Pennsylvania History Reading on the Eve of September 11

Pious Spring in Somerset County, Pennsylvania

I grew up in Central Pennsylvania and also in a little farming community down the road from Shanksville (the Flight 93 crash site). However, not everyone who reads this blog lived in Pennsylvania for decades like I did. (Not sure whether I should actually admit this . . . ) So, if you’re still new here and want to learn more, here are some books about Western Pennsylvania history that I enjoyed:

1.) Anything by Thomas White

White teaches and archives at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, and he also wrote a million books about Pennsylvania history and folklore. I just finished reading White’s “The Witch of the Monogahela: Folk Magic in Early Western Pennsylvania.”

2.) The Day Must Dawn” by Agnes Sligh Turnbull

Turnbull grew up in New Alexandria in the late 1800’s. She graduated from Indiana University of Pennsylvania. After World War I ended, she wrote this fiction novel about colonial settlers in Hanna’s Town (Hannastown) during the Revolutionary War. When I toured the visitor’s center at the Flight 93 National Memorial, I learned that Flight 93 travelled over part of Westmoreland County just moments before it crashed in Somerset County. The plane travelled over the same mountains that provide the setting for this book about living with fear and hope in the 1700’s.

If you decide that you liked Turnbull’s historical fiction, note that she wrote “The King’s Orchard” about early Pittsburgh businessman James O’Hara. (O’Hara was philanthropist Mary Schenley’s grandfather and also the source of her significant fortune.) She also wrote a novel titled “Remember the End” about Alex MacTay, a fictional mine owner in Greensburg during the Industrial Revolution. I suspect that Turnbull based MacTay on a hybrid of Henry Clay Frick and Andrew Carnegie.

I don’t recommend any other of Turnbull’s many, many novels. For instance, I attempted to read her story “The Richlands” about a farming family in Westmoreland County. The book took place in the late 1800’s – I think? Everyone travelled by horse. The farm boys had to physically build their own prep school. (Kiski Prep?) There was a creepy farmhand. The father fired the farmhand before he did anything exceptionally creepy, such as murder the wife and kids. Kinda disappointing. Turnbull forgot to include a plot in “The Richlands.” NOTHING happened for 300 pages.

3.) Hannah’s Town, by Helen Smith and George Swetnam

This book was “The Day Must Dawn” for kids. It followed a fictional girl named Hannah who lived in Hanna’s Town and thought of it as “her town.” Hannah’s family very conveniently moved away from Hanna’s Town right before the British and their Native American allies sacked and burned the town. The book was written in the style of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” books. I mentioned that I just finished reading a Thomas White book. Well, in the White book that I just finished, White specifically cited “Hannah’s Town” co-author Geroge Swetnam as one of White’s folklore sources.

4.) Grant by Ron Chernow

Grant was a biography of Ulysses S. Grant. Chernow also wrote the biography of Alexander Hamilton upon which Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote his Hamilton musical. In Grant, I learned that Grant’s father, Jesse, actually lived in Greensburg (down the road from Hannastown) for years before he moved to Ohio and fathered Ulysses.

5.) The Johnstown Flood by David McCullough

I learned that in the aftermath of the Johnstown Flood of 1889, somebody fished a live baby out of the Allegheny River at Verona. (Verona is downstream from Parnassus (where I live) and upstream from Pittsburgh.)

6.) American Elegy: A Family Memoir by Jeffrey Simpson

Simpson wrote this memoir about several generations of his family who lived in the Parnassus neighborhood of New Kensington. His family lived on the same block on which I now live.

7.) The Girl Factory: A Memoir by Karen Dietrich

Dietrich grew up in Connellsville. She wrote this book about her experiences in elementary and high school in Connellsville. I read this because I saw a write-up for it in a Pittsburgh newspaper. I included it here because the author is my age. She graduated from high school with a whole bunch of people who then attended college with me. Then, even though she didn’t go to college with me, she eventually (briefly) taught creative writing at my old college. I read this book while wondering the entire time if she wrote about anybody that I recognized. I did not recognize anybody. Maybe I’m not very perceptive.

