My Hometown Conspired with the News Media (My High School, My Bank, and My Mom were in on It)

I participated in my first media conspiracy at the tender age of 17.

See, my family moved from Central Pennsylvania to the town of Berlin, Pennsylvania, when I was seven. Berlin is south of Somerset, in Somerset County. Today, I tell people that Berlin is less than 20 miles “as the crow flies” from Shanksville (the town where Flight 93 crash on September 11, 2001). When I was a kid, Shanksville wasn’t nationally famous because 9/11 hadn’t yet happened. So, I just told people that I lived in the town with the “Snyder of Berlin” potato chip factory. (The factory is located down the street from my high school. My class walked there for our senior field trip.)

Berlin isn’t very big. I lived on the opposite side of town from school, and we lived too close to school to qualify for bus transportation. Our school district, Berlin Brothersvalley, was geographically enormous. However, the land consisted mainly of farms. Many of my classmates were farm kids. Our entire school district’s physical plant was three whole buildings connected by a tunnel. (When we first moved to Berlin, it was only two buildings connected by a tunnel.) My senior class had less than 100 students. We mostly all knew each other from elementary school.

I played the clarinet in the high school marching band. My best friend, “Nadine,” played the symbols in the band. My sister, K.S.., played the trumpet in the band. Nadine originally played the flute and K.S. originally played the clarinet just like me, but our school didn’t have enough students who already played some of the instruments necessary for a marching band. Thus, these two agreed to embrace new musical adventures.

Where’s the conspiracy, you say? It’s coming, it’s coming. What else can you do right now? Sit at the bar? Tailgate at Heinz Field?

Our biggest high school football rival was Meyersdale. I guess that Berlin’s biggest rival today is still Meyersdale.

Every March, Meyersdale (still) holds the Pennsylvania Maple Festival. When I was a kid, this was kind of a big deal. High school senior girls from all over our county participated in a “Miss America” type of pageant to vie for the title of Maple Queen and small scholarships. My sisters and I listened to the local radio station’s pageant coverage each year. We (usually, sometimes) rooted for the contestants from Berlin. (When I was a senior, none of my classmates made the final cut to participate in the actual pageant. Womp, womp.)

In addition to the Maple Pageant, the Pennsylvania Maple Festival includes a bunch of other activities. Such as one of the largest parades in the area. My high school’s marching band travelled there to perform. I am pretty sure that a parade organizer who had it out for Berlin always put our band at the very end of the lineup.

In case it’s not clear, the Pennsylvania Maple Festival promotes the Pennsylvania maple syrup industry. The festival’s exhibits tout the “miracle” of maple sap. Or so I’ve heard. My family didn’t visit the exhibit hall. The exhibit hall has an admission fee.

Right before my senior year in high school, I learned that Berlin was trying to establish its own festival. We had the firefighter’s carnival each June and this event already included a parade, but that was a fundraiser for the volunteer fire department. It didn’t have anything unique to draw people from out of the area. The Pennsylvania Maple Festival in Meyersdale drew people from other counties and maybe even other states. I personally think that Berlin aspired to have a festival just as large. Berlin had to have its own “thing.”

Now, if anybody had asked me, I would have said, “Let’s have a potato chip festival!”

But nobody asked me.

Instead, our town decided to celebrate the Whiskey Rebellion.

Now, if you’re not familiar with the Whiskey Rebellion, you can go and read about it on Wikipedia or the website for the Heinz History Center. Briefly, in the late 1700’s, Congress decided that it needed new ways to pay its bills. (Doesn’t Congress always decide this?) Congress decided to place a tax on the production of whiskey.

Farmers in Western Pennsylvania turned their crops into whiskey because it was less expensive to transport whiskey over the Allegheny Mountains than it was to transport their raw crops. So, Western Pennsylvanians (understandably) thought that it was NOT fair that this new tax directly hit their pocketbooks. A bunch of farmers raised a militia to protest this new tax. This militia went into Pittsburgh and set a bunch of stuff on fire and probably scared the “elites” who lived in Pittsburgh. George Washington, who at the time was President of the United States, had to personally lead an army into the area to settle everybody down.

This has absolutely NOTHING in common with anything that’s happening in the United States right now. Absolutely nothing. Right?

