My Love Letter to Telegraph Operators and Their Heartbreaking Tragedies

I live in a house built in the 1890’s. I spend a lot of time thinking about the people who lived here before me. What did these people know about their own world? What tragedies did they see and explore?

My husband, Jonathan, purchased our house a year before I met him. I had never actually been to New Kensington until I met Jonathan. Jonathan moved to New Kensington when he was in the sixth grade because his grandparents already lived here. That’s why he later decided to buy a house in the Parnassus neighborhood here.

Parnassus borders the Allegheny River. This is important for part of my story.

The Alter family originally owned my and Jonathan’s Victorian home here in Parnassus. This same family is now buried in a churchyard down the street from this same house. I speculate that some of them still reside in the home with me and Jonathan.

Jonathan researched the Alter family. He told me about the Alters when he first showed this house to me.

Let’s start with the family patriarch, Frank Alter Sr.

Alter was born in 1871 in Pittsburgh.

Alter’s father fought in the Civil War. Alter’s father then maintained a long career with the Allegheny Valley Railroad Company.

Frank Alter Sr.’s own professional life began at age 17 with his own job at the Allegheny Valley Railroad Company as a telegraph operator.  Four years later, he was appointed station agent at New Kensington.

Now, shortly after Alter assumed his first job with the railroad, the Johnstown Flood killed over 2,000 people, in May 1889. A privately-owned dam on a private lake upstream from Johnstown failed. The wall of water demolished the communities that sat between the lake and Johnstown, and then the water hit Johnstown and destroyed it as well.

The flood occurred upstream from New Kensington as well. It occurred on a tributary to a tributary of the Allegheny River. According to the book “The Johnstown Flood” by David McCullough, flood debris washed downstream from Johnstown, eventually into the Allegheny River, on to Pittsburgh and points beyond. McCullough wrote that somebody plucked a live baby out of the Allegheny River in Verona, which is downstream from New Kensington. McCullough wrote that onlookers stood on the banks of the Allegheny, watching the results of the flood flow past them. Some even plucked souvenirs from the river.

Did Alter first learn about the flood during his duties in the telegraph office? Did he join the crowds which lined the Allegheny River’s banks?

Now, I grew up an hour’s drive south of Johnstown, and my sixth grade class studied the Johnstown Flood. We read excerpts from McCullough’s book.

McCullough acknowledged at the beginning of his book that “most” of the dialogue in Chapters 3 and 4 of his book had been taken directly from a transcription of testimony taken by the Pennsylvania Railroad in the summer of 1889. The railroad’s tracks lined the tributaries hit hardest by the flood. The railroad’s telegraph system documented events leading to the moments before the flood wiped out the tracks and the telegraph lines.

McCullough’s book noted that in the moments before the Johnstown flood happened, a railroad telegraph agent communicated the impending dam failure to Hettie Ogle, who ran the “switchboard and Western Union office” in Johnstown.

McCullough identified Ogle as a Civil War widow who had worked for Western Union for 28 years. The book noted that she was with her daughter Minnie at the time. She passed the message on to her Pittsburgh office. McCullough noted that the two perished in the flood and their bodies were not recovered.

When I was in the sixth grade, I was told that Hettie Ogle faithfully stayed at her telegraph post and relayed river gauge data until at last she wrote:

THIS IS MY LAST MESSAGE

The story haunted me.

Based on how this story was presented to our class, I was under the impression that Hettie Ogle was trapped in the telegraph office with just her daughter. I assumed that Hettie Ogle and her daughter were “rare” because they were women who also worked outside the home at the telegraph office.

Now, here is something that McCullough’s book did NOT tell me, and that I learned instead from the website for the Johnstown Area Heritage Association (JAHA): Ogle was actually trapped in that office with her daughter Minnie, “four other young ladies” who were named by the JAHA website, and also two named men. When I read the website, I understood this to mean that all eight of the named women and men who were trapped in this telegraph office worked in the telegraph industry. They all perished.

I didn’t realize until I first read the JAHA website that Hettie Ogle actually managed an office full of staff. I also didn’t realize that many of the employees in Johnstown’s Western Union office in May 1889 were women.

