No Man Must Know

“To whom should this be?  M,O,A, Ilet me see, let me see.  And at the end – what should that alphabetical position portend?  ‘A’ should follow, but ‘O ‘ does….

That’s Malvolio in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, trying to decipher a secret message he’s just picked up.  He’s being pranked, but your average codebreaker’s work is deadly serious . . . especially in wartime.

America hadn’t yet been drawn into the Second World War in 1940, but it was obvious to our intelligence services that it was just a matter of time.  We needed codebreakers – lots of them, and fast.  But where to find them?  The draft was already vacuuming up men of fighting age for combat duty, and the manpower shortage would only get worse.  Hmmm….  How about women?  Naval recruiters started canvassing elite women’s colleges in New England for exceptional math and language majors of solid character.  The Army followed suit, focusing on teachers colleges in the South and Midwest.

By late 1941, there were 181 women at Arlington Hall, the Army’s cryptographic facility outside Washington D.C.  After Pearl Harbor, that number exploded: 8,000 were at work decrypting Axis message traffic there by war’s end.  And in February 1943, a unit of just two souls was added to that mass.  The code they were working on was Russian.

Wait a minute.  Wasn’t the Soviet Union our ally in that war?  It was.  But it had been Germany’s ally before that country invaded them in 1941, and if the two decided to make a separate peace, the U.S. and Britain would be facing the Axis alone.  We needed to know, and to plan accordingly.  So two codebreakers became six became dozens; new recruits and old blades were funnelled in, and by 1945 the unit was processing 400 encrypted Russian messages per day.

Into that top-secret whirlwind stepped an Indiana County hairdresser….

Angeline Rose Nanni was born in 1918 to Biagio and Philomena Nanni of Creekside, the third of six children.  Angie’s knack for numbers was apparent almost from the start: she graduated early from eighth grade, but since she was too young to attend Indiana High School yet, she helped out with bookkeeping and delivery preparation at the family grocery on Arch Street while she waited.  That same talent got her an after-school job at G.C. Murphy’s in Indiana once she was allowed to enroll.  Half of her 1937 graduating class would be in uniform five years later, but Angie was destined for even greater contributions.

no man must know

After high school, Angie left Creekside to work in Harrisburg.  Returning a year later, she joined her sisters in beauty school and then in their Blairsville and Indiana salons, where she kept the books and left the styling to Virginia, Mary and Jennie.  The Nanni sisters closed shop “for the duration” in 1944 and headed to Washington to pick up war work; Virginia joined the Marines, then returned with her sisters to their salons after the war.  Only Angie stayed on in D.C.

In the autumn of 1945, Angie was invited to test for a job with SIGINT, the Army’s Signal Intelligence Service.  She assumed it would be to qualify for routine clerical work, but when she solved a cryptic math problem using only what is now called the cognitive unconscious, SIGINT knew they’d found their next Russian codebreaker.  The other test takers – all college graduates – were sent home.

The Russian unit, codenamed Jade at first but Venona in later years, was kept secret from other codebreakers at Arlington Hall.  They sat in a screened-off area where none but those in the unit were allowed, and each evening they locked anything with Cyrillic (Russian) characters on it away with their codework.  They were never to speak of their work to anyone, not even each other, once they crossed the threshold.  Family and friends assumed they were clerical drones, and the “Code Girls” let them think so.

Venona was divided into Traffic, Reading and Back Room sections.  Angie started in Traffic, sorting encrypted messages by source.  But project head Gene Grabeel, wanting to make best use of Angie’s gift for pattern analysis, soon moved her into Reading.  There she typed the most promising messages into an IBM keypunch machine and analyzed the resulting tables for character-sets that implied the sender’s use of a certain “duplicate pad” for encryption.  That pad was the entire reason for Venona’s success against an otherwise unbreakable Soviet code.

