Sunday, June 29, 2014

Two St. Michael's and the Masons

"The Russian Club"
St. Michael's Hall,
Maplewood Avenue
Old Economy-Ambridge Sesqui-Centennial
Historical Booklet,


I was on the hunt for St. Michael's Hall.

The Russian Society of St. Michael was one of the many ethnic organizations in Ambridge which first organized as a mutual insurance group, then bought a building which became a social club and bar. These clubs were places to hold baby and bridal showers and wedding and funeral receptions. The bars were especially popular on Sundays when public beer-gardens were legally prohibited from opening.

I had seen the above photo in the Old Economy-Ambridge Sesqui-Centennial Historical Booklet from 1974, and it looked so very familiar, but I couldn't place it. I wanted to take a photo, but I would have to find it first. The parking meter out front indicated to me that the building was on Merchant Street or a street near Merchant. But where?

During recent visits to Ambridge, I'd driven through Merchant Street, Maplewood Avenue, Park Road, Duss Avenue, Melrose and Glenwood Avenues from end to end, and I didn't remember seeing this building, although I wasn't specifically looking for it then. So before my last visit to Ambridge, I asked a friend who might know, "Where's St. Michael's Hall?" The answer was that it was on the corner of Pine and 8th Streets and was more commonly called "The Russian Club." OK, I hadn't thought to look there. Were there ever parking meters that far from Merchant Street? And why would a building on Pine Street, a street that I had only been on a few times in my life, look so familiar?

So I drove to Pine and 8th Streets and saw this building:

Former St. Michael's Hall,
Eighth and Pine Streets,
March 27, 2014

Here's a photo of the same building in July, 2009:

Former St. Michael's Hall,
Eighth and Pine Streets,
July, 2009
credit: Bill Orlowski, used with permission

Detail, St. Michael's Hall,
Eighth and Pine Streets,
"St. M.G.S.H., 1934"
July, 2009
credit: Bill Orlowski, used with permission
Detail, St. Michael's Hall,
Eighth and Pine Streets,
July, 2009
credit: Bill Orlowski, used with permission

Even taking into consideration the building's having been converted into what appeared to be a residence, it didn't seem to match up with the 1974 photo.

Then, I posted the 1974 photo on the Facebook group, "Ambridge Memories What Do You Remember,"* asked for help, and got my answer: St. Michael's Hall, "the Russian Club," definitely was at 8th and Pine Streets, was owned by the St. Michael the Archangel Greek Society**, and had been there at least since the 1930s. And St. Michael's Hall, "the Russian Club," definitely was also in the 300 block of Maplewood Avenue, near the former Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church, but was affiliated with Holy Ghost Orthodox Church***, and was there for many years until it was razed in 2011. Its former location is now an empty lot.

So, there were two "Russian Clubs" called St. Michael's. Mystery solved, but alas, I was too late to take a photo of the one on Maplewood. The reason that St. Michael's had looked so familiar is that we would have passed it driving home from Divine Redeemer Church or after we'd picked up my dad after his shift at Ambridge Bridge.

Then Bill Orlowski posted this 2009 photo of a Masonic temple in the 300 block of Maplewood Avenue that he had taken and said that the black and white St. Michael's photo looked a lot like it.

Masonic District Temple
308 Maplewood Avenue
July, 2009
credit: Bill Orlowski, used with permission

Indeed it did. There is no doubt in my mind that the Masonic Temple was in the former Russian Club building.

From the side view, it looks as though perhaps demolition had already started.

Masonic District Temple
308 Maplewood Avenue
July, 2009
credit: Bill Orlowski, used with permission

M. W. Prince Hall,
Grand Lodge, F. and A. M. of Pa
July, 2009
credit: Bill Orlowski, used with permission.

I haven't had time yet to contact anyone who might be able to tell me more about the Masonic Temple. So a post about it will have to wait until I do. If you have any information about it, please leave a comment or email me.

[Update July 3, 2014: Earlier today, I came across this ad and thought I'd add it here:

Dance ad
St. Michael's Club
800 Pine Street
Beaver County Times,
July 9, 1960
end of update]

*This blog is not affiliated with the Facebook group "Ambridge Memories What Do You Remember" although I do post there and gratefully obtain information and photos from its members.