I have since figured out that if Hettie Ogle worked for Western Union for 28 years until she died in 1889, that means that she started her Western Union career in 1861. The Civil War also started in 1861. As I noted above, she was identified as a war widow. Did she have to take a job with Western Union in order to support her children when her husband went off to war? Did she do it out of a sense of duty for the war effort, and then she stayed with it because she enjoyed the work? I speculate now about the circumstances that led her to her “duty” operating the telegraph.

Now, I speculate about many things. I speculate that since Frank Alter Sr. got his start in the railroad industry as a telegraph operator, the tragedies of the Johnstown Flood would have impacted him personally. Perhaps he even knew some of the telegraph and / or railroad employees who died that day in 1889.

The telegraph industry of the 1800’s fascinates me because I think a great deal about my own dependence on technology.

I first realized how much I – or at least my sense of well-being – depended on being able to keep contact with others and with information on September 11, 2001. I lived in the family home in Somerset County. I worked in downtown Johnstown. Flight 93 crashed between these two points while I was at work that day.

After I and my co-workers watched the twin towers burn live on television, our employer’s co-owner told us to “go back to work.”

However, a few minutes later, this same co-owner’s daughter rushed through the office to announce that a plane had crashed in Somerset County. (This plane, we later learned, was Flight 93.) We learned that we – along with every other worker in downtown Johnstown at that time – were being evacuated because a federal court building existed in downtown Johnstown. I couldn’t reach my family who lived with me in Somerset County on the phone. I attempted, and I had no connection. I then learned that we were being asked to stay off of our phones in order to leave the lines available for emergency crews. I also learned that a portion of Route 219 – the main highway that I used to drive to my family home in Somerset County – was closed due to the morning’s events. I was being forced to leave downtown Johnstown due to the mandatory evacuation, but I had no information about whether I would be able to get back to my home in Somerset County.

I made it home to Somerset County without incident. However, this was the first time that I remember feeling confused because all of my decision making instincts depended on information that I couldn’t access.

More recently, I thought that I was so slick because I specifically curated my Twitter feed to follow the feeds for Pittsburgh’s transit agency, the National Weather Service, and several other emergency management agencies. I worked in downtown Pittsburgh by then, and I commuted home each weeknight – usually by bus – to New Kensington. I reasoned that with my specially curated Twitter feed, I would have available all of the information that I needed to make informed decisions about my commute home if I were to be in Pittsburgh and a natural disaster – or another terrorist attack – happened.

However, on the day that Pittsburgh and its surrounding region had a major flash flooding event, Twitter broke. I had based my entire theoretical emergency plan on having up-to-the date tweets from all of the sources that I listed above. I had access to no updated information from any of these sources.

Once again, I felt completely betrayed by technology at the moment when I felt its need the most.

Now, for another story that I have about being dependent on technology:

I read part of “The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant (Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant).” Julia Dent Grant (JDG) was born in 1826. In 1844, Samuel Morse sent the United State’s first telegram over a wire from Washington to Baltimore. (Congress partially funded this.) In 1845, JDG’s father, Frederick Dent, travelled from their home in St. Louis to Washington for business. He sent a telegram to Baltimore. JDG wrote that her father received an answer within an hour and that “it savored of magic.” The event was such a big deal that Frederick Dent brought the telegraph repeater tape back home to St. Louis to show the family.

Now I’m going to skip ahead in the memoirs to 1851. At this point in the memoirs, JDG is married to Ulysses S. Grant and they have an infant son. Julia visited family in St. Louis while her husband was stationed at Sackets Harbor, near Watertown, in New York State. JDG planned to telegraph her husband from St. Louis, and then travel with her nurse to Detroit. Then, she would release her nurse and meet her husband in Detroit. Finally, she would travel with her husband from Detroit to Sackets Harbor. I am under the impression that the trip from St. Louis to Detroit to Watertown was all by train.