What was it, and how did we know about it?  The key to the code’s invulnerability was its use of an ever-changing set of character-substitution sheets in the coding process.  Compiled in pads, each was to be used just once, then destroyed.  But when Germany’s 1941 invasion threatened the plant where those pads were produced, its presses, paper and personnel were moved deep into the Russian interior.  Until new sheets could be configured, it was necessary to reprint existing ones.  These “duplicate pads” (a fraction of 1942’s total output) were dispersed to Soviet spy-centers around the world in an effort to avoid the very pattern-detection Venona would eventually accomplish.  Most were used up by 1945, but that was enough: the code was cracked in 1946.

It didn’t hurt that the Finns (intentionally) and Japanese (unintentionally) gave us a hand.  Finland had been invaded by the Soviets in 1939;  resistance fighters captured a partially-burned coding pad, which they sold us in 1944.  They’d also identified structural clues embedded in Soviet message traffic, and that knowledge was sold to Japan.  When it turned up at Arlington Hall in decoded Japanese transmissions, it was passed on to Venona.  There, geniuses like Meredith Gardner and Richard Hallock broke the duplicate-pad coding . . . yet without the intuitive scanning and labor-intensive matching done by the likes of Angeline Nanni, Venona could never have uncovered the astonishing revelations that followed.  Rosie the Riveter had nothing on Connie the Codebreaker!

Once the decrypted messages were read, it was plain we’d gotten more than we bargained for.  No news of Russian-German negotiations, but a stunning parade of code-named Soviet spies in the US, UK and Australia.  Hooking up with the FBI (and later CIA), Army SIGINT was able to match details of actual persons with those mentioned in Venona intercepts.  And what a list!  In the 3,000 duplicate-pad intercepts decoded by Venona, 349 spies were mentioned, half of which were ultimately identified.  To name just a few:

  •  Henry White, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury
  • Klaus Fuchs, Manhatten Project nuclear physicist
  • Lauchlin Currie, White House advisor
  • Kim Philby, British intelligence liaison
  • Alger Hiss, UN and State Department officer
  • Julius Rosenberg, Army Signal Corps engineer
  • Duncan Lee, OSS officer, one of 20 identified

Several were tried, some turned state’s evidence and a few escaped to Russia.  Ah, and then there was the one in Venona itself.  Codenamed “Link”, he’d even been mentioned once the intercepts but was not identified until 1950 as linguist William Weisband.

Though only a small percentage of the 194248 intercepts were deciphered, Venona’s impact on history was remarkable.  Angeline Nanni and two others stayed on to the end, packing away the material for storage in October 1980.  Until that material was declassified in 1995, the public remained ignorant of Venona and what it revealed about the extent of Soviet penetration into American government, military, academia and journalism.

Angeline Nanni is still with us, one hundred years young and living in Washington.  There are still Nannis in Creekside, too, as you’ll see if you visit the family restaurant there.  As for their Angie’s place in history, well, they could surely be forgiven for saying (with apologies to Malvolio):



(Can you crack this “simple substitution cipher”?  we’ll post the answer next month on Facebook)

Swing Time

Well alreet!  Are you hep to what was happening here in the Thirties and Forties?  Sunsets in the east and west, and clambakes where a gate could really swing.  No ducks?  No problem: slip a blip in the piccolo and jump-jump-jump!

No, we hadn’t gone mad – just mad for the music of the Big Bands.  Between the jazz age and the coming of rock-n-roll was the Swing Era, and no place outside of America’s big cities swung like our little corner of the world.  The Sunset Grove at NuMine and Sunset Ballroom in Carrolltown, just over the county lines to west and east, were Pennsylvania’s most popular Big Band venues.  “Clambakes” were concerts where swing fans (gates) danced.  If you couldn’t afford the tickets (ducks), you could still drop a nickel in the jukebox and dance, dance, dance….

Like radio and the movies, Big Bands were part of what got us through the Great Depression and the biggest war this world has ever seen.  Their heyday was from 1937 through 1946, but some were popular here well into the next decade.  The first few big-name bands to visit Indiana County came in 1938;  the high-water mark was in 1940-41, and by the end of the era more than fifty had performed hereabouts.  Why did so many famous bands come this far off the beaten track?  ‘Cause we were rabid fans perched between the state’s two best ballrooms, that’s why.  Since bandleaders knew that only so many of us could fit into the two Sunsets, they made sure to book into smaller but still “happening” venues throughout the county as well.

