Sunday, December 10, 2017

200 block Merchant St., 1915: the mystery of Divine Redeemer's first school--plus a funeral

Vintage photos of Ambridge always excite me, especially if the scene is something I haven't seen before. But it's rare that my first view of a photo stuns me like the photo I'm posting about today did.

On March 31, 2016, this 1915 photo, showing a group of people and what appeared to be a horse-drawn hearse in front of Divine Redeemer Church's property on the west side of the 200 block of Merchant St., was posted on the Good Samaritan Parish Archives' Facebook page.  I had seen the photo before, in the 1956 Divine Redeemer Golden Anniversary book. It is not the photo that's the focus of this blog post, although it's the reason I was so awed by the photo that this post is about.

To better see the details of this photo, or the others in this post, a click or tap should enlarge them.

Divine Redeemer Church Property - 1915
Divine Redeemer Golden Anniversary 1906 - 1956 book

Maria Notarianni, who heads the committee that maintains the Ambridge Roman Catholic churches' archives at Good Samaritan Church, described the photo above on Facebook:
On April 2, 1907, Reverend Joseph A. Pospech was named Pastor of the Slovak Parish under the title of the Divine Redeemer Church in Ambridge. Land was purchased on the 200 block of Merchant St. that included a building that was suitable for a temporary church until the new one was built in 1918. The building can be seen in this 1915 photo where services were held in the basement. (The occasion may have been a funeral as there seems to be a horse-drawn hearse in front of the building.) 
The house in the photo was purchased in 1916 by Fr. Herkel to be used as the rectory.
In 1918 the new church was built to the right of the temporary church building and in 1927, a convent was built where the temporary church building was located. 
But that photo is less than the half if it. Literally, as I found out when I had the privilege of spending an hour in August 2016, with the late Karl Urda, grandson of prominent Ambridge builder and businessman Charles Kristufek, who died in 1943. During my visit, Mr. Urda shared with me several vintage Kristufek family photos, including the panoramic photo below that took my breath away when I saw it.

The photo in the Divine Redeemer Golden Anniversary book was only part of the right half of the panoramic photo!

Funeral, 200 block Merchant St., west side
courtesy Karl Urda

Here's the left side of the panorama that wasn't in the Divine Redeemer Golden Anniversary book:

Left side of panorama
Divine Redeemer funeral
200 block of Merchant St., west side
courtesy Karl Urda

The left side of the panorama shows horse-drawn carriages as far as the eye can see, I think confirming Maria's theory that the scene showed a funeral.

The building near the center of the left-side of the panorama is the First Ward School, built between 1908 and 1910. The school was closed in 1964 and razed soon afterwards.

The panorama also shows the building to the left of the freestanding bell tower, which would have been to the immediate left of where the Divine Redeemer convent later was built.

The story Mr. Urda had to tell about that building was also surprising. He told me that building was the first Divine Redeemer School, built by Charles Kristufek, who at the time was a member of Divine Redeemer, then given to the parish. Mr. Urda said that his grandfather was much criticized for building a school before a church was erected, but Charles Kristufek put a high priority on education, and thought that a school building was more important than where church services were held.

If that information is accurate, that means that the Divine Redeemer School in the old Davis Hotel, 300 Merchant St., which the church bought in 1920, was not Divine Redeemer's first school, as the modern recounting of Divine Redeemer's history says it was.

So far, I've been unable to find more information about the building, except that the 1911 and 1917 Sanborn Insurance maps of Ambridge identify the building as a dwelling, not a school.

In 1960 - 61, Divine Redeemer built a new school to replace the one in the Davis Hotel building. My memory of what was between the First Ward School and the Divine Redeemer convent before the new school was built, on property to the convent's left--or where the building that Mr. Urda said was the first school once stood--is very hazy. I seem to remember an old, derelict building there. We'd have to walk via a narrow walkway between that scary looking building and the convent to get to the old church hall behind the convent. That church hall was razed when the 1961 school was being built.

