Couple collects hundreds of pieces from memory lane
Avid antiques collectors Bob and Alice Miller of Hempfield were at a Texas flea market about 30 years ago when he spied an incongruous find: a souvenir plate of the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
“I called her over and said, ‘How did this get to Texas?' ” Bob Miller remembers. The Millers would never know the answer, but the idea that souvenirs of their home state's turnpike once existed — and people bought them — intrigued the couple.
“That started it,” Alice Miller says of the couple collection of Pennsylvania Turnpike souvenirs. In the decades since that initial find, the Millers found and bought around 800 pieces, including hundreds of turnpike postcards.
In recent years, the couple, now both 81 and married 62 years, began to think of downsizing. They notified the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission of their proposal to donate most of the collection to the commission. The commission accepted, and when the South Midway service plaza reopens May 17, it will display a portion of the Millers' donated items for the public to peruse.
“The timing could not be better to acquire a collection such as yours,” William K. Lieberman, chairman of the Turnpike Commission, wrote to the Millers.
That's because the commission has been updating 17 of its service plazas. Turnpike Commission spokesman Carl DeFebo says the collection will fit nicely into the renovated South Midway service plaza outside Bedford, undergoing renovations since September in a “historically sensitive” way.
“We wanted to make sure some of the history of these unique plazas was preserved somehow,” DeFebo says. So the renovations included not only expansion, but preserving the original limestone service-plaza facade, meant to evoke a Cumberland County, Pa., farmhouse.
In addition to being displayed at South Midway, some of the Millers' artifacts might be placed at other turnpike commission locations, including the main office in Harrisburg and regional offices in New Stanton and King of Prussia. The Millers' names will be displayed at each location denoting their donor status, and they have been invited to the South Midway grand reopening. Items in the South Midway service plaza's lobby display case will rotate periodically.
“People don't understand why people would buy turnpike souvenirs at a stand,” Bob Miller says.
But in its early years, the Pennsylvania Turnpike — the nation's first four-lane, limited-access highway when it opened in 1940 — was itself a tourist attraction, he says. A souvenir would show everyone that the motorist drove the turnpike, which opened 15 years before President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the bill creating the interstate highway system, DeFebo says.
The service plazas do not normally sell turnpike-specific souvenirs. The Millers bought everything in their collection secondhand, mostly at flea markets. Alice Miller even had a T-shirt made, “I buy Penna Turnpike,” so flea market vendors could see her coming yards away and start looking in their stashes for turnpike mementoes to sell her. Eventually, she was known at flea markets as “the Turnpike Lady.”
Among the items in the Millers' collection are a Decca 45 rpm recording, “Pennsylvania Turnpike, I Love You,” by Dick Todd with the Appalachian Wildcats; many turnpike banners; a child's tea set with teapot, cups and saucers; a charm bracelet with bridge, car, toll booth and Liberty Bell charms; and two antique cars, one a salt shaker, one a pepper shaker. The shakers sat on a tray with sloping sides, one of which had an arch-shaped hole that resembled a turnpike tunnel.
The collection also includes the original plate that intrigued the Millers. It depicts turnpike attractions such as the Midway Plaza; “Little Panama,” an earthmoving cut so large it was reminiscent of earthmoving necessary for the Panama Canal construction; and the Susquehanna River Bridge.
The renovation of the 17 turnpike service plazas is part of a $170 million public-partnership with HMS Host of Bethesda, Md., which paid $100 million, and Sunoco, which paid $70 million, for the redevelopment, DeFebo says. The two corporations signed a 30-year agreement, under which each will provide services to travelers.
The Millers — parents of three, grandparents of seven and great-grandparents of 11, with one on the way — once used the turnpike on a daily basis. Before they retired, Bob Miller would drive Alice to her job as a geography teacher at the former Norwin Junior High School, and use the turnpike to commute to his job as a research scientist at U.S. Steel Corp. in Monroeville. Somerset natives, the Millers frequently traveled the turnpike to visit their relatives. Alice Miller even played in the Somerset High School band at a 1949 turnpike event.
“It's very generous of them to share this marvelous collection with the public,” DeFebo says. “Thousands and thousands of people are going to appreciate the items they have collected.”
“We felt good about” donating the items, Bob Miller says, “so future generations will know more about ‘America's superhighway.' ”
Sandra Fischione Donovan is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.