**I don't know at this point why "The Russian Club" was owned by a Greek society. My guess is that it was affiliated with St. John the Baptist Orthodox Church, which was once known as St. John the Baptist Greek Catholic Church and founded by Carpatho-Rusyn immigrants. But I admit that's just a guess at this point. If you know the answer, please let me know.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

The Jewel Tea Man

by Robert Giles

“Let me show you my wares,” the Tea Man said to Grandma.  He laid out his catalog along the length of the kitchen table. The separate parts were foldered in shiny plastic like you might use to organize cards and photographs inside a billfold. Of course, The Jewel Tea Man’s catalog was too large for the average purse or back pocket.

He unzipped and unfolded it in a single graceful movement.  He did it as quietly as a professional deals a deck of cards.

The Tea Man sidled over in the direction of the refrigerator, turned about, and fixed his eyes on Grandma's.

“Do you see anything you like, dear?”

Grandma let out her breath as though she had never seen pictures of towels and curtains and bed linens before.

“Dora, is there anything you can use?” Grandma asked her daughter-in- law, as if trying to divert the Tea Man’s gaze.

“No, the first time Mr. Gardner was here, there was nothing that I needed or had the money for.”

“Please call me “George”? I like it much better than Mr. Gardner.”

The Tea Man had turned his attention back to Grandma. In Grandma, he perhaps saw someone of more refinement - someone who could appreciate and afford “nice’ things.

For a moment he admired Grandma’s silver hair and the economical way it was arranged atop her head. The tortoise-shell combs above her ears betrayed a normal dose of human vanity.

“I have some lovely cotton print aprons you might like.”

“Why yes, I believe I could use a new apron, George.” Grandma didn’t sound one-hundred percent comfortable pronouncing the Tea Man’s first name.

 “I hope you haven’t noticed how shabby this one’s gotten. I do all the readying up after dinner and I help Dora with the dishes. I try to keep the kitchen looking just like my own did up at Summit.”

“Summit Township, isn’t that up around Saxonburg? I used to have some customers out that way.”

Grandma and George were still talking about places and people they both knew in Butler County when I got up and left the kitchen.

The Tea Man sold three aprons and a can of air freshener on that first visit. Of course, he didn’t have the aprons in his truck. He had to put those on order. He promised to bring them on his next visit, in one week.

The Tea Man looked a little scary to a small boy. He had a heavy black beard which he shaved as close as he could, leaving a mere shadow. He probably kept a razor in his truck and freshened up in the afternoons. His suit was like the ones you see on the men in the church choir, slightly rumpled by his days on the road. He had a flashy wide neck tie.

His hair was combed straight back but was fluffy and buoyant. There were streaks of grey at his temples. He had a widow’s peak, like the old guy on “The Munsters”.

His fingernails were brushed and shiny. He smelled nice. He was light on his feet and moved like a dancer. He had a dancer’s body.

Who was it that played the older detective on “Law and Order” – Jerry something or other? I understand that women found him irresistible. I’ll have to take that on faith. Anyhow, a picture is worth a thousand words – the Tea Man looked like Jerry (the actor).

A wee bit sleazy. Too smooth in a bumbling sort of way.

When he brought Grandma the aprons, he laid it on thickly.

“My, you ladies sure have this kitchen looking spic and span. Why, it’s cleaner than a whale’s backbone. It smells so fresh as well – isn’t that air freshener nice?”

He didn’t stop for Mom or Grandma to answer; he just charged ahead. Mom leaned on her broom. Grandma sat transfixed.

“These aprons are just your color. You’re so attractive – I hope you don’t mind my saying that. When I meet a pretty lady, I just have to blurt it out. I hope you take it the way I intend – I just want to let you know you are the most beautiful person on earth – next to my own dear wife of course.”

On that second visit the Tea Man sold Grandma a small set of dresser drawers. She already had a nice dresser but I guess it’s true that she needed one, as she explained, just for her support hose and girdles and all that other stuff she hid down deep.

I heard Dad asking Mom what Grandma needed with a new dresser – that’s why I knew how Grandma had explained her sudden need for one. I would have never been bold enough to ask her directly.

Grandma seemed a lot more pleasant after the Tea Man started visiting. When I played checkers with her, she no longer hated losing. She didn’t accidentally on purpose upset the board just because I had her cornered. Sometimes she hummed along with a song on the radio while waiting for me to move my piece.

