Those Valley Days
Kushequa, PA During the 1920s
By Dorothy Carlson

I was blessed with perfect surroundings for growing up. Nature and a small community provided the proper background. This is where we as a family reached our final homing place after years of wandering. My father was by trade a merchant. In my youngest days he was a variety store manager, which meant we never stayed longer than a year or two in any one place. Finally when I was eight, he got the chance to manage a general store (the only store) in a small country town. To my mother it must have meant the end of the world. She was used to city living, but Mother followed with the children wherever Father led.

Father had talked in glowing terms of "this next move," and we were unprepared for what we found. All we saw at first were the unpainted houses, boardwalks, and empty buildings, but that wasn't all there was to see. The village nestled between mountains rising on either side. At each end of the valley, mountain after mountain folded in on each other so that we were completely surrounded by woodlands rising up to the sky. A stream meandered through the center of the valley conveniently providing swimming facilities for old and young. On either side of the river valley along the hillsides, houses were strung like beads side by side. Sometimes there were as many as three tiers but usually only one. In front of the houses boardwalks precariously clung to the banks. Back of the houses were oil and gas wells pumping away. At the upper end of the valley were the industries, a tile factory and a brick works, for the trees on the mountains covered an unlimited supply of high quality shale. Beyond the brickyards, spanning the horizon from mountain to mountain like a spider web was the Kinzua Bridge.

When we moved there in 1923, we were to witness a town's slow death, which had started long before we arrived. We didn't know it then, but it was to become almost a ghost town. We should have known what was to follow, for even at that time were all around us ghosts of the past. These ghosts were to provide us children with the finest playground equipment that youngsters ever had.

Our greatest delight was the "red onion" an enormous empty building which had been a boarding house. Everything was left as it had been; no furniture remained, but otherwise the rooms were intact, even the kitchen -- what a place to play hide-and-seek! I can still visualize the long corridors and the many rooms. Then there was the old, deserted sawmill with rusty tools still lying around. The second floor was gone, but giant timbers remained on which we ran back and forth, and from one place, where it projected over the sidewalk, we could drop to the walk below. The old paint factory was no longer used, but there were great stacks of paint cans which we could help ourselves to and use for any purpose we could think of. The "Reading Room" was another large, empty building which once had housed a sort of library for the townsfolk. In one end of this building was an ancient, abandoned delivery truck, which took us on many imaginary journeys. Also there was the old pin factory where clothespins had been made and unused schoolhouse still complete with desk and blackboards -- and ideal place to play school. Add to this the fact that for every five inhabited houses there was one empty one. Up the valley about a mile from the village's center was an abandoned brickworks. This was called the "Pearl Clay." At one time white brick had been made there, but the special type of shale needed for the shade of brick had run out. Picture if you can, fifteen kilns like giant mushrooms, great drying tunnels with cars of green brick still in the tunnels, cars still on the tracks, the factory itself with half-made brick still on the belts running out of the machines, How silent it seemed, for it looked as though the workmen had stepped out for lunch. To an eight-year old this all was a fairyland, but to my mother -- I wonder, for this is what met our eyes when we stepped off the train onto the station platform.

The first person I remember seeing was a girl, my age, wearing large golden earrings and a bright scarf tied around her head from which long black hair streamed. This was our introduction to as mixed a population as any large city has. Mother must have had qualms when the babble of many foreign tongues reached her ears, but never did we hear our parents mention the word "foreigner". I am glad for this was the best training I could have had in racial tolerance. In face, we children delighted in the unusual names that were to become commonplace -- such first names as Paris, Romeo, Julio -- last names such as Innumerate, Verucci, Antonatsi, Venanzi, and Gentilio. The Gentilio's had four sons, Evoh, Hugo, Cevio, and Albert which shows the gradual effect Americanism had on that family. Shortly after we moved to town two girl babies were born. One was named Italia and the other Columbia -- a perfect example of the merging of the old world with the new. There were such names as Kelly, Hanlen, and Varroll: the Irish were represented too. The children from these families became my dearest friends and partners in all my work and play.

Summer held happy days for us. Most of our time was spent swimming. Children in our happy valley learned to swim while very young. Lazy, long summer days and evenings were perfect for paddling around in the cold spring-fed stream which traced its serpentine path through the valley. Along its length were pools of varying depth. These pools developed almost a social system. There were three main pools. The shallowest was for the youngest children, and here was where little Mary, Rosa, Rocco, and Nickolo swam until they were in fourth grade. The "big pool" was circled by trees. One side was a large rock that had its high side away from the pool and which slanted down into the water until lost from view beneath the surface. In the center was a rock that emerged from the water in a six-inch dome and formed a natural diving board. Here in this pool we swam until "grown-up". Then we had our "coming out" and graduated to the millpond. The millpond was deep and had a diving board, and here the young men dived and reared and wrestled, their sleek bodies muscular and gleaming in the sun. And all this for the eyes of the girls.

Swimming was not our only summer pastime. The mountains around us abounded in strawberries and blackberries. Our berrying was not a casual thing. As soon as the berries were ripe, the women and children deserted their homes and made for them hills. We started early in the morning, all dressed with black stocking covering our arms. And we all carried our lunches in pails from the old paint factory. Year after year we went to the same patches, each family having a claim to the patch they had originally discovered. No one thought of coming home until pails were full, and we learned early that to start eating berries as we picked would be our downfall. Evenings were spent canning berries and making jams and jellies. We much preferred blackberries to strawberries, for what a job it was to hull wild strawberries. In the wintertime though we enjoyed the strawberry jam.
Wintertime meant school time. Our schoolhouse was a brick structure built in 1918, and was actually the best building in town. The other buildings were of frame construction with no cellars, but were built up on pilings with boards sometimes nailed around the foundations. The school had two rooms, the four lower grades in one room and the four upper grades in the other. We had inside bathrooms that were a novelty to most of the children. We had no planned play periods, no basketball games, for there was no gymnasium, but again we had the outdoors. School recesses were wonderful times. We played baseball, not with a bat, but with a board; we also played "Annie, Annie Over", as we called it. In winter we took our sleds to school, and during recess we slid down the hill in front of the school. Sledding was an evening sport too. The roads leading into our village were all dirt roads and never plowed. Even our parents went out with us to slide in the frosty moonlight. Besides our sleds we had what we called "go-devils." These were homemade affairs consisting of a board to sit on and a two-by-four running down to a barrel stave on the bottom. Learning to ride a "go-devil" was really a feat of balance.