And there were plenty of those.  Indiana had the Rustic Lodge and Meadowland, while Blairsville had its Rainbow Villa.  There was Danceland at Clarksburg, New Deal Café in Homer City and the Rose Inn out by Ernest . . . more than a dozen in all.  Each catered to local tastes, booking famous “sweet” or “hot” bands between local talent when they could.  Fans joked that the sweet-to-hot spectrum ran “from SK to SK and from Sunset to Sunset” – that is, from Sammy Kaye at the Sunset Grove (where sweet held sway) to Stan Kenton at the Sunset Ballroom (where some liked it hot).

Imagine!  Glen Miller, Artie Shaw, Duke Ellington, Tommy Dorsey, Les Brown, Lawrence Welk, Guy Lombardo . . . they all played here.  Some even called southwest PA home.  Baritone bandleader Vaughn Monroe (whose later hit “Ghost Riders in the Sky” some of you may remember) was from Jeanette and Ray Anthony was from Bentleyville.  Vocalists Maxine Sullivan and Perry Como were Homestead and Canonsburg natives, and Larry Clinton’s drummer was a fellow Indiana Countian!  Our own Norm Park and his Collegians played throughout the state, and local boy Angie Sgro (son of the Sunset Grove’s owners) even toured nationally.

 Glenn Miller played the Sunset Ballroom in 1942

Of course, not everyone was on the Big Band bandwagon.  Pittsburgh Symphony conductor Harvey Gaul pronounced swing “alleged music . . . just our current form of imbecility,” and many a Pennsylvania pulpit echoed that condemnation.  Indiana County’s strict Blue Law observance even meant there were no Sunday swing concerts here.  Sort of.  Most venues simply waited until one minute post-Sabbath to let ‘er rip.  In fact, the single most popular night of the year for dancing was “Easter Monday,” when owners booked the best bands available.  And in the county seat, where several thousand students pretty much guaranteed a vigorous night life, the State Teachers College sponsored “Swing Out” each May from 1938 to 1944.  Lindy Hop till you drop!

Admission to concerts varied widely in price, depending on who was playing.  Did you want to see local talent like the Commanders?  Thirty cents.  Dance to second-tier national bands like Jerry Gray’s?  Fifty-five.  And when the big boys came to town – you know, “Goodman and Kyser and Miller” – those ducks would run you a buck twenty-five if you could get ‘em.  Big money back then, but worth it.

Ballrooms weren’t the only place to get your swing, either.  Radio stations like WJAC and WCAE broadcast Big Band recordings and live remotes, including some from Indiana County venues.  We flocked to see any film starring name bands, and “soundies” – the ancestors of music videos – often played between newsreel and first feature.  And of course, there were the platters.  Indiana’s Blair F. Uber, “The Largest Radio Store in Pennsylvania,” had a permanent Gazette ad listing its current top-selling discs.

Then came World War II, and like so much else in our lives, the music scene was put on hold.  With fewer and fewer undrafted sidemen available, most bands disbanded for the duration.  Some went further than that: Major Glenn Miller and Chief Petty Officer Artie Shaw formed military Big Bands to sustain morale.  Back home, some bands composed entirely of women rose to fill the void, including Indiana County’s own Coquettes (whose cover of Martha Raye’s hit “They’re Either Too Young or Too Old” underscored the man shortage here!).  Fewer couples meant smaller audiences, too, so the remaining bands concentrated on big cities.  Guess where that left us?  Even non-shellac records became scarce when vinyl was declared a strategic material.

Things started looking up when Japan surrendered in the summer of ’45.  Once bandleaders and sidemen were discharged, the old orchs re-formed and hit the road.  But wait . . .  something was different.  We weren’t the same country that had danced to “Jukebox Saturday Night” and had gone “Stompin’ at the Savoy.”  An entire generation of American men had seen death and destruction for four long years, and now what they craved above all else was NORMAL  LIFE  –  marriage and family and a day job, not night life and the Hit Parade.  By the end of 1946, most of the Big Bands had called it quits.  America was moving to the suburbs.

