Friday, July 3, 2009

Happy Fourth, Clairton!

Don’t drink a Fifth on the Fourth

Long may she wave: The Fourth of July, of course is Independence Day in the U.S. It is the 185th day of the year and is generally considered the halfway point of the year as well as summer vacation for schoolkids. It is often a day for family picnics and outdoor barbecues or “cookouts” as they are called in Pittsburgh. According to those who track such things, some 37 million travelers are projected to drive more than 50 miles from their home town this holiday. While that number may seem large, in context it is about 700,000 fewer travelers than last year and 4.5 million fewer than in 2007. Maybe the Fourth is morphing back into a stay-at-home holiday. Or maybe not. The Fourth of July is typically the largest car travel day of the year.

The Fourth in small town America: We have written often about our hometown of Clairton, PA in the 1950s. It was a great place and a great time to grow up. Summertime was a time for not wearing shoes, catching lightning bugs, and spending days at the municipal pool at Clairton Park. Of course, July Fourth was special because there were picnics during the day and fireworks at night. Our favorite vantage point for watching fireworks was the end of Tenth Street. We lived nearly at the end of St. Clair Ave. The house should have been on the corner of Ninth Street but for some reason Ninth Street did not go through from the next block. It ended at Waddell Avenue. On July Fourth we’d walk the half block to Tenth Street where St. Clair Avenue ended, and down the unpaved Tenth Street for a block and a half until it ended at the woods. The railroad tie fence at the end of Tenth provided a great vantage point.

The many fireworks displays to enjoy: In the 1950s US Steel and related plants paid most of the property taxes. That meant individual taxes were low and services were outstanding. Each village along the Monongahela was equally prosperous in a blue collar way and each village had a fireworks display to boast on the Fourth of July. Since it was summertime and daylight did not go to sleep until well after 8:30, fireworks did not begin until 9:00 or so. But when they did, WOW! Of course from where we sat we were able to see the Clairton display but we were also able to see that of Glassport and parts of McKeesport and even West Mifflin. The trees were too dense to see the Elizabeth displays and we did not want to run back to St. Clair Avenue to see them and risk missing out on what we were watching and of course, giving up our prime seat.

More Clairton reflections: It has been nearly a half century since I left Clairton but the memories are as crisp as though it were just last week. Of course, age does dim the outside edges of the memory first and I frequently research and do fact checks before writing about the area. One resource I stumbled upon is the Mifflin Township Historical Society and their monthly newsletter called “Portal to the Past.” Founder and President Jim Hartman includes historical data from the entire area including Baldwin, Dravosburg, Duquesne, Hays, Homestead, Jefferson, Pleasant Hills, Mifflin Township, Bedford, Clairton and many more surrounding communities. This month’s issue contains excerpts from the Clairton Progress, the local newspaper published from 1925 to 1967.

Clairton Progress December 2, 1954: Large Distillery To Become Bus Garage. Large is the name of a village in Jefferson Borough that borders Clairton. It is named not for its size but after a family of the same name. The distillery was built in the 1700s and was part of history in the Whiskey Rebellion, one of George Washington’s first challenges. Noble J. Dick was the owner of the local bus company during the 1950s. The purchase was completed for an estimated $150,000 and included several large brick buildings and 11 acres. Once the deal was done the buildings were leased back to the Westinghouse Atomic Reactor Division. The property was originally sold to Revolutionary War hero Col. Joel Feree in 1793 for the sum of two pounds, 14 Shillings, and 10 pence, or about $ 5.60. John Large was a whiskey maker using a tea kettle in his cabin as a still atop nearby Mount Washington. His son Jonathan Large learned the fine art of whiskey making and built a gristmill and the distillery that would remain active for some 75 years. As an aside, my mother worked in the Large Distillery bottling division. She tells the story of a fellow worker who placed her wedding and engagement rings in one of the bottles of whiskey and set it aside; as she believed the whiskey would clean the rings. When the worker left for a potty break a supervisor walked by, saw the bottle and placed it back on the assembly line for packaging. I don’t remember if the rings were retrieved or they became a surprise gift to an innocent purchaser of a bottle of whiskey.

Shopping in the 1950s: Payday’s offered a 3 lb. can of Spry lard for $0.69, eggs $0.59/dozen, and center cut veal chops for $0.65/lb. Joe’s Texaco offered B.F. Goodrich tires for $14.95 each, a lube, oil change, and motor flush for $2.98 and Texaco oil for $0.24 per quart. Livingston Manor homes near the county airport were available for $75.00 per month. The 3-bedroom brick and stone homes cost $11,800. The Dairy Delite on the corner of Miller and Mitchell offered hamburgers for $0.15 but asked for orders to be placed by adults only. Finally, the Ankara on Route 51 advertises Businessmen’s Lunches for $0.85. To find out more about the “Good Old Days” of Clairton and vicinity, contact the Mifflin Township Historical Society at

A little blogging music Maestro... “As Time Goes By” by the Jimmy Durante.

Dr. Forgot

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