If you had to be out on the roads during our recent monsoon events, you have my sympathy. It was bad enough staying inside watching the rain for days on end.
I have no complaints, though. I received the Redbank Valley Historical Society’s two most recent books for my birthday. It was History Nerd Heaven at my place for a couple of days.
I stumbled across some of Tom Andrews’ columns while lost in the library’s Heritage Room a few years ago. When I heard that they were being collected into one easily accessible volume, I think I drooled a little.
I’ve heard from readers that they like the Native best when she wanders around town and remembers how things were in the 1960s and 1970s. Tom did the same thing, covering a longer time span and in more depth. Believe me, his stories are better than mine, but he was the L-V boss and didn’t have word-count constraints.
In my teen years, walking home from the high school was no big deal. We did it all the time, and we were healthier for it. We walked through a familiar townscape that imprinted itself on our memories, the commercial buildings and residences like old friends.
Kids are notorious for thinking that they are immortal, that nothing will change, that everything has always been the same way and always will be. It came as something of a shock when those old buildings were knocked down to make way for something new and improved.
You know of my love-hate relationship with the new-and-improved phrase. Sure, progress is generally a good thing, but it comes at a price. And part of that price is losing a bit of old-time character.
I pored over the book of Tom’s columns for a solid day before turning to Cindy and Denny Morgan’s pictorial history. This was a fun and productive pursuit on a rainy day, but I felt a profound sense of loss when it was over.
Well, yes. We mourn the loss of old familiar buildings, often whining and grumbling when they can’t be preserved. Unfortunately, not everything can be saved, and not everything is worth the time and expense.
There are buildings meant to withstand the ravages of time, and they’re built of brick and stone. Others, made of wood, were merely useful and their builders knew that they would have to be replaced eventually.
”Eventually” never came. The world changed, the face of business changed and technology marched onward. By the late 1970s, there was no reason to replace the old buildings with something more permanent.
But even the familiar structures we grew up with were second-generation, most of them. Look at the photos which accompany Tom’s columns and you will see buildings that never stood in our lifetimes.
Myself, I have this indescribable urge to go shopping in McKelvey’s store before stopping at the Globe Hotel for a good gossip. Both of them were gone before I was born.
Or that row of wood-frame shops between the Arcadia Theater and the Baptist church? Those would be prime poking-around territory on a summer afternoon, but those had vanished by the time my parents were born.
At least something was created to replace them. The 21st century hasn’t been especially kind to our townscape, and it’s a rare entrepreneur who is willing to rebuild on a vacant lot.
There’s something of an unspoken fear that our town will disappear some day, vanished in a final puff of smoke. I don’t think that’s likely, at least in our own lifetimes, but things may look a little different.
Some photos in the Morgans’ book placed a chilly little finger on the back of my neck. It was as if past, present and future existed at the same moment in time.
We are so used to our town lining the street in one unbroken rank from Liberty Street to the high school and beyond. It wasn’t all that long ago that there were open spaces here and there, and they are reappearing.
A photo from the 1800s shows a mill race on the New Bethlehem side of the bridge. There were two mills 75 yards apart, with nothing around them but fields and a single house on a distant hill. That is a neat picture, but a bit spooky when you think of the buildings that have come and gone since then.
I think about how quiet our town would seem to somebody from the 1880s transported magically to the present day. Water-powered mills are surprisingly noisy affairs, and having several of them in the business district would have made quite a racket.
There are no trains of any kind anymore. It’s a rare treat to hear the blare of a train whistle during the annual pumpkin chucking contest, but there used to be at least six passenger trains and numerous coal and freight engines passing through every day. Even the clash and rumble of cars being hitched and unhitched are gone.
But if you pick up the historical society’s books and spend some time with them, you hear all those sounds again. You can feel your shoes crunching peanut shells on the sidewalk outside the newsstand, and see Saturday night crowds in all the stores.
So, grab these books and keep them for your grandchildren.
”This is what it was like when I was young.”
[Susan Kerr is a semi-retired freelance writer living in her hometown of New Bethlehem. Previously, she was the managing editor of a regional-interest magazine and a business journal in State College.]
[EDITOR’S NOTE: The two Redbank Valley Historical Society books mentioned in Sue’s column can be purchased at The Leader-Vindicator office, or online at redbankren.org/history/.]