Portrait of an Indiana Community

1655 to 1900: Chapmen and Merchants

Though  Jews have been in our state from the start – the first were river traders in Peter Stuyvesant’s time – it wasn’t until the early 1800s that sons of Abraham settled in western Pennsylvania.  Their numbers were at first few; there were just 4,000 Jews in the entire United States at the time, and only seven US cities had a Jewish population greater than one hundred by 1830.  But events in northern Europe would soon cause the first great wave of Jewish emigration to the New World.

A series of failed revolutions compounded the effects of famine and economic depression already underway in the German Confederation by 1848.  The least privileged suffered most, and it was these – the Jews of Prussia, Hanover and the Slavic territories among them – who fled to America.  In a few short years, major coastal cities like Philadelphia had absorbed more immigrants than they could employ.  To make matters worse, Jews were often excluded by law from many professions and by custom from many of the rest.

Word soon spread that for those willing to work hard and take risks, there was opportunity in the hinterland.  But few of the new Jewish citizens had the means to buy or rent land.  What to do?  What outsiders so often do best: adapt.  They became itinerant peddlers, scrapmen and rag recyclers, independent trades needing little capital investment beyond a pack or a horse.  These “huxters” (as the term then was) served the remote coal camps in our area, where immigrant miners spoke the same Silesian dialect of German many of them did.

The life of a huxter was not easy, and not without risk.  Some were robbed, and a few even murdered.  They looked different and often spoke limited English and so were viewed by some with suspicion.  Yet these Jewish peddlers also brought news of the outer world to an eager audience.  When at last they were able to save enough to leave the road, they set up shop in small towns where the demand for their goods was high and competition was low, then sent for their families.   As historian Deborah Weiner observes, “For immigrant Jews, the American Dream revolved not around economic success or owning a piece of land, but around achieving self-employment . . . owning and operating their own store.”

By 1878 there were a quarter million American Jews, and of all the thirty-eight states, none had  more Jewish communities of over one hundred than Pennsylvania.   In that year, a certain town  which would one day join the ranks of “hundred-plus” had just three Jews in residence.  It was Indiana.  But change was in the wind for our county, in the number of its Jewish citizens and in the small-town suspicions of at least some of their neighbors.

In one of history’s great ironies, it was anti-Semitic atrocities halfway around the world that paved the way for better relations here.  Speaking from the Courthouse steps in 1882, Kiski School founder A.W. Wilson addressed Indianans:

“Whereas, we read with horror . . . of the oppression and cruelties perpetrated by the government and people of Russia on its own Israelitish citizens . . . we hereby express our sympathy for the suffering of persecuted Jews, welcoming them to our own hospitable land, in the hope that this age of advancing civilization may no more witness proscription of peaceful and law-abiding citizens anywhere on account of race or creed.”

The ancestors of most present-day Pennsylvania Jews came as refugees from Russia between 1880 and 1910, fleeing pogroms in the wake of Czar Alexander II’s assassination.  Those who settled in western Pennsylvania often came by “chain migration,” having first come to larger communities elsewhere and later to small towns at the invitation of relatives or friends already there.  And unlike the early peddler, the late-century Jewish newcomer often found a social network already in place; the traditional Hebrew concept of  TZEDEKAH, a communal obligation to help others, meant that he would seldom go hungry or homeless while he sought employment.  Thus, by the dawn of the new century, the stage was set for Indiana’s Jews to take their place – and set the pace – in retail commerce, and through it to gain the social acceptance so long denied them in the Old World and the New.

1900 – Present : Foundation, Floruit and Fade

The third and final wave came from Poland, Russia and economically-distressed Lithuania.  By the time WWI ended the Great Migration of 1900-1914, most members of Indiana’s Jewish community were of Lithuanian descent.  Many of its institutions were born in that period’s final years.  Hebrew Unity Club, chartered in 1914, would become Hebrew Unity Congregation two years later; both the Hub and Bon Ton, founded in 190708, would surpass the twentyfive year record set by Noah Adler’s clothing store (1867-1892) to become future Indiana icons.

The signal event in the community’s history took place on October 20, 1916 – the 23rd day  of Tishri, 5677 by the Jewish calendar – with the founding of Hebrew Unity Congregation.  Each of its thirty-eight charter members represented one of the twenty-five Jewish families of Indiana or one of thirteen in towns nearby.  They began meeting and worshiping in homes, then in rented rooms.  The new White Building’s third floor was finished in accordance with the congregation’s needs, and it remained their home for the next thirty-six years.

The word “Unity” in their name was neither incidental nor coincidental.  Many smaller Jewish communities of the time had split into separate congregations over differences in ethnic tradition or denominational practice; with its members representing four ethnic groups and all three traditions of Judaism (Orthodox, Conservative, Reform), Hebrew Unity’s founders could not afford to let those differences count more than their common heritage.

Terrible events on the world stage would once again broaden Indiana’s acceptance of its Jewish citizens as they matched their community’s response to World War One.  Joint committees of Jewish and Christian leaders spearheaded at least four war-relief drives through 1919, and Hebrew Unity’s young men enlisted to go “over there” alongside their gentile age-mates.  Lieutenant Charles LeVine, who would join the Red Cross at war’s end, survived artillery barrages, air strikes and even a submarine attack, but his Blairsville kinsman Mayer LeVine was one of many Indiana County doughboys who never came home.  Death is the great equalizer.

Indiana grew rapidly in the postwar boom.  Jewish retailers opened stores along Philadelphia Street in such number that they were in the majority there by 1929.  Yet beyond their entrepreneurial skills, it would be thrift and sacrifice – virtues on which immigrant Jews had long relied – that would see them through the Great Depression to come.

Radio and newspapers were at their zenith in the 1930s.  Hebrew Unity members unable to attend Sabbath services listened to WCAE’s broadcast from Rodef Shalom synagogue in Pittsburgh, or read that city’s Jewish Criterion for inspiration and information.  Locally, former pro basketballer Dave Abrams coached Indiana’s Cardinals in the Inter-County League, a source of pride and welcome distraction in those hard times.