The building that was to the left of the convent before construction started on the new school apparently did not belong to Divine Redeemer, as one might expect if the building had been Divine Redeemer's first school. The Divine Redeemer School Solemn Blessing and Dedication Program, November 18, 1961, says that when plans for the new school were being finalized in 1960, "the Paul Kernich property, fronting on Merchant Street beside the Convent, was purchased," and the building on the property was razed by parish volunteers.

The razed building on the Kernich property would have stood between the Merchant St. entrance to the new school and Merchant St.

Merchant St. entrance to the former Divine Redeemer School
March 22, 2014
credit: Nancy Knisley

So, the history of the building that Mr. Urda identified as Divine Redeemer's first school, currently remains murky. Is the family story about that building being built as a school for Divine Redeemer true or merely a family legend? Did Divine Redeemer once own that building and later sell it? Did the Kruistufek family once own that property, but allowed the church to use it as a school, then later sold it? At this point, I can't say.

But perhaps, some day, I will be able to find more information about the building. And, maybe even find out whose funeral that might have been in 1915. If so, I'll update this post.

Karl Urda died on March 9, 2017. I'm so grateful that he made time to talk to me and allow me to scan his vintage family photos.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Ambridge memorabilia: National Air Mail Week cacheted envelope, 1938

Ambridge National Air Mail Week postal cover
May 19, 1938

I've added postal cachets to my growing list of "random things I now know something about only because I've been researching Ambridge's history":

This envelope, postmarked May 19, 1938, in Ambridge, was part of a U.S. Postal Service week-long promotion of air mail. I think most of us now assume that mail going any distance travels by air. But not so in 1938, when mail primarily traveled by trucks, trains, and ships. Cross-country or overseas letters could take weeks to arrive at their destination.

The Postmaster General at the time, James Farley, declared May 15 - 21, 1938, "National Air Mail Week" (NAMW) to mark the 20th Anniversary of the first scheduled delivery of mail by plane. All local postmasters were encouraged to create a unique commemorative NAMW “cachet”-- that design on the left side of the envelope--to mark the event. And they were supposed to bring attention to the benefits of air mail. Citizens were urged to send at least one letter by air mail during the NAMW celebration.

May 19, the day of the postmark on the never-mailed envelope above, was the day chosen for special NAMW events. Among the events were one-time-only NAMW plane flights, with planes carrying mail between the many towns celebrating NAMW. Many of those towns didn't have airports, but landing strips for small planes were prepared on local streets and fields.

Ambridge's NAMW cachet, featuring Old Economy Village, was one of an estimated 10,000 that were used in towns across the country. I don't know if a plane landed in Ambridge on May 19, 1938, but I'm going to try to find out. I'll update this post if I find any more information.

Here's a closeup view of the Ambridge cachet:

Ambridge NAMW cachet

Saturday, November 11, 2017

No bars allowed: when Ambridge was dry--or at least supposed to be

"What was the most surprising thing you've learned about Ambridge from your research?" Lois Himes, a librarian at Laughlin Memorial Library, who died on October 17, asked me earlier this year.

I had to think about Lois' question for a while, but then the answer came to me with absolute certainty, and no other fact about Ambridge I've discovered so far even comes close: the most surprising thing I've learned about Ambridge was that it was once dry. Dry as in alcoholic beverages could not be sold legally. And I'm not talking about just during the Prohibition years; I'm talking about the first 50 years of Ambridge's existence.

At least it was supposed to be dry for 50 years.

Yes, Ambridge, where long-time residents still boast about the number of bars the borough had back in the day when the mills employed thousands of hardworking, thirsty workers. I've heard the claim there were once 200 or so bars where millworkers could stop for a shot and a beer on their way home, no matter what shift they worked. Or maybe on their way to work, although the mills frowned on that.

"Steelworkers in corner beer parlor. Ambridge, Pennsylvania"
John Vachon
January 1941
Library of Congress

Yes, Ambridge, which people proudly claim once held the Guinness World Record for being the town with the largest combined total of bars and churches per capita. (But although I wouldn't be surprised to find that Ambridge indeed once may have had bragging rights to such a record, I've searched the Guinness database and could find no entry for Ambridge or "bars and churches." Nor have I been able to find evidence of any similar kind of official record elsewhere.)

