Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Strangers in Their Midst

by Robert  Giles

On the edge of Byers’ Field, 50 yards west of the Byersdale Isaly store, there was a basketball court. How it got there I can’t say. It was “always” there. I hope neighborhood kids are driving in for layups and sinking baskets there today.

The court was once covered with the heavy limestone slag that paved the roads in Byers’ Field. Someone had removed the heavy stones and replaced them with a much finer grade of slag, smooth enough for dribbling a ball. A pole, about 18 inches in circumference and about 12 feet high, had been erected on the north end of the court. A sheet of ¾ inch plywood had been bolted to the pole to serve as a backboard.

All in all, it was a pretty good basketball court, not as nice as the one at the playground on top of the hill in Byersdale, which had hoops on both ends. But the township had built that one with the help of contractors.

Our “bottom of the hill” basketball court didn’t require a long steep climb up Dearborn Street and it wasn’t a mud hole after a rain, even if we did have to play "half-court".

The site came ready-made for those who erected the pole. The government had bulldozed and “paved” the court and encircled it with trailers to create instant housing during World War II. There were more than a dozen such courts in Byers’ Field. During the war, men came to Byersdale from far and wide to work at jobs in the A.M. Byers plant, then the "world's largest" manufacturer of wrought iron.

The courts were laid out like suburban cul-de-sacs, minus the green lawns, concrete pavement, and split-level houses.

I don’t remember seeing trailers there when I was a boy. By then the housing and the people who lived there were long gone. There were just empty courts and empty streets.

Byers’ Field sure looked like an abandoned neighborhood. I asked what all the roads were for. People didn’t have a lot to say.

I came to understand that migrants, mostly "foreigners", lived there during the war. After the war, they had gone back home. End of story.

It seemed like everyone must have been working and playing so hard that they scarcely noticed the strangers in their midst.

I wonder what those strangers did in the evenings and weekends. Did they attend church, send and receive mail, patronize the stores, drink with their friends in local bars, dance, sing, have a life outside of Byers' Field?

Did some of the men bring or send for their wives and children?

Perhaps it was a group of those iron makers who erected our basketball court. They may have enjoyed a game of hoops in the evenings.

Some time ago I chanced across A History of A.M. Byers Company by a fellow former Byersdale resident, Wm. J. Bowan --

“The A.M. Byers Company owned extensive vacant acreage east and north of its plant. The company leased the north plot to the U.S. Government who then placed 450 trailer homes on wheels on this site to accommodate shortages of living space for the area's defense workers. The quarters were equipped with running water, electric power, butane tanks and underground sewage piping.

Most of these defense workers (migrants) were brought in from Mexico, Portugal, Cuba and American Appalachia. Immediately after the end of the war, these workers were laid off. They returned to their homelands loaded with American War Bonds and cash. It can well be assumed that a low, unknown, percentage stayed on in this area. They scattered here and there blending in to various communities.”

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