Just to clarify: Maybe you’ve heard of the Whiskey Rebellion Festival that still happens every year (except perhaps this year of 2020?) in Canonsburg, in Washington County, in the southwest corner of Pennsylvania. This was not us. No, my hometown is Berlin in Somerset County, and my hometown is nowhere near Canonsburg. Back when I was in high school, Berlin’s community leaders decided to have its very own Whiskey Rebellion celebration. See, one of the several Whiskey Rebellion leaders lived in Berlin, which is why Berlin decided to claim the Whiskey Rebellion as its “thing.”

Berlin leaders decided that Berlin’s Whiskey Rebellion Festival would definitely have a parade. Somebody got one of the Pittsburgh network news stations to come out and do a media package about our festival. That is, the station agreed to do a story on the Pittsburgh news about our festival. Then, perhaps, people might travel from Pittsburgh to our festival. (Berlin is about a two hour drive or so from Pittsburgh.)

And this is where the media conspiracy comes into play. The local news needed to have video footage to use in its story about Berlin’s Whiskey Rebellion Festival. They had no footage because Berlin had not done this before.

So, Berlin staged a fake parade.

Every member of the high school band (which included the honor guard, color guard, etc) got out of school for several hours on the day of our fake parade. Somebody paid our school’s bus contractor to transport all of the band members, our uniforms, and our musical instruments, several miles from our high school to the start of the planned parade route. Our parade route was also the town’s main street and main business route. Many coal trucks passed down it each day because it was also a state highway that connected the PA Turnpike to Maryland. Part of this road got shut down for our fake parade. The coal trucks had to wait.

Our marching band dressed in our full uniforms. We marched down the street as we played one song, or else we played the same song twice in a row. It was all for the benefit of the camera crew from the Pittsburgh news station.

Someone released balloons as we marched past. I know that ballon releases kill wildlife and they aren’t commonly done now. However, it actually looked pretty when I watched the video footage of our fake parade.

The bank where I opened my very first checking account was located near the start of our “parade route.” The bank employees came out and stood along the street as “parade spectators.” Some of the bank employees wore costumes from the 1790’s. You know, the type of costume that people at arts festivals wear when they try to sell you homemade butter and wool.

People who lived within walking distance of the “parade route” came outside and also acted as “spectators.” My mom came to our fake parade!

Just to clarify, we only played and marched for about 5 or 10 or 15 minutes. There was nobody else in the fake parade. Just the Berlin Brothersvalley High School Marching Band. We stopped when the camera crew told us that they had enough footage.

Then, we packed up our instruments and our uniforms, took our buses back to our high school, and went back to class.

As promised, the Pittsburgh network news ran a story about Berlin’s Whiskey Rebellion Festival. My family taped the story so that my sister and I could watch ourselves marching down the street on the Pittsburgh news. We held our festival – and our real parade – a week or so later.

I graduated from high school and left Berlin. On my visits home, Berlin’s Whiskey Rebellion Festival seemed to get smaller and smaller each year. Then, the festival stopped happening.

Every time that I read about the Whiskey Rebellion, I think about the fake Whiskey Rebellion parade that I helped to stage in high school.

Don’t believe everything that you see in the media. Sometimes, things get staged to look good for the camera.

A Ghost Might Have Climbed Into Bed With Me (Subtitle: Be Careful What You Wish For!)

The bed and breakfast suite where we spent a spooky night. Jean Bonnet Tavern. Bedford, Pennsylvania.

The posts on this blog that receive the most hits are those about “haunted” Livermore Cemetery in Westmoreland County, Misery Bay in Erie, and my list of haunted history podcasts. My thoughts about William Crawford’s brutal life and his encounters with Simon Girty also scored big on the analytics. So, if you found my blog through searches on these topics, then I wrote this blog post for you.

Okay, so Route 30 as it winds up and down through Central and Western Pennsylvania – the Lincoln Highway – is one of this blog post’s biggest stars. Other writers have already published books and internet content about the ghosts and legends of the Lincoln Highway. (It definitely helps that Gettsyburg is located along Route 30!) I won’t regurgitate what they already said. I’m not gonna steal someone else’s piece of the ghost story pie. It’s totally okay with me if you go off and Google “Route 30” and “history” and “haunted.” Just please come back.

