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.

Cremation Pioneer on Gallows Hill

The United States’ first crematory is located in Western Pennsylvania. Its first cremation took place in December 1876.

I learned today that the United States’ first crematory is located in Washington, Pennsylvania.

I learned about this in the book “Disconnected from Death: The Evolution of Funerary Customs and the Unmasking of Death in America” by April Slaughter and Troy Taylor.

I learned that Dr. Francis Julius LeMoyne, a Washington, PA, physician, dedicated decades to practicing medicine and advocating for Civil Rights. By the 1870’s, Dr. LeMoyne vocalized his concerns regarding the pollution and hygienic / public health consequences of embalming and burial. Dr. LeMoyne proposed that a crematory be built in a local public cemetery. This did not happen. So, Dr. LeMoyne had the crematory built on his own property.

Dr. LeMoyne’s cremation advocacy resulted in negative responses from the Washington, PA, community. Dr. LeMoyne even offered to educate the public about cremation. How do you think that this went?

On December 5, 1876, Dr. LeMoyne finally received a body to cremate.

Dr. LeMoyne passed away in 1879 and his body became the third to be cremated in his own crematory.

According to “Disconnected from Death,” Dr. LeMoyne’s crematory still stands on Gallows Hill in Washington, PA. The Washington County Historical Society maintains it.

I had to memorize a bunch of Pennsylvania “firsts” in school. I didn’t have to learn about this cremation thing in school. So, here you go.

Back in the olden days before Joe Biden was elected POTUS, I had to learn in “Pennsylvania History” class that James Buchanan was the only U.S. President born in Pennsylvania. My history teacher and my “Pennsylvania History” book both pretty much said, “James Buchanan was the only President born in Pennsylvania. We shall NEVER speak of this again.” Ha, ha, ha. If you want to learn a little bit more about Buchanan’s administration, go Google what was said about his Secretary of War, John B. Floyd.

Do you have any interesting Pennsylvania “firsts?” If so, please reach out to me.

Thank you for continuing to read this blog. This has been a tough year. I have really enjoyed sharing stories, lore, and photos with you. Please share this blog if you enjoy it as well.

The Old Stone Tavern Needs to Have Its Own Ghost

So, for a few years now, I’ve casually followed the efforts of local preservationists to purchase and restore the Old Stone Tavern, aka Elliott’s, in Pittsburgh’s West End. Daniel Elliott, or perhaps somebody else, built the tavern / inn during the late 1700’s.

I took an interest in the tavern because it appeared in Agnes Sligh Turnbulls’s historical fiction about late 1700’s Western Pennsylvania. (Turnbull graduated from Indiana University of Pennsylvania and she wrote several books including The Day Must Dawn and The King’s Orchard.)

In The King’s Orchard, the protagonist, James O’Hara (an early Pittsburgh business leader and also philanthropist Mary Schenley’s grandfather) lived for a while at Elliott’s while he established himself as a fur trader. Also in Turnbull’s fiction, the famous / infamous Colonel William Crawford and Simon Girty drank at a colonial Pittsburgh tavern that I believe may have been based on Elliott’s. Daniel Elliott himself appeared in Turnbull’s fiction.

Turnbull’s historical fiction also referenced either a Pittsburgh innkeeper or Pittsburgh store owner named Sam Semple. I haven’t yet figured out whether Semple’s establishment later became Elliott’s, or if these were two different operations.

I can’t ask Turnbull about Sam Semple and his connection to Elliott’s because she published The Day Must Dawn in 1942 and The King’s Orchard in 1963. She passed away in 1982. She is buried in her hometown of New Alexandria, Pennsylvania.

Everything that I know about the preservation of Elliott’s Tavern came from Wikipedia, the preservationist group’s Facebook page, and the first articles that appeared when I Googled “old stone tavern Pittsburgh.”

For instance, here is an article that appeared in Pittsburgh Magazine in December 2019:

Reviving History: The Fight for the Old Stone Tavern

The last post of the “Old Stone Tavern” Facebook page showed a February 2020 date. It detailed a fundraiser held that same month in order to raise money to purchase the building.

Less than a month after this Facebook posting and the fundraiser, Pennsylvania’s governor shut Pennsylvania down due to Covid-19.