Pearl Harbor changed everything, from economics to attitudes.  Looking back, men like Dave Luxenberg – then an Army battalion commander – would identify WWII as the turning point, as the military and humanitarian involvement of Indiana’s Jews proved their mettle beyond any doubt.  Eighty percent of the boys in Hebrew Unity’s 1941 Confirmation class were in uniform a year later, and the salvage business, once held in low esteem, was so crucial to the war effort that half the men in that typically Jewish profession were granted exemption from the draft.

Like much of small-town America, Indiana’s Jewish community began its Golden Age in 1946.  For a quarter century, their second generation rode a rising tide that lifted institutions of local business, nuclear family and post-secondary education to heights not seen before or since.  Social and religious groups like Hadassah and B’nai B’rith flourished.  Now over sixty families strong, Hebrew Unity became Beth Israel Congregation when the cornerstone of its new synagogue was laid in 1952.  The lot was purchased, design commissioned and building constructed WITHOUT  DEBT  OR  MORTGAGE  – a remarkable feat for a congregation of any size, much less for one of 300 souls.

All good things must come to an end.  With the opening of Regency Mall in 1969, the first of three changes that would close the Golden Age struck family-owned retail businesses.  As Stan Luxenberg would say of Indiana in Roadside Empires, “Franchised outlets now lined the highways leading to town.  Downtown stores that had once flourished closed or moved to the three malls….”  Then came the wave of outsourcing in the Eighties and the rise of E-commerce in the Nineties.  The educated children of small town Jewish families dispersed to population centers where professionals were in demand, and by 2000, Beth Israel Congregation was too small to support a full-time rabbi or even to hold regular Sabbath services.

What to do?  What the children of Abraham have always done best: adapt.  No one knows the future, but given history’s example, it would be a mistake to count out the Jews of Indiana.


The Works

“The Conemaugh Saltworks, we are happy to state, are now in the full tide of successful operation . . . rewarding the enterprising individuals who constructed them (and) conferring important advantages upon the district as well as the country.”  So said the Greensburg Register in 1816, just three years after the commercial production of salt began where Loyalhanna Creek and the Conemaugh River join to become the Kiskiminetas.

Salt is so cheap and abundant in our time that we hardly give it a thought, but the fact is, we literally cannot live without it.  When Britain’s blockade choked off imports during the War of 1812, the United States had to rely on just four internal sources of salt: Onandaga/Cayuga Counties in New York, Gallatin County in Illinois, Kanawha in the Cumberland, and – just in time – the new Saltworks right here in Indiana County, PA.  For folks along the Kiski and Conemaugh, the Salt Boom predated the Coal Rush by a quarter century.

But how did it all begin, and who were those “enterprising individuals” responsible for it?

A saline spring rising from beneath the Kiskiminetas near what is now Saltsburg had long been tapped by local Indian tribes, for whom it was a zone of truce; that there was salt in the area was known to Europeans as early as 1755, when Lewis Evans’ General Map of the Middle British Colonies in America noted, “The Kishkeminetas . . . has Coal and Salt.”  In 1766, one Frederick Rohrer of Greensburg may have become the first settler to discover that spring and boil its waters to extract salt.  Or it could be that a certain Mrs. Deemer, who chanced to taste salt water in a Conemaugh pool near White shortly before 1800, was the first.  And Doctor Samuel Talmadge, our county’s first resident physician, is said to have noticed animals licking rocks out in the Conemaugh opposite Broad Fording (Burrell) in 1810.  There he sank a barrel lined with clay to keep salt water and fresh water from mixing, dipped out the saline and boiled it down in iron kettles.

Well, maybe.  Even if each story is true, they’re not mutually exclusive.  What is certain is that commercial production here began in 1813 when, on his second local attempt, William Johnston struck a saltwater aquifer beneath 450 feet of rock while drilling “on the bank of the Conemaugh near the mouth of the Loyalhanna.”  After buying a manual pump, building a furnace and installing evaporation pans, he lined his 2½” diameter drill-hole with copper tube and began producing 30 bushels of salt per day.  The blockade had done wonders for the price of that already-precious commodity, and at $5.00 a bushel, salt soon made Mr. Johnston a wealthy man.

Drilling, pumping and evaporating were no easy tasks in those days.  It took two men up to nine months to drill through 400 to 600 feet of rock with their swing pole drill, a weighted chisel suspended by chain, rope and pulley beneath a wooden tension pole.  A “blind horse” powered the pump that drew the saline from well to furnace.  Four men operated the furnace and deposited the boiled-down residue in twenty-foot “grainers”, or evaporation pans; four others mined coal from the nearby hillside, and one more led a horse hauling coal to feed the furnace.  Pay ranged from .75¢ to $1.00 per twelve-hour day.

[Though defined in none of the surviving records, it is almost certain that the “blind” horses were simply those fitted with blinders, also called blinkers.]

By the time of the Register article there were fourteen furnaces fed by four wells within a mile of the Conemaugh/Loyalhanna confluence, owned respectively by William Johnston, Samuel Reed, Andrew Boggs and the partnership of Boggs & Forward.  Between them they produced over 100 bushels of salt per day, selling at the post-war price of $2.00 per bushel – still a tidy sum.

But the Boom was just getting started.  High demand, the introduction of steam engines and the arrival of the Pennsylvania Canal caused the number of producers and their total output to climb steadily through the 1820s.  Records show ten wells producing 1,750 bushels per day in 1821 and 31 producing 7,600 bushels per day by 1829.  That’s an amazing four million pounds a year!  Both the settling of Saltsburg (laid out by salt magnate Andrew Boggs) and the rise of Blairsville to become the county’s chief city were direct consequences of the flourishing salt industry, and the Conemaugh Saltworks boasted the fourth largest post office in the county.

Boom was nearly followed by bust when overproduction and price wars brought salt down to just .19¢ per bushel in 1826.  As the price of salt fell below the cost of production, well owners announced that they had agreed among themselves never to sell their salt below $2.00 per bushel – legal, in the days before the Sherman Antitrust Act.  It worked, and the Boom continued through the 1830s.