My TRUE Parade Hero (It’s NOT Who You Think!)

Western Pennsylvania Firemen’s Association Convention Parade. Downtown New Kensington, Pennsylvania. August 7, 2021. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

This blog is “The Parnassus Pen.” Parnassus is the oldest neighborhood of New Kensington, so here’s a New Kensington update.

Scroll to the end of this post to learn who I nominate as the TRUE hero of the 2021 parade for the Western Pennsylvania Firemen’s Association.

Super awesome REVITALIZERS – that is, people who poured time and money into fixing up downtown New Kensington – rolled out the first “Fridays on Fifth” this July, which was last month. These super awesome folks intend to celebrate “Fridays on Fifth” on Fifth Avenue on – wait for it – the last Friday evening of each month. Well, each month when we don’t freeze off our dupas from standing outside on Fifth Avenue.

Here are photos that I took of last month’s inaugural Friday on Fifth.

Inaugural Friday on Fifth. Fifth Avenue, Downtown New Kensington. July 23, 2021. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

When you look at my below photo, you will see a red brick wall directly behind a food truck. You will see that the building to which this wall belongs has a verticle sign that includes in white the letters “EGE.” This building housed the former Bloser’s Jewelers in downtown New Kensington. Fun fact: Crews filmed a scene from the 2019 movie “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?,” at this building.

(Confession: I read Maria Semple’s 2012 fiction novel upon which they based this movie adaptation. I haven’t yet watched the actual movie. Have you read the book or watched the movie? Just a heads-up: the story takes place in Seattle and the dad in the movie works for Microsoft. That’s one way that the book lets readers know that this family is FANCY and SPECIAL. The movie producers used Pittsburgh and the towns around Pittsburgh (such as New Kensington) as a stand-in for Seattle. Pittsburgh’s a less expensive city. One can live quite comfortably in Pittsburgh and still maintain an inflated sense of importance. Just saying.)

Inaugural Friday on Fifth. Fifth Avenue, Downtown New Kensington. July 23, 2021. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

So, now I want to share an observation. I live within walking distance of the blocks where the “Fridays on Fifth” events were held. In fact, my husband walks from our house to downtown New Kensington twice a day. I could have walked to this event from my house. I should have walked to this event.

However, the evening of this event – July 23 – was really hot and muggy. I’m lazy and I’m out of shape. So, I drove to this event. However, I showed up about an hour after the event started. I drove past THREE full, generous-sized parking lots before I found an open parking spot.

As soon as I finally parked, I took a photo of a building because I liked the way that the setting sun hit the building. Here is the photo:

Inaugural Friday on Fifth. Fifth Avenue, Downtown New Kensington. July 23, 2021. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

Now, had I posted this photo by itself with no context, I just KNOW that I would have received comments to the effect of, “That’s so sad! I remember when downtown New Kensington THRIVED. Now all of the streets are so empty! Just look how empty everything looks in that photo!”

You can’t tell from just looking at this one photo that just one block away, the street was closed and PACKED with people.

So anyway, the Western Pennsylvania Firemen’s Association held its 2021 convention and parade in New Kensington on August 7. Jonathan is a volunteer firefighter in New Kensington, so convention events busied him that entire weekend. I watched the parade and I posted about a hundred parade photos here on my Facebook page.

Now, I want to say something about my parade photos that relates to something that I just said. On more than one occasion, after I posted New Kensington parade photos, a commenter would post something to the effect of, “Look at that empty street in the background! I remember that when I watched parades in New Kensington back in the day, the streets were PACKED with people!”

So, I want to point out several things about my parade photos:

1.) I don’t watch parades near the grandstand. Even pre-Covid, I chose to not be around huge crowds of people. I choose less popular blocks when I watch parades. I usually sit on Fifth Avenue for most of the New Kensington parades. The grand stand usually sits on Fourth Avenue. (New Kensington parade routes often use both streets.)

