Black History Month Program

On February 27, 2020, the Historical and Genealogical Society of Indiana County presented “Less Known Stories of African Americans in Indiana County.”  The program was a collaborative effort between the Indiana County NAACP and the Blairsville Underground Railroad History Center.  The program began with some brief remarks by Mr. Jonathan Bogert, the Executive Director of the Historical Society, followed by an Address from Dr. Carolyn Princes, the President of the Indiana County NAACP.

The program continued with some comments by Dr. Lori Woods from St. Francis University who presented “Student reflections of the Blairsville Underground Railroad History Center.”  On February 8, 2020 students from St. Francis University visited the Blairsville Underground History Center for an interactive tour.  Following their visit, the students wrote about their experience.  The students found the tour to be very moving, and also an important aspect of our history that more people should learn about and understand.  This understanding of history helps us to improve society today and move in a positive direction.

Denise Jennings-Doyle, President and co-founder of the Blairsville Underground Railroad History Center, introduced two historical figures who visited and told their story of their life in Indiana County.

Anthony Hollingsworth was a 12-year-old freedom seeker from Virginia, was seized by slave hunters on the Simpson Farm, near Homer City.  He was bound to a horse and taken to the Indiana House hotel at Philadelphia and Sixth Streets.  There was a large crowd that gathered to protest his capture and stormed the hotel to free him.  Dr. Robert Mitchell and newspaper editor James Moorhead, ardent abolitionists, intercepted the enraged citizens and persuaded them to allow the courts to decide the young man’s fate.  The following day, Judge Thomas White asked the slave catchers to produce written evidence that slavery existed in Virginia; when they did not, Judge White set Hollingsworth free.  Several young men hoisted Hollingsworth onto their shoulders and paraded him through the streets.

Hollingsworth settled in Stratford, Ontario, where he was employed, according to the 1863 County of Perth Gazetteer, as a “hairdresser and shampooner.”  Hollingsworth never forgot the kindness and support he was shown by the local residents.  He mailed a letter to Dr. Mitchell, who briefly gave Hollingsworth shelter on his property near Diamondville, thanking him and the “good folkes” of Indiana County for their assistance.

Jane Brunson Johnston, was the wife of Lewis Johnston.  Together they were conductors in Blairsville and Allegheny City (North Pittsburgh), PA.   It’s believed they transported freedom seekers between Blairsville and Hollidaysburg.  Freedom seeker Richard Newman was living with the Johnston family on West Campbell Street in Blairsville when his attempted kidnapping occurred on April 1, 1858.  The Johnstons raised six children.  Their son Lewis Johnston, Jr. became the first black Covenanter Presbyterian preacher in Pennsylvania.

The evening concluded with musical selections by Anthony Frazier – singing and providing a history behind “Wade in the Water” and “Swing Low Sweet Chariot.”  Patti Holmes also provided musical selections of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and “The Greatest Love of All.”  Audience members were encouraged to join in singing with the performers and the Armory was filled with song.

Coming up in March the Society is hosting two programs.  The first will be an Irish Sing-a-long held on March 20, 2020 from 6-8PM in the Clark House.  If you love traditional Irish sing-a-long songs or find yourself singing classic tunes your grandparents sang for you, then you are going to enjoy the Irish Sing-a-long.  We will play and sing around the piano in the Historic Clark House.  Musical guests Allen Krynicky, Mike Busija, Scott Neuroh, Ken Black, Hazel Johnston, and Bruce Jenkins, will lead you in singing Irish tunes to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, as well as classic favorites from the 30s and 40s.  This event is an OPEN FUNDRAISER with no entrance fee or ticket cost, but donations will be gratefully accepted, with all the proceeds from this event going directly toward repairs needed for the Chickering Square Grand piano that was recently donated to the Historical Society.  For more information, or to donate to the Piano Fund, call 724-463-9600.

Our second event will be held on Sunday March 29, 2020 – the 2nd Annual National Vietnam War Veterans Day Program.  Doors will open at 5:30 PM with the program beginning at 6:00 PM.  The event will feature guest speakers, music of the era, and a historical display relating to “The Wall That Heals.”  Commemorative pins will be awarded to Vietnam Veterans by Christina Lonigro.  Refreshments and hors d’oeuvres will follow the program.  For more information and reservations please call 724-463-9600.  This event is sponsored by: The American Legion Auxiliary Post 141, the VFW Post 1989, the American Legion Post 141, and the Indiana County Historical Society.

Finally join us on Saturday April 4, 2020 at 7:00 pm in the Armory for our 3rd Annual Spring Swing.  Dress to the nines and put on your dancing shoes, it’s time to Swing!  Don’t know how? No problem! Lessons begin at 7:00pm, the dance will follow at 7:30pm.  Maybe this year we’ll try a little West Coast swing to spice things up a bit.  Tickets are $10 in advance, $15 at the door, and are available at the HGSIC or through Crisp Entertainment. Call 724-463-9600 for more information.

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.

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 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.

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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!

Spring Swing Two

Saturday April 6 was the perfect night for a dance, a fifties swing dance that is. Attendees arrived to the society dressed in their best: poodle skirts and saddle shoes. Dance lessons started at 7, for those of us who needed to learn how to swing dance, and for those who needed a refresher course. We learned the basic steps to swing dance.

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Then the night of dancing, listening to those of time tunes, and socializing began. Everyone had a wonderful time. Everyone was on the dance floor dancing everything from the swing, the polka, to the Twist. One of the lessons learned was that it didn’t matter how well one could dance, but so long as we were having fun we were doing something right.

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Special thanks to Crisp Entertainment for providing lessons, the music, and a photo booth to help all those who came out document their evening. Another huge thank you to our sponsors: The American Legion Post 141, Indiana First Bank, Holiday Beverage, and Colonial Motor Mart. And of course the evening wouldn’t have been a success without all those who attended. We hope everyone had a wonderful time and look forward to seeing everyone again at the next Spring Swing!