I spent my early childhood in Central Pennsylvania (near Harrisburg) and all of my living grandparents lived west of us, in the Pittsburgh area. Sometimes, when we drove between Central PA and Western PA, my dad wanted to save money on PA Turnpike tolls. On such trips, my dad drove us across the western half of PA on Route 30.

Now, once you travel from Bedford County into Somerset County, you will climb to the top of a mountain summit, then drop down said summit, and then climb to the top of another summit. Over and over again. More than once, my parents’ fully-loaded station wagon followed fully-loaded coal trucks up and down these summits. If you’re from Western PA, then you understand the pain of these trips. When I was seven, my family actually moved to a town on the top of one of these Allegheny Mountain summits, in Somerset County. We still followed coal trucks to my grandparents’ houses, but we didn’t have as many summits to climb and descend.

(Side story: Flight 93 crashed less than 20 miles from our family home in Somerset County in 2001. When the National Park Service established the Flight 93 Memorial, they built the memorial’s main access road off of Route 30. I read the Flight 93 Memorial reviews on Trip Advisor. One reviewer noted that she drove her camping trailer from the Flight 93 Memorial, up and down Route 30, into Bedford County. She described her trip as “hellish.”)

So, as you leave Bedford traveling west on Route 30 en route to the Flight 93 Memorial, Saint Vincent College (my alma mater), and Pittsburgh, you will come upon the Jean Bonnet Tavern.

Again, I won’t steal somebody else’s piece of ghost story pie by getting too deep into the history of this place. The Pittsburgh news runs at least one story every Halloween about the ghosts. Several writers published books about the stories here. A bunch of other ghost bloggers wrote about the Jean Bonnet Tavern much more thoroughly than I have the patience to do so.

Here are the basics: The tavern probably opened in the mid-to-late 1700’s. It now sits at the intersection of Route 30 and Route 31. Back in the 1700’s, these were both trails. Modern-day Route 30 was a major trail that ran from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh. The tavern sat at the bottom of the first of a series of summits that travelers crossed to reach Pittsburgh. Since this was a crossroads, local lore claims that people in trouble with the law were hung here. George Washington might have stopped here.

The tavern today includes a restaurant and a bed and breakfast. I have eaten there several times as an adult. The basement dining room and the first floor dining room have different menus. The first floor dining room includes the option of outdoor seating. I’ve dined at all three options.

I never saw any ghosts when I dined at the Jean Bonnet. My sisters and I hope to see one each time that we visit.

Well, my husband and I finally booked a room on the second-floor bed and breakfast when we travelled to the area for a family event. We booked for a one night stay, which meant that I had ONE CHANCE to see a ghost overnight. Our room had one of those little books where you can write about your stay. Some of the recent entries noted, “I didn’t see any ghosts,” but most of the recent entries for that little book for that particular room DID mention ghost encounters. In most of these entries, the room guests reported being shoved or held down as they slept.

I sat in our room and said to my husband, “I will be really disappointed if I don’t meet a ghost tonight!”

Jonathan told me that I better be careful what I wish for.

I fell asleep because I was actually really tired from all of my quality time with my family.

IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT, I WOKE UP TO FEEL SOMEBODY PINNING ME DOWN IN THE BED.

The entity pinning me down wasn’t my husband. My husband was asleep on the other side of me.

I tried to wake up my husband, but I couldn’t move and I couldn’t talk. So, either I suffered sleep paralysis, or else a ghost put its arms around me when I was in bed.

I slept some more.

I woke up to the sound of classic rock music. It was Credence Clearwater Revival or something. And then an Elton John song. It sounded as if the music was coming from the floor below, from the restaurant area. As if somebody had turned on the restaurant’s sound system. I looked out the window. The only cars in the parking lot appeared to be ours and those of the other bed and breakfast guests. It didn’t appear that any Jean Bonnet employees had arrived for the day. It was only 5 a.m. I considered dressing and leaving my room to investigate the source of the music, but I was too tired to put that much effort into the investigation.

I fell asleep again.

I woke up again around 8. I no longer heard music.

Jonathan and I dressed and went to the dining area for our breakfast. The Jean Bonnet Tavern’s owner greeted us and asked us if we had encountered any of the ghosts.