She did look nice in her new aprons, and wearing the earrings she hadn’t had on since Uncle Gene and Aunt Ada’s fiftieth wedding anniversary. Uncle Hal had told her on the way out of church that they made her look like a gypsy – right in front of everyone.

It was a cruel thing to tease Grandma. I knew she hated it even though she would never give anyone the satisfaction of seeing her vulnerable.

I didn’t mean to tease her when I asked her one morning – “Grandma, what are you all dressed up for? Is the Tea Man coming?”

She looked stricken – right away I knew I had said something childish.

“Bobby, why must you always nose around in other people’s business? Go on, get out of here. Run off.”

Week after week she seemed to have a sudden need for things she had done without all her life. The Tea Man kept calling.

And then one day maybe Grandma heeded the voice that repeated in her ear –

“Don't you know little fool, you'll never win.  Why not use your mentality, come on step up to reality.”*

That’s what I would like to think – that Grandma realized her flirtation with the Tea Man was that and nothing more. She didn’t flinch. She stepped up to reality. Like we all do.

Dad always said that Grandma pinched a penny so hard she could make Abe Lincoln recite the Gettysburg Address backward. Maybe she just didn’t want to part with any more money. Or maybe her bedroom had reached its limit of junk.

The Tea Man had a love that was as large as his sales territory. It was a big love but it was a conditional love. When Grandma stopped buying, he stopped selling. It takes two to tango.

* From the song “I've Got You Under My Skin” by Cole Porter.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Northern Lights: Grand Opening

Northern Lights,
Grand Opening ad,
Beaver Valley Times, June 12, 1957

Although Baden's Northern Lights Shoppers City, as the shopping center was then formally called, opened its first stores on November 1, 1956, the formal "Official" Grand Opening Celebration with even more stores began on June 12, 1957.

Northern Lights,
Grand Opening ad,
Beaver Valley Times, June 12, 1957

It's hard to imagine now, given the current conditions at Northern Lights with its empty stores, a road to Walmart going through where the centerpiece store, Penney's, once stood, and a largely empty parking lot cratered with potholes, but when it opened, Northern Lights was a really big deal. At the time, Northern Lights was Pennsylvania's largest shopping center, which says a great deal about the economic buying power of the population of the Beaver County area in 1957.

Northern Lights,
Grand Opening events ad,
Beaver Valley Times, June 15, 1957

Some Northern Lights stores boasted of their special qualities:
  • A&P had doors that opened electrically! Imagine!
  • Kroger was the largest in the then-52 store chain.
  • Rochester Motor Sales, which sold large appliances, had the largest display of appliances in Beaver County.
  • Star Super Market had the largest frozen food section in Beaver Valley.
  • Turk Brothers Music Center claimed it had "thousands of miles of music on wax and tape" on its shelves.
  • W.T. Grant's luncheonette had a two-level conveyor belt, the first of its type in Beaver County, which zipped food to customers three minutes after they placed their orders.

The parking lot had parking for 5,000 cars, and there were days when it was hard to find a parking space. 

At the time of the grand opening, Northern Lights claimed to have more than 50 stores--with room for more as the area's population kept growing. I didn't find a list of all 50 stores, but here's a list of the businesses with ads, photos, or articles about them in the Beaver Valley Times' June 12 grand opening advertising supplement from which all photos below came.

  • A&P 
  • Allen Shoes
  • Bachelor's Furniture 
  • Best Jewelers 
  • Camera and Card Shop
  • Capital Loans
  • Cheryl's Memory Shop
  • Dr. Arthur N. Hutter, optometrist
  • Fanny Farmer Candy
  • Fintex Clothes (men's) 
  • Flash Cleaners 
  • Freedom National Bank 
  • Isaly's
  • Jackson's Shoes
  • Jane Lee Shop (women's and children's clothes)
  • J.C. Penney 
  • Kathy Cotton Shop (women's clothes)
  • Kinney's Shoes
  • Kirby Shoes
  • Kresge's 
  • Kroger 
  • Lauar's Ladies Wear 
  • Murphy's Meat Market 
  • Noah's Ark (toys)
  • Northern Lights Beauty Salon
  • Northern Lights Laundromat
  • Northern Lounge
  • Richman Brothers (men's)
  • Robinson's (women's and children's clothes)
  • Rochester Motor Sales (appliances)
  • Schaughency's Home and Auto Supply 
  • Schoemer's Bakery 
  • Spiegel's Catalog Center
  • Standard Sportswear
  • Star Super Market 
  • Steiner's for Draperies 
  • Stone's Hardware 
  • Sun Drugs 
  • The Farm (poultry and produce)
  • Thom McAn Shoes
  • Thrift Drugs
  • Turk Brothers Music Center
  • Western Auto 
  • William Maratto Shoe Repair
  • Woodward's Style Shop (women's accessories)
  • W.T. Grant 
  • Youth Shop 

