ownership, ice cream parlors and the post office. 

George F. Mahaney: Founder of Sharpsville’s Santa Project

GGeorge F. Mahaney (left) & Sid Owen

George F. Mahaney at right with Sid Owen enjoying a coffee stir at Cricks’ soda fountain in 1953. The original photo was taken for a national magazine’s article about the Sharpsville Service Club’s Santa Claus visits. This photo, from the July 2017 Sharpsville Area Historical Society Newsletter is used courtesy of the Sharpsville Area Historical Society.

For the last 75-plus years, Sharpsville has had a special project that has set this small town off from most, maybe all, others. A day or two before Christmas Day, Santa Claus pays a visit to each Sharpsville child (whose porch light is turned on to beckon Santa). A great deal of preparation goes on beforehand so that Santa’s visit is as smooth as possible. All of this is accomplished by volunteers.

Much credit for this delightful tradition goes to George F. Mahaney and his friend Sid Owen. In the blog “Wall-to-Wall Santas in Sharpsville” on this site, Gail Nitch Hanes (SHS 1964) writes the following about the origins of Sharpsville’s Santa Project:

It all began in 1943 when George Mahaney Jr., a Sharpsville attorney, asked his friend Sid Owen to ”play Santa” for his children. Well, Sid was such a big hit with Mahaney’s children that he was asked by neighbors to drop in to visit their homes as well that night. 

The following year, both he and George dressed in the red suits and visited even more homes. By 1947-48 there were so many homes and children to visit, Mr. Mahaney recruited members of the Sharpsville Service Club to assume ‘Santa duty,’ which began our town’s most beloved tradition. This year [2014] marks 71 consecutive years that Service Club members dressed in their red and white suits and, with the help of their special ‘elves,’ scattered throughout the Borough on December 23rd bringing smiles and the Christmas spirit to the children and their families.

Santa Claus suits

Left to right: Stacia Moore, George F. Mahaney, Ralph Mehler I. c. 1958 or 1959. (Photograph courtesy of the Sharpsville Area Historical Society.)

The photograph on the right was included in a newspaper article c. 1958 or 1959, with this caption:

“SHARPSVILLE CARRIES OUT 11th ANNUAL SANTA PROJECT. Twenty-one Santas and an equal number of ‘helpers’ will visit every child in Sharpsville, PA, on Christmas Eve. Miss Stacia Moore, employee of Sharpsville Dry Cleaners, takes the Santa uniform from storage for Atty. George Mahaney, chairman, (center) and Ralph Mehler [I], who is ready to serve as Santa for the 11th consecutive year. ….” (Unnamed newspaper, no date, possibly 1958 or 1959. Photo courtesy of Sharpsville Area Historical Society.)

Read more about Sharpsville’s Santa Project on these pages:
WALL-TO-WALL SANTAS in Sharpsville
A SHARPSVILLE CHRISTMAS
SHARPSVILLE’S SANTAS 

George F. Mahaney: His Career As a Lawyer

Both George F. and his younger brother John “Jack” Knapp grew up to become lawyers. George Mahaney lived most of his life in Sharpsville and, as of the 1950s, his office was located in the Boyle Building, Sharon.

George Mahaney was a member of the Pennsylvania State Association of Boroughs (PSAB), a statewide organization founded in 1911 that served Pennsylvania’s borough governments, representing their interests and helping to shape their laws. Mahaney served as the president of PSAB from 1967 to 1968. 

As president, his talk in March 1968 before the Ford City VFW indicated the direction he felt that boroughs should take. According to The Kittanning Paper, his suggestions included “more power for boroughs to enter into mergers, consolidations, adopting home rule charters, removing all existing debit limits, and permitting the legislature to adopt new debt ceilings.”

See Also: THE TWO GEORGE MAHANEYS: Part I (George D. Mahaney)

Ann Angel Eberhardt (SHS 1958),
Goodyear, AZ, September 1, 2019


Sources

Cole, Wayne A, and Vince Skibo. Ghost Rails XI: Shenango Valley Steel: Sharon Steel Co. ColeBooks, Beaver Falls, PA, 2014. Print.