Of course, Mother Nature doesn’t always take kindly to the changes Man’s endeavors impose on the land.  By 1830, proliferation of wells had caused the minimum depth at which adequate concentrations of saline could be struck to drop more than 200 feet, and many a producer went out of business when his well failed.  Exacerbated by poor engineering decisions made in construction of the Pennsylvania Canal, the river flooded disastrously in 1828 and 1832, bankrupting Andrew Boggs and several others.  The Boom continued even so, reaching its peak between 1838 and 1840.

But it was history that finally closed the book on the salt industry of Indiana County.  Westward expansion of the United States brought the discovery of mineable salt in Michigan, Kentucky and Louisiana.  These sources were easier and cheaper to exploit, and were more productive than our saltwater aquifers.  Steady decline after 1840, relieved only briefly when the Civil War cut off access to southern mines, left just two producers by 1870.

Yet despite its brevity, the Salt Boom’s long-term effect on our county’s economy was broad and positive.  Our coal-mining industry owes its start to salt:  the Works were the single greatest consumer of coal in southwest Pennsylvania before the 1840s, increasing local production by more than three thousand percent between 1814 and 1838.  It drove demand for iron and wood products, attracted immigration from pre-famine Ireland and was one of the main reasons for the expansion of Pennsylvania’s road and canal systems.  You might say that salt gave Indiana County . . . well, “the Works”!

Play On: The Indiana Shakespeare Club

Under the bare headline Local Items, a birth announcement of sorts appeared in the Indiana Democrat on December 4th, 1879:

“A select literary circle is being organized in Indiana.”

Unremarkable among 53 other one-liners, the note gave no name nor even the date of birth.  Who could have guessed the newborn would grow up to be a supercentenarian honored as “the oldest social and literary organization in Indiana County”?

Notwithstanding its little-noted beginning, the Amateur Social Club (as it was first christened) had as its parents “the choice and master spirits of the age,” as Shakespeare might say.  It was conceived by Josias Young, Chairman of Indiana Normal School’s language department, and its first complement of members included the likes of State Supreme Court Justice Silas Clark, Civil War General Harry White, Congressman Summers Jack and the grandparents of future actor Jimmy Stewart (see photo).  And while its purpose was the social integration of incoming Normal School faculty and their spouses, Professor Young’s choice of Shakespeare studies as the means to that end may have been prompted by a performance of Othello put on here by Pittsburgh’s Shakespeare Club the week before.

play on
SOME ORIGINAL  MEMBERS, L to R :  Standing – Augustine Purington, Anna White, James M. Stewart, Louisa Sutton, Silas Clark, Bela B. Tiffany, Summers Jack, Agnes Porter, George W. Hood, Edward H. Wilson.   Second Row, Seated – Eliza Purington,Thomas Sutton, Clarissa Clark, Harry White, Josephine Tiffany, John McWilliams, John W. Sutton, Mary Wilson.  Front Row, Seated – Ella Sutton, Margaret Jack (?), Cordelia Barr (?), Edward Sutton.

In any case, Professor Young and twelve others became charter members when that group met at photographer Bela Tiffany’s home on November 27th; thirteen more men and women were invited to become members the following day at the Club’s first formal meeting.  That number – thirteen married couples – remained the standard complement until it was increased to sixteen couples in the 1990s.

Membership was recruited from the academic, professional and commercial sectors of Indiana society, by invitation of existing members.  The seemingly narrow “couples only” tradition was in fact a progressive provision ensuring gender-balanced point of view on the varied and sometimes controversial topics to be addressed.  Spouses sat separately to encourage independent thought, and seating arrangements changed from meeting to meeting to avoid formation of cliques.

With the exception of Christmas week, meetings were held Friday evenings during the academic year (September-April) in members’ homes or at the Tea Room on special occasions.  Hosts and topics were scheduled a year in advance and printed in the Kalendar, a booklet given to each member.  After six years, the Club had gone through Shakespeare’s entire surviving folio, so they decided to pursue instead the popular Chautauqua course of morally-based adult education.  Many members “found it too much labor,” so when the course was completed in 1889, the Club stopped meeting.  But old members decided ambition should be made of sterner stuff; the Indiana Shakespeare Club reconvened in 1890, and has continued with remarkably few changes down to the present.

Tradition and stability have promoted the Club’s longevity.  There have been just eight presidents since its formation, from the redoubtable John Sutton (served 1879-1942) to second-generation member John Barbor.  Even little things contribute; chocolate and ice water have been served at the end of each program since the beginning, a holdover from when both commodities were expensive rarities.  And the Shakespearean tradition that the show must go on is upheld by the priority given meeting-attendance: the week of 9/11, members sang the National Anthem and headed to the Apple Theater in Delmont as scheduled.  Only World War II was allowed to interrupt, with just nine meetings held during those 45 months.

Some things have changed.  Perhaps due to the acceleration of life’s pace over the last century, meetings have gone from weekly or biweekly to monthly.  Men and women no longer retire to separate rooms to socialize after meetings adjourn.  And the Shakespeare Club has had five different names since its inception as the Amateur Social Club, including 1884’s Hyperion Shakespeare Club, a probable reference to the “quest for enlightenment” described in John Keats’ The Fall of Hyperion: A Dream.  But, what’s in a name . . .?

Examining the Kalendar of a particular year in its life gives us a good idea of the Club’s character and interests.  The booklet for the 1914-15 season is titled “The World’s Mine Oyster” on the cover and closes with the Club Toast, a parody of the song Maryland: “(W)ith cult of knowledge, love and mirth….”  Every page leads off with a quote from Shakespeare, Byron, Goethe, or the like.  Each week’s topic fits within the theme for that year – itself derived from current events – and is presented in a Shakespearean context when possible.  History, travel, science and civics are mainstays.  Some examples from that year’s Kalendar:

  • Count Zeppelin and his Inventions
  • Edison and his Achievements
  • Kaiser Wilhelm as Man and Father
  • Women in the Politics of 1915
  • Shakespeare and Democracy
  • A View of Socialism
  • Commercial Morality
  • The Shakespeare Tourist in Belgium, Serbia and Germany
  • The American Melting Pot

As you can see, the war in Europe and a comparison of America’s perspective with the combatants’ was that year’s theme.  Each host had months to prepare, and guest speakers with relevant experience or knowledge could be added at the last moment.  “Magic lantern” travelogues were a Club favorite.