Hang on.  That wasn’t the end.  Bands at either extreme of the spectrum, the very ones mocked by prewar music critics, survived in greatest number after the era’s end.  The likes of Shep Fields (sweet) and Gene Krupa (hot) were still welcomed at Indiana County venues and across the country as they toured in the late Forties and early Fifties.  TV networks, recognizing the resonance sweet bands had with domestic America, gave several of them their own weekly shows.  What Baby Boomer doesn’t remember the Guy Lombardo or Lawrence Welk shows?  Even Ozzie and Harriet, that icon of American family life, starred former bandleader Ozzie Nelson and his singer/wife Harriet Hilliard.  And none other than Indiana’s own Jimmy Stewart starred in the 1954 movie, The Glenn Miller Story.

Jimmy Stewart in “The Glenn Miller Story”

The final note?  Probably Big Band legend Duke Ellington’s 1983 double album All Star Road Band, recorded live at the Sunset Ballroom here in 1957.  And hey – if you gotta go, how better than to the strains of “Take the ‘A’ Train”?

Solid, Jackson!

Puttin’ on the Ritz

What a debut!  The biggest star in the history of American entertainment was born onstage at the Fourteenth Street Theater in New York on October 24, 1881.  Though she died in obscurity some fifty years later in Hollywood, most radio, film and TV greats to this very day acknowledge their debt to the star whose stage name was Voix de Ville . . . “Vaudeville.”

An eclectic mix of music, comedy, drama, dancing and circus-style acts, vaudeville was developed as a family-friendly alternative to the more bawdy saloon and burlesque entertainment of our post-Civil War era.  The secret of its longevity lay in both the ever-changing variety of its acts and the invention of the theatrical circuit by vaudeville promotor Benjamin Keith.  Acts would get their start in the catch-as-catch-can world of small venues, and if successful, were signed to a contract by one of the national circuits.  The 400 theater Keith Circuit, ancestor of RKO Pictures, was the biggest.

Vaudeville came late to Indiana County.  At first our towns just weren’t big enough to be worth a troupe’s while; after all, Voix de Ville meant “voice of the city.”  Besides, nearby Punxsutawney had more full-size theaters than our entire county AND was on a circuit.  But as our population grew in the 1890s, professional acts began to be hired for charity events, private functions and even the County Fair.  The curtain went up on big-time vaudeville here on September 6, 1899, when the Gazette announced: “The theatrical season in Indiana will be opened by the Russell Brothers Vaudeville Company, which will play Library Hall.  The troupe numbers 29 people and carries its own brass band and orchestra.”

Located behind where Indiana’s post office now stands, Library Hall (later called the Auditorium) was one of just two venues large enough to host such a full-size troupe.  Einstein’s Opera House in Blairsville, “unquestionably the largest and best theater in the county” when it opened in 1904, was the other.  So even counting the tent-shows that occasionally passed through, Indiana County vaudeville remained sparse until a certain technology changed everything….

Silent films became available to small towns about 1905, and they began to form an unexpected symbiosis with vaudeville here almost immediately.  Public demand for “flickers” caused the opening of at least eight nickelodeons (movie theaters) between 1906 and 1913, and even roller-rinks showed films after hours.  Managers needing to fill the rewind-time between films began hiring non-circuit vaudevilleans to share the bill.  It worked.  From tiny Dreamland to the spacious Globe, business boomed, and THAT caught the big boys’ attention.  The Keith, Nixon and Polock circuits started booking acts that fit on our nickelodeons’ stages (Dreamland’s was only 10’x15’) and sent the bigger ones to Einstein’s and the Auditorium.  The golden age of Indiana County vaudeville had begun.

Ad for vaudeville at Indiana’s  Star Theater (1909)

The sheer number of entertainment choices was now staggering, a sudden increase analogous to the coming of cable TV in the 1980s.  On any weeknight through 1918, an Indianan could see six vaudeville acts between three movies at one of up to five theaters . . . all for a dime.  To name just a few: The Lilliputians, midget acrobats; Harry Martine, the Juggling Jester; The Rockwell Minstrels; The Great Lamar, King of Handcuffs; Fairy Plum, the Dancing Comedienne;  Crighton and his Trained Roosters; The Mysterious Henrello; The Four Mirrors, mimics;  Valmore the Human Orchestra.