Hanes, Gail Nitch (SHS 1964). “Wall-to-Wall Santas in Sharpsville: A Beloved Memory From Our Past…. .” Small Town Memories, December 2017. Internet resource.

Historical Headlines – March 29.” The Kittanning Paper. Entry for March 29, 1968, describes Mahaney’s talk before the Ford City VFW suggesting “more power for boroughs.” http://www.kittanningpaper.com/2018/03/29/historical-headlines-march-29/7228. (Accessed 7 August 2019.) Internet resource.

“A Look Back: Reminiscences of George F. Mahaney Jr.” Sharpsville Area Historical Society Newsletter, November 2012, Vol. 1, No. 4, pages 1-3. (From an interview in The Herald, 1979, about Sharpsville in the early 1900s.) (Accessed 7 August 2019.) Internet resource.

Pennsylvania State Association of Boroughs (PSAB). https://boroughs.org/subpage.php?link=PSAB%20Past%20Presidents. (Accessed 7 August 2019.) Internet resource.

“Uniquely Sharpsville: The Coffee Stir.” Sharpsville Area Historical Society Newsletter, July 2017, Vol. VI, No. 2, page 3. (Accessed 7 August 2019.) Internet resource.

“United States Census, 1930,” database with images, FamilySearch https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:XHC2-GSX : accessed 7 August 2019), George J (sic) Mahaney in the household of George Mahaney, Sharpsville, Mercer, Pennsylvania, United States; citing enumeration district (ED) ED 72, sheet 10A, line 17, family 255. Internet resource.


CONTI FAMILY: Return to Pofi, Italy, Part III

by Ann Angel Eberhardt

This is the last in a 3-part series on finding one’s roots. In this story, Sharpsville’s Gary Conti visits his father’s hometown in Pofi, Italy, and makes many joyful discoveries. If you are inspired to research your own family’s history, a good place to start is familysearch.com. Give it a try and, if your search brings interesting results, tell us about it!

“Pofi Panorama” by Anelli Giacinto [Source: http://www.tripmondo.com]

THE CONTI FAMILY: Return to Pofi, Italy

Part III: A Journey of My Own

By Gary Conti

Preparations

A lifelong desire of mine was to visit Italy and finally the dream was coming true: the date for departure was set for October 10, 2007.

One of the most exciting time of my life was during the months leading up to the trip. Preparations may have been a lot of work, but work that was both fun and rewarding. When Tony, the man from Pofi who had emailed me in January, called me the first time, we became friends during our hour-long conversation. Later, he called while on a business trip from Toronto to Cleveland and we arranged to meet at the Quality Inn on Route 18 in Hermitage, Pennsylvania (previously known as Hickory). As he pulled into the parking lot there were many people around but when he got out of the car and saw me, he seemed to know who I was. I asked how he knew and his response floored me. He said, “You have the facial features of Pofi!” Wow!

He went on to say that family research had been his hobby for many years but, until he found the Scurpa family that he was looking for, he had never heard of Sharpsville. That changed fast. As we exchanged emails and did research for my planned trip to Italy, he could see as I did the ship manifests of person after person from Pofi and surrounding towns who listed Sharpsville as their final stop. He didn’t have much time because he had to make a meeting in Cleveland so we soon parted, promising to keep in touch.

We’re Off to Pofi, Italy

In red: Province of Frosinone in which the Comune di Pofi, Italy, is located.

Finally, October 10th came and my wife and I were off for 10 days in Italy. I am not a good flyer after a very bad flight from Arizona to Pittsburgh back in 1988. This time, the meds I was told would put me to sleep never did a thing, so I watched two classic movies, Niagara with Marilyn Monroe and The Roaring Twenties with James Cagney, twice each to help the time go by.

Finally, we landed in Holland and ran to the gate to catch a final flight to Rome aboard Air Sweden. We arrived in Rome late morning and I thought it looked like any other city and was not impressed at first. That changed when the lights came on at night! Everything lit up, The Trevi Fountain, Spanish steps, every place in the city just seemed to come alive at night.

We ate at a cafe that looked like we had seen it before and eventually we figured out why. It was the cafe early in the movie Roman Holiday, so now I watch that movie whenever I can for the memories of the trip.

