Saturday, May 31, 2008

A Scratch, A Movie, A Harley, & A Paint Job

You can barely see the scratch on the photo. Few people would notice it on the side of our coach “Dolly’s Pride.” Yet, the scratch bothered Ed every day. A stop sign in Fayette City wounded “Dolly’s Pride” and left a scratch mark several feet long. The damage occurred when Ed intended to make a left turn but cars parked on the street in this little Pennsylvania town made the turn impossible. He opted to go right instead. Rounding the turn, the coach rubbed against the intersection stop sign. The screeching sound of metal against metal and the site of the massive coach taking such a tight turn will give folks on the main streets something to talk about for weeks. Fayette City cannot accommodate large RVs. A volunteer fireman who helped route us out of town said the fire trucks barely fit either. Old two-story houses line both sides of the streets along the one way street into town and the one way out of town. The houses have no front yards, just a city sidewalk to the curb. Without driveways, cars park parallel making a single lane for traffic. The main street is a narrow urban canyon.

We infrequently watch movies during our road trip. Opportunities to explore places take a higher priority than sitting inside watching a movie. In Hazleton, we happened to be boondocked in a place with little to explore and within walking distance of Hollywood Video. As a new customer there, the clerk told me I was entitled to “one month of movies rentals at half price.” I took advantage of this offer. Over our week in Hazleton, I rented and watched: Charlie Wilson’s War, Across the Universe, Trade, American Gangster, Into the Wild, and September Dawn. A day before leaving Hazleton, I stopped this movie frenzy. Ed walked with me to return the last movie. He never went inside the video store though, he stopped short of the store to admire a Harley parked on the sidewalk.

The bike belonged to John DelliSanti, the towering man in leathers who exited Hollywood Video behind me. “That has to be your bike on the sidewalk,” I confirmed as we both turned to walk to the Harley. John bought the Harley at an estate sale. He’d done the custom paint job himself. His friend added the pin stripping and Rat Fink character. Custom painting was not a hobby. John specializes in collision repair, restoration and motorcycle painting. John did not hesitate when Ed asked if he’d consider fixing the scratch on the bus. Within moments, John parked his Harley next to the coach and waited for us to walk across the parking lot. He took a walk around the coach and examined the job. If he could get the color match of the paint, he’d easily fix “Dolly’s Pride” the next day.

John told us he learned his trade in high school. He opted out of the Catholic school because of a failing grade in religion class. In the public school, John planned to study auto mechanics but the program was already at enrollment capacity. An advisor suggested he take the body work and painting classes until there was an opening in mechanics. An opening never occurred, setting John on his career path. Now at 46, John keeps a photo collage in his shop office of the work he’s done since he was 15 years old.

DelliSanti’s Auto Repair is located in the rear of 125 W. 22nd Street in Hazleton, Pennsylvania. John’s Dad ran a car dealership on the location 40 years ago. A heart attack killed him when John was just a kid. John can still remember how his Dad’s friends gathered in the building and drew the blinds to play gin late into the night. John was never far from the dealership that his uncle eventually ran. The brick house next door is where John lived while growing up. Ed wedged our coach on a blacktop lot between that brick house and rear shop for John to do a paint job on “Dolly’s Pride.”

From inside the coach, I could hear John masking paper and plastic around the side of the coach to cover areas he wanted to protect. I closed the windows when he began sanding the scratched panel. Ed photographed the process capturing John’s keen attention to his work. Eventually, the fumes from the paint forced me outside where I also witnessed John’s precision. Between coats of paint, John dragged on a cigarette and told us about how a gas leak affected the neighborhood. The EPA fixed the problem by installing what John called a “giant vacuum” in a building across the street. Blame for the problem remains entangled in the courts even today.