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The A&P on 14th and Merchant Streets

If we remember an A&P in Ambridge, we probably remember the one story, yellow brick building that ran between 11th and Sherman Streets just below the west end of the National Electric factory, currently the site of the Trinity School for Ministry. This post is not about that A&P. It's about the A&P with an interior that looked like this:

Interior, A&P, 14th and Merchant Streets,
circa 1930s?
photo courtesy of Richard McFarland,
used with permission

According to Richard McFarland, the A&P on 11th Street was not the original location of A&P in Ambridge. Richard says that before A&P moved to 11th Street, it was at 303 Fourteenth Street, at the corner of 14th and Merchant Streets, the building in the photo below.

[Update Nov. 7, 2019: I've been unable to confirm that there was an A & P at 303 Fourteenth St. And researchers from Old Economy Village and the Ambridge Historic District have raised doubts that the A & P shown in the photo at the top of this page was at 303 Fourteenth St.

However, I have found an A & P at 311 Fourteenth St. in Beaver County's Mercantile Appraiser's List published in the 1930s.]

303 14th Street,
November 20, 2013

I do not know what, if anything, is in the building now, but previously, it was the Croatian Club, home of the Croatian Fraternal Union, St. Nicholas Lodge #304. Before the Croatian Club, the building was the location of the AP Hotel/Restaurant, owned by Anthony Pazzanita.

Here's a larger view of the interior photo:

Interior, A&P, 14th and Merchant Streets,
circa 1930s?
photo courtesy of Richard McFarland,
used with permission

The man in the photo is Richard's great-uncle, Harry McFarland, the A&P's manager. The numbers on or near the products appear to be prices: 19 cents for what is in the bin next to Mr. McFarland, 20 cents for the white product in the bin next to the candy case, 34 cents for the Mother's Oats.

I do not know when the A&P moved to the larger, more modern store on 11th Street.

That's all the information either Richard or I have about the A&P in the photo. Can anyone provide more information about the store?

Perhaps someone who knows more about the products and packaging shown in the photo can help date the photo. If the bread in the foreground is pre-sliced, that puts the photo in or after 1928. I see Clark Bars (my favorite!) on the counter, but Clark Bars were made before Ambridge existed. Maybe someone can place the era by the Clark Bar wrapper.

Even if we don't remember the A&P being in this small brick Harmonite building near Old Economy, our older relatives did. Joseph Bacon, who grew up in Ambridge, said, "Dad showed me the building on 14th Street where the A&P was before it moved to 11th St. Dad remembered the old A&P where the grocers would actually get your goods for you. Grandma Bacon told me how much she missed the service when A&P moved to 11th Street."

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Beautiful River

Dredge and Barges in Ohio River, Beaver PA (Google Earth)

by Robert Giles

Sunova Beach

The big sign in the sand at Crows Island was perhaps the first thing we looked for when church let out. From where my Dad parked up on Dippold we could see it clearly – “Sunova Beach”.

Crows Island was opposite Baden near the Aliquippa shore. The channel on the Aliquippa side was narrow – maybe sixty feet wide. About 1964 or 1965, the LTV Steel Company filled in the channel and raised the height of the island about ten feet. That was the end of Crows Island. LTV built a new steel mill on top of it.

Before that, it was just a long, flat sandy dune. I don’t remember there being any trees – maybe a few scrubby ones. There was some Joe-Pye weed, sumac, and cattail. The island was uninhabited. There was a makeshift shed on “Sunova Beach” that served as a dressing room for bathers.