I didn’t ask about the early-morning musical wake-up call. Perhaps another guest played the music from their room. Perhaps, as I suspected, the music did originate from the restaurant’s sound system. Perhaps one of the ghosts turned it on. Perhaps the sound system was set up on an automatic timer programmed incorrectly. Perhaps one of the restaurant employees screwed up. Perhaps a living human did it on purpose to perpetuate the ghost stories. (I watched too much Scooby-Doo in my childhood.) If a living, breathing human did cause the early-morning music, would the tavern owner cop to it? Or would she play it off and blame it on the ghost anyway? After all, the ghosts seem to be a pretty major part of the tavern’s marketing campaign.

I said, “Perhaps.”

***

Postscript from the blogger: See my post “Meeting Aaron Burr in the Alleghenies.” Former FLOTUS Julia Dent Grant wrote in her memoir that her own mother, Ellen Bray Wrenshall Dent, encountered Aaron Burr at a tavern in the Alleghenies. Mrs. Dent was traveling between her home in Pittsburgh and her school in Philadelphia at that time. The memoir does not provide the tavern’s name. However, I speculate that this happened at the Jean Bonnet Tavern.

Mrs. Dent was born in 1793. I am under the impression that Mrs. Dent would have been a schoolgirl in the first decade of the 1800’s. Keep in mind that Burr shot Alexander Hamilton in 1804. The Burr conspiracy allegedly happened in 1804/05 – 1807. Aaron Burr was arrested for treason in 1807.

So, was Burr in the process of planning the alleged Burr conspiracy when JDG’s mother saw him at the tavern? When JDG wrote in her memoir of “Aaron Burr and his army,” did JDG mean the militia that Burr allegedly raised for the conspiracy?

This story stands out to me because, in my mind, Mrs. Dent said to her children (including future FLOTUS Julia Dent Grant), “Did I ever tell you about that time that I met a very famous person? Wait until you hear this story!”

If you enjoyed reading this blog post, please share it with someone else who also loves history and folklore.

Glessner (Covered) Bridge

Glessner Covered Bridge
Glessner Bridge, Somerset County, PA. November 9, 2019. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

I visit the Flight 93 National Memorial during some trips to my hometown of Berlin, PA. I travel from Berlin to the memorial on a series of back roads. (These roads are a much more direct way for me than the posted route on U.S. 30 / Lincoln Highway.)

On each trip, I pass signs for the Glessner Bridge. Tobias Glessner built this bridge in 1881. The bridge sits on the National Register of Historic Places.

Only five miles separates the Glessner Bridge from the Flight 93 National Memorial.

I visited the bridge last weekend.

If you visit the bridge, be mindful that you will leave the “main drag” of Route 30. You will travel past working farms. Last week, I had to slow down for chickens on the road. I also saw an Amish buggy. In other words, PAY ATTENTION as you drive. STAY OFF OF YOUR PHONE.

(Sidenote: Both my mother and my mother-in-law lived in rural Pennsylvania at points in their lives. Both women told stories of having to stop their cars for cows sitting in the middle of various farm roads. It happens.)

Also, here’s the barn that sits next to the bridge.

Red Barn
Red Barn, Somerset County, PA. November 9, 2019. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

Mount Davis: Pennsylvania’s Highest Point

Mount Davis, Somerset County, Pennsylvania. Early 1990’s. (Photo: Shirley Katherine Gaffron)

1.) Mount Davis is the highest point in Pennsylvania.

2.) The tallest rock shown in the above photo marks Pennsylvania’s true high point. This rock includes a metal plate noting this. In the above photo, my sister K. sits at the very top of this rock.

3.) A 50 foot metal observation tower / fire tower  sits a few feet away from this rock that marks the true high point.

Planning Your Trip to Mount Davis:

1.) Mount Davis belongs to Forbes State Forest. Here are the maps from PA DCNR.

2.) Jonathan and I sometimes come up here to escape Pittsburgh-area heat waves. Keep that in mind when you choose clothing for your trip.

3.) You can travel between the High Point and the Mount Davis Picnic Area by car or by foot on a CCC trail. The picnic area includes picnic tables, a pavilion, and a primitive restroom. However, note that there is no place to shop or buy gas on the summit. If you intend to travel south from Meyersdale to Mount Davis, note that Meyersdale is the closest place where you can purchase any of these things.

