By any name, California confectionery site stirs sweet memories
Every town in this mid-Monongahela Valley had an Asa's Dairy Bar and Confectionery at one time or another.
For anyone who grew up in California in the 1940s and '50s, Asa's was a haven for a variety of treats and a good time.
“I have very fond memories of my father taking me to Asa's for ice cream every week,” said Patricia Cowen, archivist and past president of the California Area Historical Society.
Her late father, Lou Peters, was a coal miner and looked forward to going to Asa's as much as his daughter did.
“Dad just loved ice cream, and he would always buy a pint and eat it right there,” Cowen said. “He said it was the best in town. I would get a chocolate ice cream cone and sit on the steps outside the front door of the building. I always managed to get some on my dress, especially on those hot summer days when the ice cream seemed to melt quicker than you could eat it. But my father didn't mind; he wanted me to enjoy that delicious treat and would always clean me up before we went back home.”
According to the historical society's archives, the business was originally known as Nasser's Confectionery in the 1930s. It also carried the names Vetter's and Buddie's, but the building that housed the business at Third and Wood streets in the heart of California's downtown business district was there long before that.
“There was a large structure at that site as far back as 1913, maybe earlier,” said Edgar A. Harris Sr., former president of the historical society. “The insurance (street) maps indicate that the building ran along Third Street and Wood Street, and there was a cobbler's shop and a tailor shop next door as you moved along Third toward the college (now California University of Pennsylvania).”
The insurance maps were recreated by Sanborn Maps and are available at the firm's website.
“They are a great source of historic information,” said Harris, longtime street commissioner in California before his retirement. “They are color-coded to give you an idea of what style of buildings were there – brick, wood, etc. The names of the businesses are not listed but there are definite indications of what type of businesses they were. And because of their locations, we have a good idea of what was there over the years. This has been especially helpful in tracing the history of the community.”
Harris recalled that Asa's featured a traditional dairy bar menu of hamburgers and hot dogs, milkshakes, ice cream and soft drinks.
“They also had a large glass display case with a large variety of candy — those old-fashioned penny delights and candy bars,” he said.
He said Asa's also sold “those great frosty mugs” of Ma's Old Fashion Root Beer (not to be confused with Dad's Old Fashion Root Beer). Although Ma's was founded and headquartered in Wilkes-Barre, Harris recalled that it was produced in a bottling plant in Blainesburg. The company's slogans touted the root beer as “The Kind That Mother Used To Make” and “Ma Knows Best.”
“It was delicious, especially on those days when it was very hot outside,” Harris said. “The glass mugs were kept in the freezer and frosted. The root beer always had a ‘head' of foam when it was poured into the mug, and it overflowed down the sides.”
Others recall that Asa's also sold basic food items such as bread, milk and lunch meat as well as cigarettes and other tobacco products..
“There were tables and booths for customers to sit and relax and enjoy their meals,” Cowen said. “And they had a dance hall in the back of the building with a jukebox that offered the top songs of the day.”
There have been reports over the years that teenagers were dancing at Asa's on Dec. 7, 1941, and heard the news about the Japanese bombing of the U.S. military installation at Pearl Harbor from other young people who came into the establishment. Although some of the teens continued to dance, the festive mood turned solemn when they understood the full impact of the attack. Many of the young boys at Asa's that day later served their country during World War II.
The earliest public record of the business being known as Asa's is that name appearing on the borough tax rolls in 1944. But other archives show that the late John Asa owned and operated it before that.
Asa was only 51 when he died for a heart attack on Tuesday, Aug. 6, 1940. Notice of his death in The Charleroi Mail on Aug. 7 said he died “at his home at Wood and Third streets yesterday.” It further reported that he operated a confectionery store in California and previously owned a tavern in Brownsville.
Following Mr. Asa's death the business on the street level of the two-story frame structure was owned and operated by his widow, Bolomia Asa. She and two of her daughters Jessie and Nancy lived in an apartment on the second floor, which featured a large balcony on both sides of the building.