Then came the trip of 60-plus miles south to Pofi on a double-decker train, a kind of transport that I’d never experienced before. As we approached the area of Pofi, the first thing I wondered was why would anybody leave this amazing beauty to come to Sharpsville? It was everything you think of in the Italian countryside: beautiful massive mountains everywhere with whole towns built up the sides. It would be like standing in the middle of Sharpsville and seeing every town around it at once. Amazing!

We were enjoying the view so much we missed our stop and ended up at the other side of Pofi. We were in trouble, like being out in Hartford, Ohio, and wanting to be in Sharpsville with no car! I went into a little store and began trying to explain what our issue was and starting to tell my surname and those of others from Sharpsville. We had a ride in seconds.

Arrival in Pofi

My wife Kimberly and I as tourists in Pofi, Italy, 2007.

I just wonder if we were the only Americans to visit Italy and end up being taken to our destination by a Russian because that is just what happened. Thank God she spoke English! We were dropped off at my friend Tony’s home on the same property that held his restaurant and inn. He was back in Canada by this time but his family put up the welcome sign and offered food. People from around the town heard of our arrival and started coming to see us. 

The food, as great as it was in Rome, was a step up in Pofi: peppers from the garden, pasta carbonara, salads with wine, limoncello (a lemon liqueur) and a brandy I’d never heard of called Grappa (Italian moonshine!) I wasn’t seeing very clearly after a couple of drinks. And this was just the lunch! After we spent a few hours at Tony’s house, we arranged that I return in three days for a trip to the town of Pofi to visit Tony’s son and the Comune.

A Visit to the Comune di Pofi

This time I traveled by myself. It was very early in the morning and I couldn’t help thinking how people that lived in Pofi could take a train to work in Rome every morning. How great would it be to do that from Sharpsville to Pittsburgh! This time I got off at the right station in the beautiful town of Ceccano. On the mountain by the tracks sat a church 1200 years old! 

Pasta Carbonara. [Source: http://www.taste.com.au]

As I looked around I realized I had another issue. The plan was for me to call Tony’s son from a pay phone, a convenience that was still around in Italy. The problem was they did not operate like the ones I had known back in the States. I was stuck again. I started walking around looking for help when an Italian woman asked me, Gary Conti from Sharpsville, for directions. Wow! I couldn’t help her but she helped me by finding someone to assist me with the phone.

When Tony’s son picked me up at the station and took me right into old Pofi, we did what all Italians do first: Go to a cafe for espresso.

What an amazing town! Old cobblestone streets with alleys running between homes and a medieval tower with a clock at top of a hill. Nothing like that in the Shenango Valley for sure! This day the town was having an Italian-style flea market and people were everywhere.

We went to the comune (municipality office) where Tony’s son introduced me to whomever came in. I worked at the time for UPS and when an Italian UPS driver came in and was told I was a co-worker he smiled and laughed.

A street in Pofi, Italy. [Source: Pinterest.com.]

From there the clerk took us to a rack on a wall with books of surnames on the side and said, as he helped a man renew his driver record, to look them over and see if I see a name I know. Immediately I saw Conti, Gori, Campoli, Fornelli, Depofi, Molinari, DeQuili (DeJulia) Campagna, Rossi, and on and on. Every single book had names with ties to Sharpsville and were names I had known forever.

Another thing I found out that day was that Pofi had other things in common with Sharpsville. Pofi’s population (about 4,200 inhabitants) was almost right on the button with us. The town and the outlying area reminded me so much of both our town and South Pymatuning. The landscape changed from town to rural area in just seconds.

One of the men then told me something that surprised me. He said that as many people who made the trip to America and never returned, there almost as many who worked a few years and returned to Pofi and bought property. He told me that I was without question looking at some land that was bought with money made in the mills of Sharpsville. That was something that I had never thought about. 

The Journey Continues

The next few days marked the end of the trip. I really hated to leave. The people of Pofi had given me bottles of homemade wine that somehow made it back through customs and did not break and did not last long back home.