At present as in past, one or more field trips may be made during the year.  Most are to theatrical or concert venues within a day’s travel, but in recent years the Club has even shown up at Pirates baseball games!  Perhaps the most memorable trip was in 1959, when the group traveled in a special Pennsylvania Railroad car to New York City.  There they attended a United Nations session and were given a guided tour of that institution by Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold’s executive assistant . . . who just happened to be club-member Ralph Cordier’s brother.

The Indiana Shakespeare Club was founded with the original intent of community integration and liaison, and that function is not absent today.  Members are drawn from every segment of society, and friendships forged between members tend to be lifelong and resemble family ties.  There is even an organizational sibling of sorts; the Ingleside Club, likewise founded in the 19th century, has many a literary interest in common with the Bard’s brood, and the two sometimes host each other’s meetings.

And so it goes.  Ah, but you ask how long the light of our Shakespeare Club will shine?  Ask not, for in Indiana County as in Stratford-upon-Avon, ignorance is the only darkness.  Say rather: How far that little candle throws its beams!

(How many hidden Shakespeare quotes canst thou  find in this script?)


Fads are funny things.  At first we look upon them with amusement; once they have us, we can’t imagine life without them, and after they’re gone, we look back with embarrassment and nostalgia.  Most are never heard from again (remember Furbies?).  But one fad has returned time and again since it first hit Indiana County in the 1880s: roller skating!

Though “patinage” (as it was then called) had been around since the mid-1700s, it wasn’t until the steerable quad-skate was invented in 1862 that roller skating really caught on.  Pennsylvania’s first modern rink opened in Philadelphia in 1877;  its asphalt surface was revolutionary, and with its gas lighting, in-house band and professional instructors, it set the standard for decades to come.

It was also controversial.  Some Pennsylvanians thought it a “corruptor of morals,” and upper-class folk stayed away once skate rentals drew crowds into what had been an exclusive sport.  Parents cited the frequency of injury, and police noticed that rinks attracted pickpockets and other predators.  But fun won out, and by the early 1880s it was a rare Pennsylvania town that didn’t  have a rink.

In that respect, our county may have been ahead of the curve.  In 1875, an Indiana stock company was formed to purchase land at Philadelphia and 4th Streets (where Sheetz is now) “for the purpose of establishing a skating rink in this place.”  Was it a roller rink?  Quite possibly, though not certainly.  While the Democrat reported that “water was turned into the skating park” before its opening that winter, neither ice skating or roller skating were ever mentioned; since ice was used for construction of some roller rinks at the time, it may have been either.  In any case, Indiana’s first rink was in operation for less than two years, and the property was sold at Sheriff’s Auction in 1878.  Perhaps a single-purpose, winter-only park just wasn’t profitable.


Our then-stringent moral climate may also have contributed to the first rink’s failure.  As chronicler Walter Jackson would later note, Indiana County was “slow getting its nose out of its elevated position” until well after rinks had come to Latrobe, Kittanning and Johnstown.  Even when our rinks finally did open, ads and articles were careful to stress that “no disorder will be tolerated, nor any improper characters admitted.”

But open they did – and all at once, or so it seemed.  In the seven months starting September 1884, no fewer than thirteen roller rinks opened here.  Plumville’s was the first and the last was in Cookport, with Indiana (3), Blairsville (2), Saltsburg (2), Marion Center, Clymer, Burnside and Smithport opening between.  Some of them found creative ways to avoid the here-today-gone-tomorrow perils of investing in a fad: the freight room of Indiana’s old depot, rented from the borough, hosted one rink, while the Marion Factory Skating Rink was intentionally designed for conversion to industrial use “as soon as it should fail to be a paying investment.”  But the three biggest were constructed with a single purpose in mind, and the competition between them became the stuff of legend.  They were Indiana’s Pavilion and Church Street rinks, and Blairsville’s Silver Lake.

Located where the municipal parking garage now stands, the Pavilion Skating Palace had a level skating floor of 180’ x 60’ and a gallery that could accommodate half the borough’s population. Plans originally called for that floor to be made of glass, but it was formed of oak in the end, “solid and perfect with no splinters.”  Lit by gas and heated by coal, it was in operation year round.  Admission was 10¢ and skate rentals were 15¢.  The capacity crowd on opening night (Sept. 25th) saw a professional troupe from Brookville perform and was entertained by the Indiana Cornet Band.

Like the proverbial other shoe dropping, the competition opened just eight weeks later behind where the present Post Office stands.  The Church Street Rink’s thousand-plus first night guests took turns circling the maple arena; skaters were given professional instruction, and “skate boys” helped novices adjust and oil their rentals.  A raised, railed gallery encircled the floor, and the house band played from a suspended platform at one end.

Not to be outdone, Blairsville chartered special trains to bring patrons from Indiana and Saltsburg to the opening of its Silver Lake Rink at East Brown and South East Lane.  The Indiana Progress, calling it the social event of the season, voiced the hope that it would “modify the bitter feeling that has existed between the citizens of these two towns for several years.”  And while something of a competition did develop that evening, “everything went as merry as a marriage bell.”  Silver Lake proved to be one of the county’s more enduring rinks.

Not everyone was welcome at the rinks.  In a front-page blurb, the Progress opined: “It is slightly comical that the roller skating rink managers object to negroes enjoying the privileges of the rink, yet are mighty glad to get ahold of greenbacks which are not good unless countersigned by Blanche K. Bruce, a negro.”  [Bruce was Assistant Secretary of the Treasury.]  The paper also reported that “(t)he colored people of Blairsville have a rink of their own.  No white trash admitted.”