Well, JDG telegraphed her husband in St. Louis per the plan. She left St. Louis and travelled with her nurse to Detroit. She dismissed her nurse and waited for her husband in Detroit. Her husband never showed up. JDG eventually travelled alone with her baby to Buffalo, hoping to meet her husband there. Her husband wasn’t in Buffalo, so she continued on the train to Watertown. From Watertown, she had to hire a carriage (the Uber of the 1800’s), and travel to Madison Barracks, the military installation at Sackets Harbor. The entrance to Madison Barracks was closed, so she had to yell to get a sentry’s attention.

The telegram that JDG sent to her husband from St. Louis arrived at Sackets Harbor IN THE NEXT DAY’S MAIL.

That’s right – at some point in the journey, the telegram failed to perform its basic function as a telegram. The telegram became snail mail.

After JDG’s husband was promoted during the Civil War, he travelled with his very own personal telegraph operator. (In fact, the Grants learned about President Lincoln’s assassination through a personal telegram received by the personal telegraph operator.)

By the end of the Civl War, the Grants had come a long way since their days of “snail-mail telegrams.”

Other people have actually written entire books about how telegraphs and semaphores affected the Civl War.

Here’s one of my favorite parts of JDG’s memoirs: At one point during the war, JDG asked her father, Frederick Dent, why the country didn’t “make a new Constitution since this is such an enigma – one to suit the times, you know. It is so different now. We have steamers, railroads, telegraphs, etc.

I just find this so fascinating because JDG witnessed her country’s tremendous changes that resulted from Technology. She wondered how all of these Technology changes affected her country.

I, personally, spend a lot of time wondering about how Communication Technology in general – the telegraph, the internet, whatever – changed our national culture and also changed each of us as people.

Who Remembers Fashion Bug?

Christmas tree decoration at former Hornes department store. NOT Fashion Bug. Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek

When I think of Christmas-time, I think about my times shopping at Fashion Bug.

Fashion Bug started as a women’s clothing store in Eastern Pennsylvania decades before I was born. I think that all or almost all of the stores were located in Pennsylvania.

By the time that I was in junior high school, we had our own Fashion Bug in a strip mall in Somerset. I lived in Berlin, which was about ten miles from Somerset and 30 miles from Johnstown. So, we did most of our shopping in Somerset. I was so excited when I saw regular advertisements for Fashion Bug in “Teen Magazine,” and then I realized that we had one of our very own in Somerset. I believe that this was the only time that I ever saw an advertisement in one of my magazines for a store actually located in Somerset.

I remember that the Fashion Bug ads included coupons for $10 off of a $30 purchase. The coupon was one big reason why I was permitted to purchase my eighth-grade winter coat from Fashion Bug in Somerset instead of from Kmart in Somerset. (Kmart and Fashion Bug shared the same strip mall in Somerset. Come to think of it, every single Fashion Bug at which I ever shopped was located in the same shopping center as a Kmart.)

After I outgrew “Teen Magzine,” my favorite thing about Fashion Bug was the adrenaline rush that I got from thinking that I saved a TON of money from shopping there during a “sale.” Everything that I ever purchased from that place included a price tag that indicated a significant price reduction. The store printed this same price reduction on the LONG receipts that I received with every bag of clothing. Every single item on my receipt would say something to the effect of “Full Price: $59.99. New Price: $14.99.” Then, the end of the receipt would say: “Total: $34.99. You Saved: $2,999.”

I once purchased a pair of sandals from Fashion Bug’s clearance rack for a college function for $6.99. Unfortunately, the shoes were so uncomfortable that I only wore them one or two times.

By the time that I graduated from college, I purchased most of my office “work clothes” from Fashion Bug. Twinsets, turtleneck sweaters, etc.

One time, I watched a “Saturday Night Live” skit in which a contestant on a fake dating game show identified herself as a Fashion Bug employee. The punchline was that the contestant didn’t have an opportunity to find love because she was too busy with her entry-level retail career at Fashion Bug. (I’m not laughing at retail employees. I worked in fast food next to the Pennsylvania Turnpike. I worked a low-paying retail job at a non-Fashion Bug clothing store. I worked in the shoe department at Walmart. I am sure that the “Saturday Night Live” show writers did similar.)

What does this have to do with the winter holidays? Well, I bought SEVERAL of my winter coats from Fashion Bug. I Christmas shopped there. I bought a New Year’s Eve dress for my friend’s 21st birthday party there.