Watch your speed and watch out for Amish buggies. Be especially careful on Sundays. This area hosts many Amish farms, and the families who live here travel for Sunday worship. The first time that I brought Jonathan to Mount Davis, we missed the sign for our turn-off from Route 219 in our diligence regarding the buggies.

Enjoy your trip!

I Grew Up Near the Flight 93 Crash Site

This isn’t a political post.  I’m not going to repeat any rumors, conjectures, or hearsay. This is my personal experience on September 11, 2001.

Flight 93 crashed less than 10 miles from my parents’ house in Somerset County, Pennsylvania. I grew up in that house. In September 2001, I was between apartment leases, so I lived in that house with them and some of my sisters.

I worked at my first post-college “office job” in downtown Johnstown, PA. Johnstown sits just north of the Somerset County line.  Even though Johnstown is a third class city, the region south of it (in Somerset County) is pretty rural. My parents lived thirty miles south of Johnstown. When I commuted between my parents’ house and Johnstown, I drove through one traffic light.

I remember that a few days before 9/11, a resident of Davidsville (a “Johnstown suburb” that is actually in northern Somerset County) crashed his ultralight in somebody’s yard. This was not the first time that the guy crashed his ultralight. I saw this all over the local news. I was under the impression that the guy was okay.

On the morning of 9/11, I went to work at my employer’s office in Johnstown. We gathered in a conference room for our weekly meeting. Someone at the meeting mentioned that an airplane had crashed into a skyscraper in New York City.  We proceeded with the regular business of our meeting. We returned to our cubicles.

One of my co-workers turned on a television located on the other side of the office to watch the news coverage in New York. I ended up in front of the television. I watched the first tower collapse.

The television coverage also referenced a plane collision at the Pentagon.

The owner of the company that employed me walked over to the television and told his employees to get back to work.  I went back to my desk. One of my co-workers walked past my desk to tell me that the second tower had fallen.

THEN, the daughter of the company’s owner rushed through the office. She announced loudly that an airplane had just crashed in Somerset County.

I said, “No.  That wasn’t an airplane. That’s an ultralight. This guy in Davidsville keeps crashing his ultralight.”

The company owner’s daughter said, “No, it was an airplane that crashed.”

Really? In Somerset County?

I emailed my good friend E. who worked in downtown Pittsburgh on that day. E. told me that her office was being evacuated.

Well, it just so happens that a United States federal courthouse sits in Johnstown. So, public officials announced an evacuation of downtown Johnstown.

Even though my employer had told me only an hour or so previously to “go back to work!,” I got to evacuate my office.

Here’s the problem: I lived south of Johnstown, in Somerset County. And, we had just learned that an airplane crashed south of Johnstown, in Somerset County.

There was very, very  limited information available online about the airplane that had just crashed in Pennsylvania. We didn’t have Twitter back then. I didn’t own a smartphone, and I didn’t use any social media. I heard rumors from my co-workers that the main highway and a bunch of other local roads were closed south of Johnstown, but I didn’t have any concrete information about this.

Finally, I couldn’t call my parents. I tried, and none of my calls went through. So many other people tried to make phone calls at that same time!

I got into my car and turned on the radio. The local radio personalities didn’t have any helpful information for me. So, I decided to just drive towards home and see if I hit any road closures. I reasoned that if I came upon any, I could just detour on a back road. (I didn’t own a smartphone or a GPS system. However, I learned how to drive on a series of farm roads between my parents’ house and Johnstown. I reasoned that I could just “wing it” on the back roads of rural Pennsylvania if I needed to do so.)

It turned out that the local authorities closed the main highway just north of downtown Johnstown, but they left the highway open south of Johnstown.

So, I made it home by taking my usual route.  I didn’t actually see any barricades or any sign of the crash.

Then, someone drove past my parents’ house in a pickup truck with a bed full of gas cans.

A few days after 9/11, my employer at that time wrote a letter to the local Johnstown newspaper proposing that a memorial to the Flight 93 passengers be installed next to the convention center in Johnstown. The newspaper printed his letter.

Look, I know that my story isn’t very exciting. I don’t have firsthand testimony to support anybody’s theory of WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENED.

However, I won’t forget the day that I watched television coverage of three airplane collisions into nationally known buildings, and then learned that a fourth plane had crashed “somewhere” between my workplace and my home.