From the Methodist Church, the beach beckoned. There was about forty feet of clean white sand down to river’s edge. The beach was maybe fifty yards long. Frequently we would see one or two motor boats anchored and sun worshipers on towels or chaise lounges.

I don’t remember when we hatched our plan but it might have been during a ride home from church.

My brother Chuck and his friend Larry found an article in a magazine showing how to make a raft with lumber and Clorox bottles. The “bottles” were actually plastic gallon jugs.  The idea was to make a deck from light lumber and then string the Clorox bottles beneath and along the sides. The bottles would provide enough buoyancy to float the deck and two passengers.

We calculated we would need about thirty Clorox bottles with caps. The guy who wrote the magazine article must have done a lot of laundry.

Not just any empty bottle would do – we had to have the caps too. Even if we got the whole neighborhood involved, it would take all summer to collect enough. After some deliberation, we decided to relax our standards. Any large plastic jug would do even if it didn’t bear the Clorox logo.

I think it was about then that soda pop started coming out in liter jugs. We knew that a liter was smaller than a gallon, but OK, what the hey – 2 soda pop bottles were roughly equal to a Clorox jug.

By late July we had collected the required flotation devices – what would we do for lumber?

There was a truck park on Duss Avenue next to Jan’s Bar. There were wooden skids lying about. No one would miss one.

“This is awfully heavy. It’s water-logged from being out in the rain. Weren't we supposed to use light lumber?”

Free lumber was too good to pass up. Besides it was already nailed together into a deck of sorts.

Hauling the heavy skid with bottles attached all the way to the river was impossible.  We decided to take the component parts there separately and construct the raft on the river bank.

We took turns carrying the skid across Byers’ Field and down over Route 65 and across the Pennsy tracks. Additional hands were needed to drag the bottles. Trailing clouds of Clorox jugs, we must have made quite an impression on passing motorists. Some demonstrated their appreciation by honking their horns.

There were seven of us. The raft was designed for two. Our friend Alex contributed two truck tire inner tubes. Another kid had a life preserver from his uncle’s rowboat. We all planned to sail.

Finally we were at the launch point – the mouth of Legionville Run. We attached the large bottles to the bottom of the skid and tied the liter bottles around the rim, all according to specification. Everything was secured with plastic clothes line.

We were ready to launch. Chuck and Larry stepped onto the raft. They were in about three feet of water. Almost immediately, the raft began to sink, not all the way to the bottom, but below the surface.

Maybe the lumber was just too water-logged from lying out in the truck park.

We could see that our vessel was not sea-worthy. What to do? We still wanted to get to Sunova Beach.

My brother, as usual, had a plan. Why don’t we just tie the Clorox bottles around our chests and float over that way. Who needs a raft?

“You guys who were going to share a truck tube can use bottles too. That way we’ll all have our own individual floats.”

Chuck tested his Clorox bottle “vest” in the shallow water at the mouth of the run.  It worked.  Decked out in Clorox bottles and perched grandly atop truck tubes, we kicked and floated all the way to Crows Island, about a half mile down river.

Behind us, the abandoned skid bobbed ignominiously in the waters off Legionville Run.

We sailed all the way down the back channel and around the north end of the island and back upriver to Sunova Beach.

Sunova Beach looked a heck of a lot better from the Methodist Church than it did close up.

We landed briefly, but by then we were so tired and dirty and sunburned that we just wanted to go home. We headed straight across to Baden and walked the railroad tracks back to Byersdale, minus the bottles. We left them tied to the base of a willow tree.

Who knows -- the evidence of our grand voyage may still be there today on the Baden shore.  Islands and steel mills may come and go but Clorox bottles are forever. 

It makes me want to holler "Sunova Bleach!"

The Swimmer

It was a regular thing for the old guy to pull over by the railroad tracks and come down to the river to swim.

Sometimes we wouldn’t see him dive in - we would just hear his body hit the water. Other times we would see him pause atop the flight of concrete steps that led up to the ruins of the old lockmaster’s quarters, surveying the river as though looking for approaching traffic. Or we would see him down on the lock wall, taking off his clothes.

He wasn’t old “old”. He might have been in his fifties. His crew cut was thin and white around the ears. The hair on his chest and legs was also white. Over all, he was red and brown, with tinges of white.  He wasn’t what I would call overweight. He might have played football in high school.