As the day grew long, so did Ed and John’s faces. When they lifted the masking, the new paint didn’t blend. The color was too dark. Ed came inside to watch the evening news on TV, leaving John to figure out what to do. In the time it took for me to cook steak hoagies, John corrected the problem. I could hear him tearing off the masking. That was my cue to offer him a Yuengling Black & Tan and call for Ed. When Ed asked him how he managed to get the paint to match, John chuckled, “Sometimes I even amaze myself.”

May 30, 2008

Pennyslvania's Coal Heritage & Mine Too

The houses represented in Eckley Miners’ Village could have been any of the many houses I visited over the years in Pennsylvania. These miner’s double dwellings fill “patch towns” throughout the state. I’d seen this style home in Coal Run, Luzerne, Homer City, Red Barn, Brownsville, and Coral. My uncles who worked the mines over 90 years ago lived in this style of house with their families. I never thought of the historic value of these old men’s houses, houses which are now valued as a part of Pennsylvania’s industrial heritage.

Eckley Miners’ Village is listed in the National Register and is administered by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission as a living museum. This distinction drew me to visit this preserved “patch town.” It dates back to 1854 as a company-owned town that provided homes to miners during the Anthracite Era. Some of the homes among the 59 buildings are still tenanted by miners, their wives or widows, and their children.

The people who originally came to Eckley in 1860s boom days of anthracite mining arrived as immigrants from all parts of Europe and Russia. The promise of jobs in the coal mines drew them. The mining company tried to meet their needs by creating a town that included churches, a social club, company story, doctor’s office, and numerous double dwelling homes. We noted each remaining structure as Ed and I strolled along Eckley’s Main Street. A descriptive and numbered map-type brochure from the Visitor’s Center aided our self-guided walk through the past.

The Breaker building caught my attention above all else in this living history display. It’s a technical monument to a bygone era. It looms high above the town. I’d never seen a breaker so close to houses, right in the town. Even though the one standing today was created as a movie prop for the filming of Paramount Studio’s movie The Molly Maguires in 1968, it is impressive and the location is relatively accurate in that it stands near the site of one of the three original breakers.

In the breaker building, coal was cleaned and sized. Here, large lumps coal from the mine passed over large rollers with projecting teeth which broke the coal into marketable sizes. Then the coal passed through a series of metal screens to be separated into uniform sizes. It traveled down chutes to the young “breaker boys” – children who removed pieces of slate and rocks. Finally, coal passed to the railroad cars positioned at the bottom of the breaker for transport.

The orientation film shown in the Visitor’s Center gave me new appreciation for the dangerous work the coal miners endured. The display of mining and household artifacts told the story of the Sunday through Saturday life in a “patch town” of the 1860’s. It revealed a life of survival, family cooperation, and the back-breaking work of immigrant miners, my ancestors.

More on Coal…

Coal is big in Pennsylvania. Its’ so big, that a lump of coal can be bigger than a human. I stood beside this lump of coal displayed in the Visitor’s Center parking lot of the Eckley Miners’ Village.

Coal can be deadly. We found a memorial dedicated to people who lost their lives. They were not miners, just folks asleep in houses. They were victims of the Stockton Mine Disaster in 1865, an incidence of mine subsidence that swallowed a house. Lantern fuel in the house ignited, and then created and explosion killing the people memorialized at this site.

Coal is still abundant in Pennsylvania, a stock pile that can last for the next 100 years we were told. As evidence, we saw a strip mine where the work of heavy equipment named The Anthracite King had peeled away the land. The expanse of the mining made the big trucks and cranes look like Matchbox miniature toys in the distance.

Coal can be a Christmas surprise too. Have you heard the threat: “If you behave badly, Santa will leave a lump of coal in your stocking”? I’ve stashed a few lumps of anthracite in the coach just in case I’ll need some coal on December 25th.

May 26, 2008

Eckley Miner’s Village is located Weatherly, Pennsylvania in Luzerne County,

Approximately nine miles east of Hazleton off Route 940.