In addition to all the bars, there were dozens of ethnic social clubs that supported themselves with their liquor and beer sales, made all the more lucrative because they were open on Sundays when the bars couldn't open.

"Bar at Catholic Sokol Club. Ambridge, Pennsylvania"
John Vachon
January 1941
Library of Congress

To be clear, not all of the area within the current boundaries of Ambridge Borough was dry, only the original Ambridge, located on land once owned by the American Bridge Co. and later sold through the company's real estate arm, the Ambridge Land Co. That property, which became the borough's First and Second Wards, extended from Big Sewickley Creek on the south to the current 8th St. (then called Bryden Rd.) on the north, and from Park Rd. on the west to Merchant St. and Duss Ave. on the east. I'll refer to it as the "dry area."

I think I first came across the startling information about the dry area in 2014, when I found a news clipping of a car in front of Ambridge's old Davis Hotel, in one of Bill Bowan's albums in Ambridge's Laughlin Memorial Library's archives. The clipping was one of the "Looking Back" photos the Beaver County Times once did from time to time.*

Group showing off car, George S. Capp at far right
at Davis Hotel, 1913
300 Merchant St.
Beaver County Times
July 9, 1984
courtesy Laughlin Memorial Library archives

I'm sure the focus of the original photo was the car--not common in 1913 Ambridge--and the group of men posing with it. But information about the photo, probably provided by Bowan since he was the one who had submitted the photo for publication, included this:
The hotel was almost on the boundary line of Harmony Township on Beaver Road. On the east side of Beaver Road was the township, where liquor sales were permitted.
The location of the hotel was controversial because Ambridge prohibited liquor sales before World War I...But its proximity to the Harmony Township boundary allowed liquor sale in the Beaver Road and Third Street area.
Well, that was a startling bit of Ambridge history. I've been looking for more information about Ambridge's dry area ever since. What I've found since 2014 has gaps, leaving important questions unanswered--including the big one, "Given the legal restriction against the sale of liquor, how did the southern end of Ambridge end up with so many bars long before 50 years had passed?!"

I am continuing my search, but here's what I know so far:

I've mentioned my research about "dry Ambridge" to a few people who have an interest in Ambridge history, and none knew about the restriction on liquor sales. And they'd immediately jump to the conclusion that the Harmony Society, once the owner of the land, was responsible for the alcohol prohibition. But while the Harmony Society's members may have practiced celibacy, they were not adverse to the consumption of alcoholic beverages. The Harmonists were famous for their winemaking skills. In addition, they owned a brewery and a distillery.

Although I haven't seen the legal document that created the dry area, it's pretty clear from newspaper articles that the liquor restriction was at the behest of the American Bridge Co. American Bridge's interest in keeping bars out of Ambridge was obvious: they didn't want their workers coming to work under the influence or lose workers to alcoholism. Newspaper articles show that over many years dating back at least to 1904, American Bridge made a practice of challenging liquor licence applications in the Ambridge area, even applications coming from areas where liquor sales were legal, such as Ambridge properties to the north of 8th St. or in Harmony Township.

As far as I can determine, the dry area's liquor restrictions were put in place in 1903, so before Ambridge was incorporated in 1905.

The Pittsburgh Press, writing about a court case involving the liquor licenses of Ambridge bars in 1938, said that "The American [Ambridge?] Land Co., in turning over that section to the borough in 1903, specified in the grant that no liquor be sold there for 50 years." (Pittsburgh Press, April 30, 1938)

But that legal restriction didn't keep astute entrepreneurs from seeing and seizing the opportunity presented by Ambridge's dry area. Hence, the location of the Davis Hotel, which wasn't in dry Ambridge, but conveniently across Merchant St. from it. And that hotel wasn't the only such business.

In 1904, American Bridge Co. made "strenuous opposition" to granting liquor licenses to five Harmony Township businesses: two for retail licenses, two for wholesale licenses, and one for a brewery. "The deeds of all lots sold in Ambridge contain a clause prohibiting the sale of liquor on the property for 50 years, but several persons have applied for licenses just on the border of the town, where there are no restrictions regarding liquor." (Pittsburgh Press, March 29, 1904)

Yes, in real estate, it's location, location, location!