So, will Elliott’s ever open as a tavern again? I wonder. If currently open restaurants struggle right now to stay open, who knows what will happen to a tavern that closed years ago?

I’ve never looked into becoming involved in the tavern preservation group’s fundraising efforts. My husband and I have enough frustration trying to preserve our own 1890’s house. For instance, this past weekend, Jonathan transplanted a baby Japanese maple tree that was growing into our house’s foundation over to a different part of our yard, and the tree didn’t get blown over in the next day’s giant windstorm. This was a major accomplishment in our house restoration. I don’t need to get my heart broken over a 1700’s tavern.

That said, I’ve thought about Elliott’s and compared it to what I know about the Jean Bonnet Tavern in Bedford. I’ve come to the conclusion that Elliott’s needs to have its own ghost. Or ghosts. Or, at least, ghost stories.

I’ve heard that you can purchase “ghost in a bottle” kits on the internet. I think that these are all Caveat Emptor deals, though. What if the ghost that you ordered turned out to be a woman who had unpopular opinions about things?

On a more serious note, what if the ghost was one of the Native Americans slaughtered in the Gnadenhutten Massacre of 1782, or else one of the Native Americans slaughtered by Colonel William Crawford’s men, or else one of the Native Americans who received a smallpox blanket from the soldiers at Fort Pitt?

You never know what you’ll actually get when you order a ghost online. Also, a preservation group can’t purchase ghosts for a building that it doesn’t currently own.

Most of the articles that I read emphasized the tavern’s role in colonial and very early American history. I read about more recent (1870’s and Roaring Twenties) history that happened there; I’d love to blog more about that later.

Thanks for sticking by my side on this blog. I’ve blogged before about the tavern, but I owed you an American history post.

Stay healthy, and talk to you later.

Contest Winner Loot

I am so excited to receive my prize in the mail today from the Nina Sadowsky’s flash fiction writing contest that I won last month. To be honest, the card from Nina Sadowsky congratulating me for my winning entry is the item that I value the most from this package.

I accidentally wrote this story. Back in September, I saw a tweet about a flash fiction contest based on the theme of “lies.” This theme reminded me that back in the summer of 2018, I was under the impression that my mom’s cancer treatment was actually working. Then, this turned out to not be the case at all. Am I casting shade? Nah. Anyway, based on this memory, I wrote my award-winning story in one sitting. I submitted it a few hours before the deadline ended.

I have my writing notebook open in front of me now. On Saturday, February 1, I attended the in-person event “Time Management for Authors with Nicole Peeler.” Per my notes from that date, I gave myself permission to never again attempt to write fiction because I don’t actually enjoy writing fiction and I have never enjoyed writing fiction. I resolved to concentrate instead on non-fiction.

Per the next page in the notebook, I see that I attended the live, in-person event “Point of View with Lori Rayder-Day” on Saturday, March 7, 2020.

Both of these were held in an event room about the size of a high school classroom in the basement of the Oakmont Carnegie Library. For each of these, maybe 20, or 30, or 40 of us sat at several long tables. I didn’t pay much attention to the crowd size because I had no idea that these would be the last in-person meetings that I would attend for months or maybe years. Nobody at this event wore face masks because, at that time, public health officials told us that masks were not necessary and were actually harmful to the public good.

I don’t think that I social distanced. i don’t think that I even know what social distancing was on March 7, 2020. I tried to stop myself from sneezing at least once that afternoon.

Before “Point of View” began on March 7, an officer from the writing club that sponsored these presentations announced that she had just attended an official “Covid-19 Prevention Training” at her workplace. She asked if anybody in the room displayed Covid symptoms. She also asked if anybody in the room had just returned from Italy or China.

The, the “Point of View” seminar began.

During the course of this, I volunteered that William Faulkner used first person plural Point of View in “A Rose for Emily.” I also gave away the spoiler for “A Rose for Emily.” Oops! I maintain if you are enough of a glutton for punishment to put on real clothes and attend a “Point of View” workshop on a Saturday, then you already know that Emily kept her dead boyfriend’s body in that bed with her for 40 years or whatever.

Pennsylvania’s governor shut the commonwealth down due to Covid a little over a week later.