I miss Fashion Bug.

Salisbury Steak and Political Swag

When my husband’s mother and grandmother were both still alive and healthy, they and my husband’s father all lived together up the hill from us. They invited us over to their house for a dinner of Salisbury steak and mashed potatoes, twice a year , on Election Day.

Every single year, I said something to the effect of, “It’s fantastic that you guys celebrate the democratic process this way!”

Then, my husband and his mom, Fran, reminded me of the dinner’s true origins.

See, my husband’s grandmother – Babcia, as the family called her – worked for the City of New Kensington. She received a day off of work from the city on each Election Day. She used her “day off” to cook a dinner which ordinarily took her too long to prepare on normal work days – Salisbury steak and mashed potatoes.

(I know – I just know – that somebody out in cyberspace is going to read this and either think or say, “Look at those lazy public servants, getting Election Day off on the taxpayers’ dime.” I don’t care. I’m a taxpayer myself. If the City of New Kensington once paid my husband’s grandmother so that she could stay home and cook dinner for her family twice a year, whatever.)

After Babcia retired from the city, she and her daughter continued the Election Day tradition.

They passed away in 2015 and 2016. We were all heartbroken. Jonathan’s dad outdid himself in trying to keep up all of the family traditions, including the Election Day dinner. I give him a lot of credit.

Then Covid happened. We stopped the big family dinners.

Jonathan and I will eat dinner alone together today on Election Day. Then, Jonathan will spend the evening at a volunteer fire department training. I will write as I listen to music and try to not watch the Election Day news coverage.

Jonathan and I both voted this morning. I joked to Jonathan, as we left our polling place – the basement of a Presbyterian Church that sits on our street – that now we had to jump in our car and drive north to Rochester, New York. This way, I could attach my “I voted” sticker to the sticker guard that protects Susan B. Anthony’s tombstone. We didn’t actually drive to Rochester. We returned to our house to do laundry and telework at our day jobs.

My sister, E., texted me to tell me that she walked around a Civil War battlefield after she voted in Northern Virginia today.

E. and I – and our other three sisters – all grew up in Somerset County, Pennsylvania. In late August each year, we walked around the Somerset County fair. I picked up every bit of “free” political swag offered to me in the exhibition tent. Pens and notepads and wooden rulers and, of course, bumper stickers. I asked my parents if I could put the “free” bumper stickers on their car and truck. They always said no. My dad told me that we couldn’t ever put bumper stickers on our family autos because this would affect the resale value. I figured out later that most of these “free” bumper stickers listed the names of people for whom my dad would never vote.

When I was in the sixth grade, our social studies class held a mock presidential election to model the actual presidential election that fall. We each wrote down our choice of candidate on a piece of paper, folded the paper, and placed it in the “ballot box.”

The election was meant to be “anonymous.”

Unfortunately, the teacher picked two fellow students to count up all of the ballots.

I had “voted” for the same presidential candidate that I knew that both of my parents favored. I was the only person in my entire class – perhaps the entire sixth grade – who voted for this candidate.

Everybody in my class wanted to know which student had voted for this candidate.

The students who had been selected to count the ballots figured out that the unpopular vote came from me based on my handwriting.

The students who counted the votes snitched on me. They ratted me out as the person who had cast the lone vote of dissent.

My entire social studies class made fun of me for this.

My classmates did me a favor. They warned me back in the sixth grade about the way that people behave when they get caught up in groupthink. They warned me at the age of twelve that politics is a dirty game.

Happy Election Day, y’all.

Do Your Achievements “Count” if People Don’t Link “You” to Them?

Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek

Every so often, I Google various combinations of “Jenny” and “Jennifer” and my maiden and married name just to see what people are saying about me. I do this mainly to see what potential employers (or old frenemies) think that they know about me.

Now, I am a Jennifer. My husband has several cousins named Jennifer. At least one of my own cousins married a Jennifer. Also, to further complicate things, I went to high school with A BUNCH of people who have the same last name as my future husband, even though they aren’t relatives and I didn’t even know my husband back then. One of these classmates was named Jennifer. As a result, I know of several women named Jennifer Gaffron at some point in their lives, and several women named Jennifer Woytek at some point in their lives.

