Friday, February 7, 2014

A Natural Bent for History

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by Robert Giles

Growing up in Byersdale, I would often look about me and ask – “What was this like a hundred years ago?” I guess I had a natural bent for history.

The view from our back porch was underwhelming – an Atlantic service station, a truck park, Jan’s Bar, and the Byersdale Hotel. If I leaned forward, I could make out the corner of the Isaly store.

There was a large billboard just on the other side of  Duss Avenue.  It obscured the view of  Byers’ Field, not that Byers’ Field was much to look at, even if it was as important as the roadside markers said. “Logstown”. “Legionville”. “The Battle of Fallen Timbers”.

Beyond Byers’ Field were the railroad tracks. They were down on the river bank where they couldn’t be seen. We could hear but not see the Pennsy. The Ohio River we could make out on a clear day when the light hit it just right. It was almost a mile off. The J&L steel mill was always there, chain-smoking  and coughing fire. At day’s end, the sun settled over the dark Aliquippa hills.

Once we watched a worker put up a new advertisement on the billboard. He used a long-handled brush (like a wide soft broom) to glue sheets of paper to the board. When all the sheets were glued in the proper arrangement, it all looked whole and formed a nice picture. The glue dried invisibly and you had to be real close to see the seams. Just like wallpaper.

The day we watched, the man with the brush was putting up an ad for a new brand of cigarette, Salem. There was a handsome couple sitting down for a picnic beside a pond, pine trees  and mountains in the background. You could almost smell the pine scent. You guessed it. They weren’t eating fried chicken – they were enjoying Salem cigarettes. Everything was clean and nice. (And mentholated.)

That billboard was  as close to Paradise as we would get, sitting on our back porch in Byersdale.

It seemed that the history of Western Pennsylvania began and ended with the French and Indian War. I learned about it at school – Braddock’s Road, George Washington, Fort Necessity, Jumonville, the Battle of Bushy Run.

Admiral Perry defeated the British fleet on Lake Erie, but that was another war, the War of 1812, and a long way from Byersdale. Lake Erie was almost in Canada.The Revolutionary War and the Civil War bypassed us entirely.

The time between the Revolutionary War and the Civil War was a big blank. Isn't that when they spent four score years quarreling about slavery when they weren't fighting about whether to have a national bank? And the Whigs were for “internal improvements” but the Democrats were against them.

Why any one would vote against “internal improvements” I couldn’t guess, but as soon as someone proposes, someone opposes. That’s just the way it is.

In sixth grade, our home room class walked down Rice Avenue  to visit “Old Economy”. That wasn’t in our text book but Mr. Scimio just wanted to have a nice walk on a warm spring day, I guess.

We learned about the Harmony Society before we went – I think there may even have been a movie that Mr. Scimio showed us. He adjusted the venetian blinds to darken the room. “Frank, switch off the lights now, please.”

The Harmonists (or is it Economites) couldn’t decide where to settle down, moving from Germany to Butler County to Indiana on the Wabash back to Beaver County within the space of twenty years. In that short period, they built three prosperous towns. It makes me tired just thinking about all that moving and constructing.

Finally they settled down in present-day Ambridge but they were celibate so they died out, proving forever and ever that socialism is harebrained and will not work.

I remember only two things from that field trip – besides Rice Avenue being the steepest hill on earth, that is. There was a building that had structural problems and the Harmonists installed iron bars and stays from wall to wall (up high out of the way) to keep the brick walls from splaying out. Very clever, practical people those Harmonists. (Wait a minute; didn’t we say they were harebrained in the previous paragraph?)

They also had this place called a grotto or cave that symbolized the inner beauty of the spirit – plain on the outside, beautiful on the inside – something like that. Anyway, we were given a big build-up - I thought it would look like the cave of Ali Baba when I got inside.

Sheesh, no way – what a letdown – to me it seemed almost as plain on the inside.

Now that I am approaching the age of wisdom, I have turned the focus of my meditation from my navel to my feet. I study my roots.

There is a wealth of resources for this, all made possible by Al Gore and his invention of the internet. Those little town centennial booklets that you could only find on obscure library shelves have been scanned and are available on Google Books.

Just yesterday, I read about the Reverend William A. Passavant, a saint of the Lutheran Church. His sainthood is commemorated every November 24th.

The name caught my eye because so many things in my old neighborhood bear his name – all sorts of hospitals and charities – the Orphan's Home and School in Zelienople (now Glade Run Lutheran Services), the Passavant Home in Rochester (now Passavant Memorial Homes), the Passavant Hospital in Pittsburgh (now UPMC Passavant Hospital).

He also founded hospitals and charities in distant places like Chicago, Milwaukee and Mount Vernon NY.

Passavant established a Lutheran church in Rochester as well as the Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church in nearby Baden (less than a mile from my old home in Byersdale).

He was born October 9, 1821, at Zelienople and died on January 3, 1894. He was educated at Washington & Jefferson College (undergraduate) and Gettysburg College (seminary).

At the age of 18, Passavant journeyed to Old Economy. (The trip back and forth from Zelienople on horseback may have been as arduous as climbing up and down Rice Avenue.)