2.) I burn VERY easily. So, sit in the shade when I watch parades. Fifth Avenue is very narrow. The sun usually hits at an angle so that one side of the street is shady and one side of the street gets all of the sun. I sit on the shady side. So do a lot of other people. Not many people chose to sit out in the sun, on the opposite side of me.

3.) I get paid $0 to take parade photos. The most that I ever made from taking a photo was $15 and a ribbon when I was ten years old and I won second place or something in the juvenile landscape division of the photography competition at the Berlin, Pennsylvania Community Fair. (I look a photo from a scenic viewing platform on top of Mount Washington in Pittsburgh.) So, I don’t sit out in the sun in order to take parade photos that have more people in the background.

So, here’s the thing. You know how I just mentioned that I’m lazy? Well, when Jonathan and I go out and have mini photography lessons, Jonathan tries to encourage me to switch camera lenses during our photo shoots. I usually refuse because I’m lazy. Also, because I’m clumsy and I’m not confident that I can switch out camera lenses “in the wild” and not drop one or both of the lenses.

So, at this month’s parade for the Western Pennsylvania Firemen’s Association, I borrowed Jonathan’s fairly new, fairly expense (for us) special camera lens. I switched camera lenses several times during the parade. I DID NOT drop any camera lenses.

However, I lost the the screw-on plastic hood for Jonathan’s special camera lens. I figured this out about an hour after I got home from the parade. I drove back to the parade route and I retraced my own walking route, looking for said hood.

I did this during a thunderstorm and a torrential downpour.

I did not find the hood.

I jumped on the internet. I found a replacement hood from a photography supply shop for $29.99 and free shipping.

So, it actually costs me money to take photos at parades.

I was really excited to see Somerset represented in this parade. I grew up in Somerset County. My dad retired from teaching at Somerset Area High School. I grew up in the next school district over, Berlin Brothersvalley. I belonged to Berlin’s high school marching band for four years. I marched in Somerset’s own Summerfest parade every July for four years. The Summerfest parade always happened the same week as my birthday. So, here’s Somerset’s fire truck as it appeared in New Kensington’s parade.

Western Pennsylvania Firemen’s Association Convention Parade. Downtown New Kensington, Pennsylvania. August 7, 2021. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

Now, for the moment you’ve been waiting for:

Here’s my personal HERO of the 2021 parade for the Western Pennsylvania Firemen’s Association.

It’s this woman:

Western Pennsylvania Firemen’s Association Convention Parade. Downtown New Kensington, Pennsylvania. August 7, 2021. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

I don’t know this woman’s name. She pushed a wheelbarrow behind the parade’s horse partcipants. I didn’t personally witness this woman shovel horse dung off of Fifth Avenue. However, I assumed that she shoveled horse dung off of Fifth Avenue and into the wheelbarrow that she pushed.

Now, all of the men and women who volunteer for the fire service are heros. My own husband belongs to New Kensington’s volunteer fire department. I know that he worked off his butt during convention time.

However, I nominated the horse dung shoveler as my personal parade hero for this reason:

As I mentioned above, I marched in Berlin Brothervalley High School’s marching band (the Mighty Marching Mountaineers) for four years. I marched in many a parade BEHIND horses. On streets COVERED with horse dung. Apparently, cleaning horse dung off of streets during parades wasn’t a thing when I was a teenager in Somerset County? (Were the parade organizers in Berlin, Meyersdale, and Somerset a bunch of uncouth barbarians?)

For instance, I mentioned above that I marched in the Summerfest parade in Somerset every July for four years. It happened the same week as my birthday. One year, the parade happened ON my birthday. I marched on a horse dung-covered street in downtown Somerset on my fourteenth birthday.

So, as a former marching band kid, I’m really happy to see that New Kensington parades include horse dung shovelers.

My runner-up for parade hero is the New Kensington parade organizer who made sure that the horse group brought their own horse dung shoveler.