These were the last two writing workshops that I ever attended in person.

Next month, I am going to take a class about family memoir-writing over Zoom. I purchased the class reservation from a local bookstore that offers virtual writing workshops. The instructor also teaches nonfiction writing at a Pittsburgh university’s MFA program. I already read, front-to-back, two of the books listed on the class syllabus. I am excited about this class and I might possibly blog about it. I might possibly write a family memoir about life in Western Pennsylvania.

Since you, dear reader, just put up with reading this, my next blog post will be about Pennsylvania history.

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.

A Pretty Brilliant Book Marketing Idea; Subtitle: I Won A Contest Held by Nina Sadowsky

So, I joke to Jonathan that I want to die just rich enough to fund some sort of writing or scholarship contest with a small cash prize. Nothing with too big of a financial outlay. However, this should be something that is prestigious enough to encourage the winner to list MY name on their resume or CV under the “ACHIEVEMENTS” heading.

So, this should be some sort of contest designed for a college student or a struggling writer. You know, the “Jennifer Gaffron Woytek Scholarship” or the “Jenny Gaffron Woytek Memorial Poetry Contest.”

I got this idea when I neb-nosed on the LinkedIn resumes of local writers whose success make me jealous. Some of these writers listed themselves as the winners of various writing contests named after people. I thought, “I could do that. I could be the name on somebody else’s resume!”

Then, earlier this month, I saw on Twitter that Los Angeles-based author Nina Sadowsky advertised her own short story contest to promote her newly-released novel “Convince Me.” I thought, “That’s actually a pretty brilliant book marketing idea!”

You know why I thought this? I thought this because I didn’t see this on Nina Sadowsky’s Twitter feed. I don’t follow this author on social media. However, I saw this on somebody else’s Twitter feed. Sadowsky convinced people to forward a Tweet promoting her own book by adding the incentive of a writing contest with no entry fee.

Plus, the contest winner or winners would most likely promote the contest results / Sadowsky’s author website / Sadowsky’s new book on their own social media platforms.

I thought, “If I ever write and release a book, I am going to use this exact idea in order to promote myself!”

Then I thought, “I should enter this contest.”

Well, I just received an email from Nina Sadowsky advising me that I am one of her two contest winners.

Here is my winning short story, as it appears on Sadowsky’s website.

I am extremely honored that Sadowsky selected my story as one of the two winners. I read the other winning entry, and I am humbled to be considered alongside that caliber of work.

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.

A Death in Vintondale’s Jail / Schoolhouse

Vintondale's Single Cell Jail. Vintondale, Pennsylvania.
Vintondale, Pennsylvania. November 1, 2019. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

A sign on the Ghost Town Bike Trail in Vintondale, Pennsylvania, identified the cage pictured in the above photo as “Vintondale’s Single Cell Jail.”

The sign identified Denise Dusza Weber as a Vintondale historian. The sign attributed the following story to Weber:

This cell was one of two located in Vintondale’s borough building. The local public school had located classrooms in this same building due to the school’s increased enrollment in 1912-1913. As a result, one classroom shared a wall with this jail cell. In February 1913, students in this classroom reportedly heard moaning on the other side of their shared wall. Weber noted that a miner had taken his own life in the jail cell.

I learned that Weber wrote at least two books on the Vintondale area.

Jonathan and I biked on the Ghost Town Trail on November 1, 2019. On that day, Vintondale was still decorated for Halloween. The single cell jail stood in a pavilion next to the bike trail, and it included Halloween decorations. We observed two paper “ghosts” hanging in the cell.

Here’s Some Stuff About Bigfoot

Almost every year, I enter the Ligonier Valley Writer’s annual Flash Fiction Writing Contest. The prizes aren’t big. But – there’s no entry fee, and you don’t need to belong to this group in order to enter. From what I understand, the winning entries are read at Greensburg area venues around Halloween.

Each year’s contest requires a story of 1,000 words or less on that year’s stated theme. In 2018, that theme was “Bigfoot.” I submitted an entry to the contest.

Then I learned that my mom was really sick with cancer. I forgot about Bigfoot.