But all was not school and play. There was another side to our life in the valley. The social life of our village centered around the church. It was established under unique circumstances and was of no denomination, for the by-laws stated that each religious sect must be represented upon the board of trustees. Catholic and Protestant joined together in a common cause and a common faith. Sunday school services were presided over by Elisha Kent Kane until his death. He always entered the church from a side door beside the pulpit and carried a single flower in a vase. This was a source of conjecture to us children. What flower would it be and what beautiful vase would he choose? Sometimes it was a flower from his garden, but more often it would be a wild flower. Each flower was presented and remarked upon. Here began my first lessons in Botany.

We were in Sunday school classes according to age groups. We little girls waited impatiently to be old enough to be in the big girl's class. Their teacher traveled abroad several times and brought gifts back to her class from foreign lands. From Scotland she brought copies of Sir Walter Scott's poems bound in tartan, from France purses embroidered in petit point. She had another selling point too. She was a woman of generous proportions and wore colorful long necklaces. The sight of those long strands falling from her ample bosom and swinging in mid-air fascinated us. We finally achieved our goal, and the first Christmas we were in her class she gave us lace shawls from Italy. We not only had Sunday school, but every Sunday evening we had what we called "Happy Sunday Evening." It was happy too.

Everyone attended and each evening different young people were in charge. We had reading, vocal numbers and instrumental numbers. It was really amateur night on a sacred theme. What a wonderful way to weld a people together! Our Christmas program was the biggest moment of all. Every child had a "piece" to speak, and the adults presented a cantata complete with costumes. The church always ran out of standing room on these nights. No television spectacular today could compete with the majesty, the pomp, and the brilliance of those home talent presentations.

The gaslights were turned out. The candles on the ceiling-high tree gave the only light. The congregation waited breathless in their seats. Then thinly at first could be heard the singing of many voices in the frosty winter air. Closer and closer the anthem came, until finally the outside doors were opened and in came the procession. All heads turned to the back of the church and watched the approaching figures. Joe, no longer a farmer, was -- he really was -- Joseph. Oil drillers, roustabouts, and bricklayers walked like kings. Up to the stage they came and presented their tableau. There was no great talent here in either voice or declaration, but each played or sang his part from his heart. After the performance was over, the tree was the center of attention. Piled around the tree were gifts and candy, for each person there, who regardless of age, received a gift.

Each summer we had our Sunday school picnic. This was no casual affair. The brickyards shut down and the whole town went on a holiday. Months before the actual day, every housewife was solicited for food: cakes, baked beans, potato salad, sandwiches, pickles, coleslaw, and lemonade. Special cars were attached to the railroad locomotive. The town boarded the train and set out for the picnic grounds that were about ten miles up the valley. Mr. Kane always rode the train and distributed dimes to all the children. We always sang all the way to the picnic and after we got there, we had races and games until the adults prepared the long picnic tables. How we did eat -- each year the picnic seemed more wonderful than the last.

The church itself was no elaborate edifice. It was unpainted, but nothing was spared for the children. We were very proud of our church bell. Every time we heard it ring, we were reminded that around its rim was the inscription "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son." Years later on Saturday night our church burned. In the wreckage was found a portion of the bell with a bit of the inscription still intact. The burning of the church was the worst calamity that ever befell our valley. By this time the brickyards had been closed for many years; the old schoolhouse had been torn down and most of the people had moved away. The day of the company-owned houses was gone and all the homes were privately owned. I had grown up, married and moved away, but when the news of the burning of the church reached me, all the old memories came flooding back. The burning took place on a Saturday night, but in true tradition Sunday school was held the next morning -- in a private dwelling, and immediate plans were made for the building of a new church. Not one Sunday passed without holding Sunday school and construction of a new church was started. The adult church membership was only twenty-three, but this didn't daunt the spirits of the congregation. Children picked stones and helped clear the building site. Every man and woman volunteered their services. The women wrote letters to everyone who had ever lived in the valley. As a result the checks and money orders started rolling in. The men worked till dark as carpenters, masons, electricians; and architects drew up plans and gave them freely; the wife of a former minister donated a stained glass window for over the altar; churches of nearby towns took up collections. Each member of the church was given a dollar and told to make it grow. Once a month a Sunday was named as building fund day, and the goal was one hundred dollars each month. An envelope containing some money was kept to make up the difference if the goal wasn't reached. The envelope was never to be opened. The Valley now has a red brick Cape Cod style church. It has lovely carpeting, pews, an electric organ, and a carillon, but it will never hold the memories of the "little gray church in the vale."

In these days it is almost like a dream to think back. We didn't have to stay in the valley and work. There was work in neighboring towns, but there was something unexplainable about the valley -- there still is. There was a kinship stronger even than blood. I still feel it. Maybe it was the work; maybe it was the church. Whatever it was, it was a tie that bound my father, after nineteen years of wandering, to live in the valley for thirty-six years until his death and to give me my "beginning."




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