Competition breeds invention.  At first, special events were of the “Ladies Only Night” variety, but the draws quickly became less subtle.  There was the Pavilion’s Mile Race, first won by Frank Hildebrand in 3:12, followed by Church Street’s Candle Race in which a still-burning wick was needed to win.  Both were topped by the Marion Factory Rink’s Turkey Race: “A bell will be put on the turkey.  Participants will be blindfolded, and whoever catches the fowl gets it as the prize.”  Touring professionals boosted attendance, too.  There were the midget Norwegian Acrobats, eight-year-old champion Hattie Gould, and the Robinson Combination Skaters (whose headliner Lulu Ruggles wore a then-scandalous knee length skirt).  Even Ringling Brothers Circus got in on the act, featuring stunt skaters when they passed through in 1885.

And then there was polo.  Developed from what was known locally as “shinny,” it was essentially field hockey on skates.  The sport must have been known here already, since the Indiana team’s first exhibition came just weeks after the Pavilion opened.  Team members (mostly late teens) were: Elmer Ansley, John Daugherty, Morgan Ellis, Frank Hildebrand, William Pitts, Reed Porter, and W. Frank Wettling.  They were wildly popular throughout the county, winning consistently against other SW Pennsylvania teams and hosting semi-pros from as far away as Chicago.  Polo stats were reported in our papers’ sports sections.

Indiana newspapers had a roller-related competition of their own.  Separate editorial sections being then unknown, the conservative Democrat and liberal Progress traded front-page barbs on the purported costs and benefits of rink attendance.  Viewpoints notwithstanding, each ran ads for skates from stores as distant as PittsburghThe Democrat had a section of witticisms called Rinktoms, and sly skate-poems dotted the Progress.

But fads are fickle things.  Just one month after the last of those thirteen rinks opened, they began to close, victims of our short attention-span.  The Pavilion was sold at Sheriff’s Auction in April 1885 and converted to buggy manufacture.  Six more followed by year’s end, and three more in 1886.  Cookport’s, the last to rise, was also the last to fall, closing in 1890.  One newspaper exulted, “Prayer meetings have filled up again!  Mothers don’t sit up nights for their rink-crazed dears, and papas don’t hear the cry for skates anymore.”  Yet two rinks rose again.  The Church Street Rink was remodeled and re-opened in 1887 as a multi-purpose opera house called Library Hall, but it welcomed back skaters part-time in 1888 by popular demand.  Its old rival the Pavilion was resurrected as a part-time rink as well in 1889.

The legacy lives on.  Reborn roughly once per generation, the “roller craze” has been taken up by young folk in five of the past twelve decades.  Hollywood has taken notice of it in films from Charlie Chaplin’s The Rink to Olivia Newton-John’s Xanadu.  Pittsburgh’s Steel City Rollers are one of nine Pennsylvania roller derby teams, and even Smicksburg’s Old Order Amish have adopted skates for commuting since the inline revolution of the 1990s.  Hmm . . . that makes it twenty-odd years since the last go-round.  Isn’t it about time to get craze-y again?

On Any Sunday

Loud commercials, antenna balloons and those weird fan-inflated arm wavers.  Indiana County’s forty auto dealerships will do just about anything to get your attention and your business.  So why won’t they sell you a car on Sunday?

Because it’s a crime.

The law that makes it so is called the Act of April 22, 1794, which is short for its real name, “An Act for the Prevention of Vice and Immorality and of Unlawful Gaming, and to Restrain Disorderly Sports and Dissipation.”  You probably know it as the Blue Law.

Like its siblings in most other American states (as well as Canada and several European countries), Pennsylvania’s Blue Law had public observance of the Sabbath as its original purpose.  It takes just three sentences to cover a wide range of activities in surprising detail:  things forbidden and the penalty for doing them, exceptions to the rule, and a statute of limitations.  In a nutshell, it forbids us to “perform any employment or business whatsoever on the Lord’s day, commonly called Sunday (works of necessity and charity only excepted)” or to practice any “game, hunting, shooting, sport or diversion whatsoever on the same day.”  Simple, right?  But those words have been argued over in more detail, for a longer time and with greater passion than any other in our legislative and judicial history.  It’s enough to make a lawyer drool.

The range of things to which the Act has been applied over the years is immense and sometimes quizzical.  From the Penal Code of Pennsylvania, here’s a sample of 19th century rulings that cited the Act in their support.  On Sunday:

* Barbers may shave themselves but not others.

* The trolley driver whose car makes noise shall be subject to arrest.

* Bakers may not sell ice cream without also providing entertainment.

* Steamboat may be operated as ferries but not as excursion boats.

* Killing coyotes and crows is exempt from the ban on hunting.

* Even when otherwise permitted by law, dueling is forbidden.

on any sunday 1

Curiously for a state that led the fight for religious freedom in 1776, the Act raised little objection for the first few decades.  Perhaps the reason can be found in its time and place of birth.  The Whiskey Rebellion, centered right here in southwest Pennsylvania, reached its peak the same year the Act was passed; it may be that “high spirits and freethinkers” were not tolerated while those who fought that insurrection still lived.  In any case, the first legal challenges were not about what the Act prohibited or even why, but when.  In Commonwealth v. Wolf  (1817)* and other cases,  Jews and Seventh Day Adventists asserted that the Act’s designation of Sunday as the Lord’s Day amounted to selective proscription of their faiths’ Saturday Sabbath and a five-day limit to their business week.  The relief that was eventually granted came not from the courts but the General Assembly, after several attempts over many decades.

Support for Pennsylvania’s Blue Law ebbed and flowed over time, often reflecting social changes not related to the law itself.  The most intense of these periods was 1890-1915, during the Third Great Awakening and the closing days of the Industrial Revolution.  Interests-in-common made for strange bedfellows: temperance workers saw in the Act an ally against then-rampant alcoholism and domestic violence, while nascent labor unions welcomed its help reducing the 70-80 hour work week and employers’ control over workers’ lives.

During the height of the pro-Sabbath cycle in the early 1900s, Indiana County outdid most of the state in its zeal for enforcement, with the support of churches, citizens’ groups and even the press.  Railing against the McNichol Bill’s proposed dilution of Sabbath laws, the Gazette urged readers to demand their legislators oppose “establishing the wicked ‘Continental’ or European Sunday in Pennsylvania.”  And in December 1907 alone, seventy merchants, miners and railroad employees were arrested for violating the Act in towns from Plumville to Josephine “on information of the Indiana County Sabbath Observance Association.”