Since that trip, I keep finding new information. About a year ago at work, I received a call on my cell phone from Tony. He was helping someone in Ceccano, Italy, who had deeds with family names but did not know the location of the place in America they had moved to. Tony took a look and told her that he not only knew where this town called Sharpsville was but knew someone who lived there! He gave me a name I did not know. When I searched for it on the internet using Google, I learned that it was again a well-known name in Sharpsville with the Italian spelling. The names on the deeds were Gabe Develli and his sister! Gabe was a friend of my father’s and his son Tony and I played basketball on the championship team at St. Bartholomew’s together. It goes on!

— Gary Conti, SHS 1981, Sharpsville, PA.

See also:

THE CONTI FAMILY: From Pofi to Sharpsville, Part I

THE CONTI FAMILY, Part II: An Italian Christmas, A Golden Childhood

ANGEL’S CASINO: Here Came the Bride

ITALIANS IN SHARPSVILLE

MOM AND DAD DeJULIA

CONTI FAMILY: From Pofi to Sharpsville, Part II

by Ann Angel Eberhardt

THE CONTI FAMILY: From Pofi to Sharpsville

Part II: An Italian-American Christmas, A Golden Childhood

By Gary Conti

An Italian-American Christmas

The Conti Family: my parents, Shirley and Frank Conti with Justine and myself, c. 1968, Sharpsville, PA.]

Among the many things I remember about growing up with Italian blood, the most vivid is the celebration of Christmas. Christmas Day was a big deal in the homes of non-Italians but to us, it was like the dessert. The main course was Christmas Eve and wow! What a main course! When I awoke on the morning of Christmas Eve the scent of Christmas was the tuna tomato sauce cooking. That more than anything was Christmas to me. It became a Christmas Eve tradition many years ago in Italy because tuna could be had by the poor very easily. The smelts, the cheeses. etc. were like singing “White Christmas.” We always had one of my father’s best friend, Rocco Bernard (Bernardo), over for any holiday and he was as much a part of it all as tuna sauce. When he became ill and later passed, it stopped being the event it was.

Midnight Mass was the only time I remember looking forward to attending mass. That’s still not easy to come clean with considering my cousin is a priest and writes books on the faith that are read all over the world. In fact, when we were headed to Italy and my wife wanted to go on a special tour in the basement of St. Peter’s that required special permission, we could not get an answer for six months. Email after email. In a final attempt, I used his name and bingo! Within 36 hours we had the reply.

We would always go to Christmas morning brunch at my Uncle Pat and Aunt Rose’s. In the evening we were either there or at Aunt Theresa’s or Uncle Sub’s. At night the men gambled at the table with piles of coins going to the winners. It ended around 1:00 a.m. as my father had to go back to work at Shenango Furnace that morning. The walk home was short because, like many Italians, we all lived within a rock’s throw it seemed!

The fact that their parents died when the kids were still young had to have made that bond that much tighter. In fact, My grandfather’s lifelong friend, Luigi Gori, wanted to take in my father and Uncle Tony because their older siblings, Theresa and Sub, were only 17 and 18, but they became adults overnight and did a great job.

My Father, Frank Conti

My father, Frank Conti, standing outside car with his brother Sebastian and his wife, Josephine, inside. Taken at Alice Row on Cedar Street, c. 1940s.

For a guy that had to quit school and go to work at 16, my father knew everybody! He would take me downtown from our house on Second Street almost nightly and once on Main Street, it seemed like every car honked, every person waved and stopped and talked.

I will never forget the nicknames of my father’s friends — Popcorn, Slugger, Lefty, Peder, Cho Cho, Moochie, Queenie, Bimbo, Farmer and on and on. Some I knew much better than others, but I remember those names and faces at 55 years old like I did at 8. It was a part of my childhood.

During The Korean War, he trained as an Engineer in the U.S. Army at Camp Rucker, Alabama, and Fort Benning, Georgia.

For over 30 years, my father worked as a millwright at Shenango Furnace, a company that operated blast furnaces in Sharpsville for most of the 20th century. For a number of those years he worked with his father’s best friend Luigi (Louie) Gori who was a crane man at the plant. Luigi was one of the several guys who immigrated to Sharpsville with my grandfather.