If he worked in a mill, I would guess foreman. If he ever hung out in a bar, it was because he owned it.

He was always fifty yards away. He never came down to say hello or ask how the fishing was. Sometimes he would nod in our direction if we waved.

He always came to the surface about thirty yards from the river wall, facing backwards toward shore, treading water smoothly, showing only his head. He swam like a seal or other sea creature, effortlessly. When he finished his backstroke, he went into a breaststroke that was just as slow and regular. His arms and legs never cut the water. We just saw the back of his head, moving slowly away. He swam so noiselessly there were probably times when he came and went and we didn’t even notice he was there.

If a tug came along, he would bide his time until boat and barges passed, bobbing in their wake when his route was clear. For a second he would disappear entirely behind a wave, then reappear and disappear at regular intervals until the river calmed.

Calm – that’s the word I would use to describe the swimmer.  It might take him twenty minutes to get to his destination and twenty minutes to get back to shore. No wasted energy.

I don’t think I ever saw him swim all the way over to the western shore – he just went three-quarters of the way over and back. Forty minutes – I guess that was the goal he had set for himself.

On a really hot day when the fish weren’t biting we would be tempted to jump in ourselves. But the water was oily. There was always something scuzzy floating on it. Besides, it was over our heads. What if we swam out too far and couldn’t get back?

I liked to swim but I was a noisy, nervous, splashy swimmer. I couldn’t go the distance. I was almost in high school before I swam all the way out to the diving platform at Brady’s Run Lake or tubed over to Crows Island.

I still think of the old guy. He knew what he wanted to do and did it, patiently and masterfully. He didn’t seem to need people – at least he didn’t go out of his way to be social. He didn’t mind solitude. He didn’t spend a lot of time thinking - he just went in head first. Once he was in the water, he didn’t waste any motion.

Incredibly, he always seemed to climb out of the water as clean as when he went in – but who could be sure? He was always fifty yards away. 

Out on Teeter-Totter

The first time I went down to the old lock wall I was seven or eight. My oldest brother Jim took me. He showed me where the high school boys had carved their names into the stone.

The wall stretched from a point close to the mouth of Legionville Run all the way to Teeter-Totter, a distance of about 200 yards. The wall was partly submerged, even in those days. The north end near Legionville Run was under water. If you took off your shoes and socks and rolled up your pants you could walk the wall, even though it was under water. It was a foot or two beneath the surface. You had to walk a straight line or you might step into deep water.

The wall emerged about 30 yards before you got to the first “lock”.

There were two “locks” along the wall. The first “lock” was the more northerly of the two. We called them “locks” but now I’m pretty sure that is incorrect – thus the quotation marks. There were perhaps two locks around the dam that crossed the Ohio until 1924, but they were on opposite sides of the river, one for northbound vessels and one for southbound.

Our two “locks” on the Legionville side were actually mechanical gates that controlled the water level in the one lock on our side of the river. Remnants of metal plate were all that remained of the gates.

A person looking across the Ohio could see on the Aliquippa shore the twin of the wall on the Legionville side. The two walls were all that were left of the dam that once spanned the river.

Why was the dam destroyed and replaced by a new one at Emsworth (Dasheilds Dam)?

The dam at Legionville stood at one of the busiest stretches of the river, athwart the miles-long J&L steel works.

A fleet of barges and tugs hauled minerals from one end of the steel works to the other. Every relatively short trip back and forth required a passage through the locks. The consensus was that this was too costly. Time is money.

The US Army Corps of Engineers was nothing if not accommodating. They fixed J&L’s problem and left behind an interesting ruin for our fun and wonderment.

The two sites on the Legionville side that we referred to as “locks” were good places to fish. Some boys liked to swim there. Once in a while someone drowned.

What I wanted to describe to you before I got sidetracked into all this lock business was the southerly portion of the wall (the Ambridge end). Just south of what we erroneously referred to as “the second lock” was the area we called “Teeter-Totter”.

Teeter-Totter referred to the southern-most tip of the wall. There was water on three sides of Teeter-Totter. Think of it as a man-made peninsula of crumbling concrete.