The national Sabbath Observance Association chose Pittsburgh as its 1908 convention site because southwest Pennsylvania was ground zero in the battle over U.S. Blue Laws.  The Indiana County chapter had as its field agent one Doctor James Sharp, whose task it was to set up surveillance on suspected violators, collect evidence and witnesses, then “bring information” (press charges) against those caught working or doing business on Sunday.  He was ruthlessly efficient, accounting for hundreds of convictions before his death in 1909; coal companies and railroads that had hitherto ignored the Act stopped requiring seven-day work weeks of their employees, and merchants dreaded running afoul of our county’s Sabbath vigilante.

on any sunday 2

By 1929, more than 100 attempts to repeal or amend the original Act had failed…

But times were already changing.  America after World War One was a different place, and the Sabbath Observance Association less Doctor Sharp had a progressively smaller voice in Indiana County.  Both economic hardship and prosperity dealt further setbacks to Blue Law supporters in the decades that followed: with unemployment near 30%, what Depression-era worker could say no to Sundays?  And how many businessmen could afford to reject one-seventh of all opportunities in the postwar boom?  In between, WWII persuaded us that enforceable uniformity was worth fighting against, not for.

In the meantime, non-employment exceptions were slowly added, most notably the 1933 bill leaving Sunday sports to the discretion of local electorates.  (Indiana County voters chose to continue the ban here by a 2-to-1 margin.)  Once 1938’s Fair Labor Standards Act made the forty-hour week national law and state liquor control debuted, the alliance that had supported the Act dissolved for want of common cause.  And in 1959, the first significant modification of the Act was at last signed into law.

Not that the issue is settled, even now!  Failure of subsequent attempts to repeal the Act altogether has demonstrated Pennsylvanians’ support for at least some degree of public Sabbath-keeping, and our Supreme Court has consistently affirmed the Act’s constitutionality.  On the other hand, recent decades have seen moratoria on Blue Law prosecutions; the day after the first of these in 1976, the Gazette carried ads by Indiana County merchants announcing Sunday hours . . . just two years after police had closed Punxsutawney’s Jamesway Department Store for attempting Sunday sales.  Hunting, betting, and yes, even car sales are still limited to Monday through Saturday, and the debate remains a vigorous one on most remaining provisions of the Act.  May it ever be so; may we never forget that both consent and dissent ensure Pennsylvania’s “Virtue, Liberty, and Independence.”

*Commonwealth v. Wolf, 3 Serg. & Rawle 48 (Pa. 1817).


The first and only horseless carriage ever shown in Pennsylvania will be on exhibition at the Indiana Fair.  It travels along without any other motor than that which the carriage itself supplies.  It will be worth a day’s visit just to see this unique conveyance!

Thus spoke the Weekly Messenger in 1896.  Alas, the announcement turned out to be premature;  Delos and Dick Hetrick’s one-of-a-kind vehicle would indeed make its public debut at the Fair, but not until the brothers had worked out its transmission problems three years later.  Their gasoline-powered “automobile wagon” wasn’t exactly greased lightning – it couldn’t outrun most humans, let alone a horse – but those who saw it realized that it marked the turning of an age.

The second car hereabouts was seen by few, stopping in Blairsville on its way from Greensburg to Cresson.  But oh, the third…!

J.R. Stumpf’s steam car took Indiana by surprise on a Monday morning in 1901.  The five-horsepower Mobile had travelled from DuBois in just five hours.  Everyone stared in astonishment as it sped down Philadelphia Street; horses tethered along the hitching rail jumped onto the sidewalk, and small boys sprinted after it in a pack.  The elderly Mr. Stumpf would use that attention to his advantage for the next several years by making the steamer his Five & Ten Cent Store’s delivery vehicle and symbol.

The automotive revolution had actually been underway in Pennsylvania since 1893, when Philadelphia’s EMV Company launched its Electrobat.  Duryea Power made our first “gas buggy” in 1895, and the Crouch Company of New Brighton rolled out its steamer two years later.  In all, some 130 models were invented and/or manufactured in our state during those early days – forty of them in 1908 alone.  A Pennsylvanian even bought America’s very first mail-order car.  We couldn’t get enough!  The new century was off to a roaring (and hissing and humming) start.

Winton was one of several makes with “agents” here.

Cars quickly worked their way into our popular culture and language.  We spoke of “flivvers” and “Tin Lizzies,” and children behind on their chores were said to be “slower than a Morris going uphill in a snowstorm.”  Standard dress for an outing on our unpaved roads included hat, gloves and a “duster” overcoat…which the fashion industry quickly caught on to.  McLaughlin’s Clothing Store in Indiana carried a ladies’ coat called The Automobile, and toiletries like Fel’s Naptha were advertised as “a necessary part of the man’s motoring outfit”.

But despite their popularity, the number of autos here increased more slowly than in most other parts of the state.  Our middle class was small; until prices dropped dramatically in 1913, few but the well-to-do could afford to “go horseless.”  Our dirt roads were less suited to autos than to wagons (especially from December through April), and our preference for tradition over innovation may have put on the brakes as well.

Early on, many of our cars were ordered from elsewhere and shipped by train or driven cross-country to the buyer.  The first Indiana County “agents” – dealerships – opened about 1908, typically representing many manufacturers at once.  The two largest were Clymer Motor Car and Indiana Motor Company.  The latter offered everything from the economical Pope (no Popemobile jokes, please!) to a top-of-the-line Buick for five times as much.

Competition between the different engine- and chassis-types continued through the mid-teens.  Three-wheeled autocycles like the Keystone were popular as early delivery vehicles; J.M. Cunningham’s steam-powered Locomobile became our first horseless taxi in 1901, and long before today’s Tesla, quiet electrics like the Owen Magnetic found favor with the county’s horse-owning majority.  But in the end, gasoline engines and the closed touring sedan won out with their greater range and comfort.