So, I’m not that surprised when I find a bunch of results in my Google name search that aren’t actually about me. I’m okay with this. The women who come up in the image searches are attractive. They seem to have pretty happy, well-rounded lives. I’m very relieved that none of these results are that bad. I found that one combination of “my first name” and “my last name”led to one of those shady websites where your co-workers can post anonymous comments about you. The result for my name said something to the effect of, “She’s pretty grouchy, and nobody in this office likes her.” If one of my coworkers actually did write this about ME, then my apologies to all of the rest of you people with “my first name” and “my last name.”

So, I did one of my “name” searches tonight. I learned that a photo that I took appeared this past June in the “Top Photos of the Week” section of my hometown newspaper’s online version. (This “hometown newspaper” is the Daily American, Somerset County’s only daily.)

See, my dad’s neighbor got married in a socially-distanced ceremony. The wedding party paraded down my hometown’s Main Street. (This was the same section of Main Street that my high school marching band paraded down in this blog post.) I took several photos. I emailed the photos to my aunt since she attends the same church as the bride. I told my aunt that I was okay if the happy couple did whatever they wanted with the photos.

Tonight, I discovered that one of these photos appeared online in my childhood newspaper.

I hope that the new couple has a long and happy life together.

I’m flattered that someone liked the photo enough to send it to the Daily American, and that the Daily American liked it enough to post it.

This is the VERY FIRST TIME that a photo that I took appeared in a “newspaper,” even if it is an “online newspaper.” This is the very first time that a photo that I took appeared anywhere outside of my blogs and my social media accounts.

The Daily American even credited me.

I thought, “But they credited me as Jennifer Woytek. Nobody will know that I took the photo. Nobody back home knows me as Jennifer Woytek. Jennifer Woytek was someone else who went to our high school. Everyone back home knows me as one of the Gaffrons.”

Then it hit me. A lot of the people that I knew from “back home” actually moved away from Somerset County. Just as I did. Somerset County does not have a lot of high paying jobs. So, maybe nobody that I knew from back when I was Jenny Gaffron even looks at the Daily American anymore.

So, does it actually ‘count” if you accomplish something “neat” and nobody that you know socially knows about it?

This reminded me of the blog post that my sister wrote about the time that she saw David Sedaris speak. She posted a photo of her ticket stub. She wondered, “Does life only count if I post about it on social media?”

My sister made a good point.

Now, back to the results of “my first name” and “my last name.” Most of these results are of women WHO AREN’T ME accomplishing things professionally THAT I DIDN’T ACCOMPLISH. I’m happy that these women are making ME look better to potential employers, frenemies, and cyberstalkers. Thanks, you guys!

Finding Shelter at Eat’n Park

This is NOT a photo of Eat’n Park. However, I haven’t physically been inside of an Eat’n Park since Covid hit. So, this is what you get until I can walk down the street and take a photo of the one in my neighborhood.

On Monday, I read through the online Pittsburgh news. I learned that the place where I met my future husband, Jonathan, would close that very day: The Eat’n Park at Edgewood Towne Center.

See, here is how I found my husband: one of my best friends at the time, “Lucia,” met him online. She thought that he seemed like my type. She arranged an online introduction. Then, I chatted with him online. After a few weeks, we met at the above referenced Eat’n Park.

That’s how I met a lot of guys when I was single. I met them on the ‘net. Then, I arranged a “coffee date” at an Eat’n Park. For the first meeting, we arrived separately. (At this point in the “relationship,” I never gave the men my home address.) Sometimes, I arranged to have Lucia come into the restaurant with her mother. They arranged to sit nearby and have their own coffee date. We didn’t acknowledge each other. (This way, if the guy was a dud, we could all snark about him later.)

When I first met Jonathan, I was by myself. No Lucia, even though she had arranged the online introduction. I was actually on my way home from the South Side of Pittsburgh after a job interview that had not gone well. I called Jonathan and asked if he wanted to meet in person. I specifically chose the Eat’n Park at Edgewood Towne Center because I had gone there many times with Lucia and I knew how to exit the Parkway and find it. Jonathan had no idea where it was, and he got lost. I waited for him in the lobby for over an hour. He called me for directions at least once. (Smartphones weren’t a thing back then.) Then he found the place. We spent several hours that night talking. Then we became a couple.