A few days before my mom passed away, I received an email from the Ligonier Valley Writers. The email told me that the contest awards only six prizes each year (First, Second, and Third Place, and also three honorable mentions), but that the contest organizers wanted me to know that I actually placed in the top ten of all entries. The email indicated that the top scores were close together. The contest organizers invited all ten writers who placed in the top ten to read their stories at a flash fiction party in Greensburg. Unfortunately, I had to decline the offer because this event was held the same day as the funeral home viewing for my mom. With my permission, the contest organizers designated somebody else to read the story at their party in my place.

As part of my recognition, the contest organizers also provided me with a “professionally edited” version of my story. They released me to submit the story elsewhere.

Last month, I bought a new laptop and I re-discovered this story when I moved my files to it.

I prefer to not submit this to a list of slush pile magazines who provide payment in the form of “free copies.” I respect writers who choose to do so. However, I think that you fantastic blog readers need a bit of cheer and entertainment right now. So, I present to you here the “professionally edited” version of my top-ten-placing story about Bigfoot:

Jonathan Woytek. Somerset County Cemetery. Mount Davis

The No-Kill Group

by Jenny Gaffron Woytek

Perry said, “Did you bring your gun?”

Ron said, “Don’t need a gun to find Bigfoot.”

Perry said, “You sure, man?”

Ron said, “My Bigfoot club is a no-kill group. I pledged not to pack. “

Perry insisted, “I wouldn’t spend the night in the woods without my gun.”

Ron said, “We’re scouts, not hunters. No one’s ever been hurt by Bigfoot.” 

“Ain’t Bigfoot that I’d worry about, Ron.” 

Perry took the half-bushel of apples from the back of his pickup emblazoned with “Perry’s Produce” and set it down in the trailhead parking lot. “That’ll be ten bucks.” 

“Here you go, buddy. Thanks again. Bigfoots love apples.” 

Perry said, “How far are you gonna hike?” 

“Just down this hill. I’ll set up camp in that field where that one creek flows into the Loyalhanna. The guys up at the Drop Inn saw tracks there last week.”  

Perry climbed into his truck.  “I wouldn’t do this without a gun.” 

Ron pulled off his black and gold Steelers ballcap and scratched his balding head. And what if he did have his gun? What business was it of Perry’s? “Look, man, I promised the group. No guns.” 

Perry said, “Whatever. I gotta go.” 

Perry drove away.   

Ron pulled his pack from his car. Checked it for the important stuff.  Nikon. Camp chair. Flashlight.  Snacks. Apples. Night-vision goggles. And, of course, the Nikon.  

Good to go.  

Ron had seen Bigfoot up close once. That was two summers ago on the Fourth of July, with Allison. Ah, Allison. The feel of her long soft auburn hair and the scent of that apple lotion stuff that she liked. Her huge–magnetism.  

That night, Allison wanted to watch Latrobe’s fireworks. Ron knew that the top of Laurel Ridge had the best view. He took her up a logging road.   

Ron held Allison close throughout the show. 

On the drive back down the mountain, they saw something in the headlights.  

A figure. Bigger than a man. 

Thud!                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 

Ron slammed on the brakes. “Shit!” 

Ron and Allison scoured the dark with their flashlights, but saw nothing.  

Ron found a large dent, some blood, and brown fur on the bumper the next morning.  

“We hit a bear, Ron,” Allison told him. 

“It was thinner than a bear. We both saw it. And it had brown fur. Grizzlies don’t live here,” he said. 

No bears in Pennsylvania towered over the truck on erect legs. Bears didn’t look at you with the face of a man. They didn’t run away and then appear every night in your dreams. 

 Then Allison stopped answering Ron’s texts.  Well, that was that. Now Ron walked by himself to a field on Laurel Mountain.

 He needed one good photo.  The guys who came back from scouting with blurry photos got laughed at by everybody.  

At the field, Ron set up his chair and readied his Nikon. He pulled the pheromone chips out of his pocket and hung them in several of the trees that lined the Loyalhanna Creek. He spread apples on the ground. Good to go.  

He pulled out his book and settled in for the wait. 

In 1977, a group of snowmobilers took off into the Ural Mountains and never returned. A search party found their crushed bodies one month later.” The book included pictures of the victims, alive and then in body bags. 