My brother helped me navigate out to Teeter-Totter on that first visit. Right off the bat I could see that the path was blocked by a small willow tree. Jim showed me how to grab a bunch of willow and lean out over the river while sidestepping along the first few feet of wall. Once past the willow, I could see that the wall was overgrown with poison ivy. Fortunately the ivy and the earthen bank on the left side quickly gave way to a back-water. There was water on both sides of the wall from there on out. On the right was the deep water of the river, on the left was the muddy shallow water of the inlet.

According to legend there were “golden” carp that inhabited the inlet. All I could see was refuse of every kind, floating on the slack water. In fact, everything that floated seemed to end up in the inlet – wiffle balls, soccer balls, beach balls, baseballs, softballs, rubber balls, wiffle ball bats, lumber, baby dolls, hula hoops, Christmas ornaments, artificial Christmas trees, plastic bottles, toilet floats, and bars of ivory soap.

The water was oily and shimmered with the rainbow colors you see on asphalt after a rain. The air smelled like heavy machinery.

All we had to do was turn ever so slightly to our right and there it was – the beautiful Ohio. Did you ever see a large body of water in motion that wasn’t beautiful?

The sun was descending and imparted a golden glow. You had to shade your eyes with your palm to look at it. Across the river was the J&L tin mill and seamless tube.

Everything looked fixed and permanent. A locomotive puffed along the track. A coal barge was unloading way up river where you could just make out the Ambridge-Woodlawn Bridge.

We stepped a little farther along the wall.

“Careful, Bobby, this is where it gets interesting.”

The concrete under my feet began to shift. Way out there on the point, the wall took a beating. The river was tamed but still had wild moments even the Corps of Engineers couldn’t manage.

The blocks on the surface of Teeter-Totter were slightly askew but still had a solid look. It was the more friable blocks below in the river that were eroded and unstable.

Did you ever walk up a seesaw and get to the tipping point and keep going and let the board pitch you forward to the other side? If you were agile or at least prepared, you could keep your footing. The unsure and unaware landed in the grass. Scaredy-cats backed off to contemplate careers as playground supervisors.

“OK, Bobby, when the wall shifts, just step forward onto the next block. You won’t fall in, I promise.”

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Ambridge Borough Swimming Pool, Part 4: hot summer fun in the three pools

This is the fourth in a series of posts about my favorite summer spot, the Ambridge Borough Swimming Pool. Upcoming posts will offer more memories including: the snack bar and working at the pool.

"The big pool" at the Ambridge Borough Swimming Pool,
facing north, shot from top of sliding board,
Bridger yearbook, 1969

Original photo caption:
CHILDREN of all ages flock to Boro Park in Ambridge in an effort to beat the heat.
Finally! You made it to the pool, either by climbing those endless steps, taking a shortcut through the woods, biking, or if you were very lucky, getting a ride with someone. You got through the girls' or boys' dressing rooms in the bathhouse, and now you could get into the water. Or not, if you, like more than a few, were just there to get a tan, chat with your friends, or see and been seen by the guy or gal you had a crush on.

If you click on the photo above to get an enlarged view, you'll be able to better see kids on the bathhouse observation deck and sitting on the short wall between the dressing rooms which separated the pool's filter from the pool deck. Both excellent spots for checking out the action.

If you were a pool regular, as many Ambridge kids were, you generally had a favorite spot on the hot, comfy concrete to spread out your towel. And it was so disconcerting when you arrived at the pool and someone else was already in your spot.

Before the "sundeck" was expanded by a slightly sloping area on the east side along the fence between the pool and baseball field, my "spot" was in the corner of the fenced area where the front fence met the girls' dressing room side of the bathhouse. The advantage to that spot was that no one stepped on your towel--or you--on crowded days. The disadvantages were that it was a long, foot-scorching hop from wet spot to wet spot to get to the pool, and you couldn't see much of the action except for the baby pool.

Once the deck expansion contemplated in 1960 was finally ready in 1965, my "spot" was right in the center of that deck. What an improvement. Just a few feet from the edge of the big pool, and I had a view of all three pools, most of the deck area, the observation decks, and the bathhouse entrances. And because the deck only had room for one row of towels, and the chain link fence was at your head, the deck was well-protected from towel-intruders. Just about perfect I'd say, especially while the tinny loudspeakers blasted out Clark Race on KDKA at 3 PM, or later in the '60s and '70s, the top-40 hits on KQV.