Snyder of Berlin

Snyder of Berlin. Berlin, Somerset County, Pennsylvania. April 10, 2021. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

Snyder of Berlin potato chips are named after Berlin, Pennsylvania.

I know that several other plants now also make snacks under the Snyder of Berlin label.

However, I grew up in the town after which the chips are named. I went to school for a decade down the street from the Berlin factory.

In fact, the plant’s Berlin address lists “Stadium Street.” The “Stadium” part of “Stadium Street” is in reference to my high school’s football stadium. The stadium sat between my school and the potato chip factory. (I was in the high school marching band. I marched down Stadium Street many times.)

You could see and smell the factory from the school on windy days. It smelled like french fries. Like fried potatoes.

The school district, Berlin Brothersvalley, consists of three buildings connected by a tunnel. That’s the entire school district. When I started school there, the school district was only two buildings connected by a tunnel.

I was in the second grade when my family moved to the Berlin area. We rented a house for a few months. Our landlady introduced herself. She told us that she herself worked at the “chip plant.” She gave us several bags of Snyder’s potato chips as a housewarming gift.

A few weeks before my high school graduation, the entire senior class of Berlin Brothersvalley High School walked from our school to the factory. There were less than 80 of us. They divided us into several groups for our plant tour. We laughed about the hair nets that we had to wear. Several of my classmates waved to their family members who worked in the plant. This was our senior class field trip.

March Confessions

Phipps Conservatory, Pittsburgh. March 2014. We didn’t have a piano in our high school marching band. However, I was looking for a photo that was tangentially related both to music and also the word “March.” This seemed to fit the bill. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

I marched with my high school’s marching band for four years.

However, I learned about the existence of football game halftime shows on the first day of band camp in my very first season of marching band, in the ninth grade.

See, I never cared about the actual sport of football. Up until the ninth grade, I never actually watched an entire football game. Not a single pro game, college game, or high school game. None.

Then, I started to play the clarinet in the fourth grade. My parents and I planned that I would study the clarinet in school until I qualified for the elementary concert band. Then, I would play for the junior high concert band. Then, I would participate in the high school marching and concert bands. This way, I would have an extracurricular to pad my applications for college scholarship money.

By junior high school, I wanted to quit the clarinet. My parents and my music teachers always had to get on my butt to practice. I did all of my required weekly practice in one bulk, pain-filled session, the night before each weekly lesson.

(I’ve since learned that playing the clarinet is A LOT like writing.)

My parents by that point had invested so much money and time in my music (see my post about terrible, painful Christmas concerts ) that they needed me to just power through with the band thing. They reminded me that the only way that I would be able to visit Disney World is if I visited it with the high school marching band. See, my parents had no money or interest for a family trip to Disney World. However, the school marching band traditionally visited Disney World once every four years.

So, I stayed with the clarinet. (Note that on the year that it was “my turn” to visit Disney, the decision makers determined that such a trip would be too expensive and require too much fundraising. Our marching band travelled to Hershey Park instead. We marched in a parade in Harrisburg and ate at a dinner theater.)

Our school district’s elementary and junior high school bands joined the high school band by performing at the opening ceremonies of one home football game each fall. We “helped” the high school band play “The Star Spangled Banner.” Afterward, we elementary and junior high musicians received free admission to that night’s football game. However, each year that I performed such in elementary and junior high, I headed to the concession stand as soon as my musical duties ended. As soon as I finished my hot chocolate and nachos, I went home.

So, even when I “performed” at football games during elementary and junior high school, I never saw a single football game halftime show. I didn’t know that the high school band even had to put on a show at halftime.

On my first day of band camp in ninth grade, we started learning the choreography for that year’s halftime show. I said to another musician halfway through that morning, “Do we have to practice stuff like this often?”

My band classmate said to me, “This is our halftime show!”

I said, “What’s a halftime show?”

I learned that week at band camp what a halftime show looked like. So, the very first marching band halftime show that I ever saw was one in which I personally performed.