Vaudeville even did its patriotic duty in 1917 when our boys enlisted to go “Over There,” as vaudvillean George M. Cohan’s song put it.  Troops of the 110th Infantry, sent to train at Fort Lee, were entertained there by troupes hired from the Keith Circuit.

You may recall from a previous article that our county was a morally stringent place in those days.  There were no Sunday shows, nor any alcohol backstage or front.  Ads went to great lengths to assure the public of a vaudeville act’s good character.  A typical 1916 Gazette review found the Sunny South Company’s show to be “good, clean comedy . . . free from any suggestion of vulgarity.”

The one big gap in vaudeville’s character was its caricatures: ethnic and racial stereotypes formed the core of many a vaudeville comedy routine.  But there were also ethnic circuits from which small town immigrant groups sometimes hired acts for special occasions.  Heilwood’s Star Theater hosted just such a “Yiddisher troupe” during the 1916 Jewish War Sufferers fund drive, and Il Patriota gushed proudly when maestro Pietro Pastori played the Strand.

Then came Intermission.  The Colonial and the aged Auditorium closed in early 1919.  National circuits, learning of the Auditorium’s pending demolition, had withdrawn all future Indiana County bookings well in advance for want of a large enough anchor theater (Einstein’s had closed in 1916), and the remaining nickelodeons found it hard to attract independent acts.  Vaudeville all but vanished from the county for five long years.

Heilwood’s Town Hall hosted vaudeville shows.

Two full-size modern theaters rose to fill the void in 1924: the 1,200 seat Ritz and the 1,100 seat Indiana, within a block of each other on Philadelphia in our county seat.  National circuits resumed bookings, finally sending us their biggest and best thanks to the opulent new movie palaces and some theatrical mergers.  From Blairsville’s Richelieu to the Knights of Pythias Hall in Clymer, vaudeville was back!

Three years later, the old vaudeville/flickers alliance made the next great leap when vaudeville star Al Jolson appeared and sang in the 1927 film  The Jazz Singer.  But instead of benefiting both parties as the silents had, “talkies” cleared vaudeville from most movie houses nationwide by the end of 1929, and the Great Depression did the rest.

The curtain came down on professional vaudeville in Indiana County in the early 1930s.  Half the theaters on county tax rolls in 1927 had closed by 1932, and one by one, those that remained stopped featuring live variety between movie times.  The last troupe took a bow on March 19, 1932 at the Ritz in Indiana: between showings of the film High Pressure, the Vanity Fair Vaudeville Revue presented “8 BIG TIME ACTS—30 Minutes of Comedy, Singing, Dancing!”  In the corner of their Gazette ad was an unintentional but fitting obituary: Last Times Today.

There was a curtain call of sorts thereafter.  Catering to nostalgia for the good times before the Depression, some radio networks featured travelling vaudeville teams making broadcasts from local venues what we now call “remotes.”  One of those shows came to Indiana in 1935.  For three days in July, episodes of the sitcom/variety show Salt and Peanuts NBC Revue  were broadcast live from the Ritz.

And then they were gone.

Pennsylvania’s love affair with vaudeville was a passionate one, immortalized long afterwards by George Burns’ famous tag-line, “They still love me in Altoona.”  So if there are any remaining vaudevilleans out there who remember playing the Ritz . . . we still love you in Indiana!

Portrait of an Indiana Community, Part 2

Nerim – Three Who Showed the Way

Like all communities, the Jews of Indiana have produced “lights” over the years – outstanding individuals in public office, private industry and military service who show the way for those who follow.  Three such NERIM  (“lights”  נֵרים ) were Noah Adler, Max Israel and Ruth Marcus, whose lives in Indiana spanned the first 140 of our Jewish community’s 150 year history.  Far better than any dry list of dates and events, these three lives illustrate the character and development of a remarkable people.