A Golden Childhood

One spring afternoon in late 1960s my father and I were coming back from fishing in the river and saw that the DiMarco’s, owners of a neighborhood grocery market on Mercer Avenue, were closing their store. My father knew the family his whole life, having grown up across the street from the bar and store. My father stopped to talk with Mr. DiMarco and, on that day, he gave my father shelves from the store that my father kept until his own house burned in May of 2015.

“Home for Christmas.” Frank Conti and Pete “Lum” Garnick, c. 1950

A handful of years later, Mr. DiMarco’s son became a star on Sharpsville’s football team and became my favorite player mainly because of his name, Dino DiMarco. That was a beautiful Italian name that I loved to hear over the P.A. system! It just sounded Sharpsville. In fact, I remember that, at around 7 years old, I made my father laugh once by asking if everyone in Sharpsville was Italian! It sure seemed that way to me.

Even though my father lost his parents at a very young age, he sure seemed to realize how to be a parent. The guy did everything a father should, little things that a kid never forgets the rest of his life. I remember the day he took me to Farrell to buy my first ball glove. He made an event of it. He picked a Spaulding Carl Yastrzemski Triple Crown model that I think about every day.

As the great basketball coach Jim Valvano once said, Italians celebrate everything by eating! After buying the glove we went to the Eagle Grill. This place, along with his all-time favorite restaurant, the White Rose, were the only places where he would order Italian food: only Italian food made by people with vowels at the end of their surnames!

My father, Frank Conti, with my daughter, Jenna Theresa, 2004.

He would take me to the backyard to hit pops and grounders so many times I lost track. Walks, fishing, coffee stirs! I had a childhood you could not buy from me with gold.

My father is still going strong at 90 years old. He loves history, Sharpsville and its sports teams, as well as Notre Dame. He lived for 35 years on Eighth Street until his house burned down in May 2015. He currently lives in an assisted living home in New Castle, Pennsylvania. He looks back on his life as Sharpsville being his first love. Sharpsville is Heaven to him and Alice Row is a place he wishes he could go back to. They were dirt poor but he thought they were rich because money could not buy happiness.

Over the years family and friends may pass away, but memories never fade. My family had very little when they left Italy but my father to this day, at 90 years old, says he would go back in a heartbeat. It was bigger than rich or poor. The humble beginnings in Pofi, Italy, of Luigi and Mattia have led to grandkids who became a doctor, a leader in the education system in Texas, a priest who is known the world over for his books, and many others who have reached a level that would not be possible without those immigrants building and paving a path.

— Gary Conti, SHS 1981, Sharpsville, PA.

[The last installment of this series will be published next month: “The Conti Family, Part III: Return to Pofi, Italy.”]

See also:

THE CONTI FAMILY, Part I: From Pofi to Sharpsville

THE CONTI FAMILY, Part III: A Return to Pofi, Italy – A Journey of My Own

ANGEL’S CASINO: Here Came the Bride

ITALIANS IN SHARPSVILLE

MOM AND DAD DeJULIA

CONTI FAMILY: From Pofi to Sharpsville, Part I

by Ann Angel Eberhardt

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 website as 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 living at 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

conti_frank_schoolboy_pixlr - Edited (1)

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.

— Gary Conti, SHS 1981, Sharpsville, PA.

See Also:

THE CONTI FAMILY, Part II: From Pofi to Sharpsville – An Italian Christmas, A Golden Childhood
THE CONTI FAMILY, Part III: A Return to Pofi, Italy – A Journey of My Own
Angel’s Casino: Here Came the Bride
Italians in Sharpsville
Mom and Dad DeJulia


.

ITALIANS IN SHARPSVILLE

by Ann Angel Eberhardt

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.)

shps_american_legion

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 bissella9@hotmail.com.


See Also:

ANGEL’S CASINO: Here Came the Bride
THE CONTI FAMILY, Part I: From Pofi to Sharpsville
THE CONTI FAMILY, Part II: An Italian Christmas, A Golden Childhood
MOM & DAD DeJULIA
REMEMBERING RIDGE AVENUE of the 1950s for more about St. Bartholomew Church

Sources:

Cannato, Vincent J. “What Sets Italian Americans Off From Other Immigrants?” Humanities, January/February 2015, Vol. 36, No. 1.