The Ambridge pool facility had three pools. 

At the south end was the small, shallow baby pool where the little kids could splash and pretend to swim in the usually warmish water, supervised by a parent or other adult sitting on its edge. During hot days, the sounds of laughing toddlers and preschoolers was mixed with the wailing of young waders who didn't like water being splashed on them.

The "baby pool,"
Ambridge Borough Pool,
Beaver County Times,
August 18, 1965

Original photo caption:

COOLING OFF - Splashing around at the Ambridge swimming pool, these four youngsters join many others who are populating district swimming pools to cool off during the hot spell that has hit the district the past few days.
Moms on guard at the "baby pool,"
Ambridge Borough Pool,
Beaver County Times,
August 18, 1965

Original photo caption:
THE COOL ONES - Two boys, under the watchful eyes of their mothers, take to the water for relief from the hot weather that has hit the district over the weekend. The picture was taken at the Ambridge swimming pool.
The deep diving tank with two low dives on its south side, and one high dive in the middle of the opposite side, was at the north end. Most kids just jumped off the boards or completed the occasional ungraceful and painful belly-flop, but there were also those, mostly young men, who exhibited their diving prowess. Or their prowess in doing cannonballs in an attempt to soak the lifeguard sitting in the elevated guard chair next to the pool. Success usually led to a "benching"--a time out on the wooden bench reserved for miscreants.

Diving tank at the Ambridge swimming pool,
Beaver County Times,
June 10, 1970

Original photo caption:
AH, SUMMER VACATION! - Now that school is out and the warm weather is here to stay, most of the county's swimming pools are open--and crowded, as was the case this week at the Ambridge Pool.
I wasn't a big fan of the diving tank, although I'd jump off the boards from time to time, especially if my friends were doing it. The water was usually quite cold for one thing. I also don't like heights, but the straight-up steps of the high dive scared me more than actually jumping off the board did. I never found jumping off the low dives produced enough of a reward for me to want to spend my time at the pool doing it.

Between the baby pool and the diving tank was "the big pool."

The pool was huge, but not particularly deep. I believe it started at three feet at all four sides, then gradually got deeper to about five feet in the center. At the southeast corner, there was a metal sliding board with water flowing down it. It was a popular feature, but I didn't use it too often. I didn't like the out-of-control feeling, even for the few fleeting seconds it took to zip from the top of the slide into the water. And I never understood what was so exciting about sliding into water.

But I practically lived in the big pool and, like many pool regulars, became a proficient swimmer even before my mom made me take swimming lessons.

The "big pool,"
Ambridge Borough pool with new expanded sundeck on right,
Beaver County Times,
August 20, 1965

Original photo caption:

TAKE TO THE WATER - When days become hot and humid, many people, young and old alike, find their swimming pool a welcome relief. Here, at the Ambridge swimming pool, some persons are taking a dip in the water while others bath [sic] in the sun. The hot spell of weather that has hit the district recently has made this scene an almost every-day occurrence at swimming pools throughout the county.
To jump into that water, especially after the long walk to the pool and up those many steps from Beaver Road, was so refreshing. 

The water was usually cool (unless you had morning swimming lessons, then brrrrrr), but not too frigid for comfort. And the water was generally clear, although there were days when the water in the big pool was cloudy, which made swimming underwater tricky. Plus you could usually see drifts of the "black sugar" that some of the mills belched out, swirling around the pool bottom as they were being sucked towards the filter drains.

There were always challenges to meet in the big pool, especially when the pool wasn't packed with swimmers, or "standers" on really crowded days: swimming the length of the pool without stopping, then turning around and doing it again; swimming the width entirely underwater; doing somersaults and then double somersaults, then going for a triple; the tougher backward somersaults; learning to do a handstand.

I'd have tea-parties with my friends while sitting at the bottom of the pool. We'd play pool tag or a game we called "quicksand" which required players to avoid touching the bottom of the pool or else we'd be trapped and out of the game. 

My friends, my sisters, and I usually would stay at the pool most of the afternoon, and by the end of the day, we'd be happily exhausted and sport "pruney" hands and feet. And then we'd start the long walk back to our hot, unairconditioned homes. But the walk home was easier than our trek to the pool, because for most of us, it was mostly downhill.