More information is available on the website

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Welcome to Mike's Place: Riding the Hazleton Rails toTrails

Michael probably liked coming to the rise on this Pennsylvania hill overlooking Dreck Creek Reservoir. He might have liked to see the Canadian geese waddle to the water’s edge then float around in the Saturday afternoon sun. He may have enjoyed being surrounded by woods and new growth of ferns. I would like to think that some people hold Michael dear in their hearts, dear enough to remember him and dedicate a bench in his memory along the Greater Hazleton Rails to Trails. “Mike’s Place” was our first rest stop.

Rain kept us inside the coach for a few days so Ed and I needed to get some exercise. We found the Greater Hazleton Rails to Trails just by driving around. The main trailhead is located at the intersection of SR 93 and 424 in Hazleton, Pennsylvania. That’s where Ed oiled the chains of our infrequently used bikes. At least today, he would not grouse, “Here we go, hauling those bikes around. We never use them.”

A map displayed in the trailhead parking lot showed us our route. We could go four miles to Beryllium Road. If we made it seven miles, we’d be in Eckley Miners’ Village. Challenged, but not crazy, we opted to try the four miles. After all, four miles out means four miles back. Eight miles seemed like plenty for an afternoon ride.

The limestone surface and head wind made peddling slow even over the mostly flat terrain. Past the first mile marker, the surfaced changed to a dirt road with clumpy red rocks. We rode in the tracks left by truck tires from a time when vehicles used the road. We were descending a grade through trees. The road opened to a body of water – Dreck Creek Reservoir. We respectfully and breathlessly plopped down on a bench -“Mike’s Place.”

Ed read aloud from the Greater Hazleton Rails to Trails brochure he found in the trailhead dispenser, “The trail user will experience many types of wild life along the trail including deer, bear, ruffed grouse, wild turkeys, fox, coyote,” … and BUFFALO, just to mention a few.

“Buffalo!” I screeched, “You just threw that in to see if I was listening!” He laughed and so did I.

We didn’t see any of the wild life promised. The list needs revised to read: rabbits, robins, Canadian geese, butterflies, and bees, just to mention a few.

From “Mike’s Place”, we could see the spillway and knew the trail from here went downhill. “Are you ready to go,” Ed asked. I answered by throwing a leg over my bike. As we continued, the road narrowed and became rough with a black stones, not the red we’d been bumping over. We passed mile markers two and three. We never did see number four because we decided to turn back when the surface looked like an old abandoned blacktop road with lots of arteries branching off. A guy on an ATV zipped past us. If he’d have stopped, we could have asked for our bearing. All we had was the little pocket trail map.

We’d gone a little way when Ed challenged me, “Take your bike up the hill over there.” He pointed to the rocky hill off the trail.

“Are you kidding?” I whined.

“Just push it up there for a picture.”

I complied. The photo belongs on a calendar for extreme sports, steep grade, loose fist-sized rocks, except for me. I am standing near the bike, holding it back from gravity’s pull sure to send it crashing into Ed if I let go.

Back on the trail, we rode slow and steady along the slight uphill grade. When we got to the spillway, it was a head-down, puff and pedal climb but we made it back to “Mike’s Place”. We sat a little longer this time, but surely not as long or often as Mike must have sat there in his 89 years of living to deserve a bench in such a beautiful spot.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

If Your Breeze Past Pottsville, Pennsylvania, Turn Around & Go Back

The City of Hazleton website says go see Pottsville. That’s odd…I never heard of Pottsville until on Monday night, I found it on the Internet. I actually clicked around for information about Hazleton, the town where Ed and I boondocked for the night. In a weird twist, the “Life in Hazleton” section of the city website recommended people visit nearby Pottsville, home of Yuengling Beer.

A recommendation from “The City” and the thought of a cold Yuengling was reason enough for me to turn around and go back to Pottsville, a Pennsylvania town we breezed by in the coach. Pottsville is south of Interstate-81 on Pennsylvania Highway 61in Schuylkill County. Seven hills surround downtown so I was glad we left the coach parked in Hazleton and drove the car.