I have another marching band confession. A few weeks ago, my husband Jonathan and I had a short discussion about school music programming and the purchase of sheet music for such programming.

I told my husband, “Mr. B. (my high school band director) had a very close friend who also taught music in schools. This friend got busted by the FBI for photocopying sheet music. He had to go to prison for it. In fact, he had to teach Monday through Friday, and then every Friday night, he had to report to prison until Monday morning.”

My husband gave me that look that he gives me when when I repeat a made-up story as if it were true.

“Oh,” I said. “That’s an urban legend, isn’t it?”

My husband confirmed that this was indeed an urban legend.

I complained above that I “stuck with” playing the clarinet for years so that I could go to Disney, and instead I went to Hershey Park. However, I’m grateful that my parents pressured me to stick with the clarinet. During the last two or three years of high school, I listed my band participation on applications for non-band-related opportunities. I “won” some of these opportunities. I have no idea if my time in the band made me a strong applicant for these. I bet that it didn’t hurt me. (See here about the award that I “helped” our band to win.)

I was a mediocre musician. The girls from my elementary school who started to play the clarinet at the same time that I did were all better at it than I was. (They practiced more than I did!) We had to compete each year for “rows” and “chairs” in concert band, just like a real orchestra. I was last row – last chair. The other girls from my grade quit the clarinet at the end of junior high so that they could be cheerleaders and majorettes. I stayed. I learned about the existence of halftime shows.

So, I have another confession. For the past month or so, when my husband leaves the house, I sometimes put together my old clarinet and I play it. I don’t actually play songs, unless you count “When the Saints Go Marching In.” (That’s one of the first songs in one of the first lessons in the instruction book that I had in the fourth grade.) No. I pretty much just warm up, and then try to hit a bunch of high notes that I struggled to play in high school. I stop when I get tired or when my husband gets home. (I don’t want to torture Jonathan.)

On that Saturday back in January when I first picked up the clarinet, I had to take a two hour nap after trying to hit high notes. I had forgotten how to breath!

It’s actually pretty freeing to play a musical instrument for which I never excelled. I can sound like crap and not let anybody down. Present Jenny doesn’t disappoint Past Jenny.

Back in the pre-Covid days, I worked in downtown Pittsburgh. (I guess that I still do. The City still taxes me for Emergency Services as if I still do.) I worked directly across the river from PNC Park. On the days of Pirates home games, this one busker always stood on the Roberto Clemente bridge and played the theme song from “The Flintstones” on his saxophone, over and over. I listened and missed my clarinet.

Now, I miss the saxophone guy.

I could busk when this Covid mess is all over. I carried my clarinet to school for a decade, and I marched with it for four years. I can take it downtown on a PAT bus. I know how to play “The Flinstones.” I know how to play “When the Saints Go Marching In.” I am learning how to hit the high notes in “Sweet Child O’ Mine” that I couldn’t hit very well in high school. I would give any money that landed in my case to the saxophone guy. I just think that it would be funny if I went from playing “last row – last chair” in a school band to busking downtown.

I wonder how many ex-marching band kids miss it the way that I do now?

Girl Scout Confessions

My niece is selling Girl Scout cookies right now. I ate an entire box of thin mints by myself this past week. That’s not my real confession today, though.

I was a Girl Scout for years. My school district didn’t have a Girl Scout troop for high school kids, which is pretty much why I stopped being a Girl Scout. (That’s okay, though, because I was busy with marching band by then.)

Anyway, I attended two different Girl Scout camps: Maple Valley Girl Scout Day Camp in Meyersdale, and Camp Conshatawba in Summerhill. I also went cabin camping with my Girl Scout troop at a state park. I was kind of a brat at all three of these places.

(See my post on my other blog about the Girl Scout Mother’s Day cabin cooking adventure. Apparently, I had a real problem with learning to not talk about other people behind their backs.)

The Maple Valley camp was actually held at a public park (Maple Valley Park) in a wooded area outside of Meyersdale. The park had a swimming pool open to the public back then. The Girl Scouts only occupied one section of the park for one week each year. The Boy Scouts had their own week and their own camp at this same section of this park.