Ambridge Hotel
Eighth and Merchant Sts., northwest corner
circa 1905
courtesy Ambridge Borough

Location also may explain the seemingly odd site chosen for the Ambridge Hotel when it was built in 1905. It wasn't built in rapidly developing, but dry, Ambridge, which would have placed it nearer the train station, and would have been conveniently located for the growing number of potential guests. And the new hotel didn't join the other businesses clustered in the area that once was the Harmony Society's village of Economy, from 12th Street and north. But rather the Ambridge Hotel was built on the northwest corner of Merchant St. and Bryden Rd (now 8th St.), just a stroll across the street from dry Ambridge, making the hotel the first--and for years the only--Merchant St. business from that northern corner of Bryden Rd. to 12th St.

While liquor sales were always legal in the parts of Ambridge other than the dry area--except, of course, during the Prohibition era (1920 -33)--when were liquor licenses first issued in the dry area? I don't know the answer to that.

I do know that by 1938, there were 30 - 38 businesses in the dry area asking for renewal of their liquor licenses, which means their liquor licenses must have been issued before 1938.

The issue of liquor licenses in the dry area was hotly debated in early 1938. At the time, the "liquor trade" in the dry area reportedly employed 300 people with a payroll of $4,000. The claim was made that the only way to permanently settle the question of legality of liquor licenses in the dry area was by securing a release from every property owner there. (Daily Citizen, February 13, 1938)

And what role did the Borough of Ambridge play when liquor licenses were issued in the dry area before 1938? Again, I don't know. But I do know that in 1938, the Borough was adamantly on the side of the dry area businesses asking for their licenses to be renewed.

From the April 15, 1938, Daily Citizen:
Ambridge borough council will back liquor dealers of the first and second wards to have their licenses renewed despite restrictive property deeds, it indicated last night by voting a resolution against license refusal in the area.
The council said refusing to renew the licenses would "cripple businesses, lower property values and decrease borough revenue from licenses and taxes."

The Liquor Control Board wasn't swayed by the argument about the economic impact of closing bars in the dry area. The LCB refused to renew the liquor licenses of 36 bars in the dry area "after it was discovered" that the 1903 land grant "had specified no liquor be sold there for 50 years." I would have thought the LCB would have "discovered" the deed restriction before 1938, because American Bridge would have told the LCB about it before the licenses were issued, but I need to find information to confirm that.

However, the LCB's decision was quickly reversed in court based on a similar case in Philadelphia that had been decided in favor of the liquor licensees. Plus, the judge reasoned, "the denial of licenses to reputable merchants in the restricted area would allow bootleggers to invade the territory." (Pittsburgh Press, May 1, 1938)

But even after that court decision, American Bridge continued to object to liquor licenses. As late as November 1948, the "restriction against taprooms...under a 1903 property deed" was cited as one of the reasons local clergy and the ever-determined American Bridge Co. opposed the transfer of a liquor license from 348 Maplewood Ave. (also in the formerly dry area) to 398 Park Rd., across Park Rd. from the company's large office. (Daily Citizen, November 19, 1948)

I'll continue to look for information to fill in the current gaps in the history of liquor licenses in the dry area, and I will update this article if I find anything important. If anyone can supply any of missing information about the dry area, please let me know.

* In 1920, the Davis Hotel was sold to Divine Redeemer Church, which used it for its grade school until 1961. I wonder if the hotel was sold because Prohibition made running it a lot less profitable than it had been when could sell liquor. The building is now used by Karnavas Vending Co.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

400 block of Merchant St., 1904, 1909, 1910, and 1915

Merchant St. "Looking north from Charles St" (now 4th St.)
Vaughn Arnold collection
Laughlin Memorial Library archives

The 1904 date on this photo means it was taken the year before Ambridge was incorporated. The 400 block of Merchant was still unpaved. It appears that there were sidewalks of some kind, but dirt from the street and/or empty lot may have washed over it.

As best I can determine based on other early photos and vintage postcards, the building with the Coca-Cola sign still stands. I can't find an address on the building, but I think it would be 429 Merchant. It's the dark brick building between City Plumbing and the building at 435.