First, we stopped at the Yuengling Brewery so we’d know where to go for the 1:30 PM tour. Then, we set off on foot to explore downtown. The appeal of Centre Street – the main commercial drag – is not eye-level. The ornate cornices and fa├žade work on some of the downtown buildings add color and design to what would be ordinary bricked and glass fronts. These architectural extras serve as reminders of the boom town atmosphere that swept the region in the 1800s. The Industrial Revolution and anthracite coal mining made Pottsville an economic center. Today, the downtown survives as the center for financial institutions, county government, and small business owners.

Mary Bryne is a fifty-something lady with a tattoo partially hidden by her hair at the nape of her neck. She says the tattoo was a gift to herself when turned 50. Mary owns The Mad Potter at 6 South Centre Street, a place her business card describes as “Funky to Functional Pottery and Regional Art.” Mary’s business developed from a hobby. At the entrance of her studio, there is a black spiral staircase colorfully and deliberately splattered with paint drippings. Next, illuminated shelves display the pottery she crafted…vases, candle holders, dishes, and more. If you can’t visit her store for a peek of her work, go to or catch her at a regional arts & craft fair. In the back half of The Mad Hatter, Mary gave instructions to three women who were beginning potters.

I didn’t have time for a lesson, but Mary showed me how she cast a starfish, sand dollar and conical shell. She used these molds to add the contour of the sea creatures to the neck of several vases on display. I promised to buy one when we go back into a house without wheels. I noticed Mary is trendy too. On the wall hung a breast and belly cast captured in the last days of a woman’s pregnancy. Time Magazine called this trend “Art of the Womb” (April 3, 2008). I call it a beautiful statement by women celebrating special time in our lives, an heirloom.

Prominent on the hilly skyline sits the Schuylkill County Courthouse, a massive structure built in 1889 -1891. Across the street, the Schuylkill County Prison looks like a castle. The Molly Maguires went on trial here in the years 1876 -1878. Authorities hung nine of the men in the Schuylkill County Jail. Historians believe the Molly Maguires, a secret Irish immigrant organization, were present in the coal fields of Pennsylvania. The evidence presented against these men held them responsible for a wave of coalfield crimes. There is speculation that some of the witnesses may have been coerced or bribed.

Another controversy rocked Pottsville; this time surrounding the National Football League (NFL) Championship. Bob Dirtmar, Owner of Maroons Sports Bar & Grill located at the North end of Centre Street, showed us the bar’s display of memorabilia from the Pottsville Maroons while explaining the story. He told us the Maroons and the Chicago Cardinals were top contenders for the 1925 NFL Championship, with the Maroons winning a late-season game between them, 21 to 7. But the Maroons scheduled a game in Philadelphia against a team of Notre Dame-All Stars, which included the famed Four Horsemen. Joe Carr, the NFL President, warned the team that they faced suspension if they played Philadelphia. The Maroons played and won 9 to 7. The team later claimed that they had permission for the game. In response, Carr suspended the Maroons from all league rights and privileges including the right to play for the NFL championship and nullified the franchise. Bob said the Chicago Cardinals did not publicly claim the 1925 Championship title until 1933 when the Bidwell family acquired the team.

There’s three ways to get more information about the Maroons. You can read. ESPN’s David Fleming wrote a book Breaker Boys: The NFL's Greatest Team and the Stolen 1925 Championship about the Maroons. You can surf. There’s an “Official Site of the Pottsville Maroons” at for football enthusiasts. Or, you can wait for the movie. Disney bought the rights and will soon release a movie. I personally liked hearing from Bob in Maroons Sports Bar & Grill about what some Pennsylvania football professionals and fans call the “biggest travesty in NFL history.”

There’s history inside and outside Maroons Sports Bar & Grill. Check out the traces of a Mail Pouch Outdoor ad on the side of the bar. Mail Pouch was betting you'd turn around too!