“Italian Americans.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Italian_Americans (accessed 2018/9/24).

Mehler II, Ralph C. Sharpsville Historical Society Newsletter, March 2017 (page 1).

Mehler II, Ralph C. “Traces of Lost Sharpsville: Slackwater Dam.” Sharpsville Historical Society Newsletter, July 2018 (pages 3-4, 6).

St. Bartholomew Roman Catholic Church. www.saintbartholomews.com (accessed 2018/9/24).

Sharpsville Golden Jubilee Supplement to the Sharon Telegraph (June 7, 1924) in the collection of the Sharpsville Area Historical Society.

“Sharpsville, Pennsylvania.” City-Data.com. http://www.city-data.com/city/Sharpsville-Pennsylvania.html (accessed 2018/9/24).

–Ann Angel Eberhardt (SHS 1958), Goodyear, AZ, September 2018.
Ralph C. Mehler II (SHS 1980), Sharpsville, PA.
– Irene Caldwell O’Neill (SHS 1960), Escondido, CA, March 2013.


UPDATES: Additional information concerning Emma Robison and Emma Deeter has been entered in their biographies on ROBISON SCHOOL I and DEETER ELEMENTARY SCHOOL pages. Check it out!


 

 

MOM AND DAD DEJULIA

by Ann Angel Eberhardt

Longtime residents of Sharpsville can tell us a lot about the history of this Pennsylvania borough. Please welcome Donna DeJulia, a 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.

ABOUT MOM

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!

MORE ABOUT DAD

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.

SHARPSVILLE REVISITED

Sharpsville Service Club sign, Sharpsville, PA. c. 2016.

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.

— Donna DeJulia, (SHS 1983) Franklin, PA, 2012.

See Also:
THE CONTI FAMILY, Part I: From Pofi to Sharpsville
THE CONTI FAMILY, Part II: An Italian Christmas, A Golden Childhood
ITALIANS IN SHARPSVILLE 


WALL-TO-WALL SANTAS In Sharpsville

by Ann Angel Eberhardt

Sharpsville’s unique Santa program is a favorite among our small town stories and for good reason. This annual event held by the Sharpsville Service Club since 1947 projects the sentiments of the season: kindness, generosity, and hope. It’s encouraging to know that, after approximately 70 years, this simple homegrown tradition continues. According to Ralph C. Mehler, board member of the Sharpsville Area Historical Society and a former Santa helper, “participation–both in terms of number of Santas as well as homes and kids visited–has been pretty steady over the last 15 or so years.”

The following account of the Santas’ pre-Christmas-Day visits comes from a PowerPoint presentation, “Sharpsville – Then & Now” by Gail Nitch Hanes. She researched, wrote and distributed CDs of the presentation as a gift to the Sharpsville High School Class of 1964 at their 50th reunion. (Gail was the Reunion Committee Chairperson for the SHS Class of 1964 for ten years, from 2004 to 2014).


A BELOVED MEMORY FROM OUR PAST…

By Gail Nitch Hanes

Source: "Sharpsville -- Then & Now" PowerPoint presentation

Sharpsville Service Club sign announcing the Santa project. Located at the entrance to Sharpsville, PA. c. 2014.

Who of us could ever forget how very special Christmas was during our youngest years growing up in Sharpsville? Our hometown was, and still is, the ONLY town around here where Santa Claus visits each child right before Christmas. He even knows their names and ages. He arrives with his pack full of popcorn balls and sometimes even an ”early” present, with a reminder –”don’t forget to go to bed early on Christmas Eve so I can deliver the rest of your presents.” How awestruck we were to think that Santa made a special visit to us. Little did we know then just how Santa came to make those visits.

It all began in 1943 when George Mahaney Jr., a Sharpsville attorney, asked his friend Sid Owen to ”play Santa” for his children. Well, Sid was such a big hit with Mahaney’s children that he was asked by neighbors to drop in to visit their homes as well that night. The following year, both he and George dressed in the red suits and visited even more homes. By 1947-48 there were so many homes and children to visit, Mr. Mahaney recruited members of the Sharpsville Service Club to assume ”Santa duty,” which began our town’ s most beloved tradition. This year [2014] marks 71 consecutive years that Service Club members dressed in their red and white suits and, with the help of their special ”elves,” scattered throughout the Borough on December 23rd bringing smiles and the Christmas spirit to the children and their families. And they are all volunteers!