The sun disappeared. Ron picked up his flashlight to continue reading.  

An autopsy revealed that at least one of the victims choked to death on his own blood.” 

Then Ron heard the noise. 

“Ooo! Ooo!” 

Ron aimed his flashlight into the branches of a pine.  

He saw an owl. 

He went back to his book. “The first responders to the crime reported an overwhelming smell of sulfur.” Funny, many in the Bigfoot community believed their animal smelled like sulfur. 

He drifted off and dropped the book. 

He sat in the cab of the truck, next to Allison, who smelled like apples. The truck hit something. The figure stepped into the headlights. Large, brown fur, the face of a man. Staring at him.  

“Crack!” 

Ron started. Had he heard something? Nah. Man, it was chilly!  

“Whack!”  

Something hit him.  

He looked down and saw an apple in his lap.  He looked up. He was sitting under an apple tree.  

“Crack! Whack!” 

Several acorns landed in his hair. Oh, this was only the wind picking up.  Still–  

“Hello?” He shined the flashlight in front of him.  

“Whoosh!” went the crack of branches. 

He stood up and walked toward the trees. No time for childish fears–  

“GGGRRRRR!” 

Ron jumped back and screamed. He pulled his Glock out of his jacket pocket. 

 “GGRRUUUUHHHH!” Another apple flew past him. 

Ron shot into the darkness.  

“Uhhh!!!” 

Then–  

“You shot me!” 

Ron dropped the gun as Perry walked toward him, clutching his side. 

“Oh my god! Oh my god! Perry! Oh my god! Where did I hit you?”

 “You got me in the side.” Perry collapsed on all fours and then rolled over onto his back, clutching his ribs. 

Ron leaned over Perry. “Let me see.” 

Perry moaned on the ground. 

Ron moved his flashlight to Perry’s chest, 

Perry jumped up and screamed “GGGRRRR!” into Ron’s face. 

Ron jumped back and threw his hands into the air. “What the hell, man?” 

 “You jackass! You said no gun!” 

“You stalker!” 

Perry replied, “I’d be dead if you weren’t such a lousy shot.” 

“Crack!” 

Ron picked his flashlight off the ground just as an apple flew past him. 

A figure stepped out from behind the tree.  

A hand reached toward him. A large, fur-covered hand. 

Both men fled. 

Fionnuala the Sasquatch pulled out her camera and photographed the hairless creatures as  they ran.  

She couldn’t wait to show her photo to her no-kill group.

“Indentured Slaves” in Pittsburgh?

So, I’ve been trying to blog about this for about a year now. I couldn’t figure out how to handle the topic. I still don’t know how to handle the topic. However, we might all be dead before 2020 ends, so I will give it a shot now.

When I was a teenager, I was super “into” the American Civil War. That is, I was “into” upper class white women’s experiences in the Civil War. (Such as the the fiction of Gone with the Wind.) I didn’t care about the military strategy. Then, I went to college and formed interests in OTHER things. About a year or so ago, I joined a Civil War message board and I started to read about the Civil War again.

I still don’t care about military strategy. I still read about upper class white women’s experiences.

Last year I read most of “The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant (Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant).” Julia Dent Grant was the widow of American POTUS and General Ulysses S. Grant. (Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant during the American Civil War in 1865.) President Grant wrote his memoirs to great fanfare shortly before he died of cancer in 1885. After this, Mrs. Grant wrote her own memoirs. Mrs. Grant was actually the very first First Lady of the United States to write her own memoirs. Unfortunately, she did not find a publisher for her own memoirs during her lifetime. Mrs. Grant’s memoirs were published in the later half of the 20th century.

In Mrs. Grant’s memoirs, she wrote that her own mother, Ellen Bray Wrenshall Dent, grew up in Pittsburgh, attended school in Philadelphia, and then lived briefly in Pittsburgh as an adult. Mrs. Grant wrote that her mother and her father moved from Pittsburgh to St. Louis two years after their marriage. Mrs. Grant wrote, “Nearly all Pittsburgh assembled on the river bank to wish pretty Ellen Wrenshall and her brave young husband Godspeed.”