Noah Adler

Indiana’s first permanent Jewish resident was born in Germany on August 14, 1834 to Solomon and Frau Adler.  Fleeing the famine, economic depression and failed revolutions of the 1840s, the Adlers joined the first great wave of European emigration to America and settled in Philadelphia.  There is no record of Noah’s early occupation, but in May of 1861 he enlisted in Company B of the 27th Pennsylvania Infantry to “Fight for Union” in the Civil War.  Stationed at Washington D.C.,  he fought at Cross Keys in 1862 and at Gettysburg the following year.  There he was captured and sent to the infamous Confederate P.O.W. camp at Belle Island, where he endured starvation, disease and abuse before being released in a prisoner exchange – one of the lucky few.  He was mustered out with his company in June of 1864 and would later receive a pension for his service.

Noah migrated to Pittsburgh after the war and from there to Indiana in 1867.  While our county seat had been visited by itinerant Jewish peddlers since its founding, Noah Adler was the borough’s first permanent “Israelitish citizen.”  He was still one of just three found here in 1878 by the Union of Hebrew Congregations’ census (his wife Jeanette being another), and a Gazette article dated 1891 says that his was the only Rosh Hashanah celebration in town that October.

“The Old Soldier,” as Indianans would later call him, opened his clothing store in the Bell Building at Philadelphia and Seventh Streets.  His stock at first consisted of military surplus garments.  When these sold out, he used the profits to open at a new location “opposite Apple & Thompson’s” where he sold men’s suits and boys’ clothing.  There he introduced a concept revolutionary for its time: price tags, for no-haggle shopping.  Adler’s One Price Clothing House would relocate five times in the next twenty-five years.

Like most businessmen of his time, Noah Adler was an active participant in fraternal organizations.  A founding member of Grand Army of the Republic Post 28 and Encampment 11 of Union Veterans Legion, he served as Quartermaster for each and as Treasurer for the Odd Fellows and Foresters lodges.  His second wife, Odelia (Jeanette had died in 1885), was Treasurer of the G.A.R’s auxiliary.  Though he was never elected to public office, Noah was active in Republican politics through the 1880s.

The 1890s were not as kind to the Old Soldier.  Citing inability to rent a showroom of sufficient size, he liquidated his stock and left for New York or Philadelphia (reports differ) in March of 1892, yet returned eleven months later to reopen in the Wissel Building where Caffe Amadeus is today.  Influenza, then pneumonia, struck Noah in 1894.  Bankruptcy followed; to satisfy creditors (including nephew Louis, at whose wedding he’d been Best Man), the Sheriff seized and sold Noah’s stock on the day before Hanukkah in 1896.

More legal troubles followed when Noah was charged with having “obtained under false pretenses” his final stock.  He was acquitted handily when some Indiana lawyers, in Pittsburgh on other business during the trial there, showed up to provide character witness.  After the trial, Noah moved to North Cleveland Avenue in Philadelphia, but returned here on occasion for G.A.R. functions and reunions of his Civil War unit.  When the Gazette noted his passing at age 75 on May 25th, 1910, the article called him “an affable man, large-hearted and kind.  His many acquaintances here will learn of his death with sorrow.”  Noah – “rest”, in Hebrew – now rests in Philadelphia’s Rodeph Shalom Cemetery.

Max Israel

In time, profession and personal history, the second of these NERIM  straddled the first two generations of Indiana’s Jewish community.  Contemporary with its immigrant first generation, he was native; one of Indiana’s first permanent scrappers, he had not first been a “huxter” (itinerant peddler); a resident here for fifty years, he grew up elsewhere in Pennsylvania.

Russian immigrants Rose and Moses Israel named the first of their six children Max when he was born in Hazleton on August 18, 1888.  Moses, who had made the classic transition from huxter to scrapyard operator in his twenties, moved the family to Leechburg after 1890.  It was there that Max learned the scrap trade before opening his own Indiana yard at Eleventh and Chestnut Streets in 1907.  He married Petrograd native Sarah Chalit nine years later, and the union was soon blessed with Pearl, their only child.

