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
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
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
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 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
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."