May 21, 2008

The Best Part of the Yuengling Brewery Tour Isn't Just the Beer

“The entrance was built for a horse and buggy, not a truck. I don’t want to be the first person to knock a brick out of the arch.” Chad cleared the bricks with only inches to spare. Most days, he backs his truck into the Yuengling brewery twice. He and his little Jack Russell dog named Bert collect the hops, corn, and barley discarded by the beer maker. The wet mixture falls from a shoot in the brewery above into his 15 ton dump truck. His tailgate drips making puddles on the worn floor and the air smells like beer. He delivers this brewer’s grain as feed for regional livestock. Chad is not part of the Yuengling Brewery tour. We just happened to encounter him on our trek up one of Pottsville’s seven hills to the Gift Shop entrance where our tour would begin.

Our tour guide Vicky told us we could
photograph anything in the
brewery except her. She warned us to respect her wish since she’d be our bartender later when it came time to sample the Yuengling products. Ed snapped 154 pictures, none of Vicky.

The Yuengling Brewery is America’s oldest brewery, family owned and operated since 1829. Both the National and State Historical Registers declared this distinct recognition during the country’s Bicentennial in 1976. A plaque on the brewery building acclaims this honor.

As our group moved through the brewery, Vicky explained the brewing process. More interesting than all the vats, kegs, cans, and other manufacturing equipment was how Yuengling responded to Prohibition with innovation. A vacant building across from the brewery stands as testament. The beer maker turned to ice cream production.

Yuengling also produced “near beers” malt-based beverages with less than .05% alcohol to survive that period. With the repeal of
Prohibition in 1933, Yuengling produced Winner Beer. Vicky told our group that Yuengling reacted to the end of Prohibition by shipping a truckload of Winner Beer to President Roosevelt at the White House.

A wall mural in the brewery celebrates the end of Prohibition. It features a smiling gray-haired man holding a bottle of Winner Beer in his hand. His other hand holds a mug with a frothy head raised for a celebratory quaff. By contrast, another mural depicts six scowling ladies. Their obviously didn’t like their job as bottle washers.

“I have the best job in the world,” declared the man watching the factory line. He watches the open cans of Yuengling rotate on a
conveyor, get filled with beer and then be sealed with the pop top lid. He posed for a photo then waved us along on our tour.

After that stop, I was beginning to get thirsty but we had one more stop on the tour before sampling Yuengling beers.

Vicky took us to the cave, a dimly lit underground cave where in the days prior to refrigeration the beer stayed cold. Unlike the cave our daughter took us to in Missouri (Connor’s Cave), the Yuengling cave had no bats and we could walk erect. I could feel the dampness and cold through my light sweater. Numerous passages went off from the main tunnel. Ed and I dallied for a few photos then caught up to the group in the Yuengling Bar where Vicky poured me drafts of Black & Tan and the Traditional Lager.

May 21, 2008

The Joys of a Family Visit

To date on our 10,000 Grand Tour, visiting family brings me the greatest joy. How else could I have experienced the fun of watching my grand-daughter Brianna pretend to be a princess? How else could I have smiled admiringly when she dressed in Aunt Suzie’s junior bridesmaid gown and twilled in front of the mirror? I would not have felt her loving hugs.

I would have missed the surprised look on my Mom’s face when I rang her doorbell on Mother’s Day and yelled “Surprise!” I would have forgotten about the home movies of The Farm and my First Holy Communion. Someone else would have placed flowers on Dad’s grave honoring him for Memorial Day.

I would have missed being with my stepson Jason and his wife Lisa when their baby waved on the hospital sonogram screen.

Family is the love that binds us, the source of joy.

Statistically, I am right in there with the 48% of leisure travelers who took one or more trips to visit family in the past year. What’s the matter with the rest of you? Look for a little joy, go see your family.

May 11 - 19, 2008