His timing proved to be perfect.  Indiana’s Jewish community was just beginning to bloom, and the Israels were involved from the start.  Max was one of the thirty-eight founders of Hebrew Unity Congregation, and its first Secretary; Sarah was a member of B’nai B’rith and a founder of Hadassah’s local chapter.  During the hard years of the Depression, Max’s name appeared regularly on donor rolls of the Chamber of Commerce’s Industrial Fund and of Community Chest, the forerunner of United Way.

Max’s parents joined their eldest here in 1925 after their five other children, all of whom remained in Leechburg, were grown.  Moses died three years later, becoming one of just ten people ever interred in the tiny Hebrew Unity Cemetery located where Indiana Area Senior High now stands.  Max’s wife Sarah would join her father-in-law there ten years later after a year-long illness.

The scrap business in small town America had much in common with the Jews who frequently operated it.  Labor-intensive, ever-evolving and seldom granted due respect, it was run by men who matched it with quiet energy, persistence and adaptability – men like Max Israel.  They had history in common, too.  Considered lowbrow until 1941, the profession and its operators rose in public esteem during WWII when the collection and recycling of strategic materials became so crucial to the war effort that scrapmen were granted exemption from the draft.  The “All Out Scrap” drive of 1942 was typical: teaming up with the local Boy Scout troop, Max Israel and his peacetime competitors Kovalchik, Roumm, Brodsky and Lias cooperated to fill Indiana’s quota of metals and rubber.

Like his itinerant predecessors, Max faced perils inherent in the business.  But these were legal rather than physical.  Thieves would bring fragments of metal, machine parts or copper wire to sell at the scrapyards.  When they could detect fraud, scrappers avoided buying them, but when a thief succeeded, charges could follow.  Max stood trial four times between 1928 and 1941 on charges of receiving stolen goods and “buying junk from a minor,” but was acquitted thrice.

Things changed after the war.  With peace came a robust economy in which fewer and fewer people availed themselves of the reconditioned cars, plumbing and hardware that were part of Max’s stock in trade.  His ads in the Gazette, offering to buy and sell pretty much the same things they had before the war, continued to run through 1955, but ads for temporary employment at his scrapyard ceased in 1950.

Max Israel passed away on the Jewish Sabbath of January 11, 1958.  He had lived to see his Congregation move into their new synagogue, the turning of an era.  His own passing was just such a mark; family members told the Gazette, “Mr. Israel’s business will be discontinued immediately.”  Max was buried in the Beth Israel section of Indiana’s Oakland Cemetery.

Ruth Marcus

“Why have I found favor in your eyes that you should take account of me, seeing that I am a stranger?”

Like her Biblical namesake, Chicago-born Ruth Walner was a stranger to her adopted community when she married the son of its leading citizen in 1947.  But the new Mrs. Clarence Marcus quickly found favor with Indiana, becoming as much a part of its life as any native.  Ruth was considered a “homemaker” in her time, yet this college-educated mother of three was no one’s idea of a stay-at-home.  Co-owner of McGregor Motors,  Red Cross officer,  president of Indiana’s Hadassah chapter, five-decade member of B’nai B’rith,  head of Israel Bond Harvest, fundraiser for United Way, New Century Club, Jimmy Stewart Museum . . . .  The list goes on.

The historical memory of Indiana’s Jewish community owes some of its breadth to the daughter of Louis and Ethel Walner as well.  The Ruth Marcus Jewish History Project, a comprehensive collection of documents, photos and videotaped interviews from the 1930s to 1990s, resides at IUP Archives’ Special Collections, and her own writings can be found in surviving copies of Beth Israel’s mid-century periodical, the Yiddisher Indianan.

Stranger no more, Ruth Marcus passed away at age 79 on July 11, 2007.  She rests beside her “Sunshine” (likewise-remarkable husband Clarence) in Oakland Cemetery, and in Indiana’s fond memory.


In their passage through Indiana’s history, these three describe the arc of both its Jewish community and Indiana itself through their collective lifetimes.  Will there be other NERIM  to show the way for future generations?  For those who doubt, just remember what some were saying about Indiana’s future thirty years ago.  Like their forebears through the centuries, the Jews of Indiana have produced “lights” in plenty, whenever they were needed.  “Number the stars of heaven if you can….”

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?)