Here is what Passavant had to say about the view from my back porch in Byersdale --

On the opposite side of the Ohio a lofty ridge covered with oaks and pines followed the windings of the river as far as the eye could reach. Clumps of sugar maple clothed in a livery of the richest green … were scattered over this valley in every direction, while fields of grain on the uplands; often surrounded by primitive forests, presented a quiet yet beautiful scene which wanted only the painters skill to be eternalized on canvas. 
The very first field* of the Economites was used as a camp by the army of General Anthony Wayne for the whole winter previous to his expedition against the Indian tribes of the West. The field contains about ten acres and was defended on two sides by the nature of the ground; the other two were surrounded by an embankment of earth eight feet high and a ditch which are still visible. 
The amount of land owned by the society amounts to two thousand acres and without doubt is among the best on the Ohio. A large part of this is what might be called high river bottom land which runs back to the hills, and is in many places a mile in breadth. This part is all cleared and cultivated, while on the hills there are yet large tracts of woodland.
It is really a pleasure to walk over this immense plantation and see the perfection to which farming is carried. Some of the fields contain fifty or a hundred acres, and are surrounded by the best fences, and on their entire surface not a stump is to be seen. If the land is too steep for the plough, it is covered with rows of white mulberry trees to supply the silk worms with leaves. If there is danger of a run washing away, its banks are lined with willows. Should the ground prove too marshy for the purposes of agriculture, it is planted with a species of osiers for the manufacture of baskets, and a deep ravine between sand hills which would otherwise be of no value has been chosen as the pleasure ground of their herd of hogs, where they may exercise their rooting propensities to their hearts desire, without injury to the soil. 
In this manner everything is arranged, the different grains and plants are adapted to their appropriate soils; everything receives a proper degree of attention and shows what can be done by a community of common interests properly governed. The number of farmers is very large and often in harvest fifty reapers may be seen in a single field. The women who are not otherwise employed often work in the field during harvest, and with their sleeves rolled up, and broad rimmed bonnets on their heads present a very picturesque appearance.

Much attention is paid to the raising of fruit trees, and in the fall of the year every variety of apple, pear, plum, peach, quince, etc., may be had for the asking. Some of their orchards are very extensive, especially the apple which covers several hills. The trees are grafted and produce every variety from the Rambo to the juicy Pippin. 
The flock of sheep belonging to the society is very large and numbers many thousands; they are pastured by shepherds during the summer who with their dogs lead a solitary life watching their flocks.

So you see that my valley was long ago something closer to an earthly paradise than that billboard advertisement for Salem cigarettes. I've pieced together a picture of it from eyewitness accounts from old-timers like Passavant.

It wasn’t a utopia, which translated from the Greek means “no place”, but it was a genuine place of beauty and order and prosperity, notwithstanding the inevitable portion of human frailty. 

To read more about Reverend Passavant, visit this link in Wikipedia.

The excerpted material authored by William A. Passavant is from the “Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine”, Volume 4, Number 3, dated July 1921.

*The "first" field of the Economites is none other than present day Byers’ Field.


  1. Bob, you really outdid yourself with this post. My grandparents lived two blocks from Old Economy (and even had a mulberry tree in their back yard - I wonder if it was original?!)

    It's interesting, and amazing, that Byer's Field never got "developed". Do you have any idea about why? Who owns it today?

    Thanks so much for these vignettes of a simpler and happier time.

    1. Thanks for your note, Scruffyetc. The heyday of the Economy silk industry was the 1840s so its doubtful that one of their trees survived into the 20th century. They are easy to grow from seed so your grandparents' tree may have been a descendant.
      Byers' Field was owned by Goodyear the last I heard. I don't why it was never developed for commercial use.
      There was an effort to make it into a national historical site which so far has failed.

  2. Great article. (& I especially enjoyed the part abour Rev. Passavant. My mother was a resident at Passavant Assisted Living up in Zelienople. I had no idea why this Lutheran establiushment was called Passavant. Thank you for the info.

    I have one quibble, though: Although the Harnonites practiced socialism, that was less a political statement than a religious statement. Their celibacy -- also religion-based -- was the reason their Society failed, not the "socialism." They felt they didn't need to reproduce because Jesus would return to the world in their lifetimes. Their "socialism" stemmed from that as well: There was no need for private property if The Lord was coming.


  3. Hi patchwork, I had heard of Passavant but had never bothered to find out about him until I came across his article. He deserved his sainthood - truly a remarkable man.
    You're not the first person who misunderstood what I was trying to say so I must have said it poorly. I agree with you, only I don't think they "failed". They just died out.

    1. Great article Robert.

      You mentioned Mr Scimio. He was my home room teacher for 3 tears. I remember he used to pick his nose a lot in class, and if you did something wrong, he would knee you in the ass. Never card for him.

      I grew up not far from you on Pioneer Drive, across from the Byers Steel mill.

  4. Robert:

    Great piece. I remember Mr Scimio. He was my home room teacher for 3 years. Used to always pick his nose in class, and when you did something wrong, he would give you a knee in the ass. If he did that today, he would be arrested.
    I lived not far from you, Pioneer Dr across from AM Byers.

    Ed Sippel

    1. Ed,

      I don't remember the knee, just the nose. What I remember also was that he and Mr. Stec would play football and softball with us at recess (weather permitting). Mr Scimio threw a tight spiral.
      Glad you liked the article and commented. I vaguely remember a Karl Sippel from high school.
      I remember Pioneer Drive well.