I trusted Eat’n Park with my future and my safety.

I learned this from my mom, Shirley. Mom took my youngest sister to Eat’n Park so often that the staff recognized her when she showed up with the rest of us. Our server said to Mom, “Oh, I see that you brought your family this time!”

Mom was so embarrassed that she tried to stop going there. But she couldn’t stay away for long. One time, I went out alone with Mom’s mother. Grandma said to me, “Your mother likes to take me to Eat’n Park. Can we please go somewhere else?”

Before I met Jonathan, I made a terrible mistake one night with another man that I met online. I shall call this man “N.J.,” which stands for “NOT Jonathan.” So, per my usual plan, I met N.J. at an Eat’n Park. I did NOT tell N.J. where I lived. N.J. and I had our coffee date. I thought that we really hit it off. He seemed like a really great guy. So, I agreed to accompany N.J. to a bar in the same shopping plaza as that Eat’n Park on that very same evening. We left our cars parked at the Eat’n Park. We walked across the parking lot. Once we reached the bar, I had one drink and stopped. N.J. continued to drink. And drink. And drink. N.J. was drunk. I offered N.J. a ride home to HIS place. N.J. insisted that I take him home with me so that he could “sleep it off” on MY couch. I said no. The rest is a really long story that ended in a nearly empty parking lot next to a dark Eat’n Park. I was scared. I jumped into my car when N.J. wasn’t paying attention. I drove off. I went home and went to bed. N.J. left me drunk voice mail messages ALL NIGHT, one after the other. He left me a voice mail message to apologize the next day. I never returned his call. Had I just STAYED AT THE EAT’N PARK and ended the evening there, this never would have happened. I learned my lesson. Don’t stray beyond Eat’n Park on a first date.

I mentioned before that my family lived in Somerset County when Flight 93 crashed on September 11, 2001. After the crash, I heard stories about official-looking investigator types of men and women who spent hours drinking coffee inside the Somerset Eat’n Park during that grim autumn of 2001. It was the same Eat’n Park where my mom ate so often that the staff knew her. It was the same Eat’n Park where I smoked a menthol cigarette just to “scandalize” two conservative high school classmates who worked there. (I watched them go into the kitchen and laugh at me. So, major fail on my part.) Perhaps the Flight 93 investigators found the restaurant to be a place of safety and familiarity just as I did.

The Mary S. Bloodsucker Library

The Mary S. Bloodsucker Library.

My mom didn’t let me refer to the library as the Mary S. Bloodsucker Library in her presence. Even though my aunt S. (who actually lived a block or so down the street from this library) called it the Mary S. Bloodsucker Library, we kids weren’t supposed to repeat this.

The library’s real name was – and still is – the “Mary S. Biesecker Public Library.” Today, the banner at the top of its website says “The Community Library of Somerset, PA Since 1914.” I’m sure that Mary S. Biesecker was a solid member of the Somerset community. I’m glad that Somerset has had a “community” library since 1914. However, when I was a kid, I kinda got the feeling that my large family were unwanted guests there.

To start with, my mom had four (at the time) noisy girls. So, maybe my mom was worried that the library staff would be upset that she brought her large, uncouth family to the library. Maybe that’s why mom implored us to be on our best behavior when we got to the library. This was tough, because we all loved books. Also, we got to get out of the house on a rainy or snowy day. We were excited!

But to me, the bigger issue was that this particular library building consists of two floors – a ground floor and a basement. When I was a kid, we were only allowed to check out books from the basement. The way that I understood it, the library’s ground floor required a special library card (on pink cardboard) that my family didn’t have because we didn’t live within the limits of Somerset. We lived ten miles away, in Berlin. Our taxes didn’t go to “fund” the library’s ground floor. The building’s basement floor was the “Somerset County Library,” and since we were Somerset County residents, we qualified for a (green cardboard) library card for the basement.