The Maple Valley Girl Scout Day Camp was held one week in August from Monday – Friday. A school bus picked us up in Berlin each day, and took us the ten miles to Meyersdale. Other Girl Scouts from all over Somerset County also attended this camp with us.

Once we arrived at camp, we were assigned to a temporary Girl Scout “troop” and we did most of our activities with that troop all week. The troop usually included other girls around our same age who attended our same school, if possible. (So, our “troops” often included the same girls who belonged to our “school year” Girl Scout troop.)

We went swimming each day if the teenaged lifeguards who supervised Maple Valley’s public pool didn’t hear thunder.

We sang songs when the camp leaders wanted to keep us busy and tire us out.

We learned how to prepare food in the woods so that we could camp by ourselves and still be able to eat. One time, we mixed up instant pudding in plastic resealable bags just in case we needed to make pudding and didn’t have any spoons or bowls or something. One of the plastic bags burst all over one girl’s jeans. In my adult life, I have never mixed up food in a plastic resealable bag, even when I was in the woods. I think that my Girl Scout camp experience turned me off from ever preparing food in plastic bags.

We played in the small creek that ran through Maple Valley Park. Then, one day, a camp leader approached our “troop” and told us that we couldn’t play in the creek any more because one of the other “troops” just saw a snake in the creek. Looking back, I think that it’s just a pretty good decision to not let large groups of pre-teen kids play in creeks that aren’t pre-inspected for broken beer bottles and discarded fishing hooks. (That’s actually how my sister K. later cut her foot one time when she was on a trip with just me and our dad.) Also, I have feared snakes my entire life. (In fact, my dad kept me out of his woodshed and also the upper loft of our garage for DECADES by telling me that snakes lived there.) However, on this particular stint at Girl Scout camp, I was PISSED that an adult told me that I couldn’t play in a creek “merely” because somebody saw a snake. I was convinced (with absolutely no basis for my reasoning) that the Boy Scouts were totally allowed to play in the creek, and that I was only told to not play in the creek because I was a Girl Scout.

The “snake incident” is not my real confession, either.

Despite its name, the oldest kids at Maple Valley Girl Scout Day Camp actually camped at the park on Thursday night into Friday morning.

We had to “put up our own tents,” even though I am pretty sure that the adults did most of the real work.

Looking back, I wonder how much “fun” the adults had with this.

Anyway, one year, I was in the same “troop” as a girl that I shall call Padmé.

Now, Padmé and I were both from Berlin. We went to the same school and she and I had been in the same “school year” Girl Scout troop. However, Padmé was actually a grade level above me in our school. Our “school year” Girl Scout troop had thirty other girls in it. Padmé and I were not really friends during the school year.

However, during that week at Girl Scout camp, Padmé and I became best buddies.

On Thursday night, Padmé told me that I could “sleep on one of her pillows.”

Guys, this was all pre-Covid.

Also, just for the record, I did bring my own pillow.

However, I accepted Padmé’s offer. I slept on one of her pillows that night.

However, I also fell asleep that night with chewing gum in my mouth.

I woke up the next morning to discover that my chewing gum now covered one side of Padmé’s pillow.

I picked some of the gum off of Padmé’s pillow. The rest of the gum stayed on Padmé’s pillow.

I chose not to cop to Padmé about getting gum on her pillow. When I returned her pillow, I turned the “gum side” so that it faced away from her.

We said our good-byes. I stared at the gum side of her pillow.

I don’t think that Padmé and I ever had another conversation . As I said above, she was a grade ahead of me in school. I don’t think that we were together in Girl Scouts again. Years later, I saw her often in the hallway of our high school. I don’t think that we were in any of the same high school activities.

I wondered now long it took Padmé to see the gum.

I wondered now much trouble she got into with her mom.

I don’t think that I ever again fell asleep with gum in my mouth.

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!