Here’s one part that caught my attention: Mrs. Grant wrote of this journey “The party consisted of papa, mamma, baby John, Mr. Edward Tracy, a friend of father’s, also two indentured slaves, Hester and Bob, with men for handling the rafts, etc.”

Now, the Dent family’s ownership of enslaved workers when they lived in St. Louis is well written about. The reason that I hesitated to blog about this is because on the Civil War message board that I joined last year, some of the posters use Ulysses S. Grant’s connection by marriage to a slave-owning family as support for their arguments that the American Civil War was fought over “States’ Rights” and not Slavery. I didn’t want to give any of the fools such as these more ammunition for their arguments. (Pardon the ammunition pun.)

But, I would like to know more about the “two indentured slaves, Hester and Bob” with whom the Dent family left Pittsburgh for St. Louis.

I learned through a Google search that the Dent family left Pittsburgh for St. Louis in 1819. How many of their friends who wished them well on the riverbank in Pittsburgh also had “indentured slaves?”

I didn’t even know until I was an adult that people who lived in Western Pennsylvania exploited indentured and enslaved workers in the 1800’s.

Now, in this same section of the memoir, Mrs. Grant mentioned that when she was growing up in St. Louis, several family friends visited them from Pittsburgh: “the Nevilles, O’Hara’s, Wilkinses, Robinsons, Dennys, Ogdens, etc.” I recognize several of these family names from Pittsburgh history. For instance, I blogged before about James O’Hara, who was Mary Schenley’s maternal grandfather. Ebenezer Denny was Pittsburgh’s first mayor. How many of these families had their own “indentured slaves” in Pittsburgh?

Whenever I had trouble verbalizing a thought to my late mom Shirley, Mom used to say, “Spit it out, Jen.” I don’t know if this is a saying that she learned from her own working class, German-descended Pittsburgh upbringing. But, I think of my mom whenever I am having a hard time expressing my thoughts. So, tonight I “spit it out.” Mom’s advice has actually served me very well!

By the way, I took a “break” from the Civil War message board. I can’t deal with the posters who are more upset about Robert E. Lee’s legacy being tarnished (he actually tarnished it himself!) than about the living Americans that our society failed to protect.

Growing Out of “Gone with the Wind”

This is a magnolia tree. Margaret Mitchell included the presence of magnolia trees in her novel “Gone with the Wind.”

I posted here that my cousin doesn’t like the term “New Normal” and she and her co-workers prefer the term “Temporary Weirdness.”

Yesterday, I listened to the most recent episode of the podcast “American Hauntings” hosted by Troy Taylor and Cody Beck. Taylor and Beck constantly referred to the days before Covid-19 as the “Before Times.”

So, IRREGARDLESS of whether I use the term “Before Times” or “Tempoary Weirdness” the thing is that I think about the days before Covid-19 A LOT.

So, here’s a story about my life before Covid-19.

My favorite book when I was 12 or 13 years old was Gone with the Wind.

Up until that time and even after that time, I still read the Babysitters Club and Nancy Drew books. (And also Little House on the Prairie.) However, when I was 12 years old, I watched the North and South miniseries on television, based on the book trilogy of the same name by John Jakes. I loved it. Someone suggested that I would like Gone with the Wind. I checked Gone with the Wind out of my school library. I was only in the seventh grade, but at my school grades 7 – 12 all shared one building and we shared one library.

So, I read Gone with the Wind cover to cover when I was 12 or 13. I didn’t even skip to the end and read that first, as I used to do (and still do sometimes). This was the very first “grown up” book that I read the entire way through. It was over 1000 pages long.

I loved Gone with the Wind so much that I asked my mom to buy me my very own copy of the book for Christmas. She did!

Then, I re-read my favorite sections.

Gone with the Wind was one of MY Harry Potters. (My other Harry Potter was The Babysitters Club.)

I outgrew Gone with the Wind a very long time ago.

Now, just to be clear, I’m talking about Gone with the Wind the novel by Margaret Mitchell. I’m NOT talking about the novel’s famous movie adaptation.