So, maybe I grew up thinking that we were “intruders” in the Mary S. Bloodsucker Library because we were only supposed to consume the resources relegated to the basement floor.

Now, you might ask, why didn’t we just go to the public library in Berlin? Well, Berlin didn’t have a public library. It still doesn’t have one. So, we had the following options to borrow books:

1.) Our school library. This option was only available to students enrolled in our school district, and only during school days during the actual the school year. So, we had no summer access or Christmas break access to books through this option.

2.) The Somerset County Bookmobile. The bookmobile burned completely in an engine fire at some point. That was sad. The library held fundraisers to purchase a new one.

3.) The basement – and only the basement – of the Mary S. Biesecker Public Library in Somerset, which is ten miles away from Berlin. (Just to clarify, neither the ground floor nor the basement of this building are very large.)

4.) The Meyersdale Public Library, which was 16 miles away from Berlin. For some reason, we residents of Berlin WERE permitted to check out books in this entire building, even though our high schools were football rivals.

Now, my family was privileged to have option #3 and #4 available because we owned two automobiles. Also, my mom was able to drive us to #3 or #4 while my dad was at work. I had classmates who lived in families that didn’t even have ONE reliable automobile.

Things changed at some point. I remember being sixteen years old and checking out books from the GROUND FLOOR of the Mary S. Bloodsucker Library. So, either my parents eventually paid extra to obtain a special library card for the ground floor, or else the library changed its policy regarding borrowing privileges.

Also, at some point around or after I graduated from high school, Somerset County obtained the use of a building that was positioned BETWEEN Somerset and Berlin. They established this as the new home for the Somerset County Library. Fortunate move for Berlin residents, IF you had access to a car. There is (still) no public transportation available to this library.

We’re coming up on the second anniversary of my mom, Shirley’s, death from cancer. When I was growing up, she drove us 10 miles to the Mary S. Bloodsucker Library. She drove us 16 miles to the Meyersdale Public Library. In fact, she even stopped our station wagon and waited for cows to get off of farm roads on the drive to Meyersdale. She drove me an hour to our closest bookstore (30 miles away) every time that a brand new Babysitters Club book was released.

Before I post on the internet these days, I ask myself if what I am about to post reflects a mom who drove 10, 16, and 30 miles so that her kids could access the reading material that they wanted.

I also ask myself these things:

Why was it so blasted difficult for rural people to access libraries (and bookstores) when I was a kid?

Why was (is) there such a “have / have not” divide in Somerset County?

Does this have anything – anything at all – to do with the insights and thought processes coming out of Pennsylvania right now?

Does this have anything at all to do with the prevalence of Confederate flags that adorn Route 30 on the way to the Flight 93 National Memorial in Somerset County?

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Here’s my call to action: If you enjoy (or hate read) my blog, please share it with others would would also enjoy (or hate read) it.

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Postscript: My sister K. graduated from the Master of Library and Information Science program at Pitt, and she is now a librarian in Eastern Pennsylvania. So, sometimes noisy library patrons grow up to become librarians.

October on Mount Davis

Mount Davis, Pennsylvania. Observation Tower next to Pennsylvania’s Geographic High Point. Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek

Thinking today about fall in the Laurel Highlands / Allegheny Mountains.

Mount Davis in Forbes State Forest is the highest point in Pennsylvania.

Here is a photo that I took of the observation tower that stands close to the summit’s true geographic high point.

Here is a photo that my mom took of my dad and four out of their five kids at the summit’s true geographic high point.

Beachy’s (Collapsed?) Mini Barns

Beachy’s Mini Barns, Mount Davis, Somerset County, Pennsylvania. July 2012. Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek

Here’s a photo that I hope will cheer you up.

I don’t care who you are. This made me laugh when I saw it in person, and I hope that this makes you laugh as well.

This is a photo of a sign that says “Beachy’s Mini Barns.” However, you can see in the background the remains of some sort of collapsed shed – perhaps a collapsed mini barn?

I look this in July 2012 on the highway that leads to the summit of Pennsylvania’s highest point, Mount Davis in Somerset County.

Happy Monday, everybody!

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 cymbals 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!”

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