Of course, all this does not just happen; it requires extensive organizational work behind the scenes well before the holiday season. Routes must be designated and mapped out with house numbers; a timetable must be established, and most importantly, Santas must be confirmed, with ”elves” assigned to help each one. The afternoon/early evening of the big day, the men gather inside ”Santa’s headquarters” to begin the transformation from citizen to Santa: sitting in the make-up chair while white cream is smudged into their eyebrows and blush is rolled onto their pink cheeks; putting on their ”Santa hair and beard” and, last but not least, donning the famous red and white suit with the big black belt and special black boots — black liners with fur around the top. [They have to keep their feet warm for all the walking they’ll be doing].

When everyone is suited up and the room is wall-to-wall Santas, it gets a little loud when they begin to belt out their ”Ho! Ho! Ho!” They swap stories of past Christmases and the children they’ve met, especially those little ones who ask Santa the tough questions. They have to be ready to answer unique and oftentimes surprising questions from the children without missing a beat; after all, Santa knows everything. They also must be prepared to run the full gamut of emotions depending on family circumstances — from the happiest to the very saddest and neediest.

Wall-to-Wall Santas! Photo courtesy of Sharpsville Area Historical Society (SAHS) Newsletter, November 2017, page 3. This is one of 8 unpublished photos from the 1953 American Magazine article in SAHS’s collection.

As children, most of us were unaware of how the entire process worked. We were told that Santa might make a ”special visit” to make sure we’re being good and to remind us to go to bed early on Christmas Eve so he could deliver all our presents while we were asleep. What we didn’t know was that in order for ”Santa” to know which homes to visit, porch lights were turned on — to light his way. Then there would be a lot of whispering among the adults [about what we had no clue] in anticipation of Santa’s arrival. Meanwhile, at some homes, a note would be taped to the front door with the names and ages of the children in the family, along with any early presents Santa was to give. Santa’s helper would quietly retrieve the note and put the gifts in Santa’s pack. Then, the sound of sleigh bells would fill the air as Santa approached with his hearty ”Ho! Ho! Ho!” What treasured times those were!
 
And the tradition continues every Christmas season from one generation to the next. Even families who don’t live in Sharpsville gather at a relative’s home so their children can experience that magical moment when Santa calls them by name and they sit on his lap one more time right before Christmas. Even as adults, we still look forward to Santa’s annual visit too. Now it’s extra special because we share it with not only our children but our grandchildren and perhaps even great-grandchildren.

Sharpsville is transformed into a truly magical place every Christmas, thanks to this extraordinary group of people whose dedication to the tradition of Santa visiting every home will continue far into the future.

Thank you, Sharpsville Service Club members and helpers! [Donations to their cause are always welcome.]

— Gail Nitch Hanes, Southington, OH – Sharpsville High School 1964


Read More Holiday Stories Here:

A CHRISTMAS KINDNESS

A SHARPSVILLE CHRISTMAS

SHARPSVILLE’S SANTAS

A STORY ABOUT SNOW

Uniquely Sharpsville; Sharpsville’s Santas.”
Sharpsville Area Historical Society Newsletter,
November 2017, pages 3 & 5.


SENIOR HIGH SCHOOL TRADITIONS

by Ann Angel Eberhardt

Much has been written about 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, 10-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 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.

See Also:

Junior High School 

SHS Class of 1958 Celebrates Its 60th!

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


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.


THE DAY THE CANADIANS CAME TO TOWN

by Ann Angel Eberhardt

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, November 1955, Sharpsville, PA

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.

See Also THREE LOST BOYS OF SHARPSVILLE

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


TOM THUMB WEDDING & THE PHC

by Ann Angel Eberhardt

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 delinquency. 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 afterward. 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 was 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 welcome 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 to the construction of today’s art deco building.

As of the 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 and the Shenango River, Sharon, PA. Source: http://www.tara-inn.com, accessed 2019-04-28. (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 afterward 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.