Here’s something that happened in the second half of Gone with the Wind the novel:

During the year 1866 or 1867 or something, Scarlett O’Hara married her second husband (Rhett Butler is husband #3). She took over the accounting / bookkeeping of her husband’s Atlanta sawmill because she was really good at numbers. All of the respectable white people in town disapproved. She did it anyway. One day, she travelled from her husband’s sawmill back to her house. Two big black men (newly freed enslaved men who live in the town slum) attacked her and tried to rip off her dress. Her husband rounded up all of the other respectable white men in town and they went and had a Klu Klux Klan raid on the black people who lived in the town slum. Husband #2 got killed in the process.

Yes, this is something that happened in the novel Gone with the Wind. This book won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1937.

I guess that I ignored this part of the book when I was a teenager. I don’t remember.

What I do remember was that I completely fell for the “Lost Cause” narrative as Gone with the Wind (the novel) represented it. I disagreed with my high school history teacher about the actual evils of slavery. I actually did this. My history teacher had a PhD.

I read at least one biography about the author, Margaret Mitchell. I also watched the made-for-television movie about her life. Shannon Dougherty of Beverly Hills 90210 starred in this movie. Based entire on this one biography and this one movie, I personally think that Margaret Mitchell suffered from trauma over losing her fiance in World War I, losing her mother in the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918, and then suffering domestic violence in a very brief first marriage. This is my personal opinion. I personally believe that Gone with the Wind reflected Mitchell’s trauma over these events.

By the time that I was out of college and married, I was completely over Gone with the Wind. Then one day, my husband Jonathan got sent to Atlanta on a business trip. I tagged along with him.

By complete coincidence, our hotel was on the opposite site of the exact same block as the house where Mitchell lived when she wrote Gone with the Wind. The Federal Reserve was on this same block. Neither my husband nor I chose this hotel ahead of time. Somebody else at my husband’s place of employment chose the hotel. I never met this person, and this person had no idea that I used to like the novel Gone with the Wind.

The house where Margaret Mitchell wrote Gone with the Wind was actually a downtown Atlanta apartment building. Mitchell lived in one of the apartments with her second husband (John Marsh) when she wrote the book. I read something once that suggested that Gone with the Wind was actually a team effort. Mitchell once wrote for an Atlanta newspaper, and Marsh was her former editor. Anyway, years later a group purchased the apartment building with the intention of turning it into a museum about Mitchell and Gone with the Wind. Shortly after the museum was set to open, most of it burned down in an arson. The group rebuilt the thing. They opened this building as “The Margaret Mitchell House.”

So, yeah, I visited the Margaret Mitchell House that one time when I went to Atlanta. I got to spend an entire week sleeping on the same block as the Margaret Mitchell House. It felt really weird, though. I had loved that book for so long. Then, by the time that I got to see where it was written, I didn’t actually think much of the book.

In fact, the docent who led me around the Margaret Mitchell House opened the tour by telling me about how much she personally loved Gone with the Wind. (I guess that you have to love Gone with the Wind in order to give tours around the apartment where either Mitchell or Marsh wrote it. I was under the impression that the docents were all volunteers.)

Then she said to me, “What do you think of the book?”

I said, “This used to be my favorite book. Now it isn’t.”

The tour was kinda awkward after this. Oh, well.

During this same trip, I rode the MARTA (the commuter train) and walked a bunch in order to visit the Joel Chandler Harris House (also called “The Wren’s Nest”). I did this because Harris wrote the Uncle Remus stories that my Grandma Gaffron read to me.

So, on my one trip to Atlanta, I toured the homes of problematic authors.

Also, my husband and I ate in a downtown Atlanta restaurant where we eavesdropped on the business meeting happening at the table next to ours. It was clearly a business meeting. All of the participants were wearing business attire. Also, I’ve sat in enough business meetings myself that I enjoy watching the pain of other people who are trapped in business meetings. The one man in this meeting told the other participants that when he was a kid, he raised a goat on his dad’s farm. Then his dad had the goat served as dinner one night. I think that someone at that table had ordered goat meat for lunch.

I miss sitting close enough to strangers to hear their entire conversations. I miss eating in restaurants. I miss visiting the museum homes of problematic authors. I can’t wait until the “Temporary Weirdness” ends.

Check Out These Fun April Fools’ Day Tricks from the 1800’s

I bought a copy of The American Girls Handy Book, by Lina Beard and Adelia Beard, copyright 1887.