The huge painted Coca-Cola sign advertised Tingley's Pharmacy. If you click on the photo to enlarge it, you can see "LEY'S," part of the Tingley's front sign jutting over the sidewalk. Currently, you can still see part of a faded painted sign near the top of the 429 Merchant building, but it doesn't match up with the lettering near the top of the Tingley's ad. If anyone gets down to that part of Merchant and can figure out what any visible letters might say, please let me know. Perhaps the last two letters are "UE" as they appear to be in the final two postcards below?

Note the small sign on the front corner of the Tingley's building showing that it had a Bell telephone.

I can't clearly make out what the sign says on the building to the north of Tingley's, but it may say "Laundry." There was a "Chinese laundry" near that part of the block, so that would fit.

On the opposite side of the street, the closer, three story building is no longer there. In the distance is the Ambridge Savings and Trust Company at 5th and Merchant Sts. It was later remodeled and became the beautiful Economy Bank of Ambridge, razed in 1984, and now the location of WesBanco's drive-through windows.

The 1909 postcard below gives a better look at the Tingley's ad.

400 block of Merchant St. looking north

You can still see the edge of the Coca-Cola sign in the postcard below. I can't make out the postmark year, but I'd say the card is circa 1910:

400 block of Merchant St. looking north
circa 1910

And another bit of the sign in a slightly later postcard. I wrote about the Briola Bros. grocery, shown on the right, in a June 20, 2017, blog post, "Briola Bros. store, Ambridge's first grocery":

400 block of Merchant St.
dated Sept. 9, 1915

You can see other early views of the 400 block of Merchant in the October 30, 2014, post, "400 block of Merchant Street: vintage views."

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Kingdom Hall of Jehovah's Witnesses, 1948 - 1981

Kingdom Hall of Jehovah's Witnesses
1026 Melrose Ave.
Daily Citizen
August 25, 1954

Daily Citizen caption:
KINGDOM HALL -- Jehovah's Witnesses gather each Tuesday, Friday and Sunday evenings at Kingdom Hall, Melrose Ave., Ambridge to study and discuss the Bible. The congregation number approximately 150. To be a members (sic) of the congregation one must go forth and preach from the Bible unless one preaches he or she is considered a visitor of the congregation and not a member. The group meets each Sunday morning, at Kingdom Hall, at 9:30 a. m. and leaves at 10:00 a. m. on a round of Bible preaching--they also go forth on other mornings to perform similar instruction. All members of the congregation are preachers and a group of special servants direct the teachings, handle business matters and conduct the affairs of the group. Robert Marciniak is the congregation servant in Ambridge. The local group erected the Melrose Ave., edifice.
The congregation started in Ambridge in 1924, at first meeting in private homes, later in rented halls on 5th St. and at 1133 Merchant St. In 1948, the members of the congregation built the Kingdom Hall building at 1026 Melrose Ave. in 60 days. (Spang-Chalfant newsletter, Nov. 1957, "Featuring the Ambridge Churches.")

The Melrose Ave. building was a one-story, light red brick building. Built on a single narrow but deep lot, the design of Kingdom Hall made the most of the space available, covering almost the entire lot except for a little bit of a front yard. A woman who had gone there said that because the building wasn't very wide, but it was really deep, the interior made her think it looked like a bowling alley.

The congregation moved to its present building, constructed by volunteers, in the Fair Oaks section of Leet Township at 194 Ambridge Ave. in 1981.

I remembered the Melrose Ave. Kingdom Hall and wondered what had happened to it. I didn't see it when I visited Melrose on one of my trips back to Ambridge. The building now at 1026 Melrose Ave. didn't look at all like Kingdom Hall. Was it razed after the congregation moved to Leet Township?

It was only after I looked at a satellite view of the building at 1026 showing a narrow, but very deep building on the lot, that I realized that Kingdom Hall had been hiding in plain sight, disguised as a two-story apartment building with a modern facade and an extension towards the sidewalk on the left-hand side. The only feature visible from the front that gives a clue that it was once Kingdom Hall, is the original right-side front window.

1026 Melrose Ave.
March 27, 2014