Automobiles even popped up in our newspapers’ social columns.  When, where, and by whom most cars were purchased was noted, and the phrase “by automobile” was often added to items about out-of-town visitors.  Accidents, on the other hand, always made Page One.

The first auto accident in Indiana County happened outside Blairsville in the summer of 1900.  Like most during that era’s first decade, it didn’t involve two cars; Roy Gerard and his wife were injured and their buggy shattered when a car spooked their horse.  The Johnstown Toll Pike was closed to autos in 1905 because so many motorists failed to slow down when approaching horses as required.  Newspaper accident-reports came to resemble editorials, with one opining in that “someone will be killed, and then a penitentiary sentence will instill caution in careless drivers.”  Yet by 1920, most papers also featured a weekly section devoted to more positive auto-articles, advice columns and ads.

Blacksmiths and machine shops got our business when the family car broke down.  Liveries and wagonworks soon began adding auto repair to their repertoire.  Among those who failed to adapt was the Indiana Carriage Company, sold at Sheriff’s bankruptcy auction in 1910.  In that same year, our first cars-only repair shop was opened by (appropriately) Delos and Dick Hetrick.

As with the automobile itself, auto-friendly roads were in short supply here at first.  Our relative isolation and railroad-dependence had encouraged a casual attitude about the dirt we drove on well into the new century.  The Automobile Association of Indiana led the push for road improvement; it didn’t hurt that many members were influential citizens!  Starting in 1913, they employed Homer City’s E.B. Griffith to make county-wide inspections, and from his reports created a map of road conditions for use by the county government.  By the late 1920s, many borough streets and most wagon roads had been paved – a boon much appreciated by rural mail carriers, who in those days used their own vehicles.

The old saying “If it moves, tax it!” took on new meaning at Harrisburg in 1906.  Whereas our county had charged a one-time, fifty cent fee for combined license and registration, the new State Department of Highways separated the two, doubled the cost of each and charged them both every year.  The license number (painted onto the body before plates were introduced) functioned as the VIN of its day, staying with your car when you sold it.

The last stand for horse advocates came in the late 1920s.  Citing an increase in tack sales and the economy of horse-drawn delivery vehicles over trucks, the Gazette asserted “Old Dobbin Is Back.”  But few of us yelled “Get a horse!” anymore, and our theaters were showing something closer to the truth – a soundie called First Auto: a Romance of the Last Horse and the First Horseless Carriage.  What was once a novelty had become a generation’s norm.  There was no turning back; by the early 1930s, there was one car for every five of us.  Like the trolley, the horse was history.

What happened to Pennsylvania’s auto industry?  Economies-of-scale made possible by Ford’s introduction of the moving assembly-line in 1913 meant only the most heavily-capitalized manufacturers could compete.  American Austin, our last make still in production as of 1929, closed its plant in Butler a few weeks before Pearl Harbor in 1941.

The Patriot

“Salve, porgiamo agli abitatori della Contea d’Indiana, ai cittadini italiani a quelli di razza inglese e a quelli di ogni altra nazionalita….”

And with that, the only bilingual newspaper between New York and Chicago was launched on August 8, 1914.  In its lead item (Il Nostro Saluto – “Our Greeting”, excerpted above), Indiana County’s Il Patriota announced that its pages would contain articles in both English and Italian, each a duplicate of the other.  It also pledged something novel for a newspaper of its time: to be politically nonpartisan and unbiased in its reporting, and to identify each editorial as an editorial.  “By such methods we hope to receive the commendation of our readers and of other papers as well.”

The odds against such an enterprise were long.  The Patriot’s coalfield predecessor La Sentinella del West Virginia had closed its doors the year before, and even in major population centers, new Italian-language newspapers like Philadelphia’s La Rassegna could fold in a matter of months.  So why was Indiana’s giornale able to thrive for more than forty years?  Read on.

The Patriot.png

The Patriot stepped in at just the right moment to serve an Italian-speaking community of surprising size.  Our population had grown by more than half in the previous decade, and immigrants drawn here by employment in the mines and mills accounted for 20% of us.  Relatively few Italians lived in the county seat, but Indiana was centrally located in a ring of mining towns, so it was the right place and time for such a voice.  But more than that, Indiana County in 1914 had the right man for the job.

Founder and editor Francesco Biamonte was born in Zagarise, Italy on the first day of 1891.  Sponsored by his brother Giuseppe of Creekside, the youngest of Maria and Gaetano’s seven children was sent to study in America at age nine.  Here he went to school at Sykesville for a year before returning to Italy.  He came back to Pennsylvania at age thirteen, this time to stay.  After brief employment at his brother’s dry goods store, Francesco worked in a Johnstown steel company’s office while attending Cambria Business College.  His education was interrupted by conscription into the Italian army (he was not yet a US citizen) but was resumed at Indiana State Normal School when he returned.  By 1913, he was Indiana County’s official court interpreter.

With $100 of borrowed capital and a staff of four, the Patriot’s beginnings were as humble as those of most whom it served.  The paper owned no press in that first year.  At its workrooms in the Thomas White building, editor-in-chief Biamonte, Italian editor Giuseppe Palermo and English editor Francis Smith (on loan from the Weekly Messenger) would compose articles and ads, set the type-sheets and haul them to the Messenger’s pressroom . . . then print the paper, break down the type and haul everything back to their office, all before the Messenger’s own hours of operation.

So what did readers find that Saturday when they opened the Patriot?  Though the particulars would change over time, Volume I, Number 1 was typical of those to come.  Published as a weekly, pages 1-4 were in English and 5-8 were in Italian.  World War I had started just days before; war news and the death of President Wilson’s wife were front page.  Events in Italy were grouped as Telegrammi D’All Italia, while the rest of the Italian pages covered local concerns like mining safety, mutual aid societies and music.  Ads were in Italian or English and took up almost half of total space.  Among them was an ad for Biamonte’s own services as travel agent, banking liason and interpreter.  What did not appear in that first issue were Biamonte’s editorials (a prominent feature later on) but a selection of op-eds reprinted from other journals.  On page two was the feature “Questions That A Good Citizen Should Know” (coaching for the naturalization test), followed by voter-registration tips and deadlines.