The Victorian-era Beard sisters were born in the 1850’s in Kentucky. Their family moved to New York City in the 1860’s. The sisters wrote The American Girls Handy Book several years after their brother wrote a similar book for boys.

(FYI all of you English teachers and grammar snobs: I confirmed that this book possesses no possessive or plural apostrophe in the word Girls. So there.)

Chapter 1 is titled The First of April. The sisters began with these April Fools’ Day bits of lore:

1.) England: “Early Christians” referred to the day as “Festum Fatuorum” or “Fools’ Holiday.”

2.) France: The Beard sisters claimed that mackerel are easily caught on the French coast and that the fish have a reputation for low intelligence. Thus derives the term “Silly Mackerel” or “Poisson d’Avril” (French for “April Fish.”

3.) Scotland: The word “gowk” referred to a “cuckoo,” a bird that does not have the knowledge to build its own nest.

4.) India: The Huli Festival, held on the last day of March, encouraged celebrants to prank their friends.

One of the Beard sisters (the book doesn’t specify which one) then explained that one year she invited friends over to her parents’ house for a candy-pull to celebrate her April 1st birthday.

Then it hit her. What if everyone thought that this was a joke? What if nobody came? She worried. Then – all of her guests showed up at the same time. They arrived as a group so that nobody would look individually foolish if this were a prank.

5 Fun Pranks for Your April Fools’ Party

So, if you do hold your own “First of April” Party, the Beard sisters offer this advice: first assure invitees that your party is not a hoax. Then, they suggested these fun games:

1.) Who’s the Fool Now?

  • Position a large mirror in front of a doorway or window.
  • Write “We are April Fools” in soap on the top of the mirror.
  • Drape curtains over the mirror so that you completely cover the mirror.
  • Invite your guests to gather in front of the curtain-draped mirror to see a special show.
  • Draw aside the curtains so that your guests can see their own faces reflected in the mirror, under the words “We are April Fools.”

2.) The Chair

  • Write “APRIL FOOL” backwards in white chalk on a chair.
  • Convince “some boy” who is wearing a “coat” with a “dark woolly surface” to sit on said chair.
  • The boy will then walk around with “APRIL FOOL” written on his back.
  • Ha, ha! Isn’t that funny? The Beard sisters convinced me that this boy will “join in the general laughter his appearance creates” without knowing that everybody else is laughing AT him, not WITH him!
  • (Fun fact for you Stephen King fans: “APRIL FOOL” written backwards is “REDRUM.”)

3.) The Premises Liability Claim / Future Lawsuit

  • Replace the top of a “packing-box” with wrapping paper.
  • Throw a blanket or something over the thing.
  • Pile pillows on top of the blanket.
  • Make your creation look “exceedingly comfortable and inviting.”
  • Wait for someone to sit on your fake seat.
  • Watch said guest fall through the wrapping paper.
  • The American Girls Handy Book said that you should make sure that this fake couch should be “not more than twelve inches high, so that the fall will be only funny, not dangerous.”

4.) Noah’s Ark Peep-show (That’s the actual name of this prank!)

  • Procure a box shaped like a rectangle. Each end should be open but covered with a curtain.
  • Put a sliding divider in the middle of the box.
  • Announce that viewers to each side of the box will view a different animal from Noah’s ark.
  • Call up a boy to view one side of the box and call up a girl to view the other side of the box.
  • As soon as the boy and the girl peak through the curtains on their respective side of the box, slide open the middle divider.
  • The girl will view the boy and the boy will view the girl.

5.) The Cookie Table

  • Cover small blocks of wood with cake batter and bake them so that they look like cakes.
  • Cover small radishes with icing.
  • Coat button-moulds (what’s a button-mould?) with chocolate.
  • Fill a pill-box with flour. Paste tissue-paper on top. Cover the thing with icing. Offer the thing to party-goers as cake. Watch the flour fly when someone bites into the thing.
  • Mix the “trick” desserts with real desserts. What fun!

The Beard sisters ended the chapter by reminding us to “keep the jokes entirely harmless.”

After all,” they concluded, “the spirit of mischief must be kept within bounds even on All-Fools-Day.”