Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Visiting Vandergrift

Today, I'm hosting a guest blogger, Israel Pickholtz, with whom I share geographic roots. Both of our families lived in Pittsburgh and in Vandergrift, Pennsylvania. Both of us made Aliyah to Israel a long time ago and are near neighbors. The two of us also share a common interest in Jewish genealogy.

My earliest relative on my maternal grandfather's side to come to the United States from Europe, was Max Kopelman, one of the original settlers of Vandergrift Heights, Pennsylvania. Israel is visiting the States just now with his wife Frances and youngest son Devir to celebrate Israel's grandson's Bar Mitzvah. He decided to seize the opportunity to explore the town of Vandergrift as it is today.

11 Shevat 5770 (26 January 2010)

Israel Pickholtz, with Frances and Devir

In the morning, we had gone to the Carnegie Museum to see the dinosaurs. Going to Vandergrift felt much the same. A trip to the very distant past.

We drove into town on Hancock Avenue, just like we did when I was a child. There had been half-a-dozen road signs on the way, not like the long low sign I remember from fifty years ago, but the plain green highway department signs that direct traffic to every other small town in the state. But still, the fact that Vandergrift warranted an official sign at all was something.

We first came down to the old store across from the Casino Theater. I was pretty sure I knew which one was R. Gordon and Son, both from the structure of the outside and from the angle to the Casino. I realized afterward that had I come down the alley behind Sumner Avenue, I would have recognized the store from there, more than likely. I forget what business is there now - it wasn't important. Not much a reporter, I. Probably should have stopped for a picture. There may never be a "next time."

We went around the block towards the bridge to Apollo, passed the other end of Sumner Avenue and came around at it from the VFW end. It was pretty much as I remembered, but of course it all looked smaller. A policeman parked his car not far from ours and we spoke a bit. I told him who I was and that my grandfather and later my uncle had furniture stores in town. "Oh yeah," he said "I bought stuff offa them." Yep, I was in Vandergrift.

Raymond and Sarah Gordon's house, 126 Sumner Avenue
I knew the house at 126 fairly well, having been there many times, including the second floor. I saw though that there was a dormer in the center of the front of the house, so there must have been a third floor too. I'll have to ask Mother about that. The house was shuttered, but in a short-term way--perhaps just for the day. No chance of any occupant's showing up to offer to show us around. I took a few pictures of Devir standing in front of the house. Further down towards the river, there were three houses in a row with "for sale" signs.

Ethel and Kenny Stull's house,
172 Franklin Avenue
Then we went up Grant to Aunt Ethel's house on Franklin Avenue. Number 172 looked exactly as it did then, the house, the yard, Lafayette Street over to the left. But way smaller. It was depressing to see how badly it was kept up. There was mail in the box, so it obviously was occupied, but the paint looked like it hadn't been redone since Aunt Ethel died in 1976. I didn't look to see if our two mulberry bushes were still in their yard. I took a couple of pictures of the front of the house.
There was a woman delivering mail down the street and we asked directions to the Historical Society, on Sherman. The society operates a museum in an old school that is no longer in use. The sign said they were open until three and by the time we arrived, it was two. I had had some correspondence with Beth Caporeli and I told her I'd be coming either Tuesday or Wednesday, but we hadn't set anything specific. We found a woman named Mickey Thomas, to whom my name was not familiar. I told her who I was and she asked how my cousin David was. I had to tell her that David - who had worked at the store with his parents - had died a month ago.

Mickey had also known my uncle Kenny Stull, Aunt Ethel's husband, and their son Eric had worked for her for a time. I don't think she knew that Eric's mother was a Gordon. Mickey said that it was really too bad that after finally getting all his difficult adolescence behind him, Eric had died so suddenly. (He was thirty and the accident was completely the other guy's fault.)

They have a nice gift shop and I bought a book called "Something Better Than The Best" and a little statue of the Casino Theater. While leafing through the book, I saw a single reference to Max Kopelman's brother-in-law (they married sisters) Louis Landau, who had some kind of business partnership with a Black man named Louis Sutherland long before such things were commonplace. I'll probably send the book to Varda on long-term loan.

303 Longfellow St.

Varda's uncle Max Kopelman had lived at 303 Longfellow. Beth Caporeli had already told me that the building had been taken over by the Italian restaurant next door, but we stopped to look anyway. The restaurant building was sitting on two lots and it was clear that Max Kopelman's house was gone.

Mickey spent more than an hour showing us around. Lots of old things that were not specific to Vandergrift but had come to local people. And alot of other things about the town, yearbooks, sports trophies, maps, city directories and items relevant to local people. As usual, I came away with impressions rather than details. (You want details, send my brother.)

They would like to have additional photographs and artifacts and I hope to get them some of those.

We also met a woman named Lou Smeltzer Gill who works at the museum. She is from Vandergrift but now lives in Apollo and "walks over every day." Lou mentioned that among the Jewish store owners was the wife of long-time Pirates' team physician Dr. Joe Finegold, who had some connection with the Rubins. In fact, she said, "all the store owners were of the Jewish religion back then."

Neither of them knew of Mr Sturgeon, the barber whose shop was next to my grandfather's store. I fussed terribly as a child when in the barber chair and he reached a point where I was not allowed inside.

Mickey says that new people are moving in, mostly New Kensington, because enforcement in Vandergrift is more lax. Drugs, mostly.

We drove around Washington Avenue. The "new store" - where Uncle George, Aunt Esther and David sold furniture - now sells party supplies. I identified Uncle Martin's TV-radio store across the street because it had the living quarters upstairs.

If the museum is any indication, people are trying hard to preserve the past and there may be enough civic pride to enable them to succeed. I certainly wish them well.