In some respects, the Patriot’s greatest contribution was made not in its workrooms but in the business office at 15 Carpenter Avenue.  There, Biamonte’s fellow immigrants came to seek his help and advice on everything imaginable – especially American laws and customs.  Interpreting America to immigrants was a major focus of the Patriot, and its editor sometimes had to interpret immigrants to American natives.  When Gazette articles claimed the formation of a “Black Shirt” Italian fascist unit was pending here, they were rebutted by Biamonte on page 1 of the Gazette itself: “The good Italian citizen now resident in Indiana County . . . still cherishes due regard for his motherland, but his loyalty is to the American Constitution and to the American government and flag.”  The Patriot lived those principles to the end.

In February 1917, the name Francesco Biamonte appeared proudly in the Patriot’s list of nineteen Italians who had become cittadini di Uncle Sam that month.  And when America went to war, Biamonte was “called to the colors” and reported to Camp Forrest, Georgia in June 1918.  Minus its guiding light, the Patriot ceased publication.  Two weeks later, the Indiana Progress noted that Biamonte had “failed to pass the physical due to a defective foot and was discharged.”  He moved to Pittsburgh and worked in the Foreign Department of the First National Bank there, then returned to Indiana (can you blame him?) to work for Farmers’ Bank.  But printer’s ink was in his blood, and in April 1919 the Patriot announced its rebirth.

To its prewar mission of educating and encouraging the immigrant community, the paper now added overt political advocacy which had as its aim the promotion of that community’s interests – even if that meant abandoning the party-neutral stance so proudly announced in its maiden issue.  Biamonte’s own perspective was decidedly conservative, and Indiana County was a Republican stronghold at the time, but that party’s local leadership was not immigrant-friendly; besides, most Italian-Americans opposed Prohibition while Republican candidates tended to be “dry.”  So in 1922, the Patriot came out for Democrat John McSparran for Governor.

He lost.  And so, it seemed, did most candidates whom the paper endorsed over the next two decades, including Biamonte himself when he ran for County Prothonotary.  Frustrated and (to quote historian Stefano Luconi) “longing for that political recognition which a perennial minority party was unable to grant,” Biamonte and the Patriot switched parties in 1930 and endorsed Republican Gifford Pinchot for Governor.  Such flips were not unique for Italian-language journals in our state; Pittsburgh’s Unione and Philadelphia’s L’Opinione would do so in 1932, though in the opposite direction.

Few low-income readers could afford a paper’s nickel price during the Great Depression, so the Patriot changed from weekly to biweekly.  It remained so even with prosperity’s postwar return, surviving long after every other non-daily in our county had succumbed.  In the meantime, the Patriot had lived up to its social aims by editorial support for things like women’s suffrage, veterans’ pensions and investment in America through bond sales.  That willingness to rally support for a just cause would be tested in 1941.

During the two years before our entry into WWII, Biamonte’s editorials grew increasingly bitter and critical, especially of the Roosevelt administration’s friendly relations with Britain and the Soviet Union.  But like so much else in America, the Patriot’s editorial tenor was changed overnight by Pearl Harbor.  The biweekly issue, already composed and printed the day before, was scrapped and replaced with a special edition dated Monday the 8th.  Under its masthead: “We must unite no matter what our differences of opinion.  We must stand together to keep America free.”  True to its word, the Patriot curbed its wartime criticism;  Biamonte praised Roosevelt for removing non-naturalized Italians from the list of enemy aliens, and even his contention that demanding Italy’s unconditional surrender was a mistake appeared discreetly as a letter to the editor in another paper.

Volume XXXII, Number 1 – the first postwar issue – was printed in a world very different from the one into which the Patriot had been born.  The third generation of Italian-Americans now outnumbered the first and second, and attitudes about ethnicity and assimilation were softening.  Within six years, the coal that had drawn sons of Italy across the ocean and into the mines would be replaced in half of American buildings by oil and gas; unionization, minimum-wage laws and national prosperity ended the near-slavery of those who remained in company towns, eliminating the need for an advocate in print.  And in the end, much of the Patriot’s audience came to prefer TV’s immediacy to newspapers’ depth.

By the 1950s, just one of the Patriot’s pages were in Italian.  Many readers had moved away, so although there were coast-to-coast and international subscribers, circulation had fallen well below its former peak.  But its editor, by now made a Commander in Italy’s Concordia Knights for his journalistic services, soldiered on.

Since his 1939 marriage to art professor Grace Houston, Biamonte had suspended the Patriot’s publication during July and August while the couple vacationed in Grace’s Ohio home town.  In the summer of 1955, he came home early due to an unspecified ailment and died the day after publication was to have resumed.  When it did resume on October 29th, the Patriot carried notice of its founder’s passing, yet except for listing his wife as publisher and Margaret Morrell as editor, Volume XLI, Number 1 seemed business as usual.  But the next issue, devoted entirely to the life of its founder, was its last.

If the Patriot’s final edition was a memorial to Biamonte’s life, the last one under his own hand (June 25) was an embodiment of his character.  As if by design, it focused on topics that had been crucial to the immigrant generation whose welfare had been his passion yet were even then passing into history: coal mining’s strategic importance, labor unions’ place in politics, and one’s philanthropic duty to the old country.  There was coverage of Pittsburgh’s Italian Day and the opening of the Sons of Italy Building in Philadelphia.  Reviews of opera and art and the life of violinist Niccolo Paganini were there, too, all lifelong loves.  Yet the anger that had burdened his life’s final third was there as well, in vitriolic editorials denouncing Allied involvement in WWII as Russia’s “stooges” and Fascist abuse of Italian Jews as an exaggerated “tale.”

But in the final analysis, that issue’s most revealing piece was surely the half-page spread of a rippling American flag with the caption: “July 4th, 1955 – That the principles set forth by our forefathers in the Constitution of the United States 179 years ago may be eternal.”  The patriot had lived those principles to the end.