Mrs. Asa died Monday, May 25, 1959, at her home in Butler. Her obituary recalled that she had been a resident of Brownsville for 37 years before moving to Butler in 1957. Like her husband, she was born in Syria and had moved to the area many years earlier. She was a member of St. Ellien's Greek Catholic Church in Brownsville and its women's society. Her survivors included three daughters, Jessie, Nancy and Josephine, all of Butler, and a brother, Faell Hallal, a well-known businessman in Brownsville.
John and Bolomia Asa are interred at Redstone Cemetery near Brownsville.
Other families also lived in the apartment above the confectionary over the years.
A 16 mm film, “California Area Historical Movie” (circa 1937), captured a wellspring of images of California including the business district. Cowen's husband, Gerald (Jerry) Cowen, converted numerous images from the movie into still photos. The film also has been converted to DVD form and information is available by contacting the historical society at its headquarters in the Gallagher House at 429 Wood St., California, or calling 724-938-3250.
Asa's Confectionery and Nichols Flower Shop, located in an adjoining building, were threatened by one of California's worst fires on Sunday, Nov. 25, 1956. But efficient work by volunteer firemen was credited with keeping the blaze, which caused damages of more than $50,000, from spreading to those structures.
The fire in the 300 block of Wood Street destroyed Sepesy's Tavern and the George Wood & Son Realty Agency. Also damaged by the fire, smoke and/or water were a barbershop owned by Sam Terrano, the State Pharmacy, the dental office of Dr. A.B. Linhart and the Martinelli Cleaning establishment.
Fire Chief Harold Gregory said the fire was the worst to hit the town in more than 25 years. Gregory said the blaze broke out at 7 a.m. in the two-story brick building owned by George Sepesy and spread quickly to the real estate agency. The initial alarm was turned in by Arthur Brooks, who was on his way to work at the J&L Washer in Maxwell.
Investigators later determined that the fire was caused by faulty wiring at Sepesy's Tavern. The restaurant and bar were rebuilt as a one-story structure.
Newspaper accounts of the fire said 30 California firemen were assisted by 20 from South Brownsville in battling the blaze in subfreezing temperatures over a four-hour period before bringing it totally under control.
Other businesses that followed Asa's into the building at Third and Wood were Glott's Delicatessen and Shake ‘n' Dog Shoppes. Both offered sandwiches and other food. Shake ‘n' Dog was part of a national chain whose slogan was “We tickle tummies across America.”
An undated photo in the California Area Historical Society's files shows Glott's Delicatessen with a large sign touting sandwiches, takeout service, ice cream and Fike's dairy products. The balcony on the second floor of the building is gone. A directional sign on a utility pole at Third and Wood points to Cal State College, so the scene was captured on film before July 1, 1983, when the school became California University of Pennsylvania.
Other businesses located adjacent to the building over the years have included but are not limited to Nesti's Bakery, Nichols Flower Shop, Sausser's Real Estate and Maione's, an arcade establishment.
The building that housed Asa's and the other businesses, as well as several other structures in that general area (including Sepesy's Tavern), were razed to make way for construction of a new Rite Aid Pharmacy and spacious parking lot. Sepesy's, which was operated by George Sepesy's sons Joe and Bob at the time, was the last building to be demolished in 1984.
An undated photo in The Brownsville Telegraph, which is part of the historical society's archives, shows Bart Bertocci, excavation contractor, and Al Giovannelli, masonry contractor for the project, viewing the initial phase of the ground-clearing work. Calvin Shaunn was the general contractor for the work, which was overseen by the Washington County Redevelopment Authority.
Another news clipping, believed to be from a California University of Pennsylvania publication, alerts students that they shouldn't be surprised “if the block at Third and Wood streets is significantly changed when you return from semester break.” A photo accompanying that story shows some of the windows on the front of the building covered with plywood.
According to the California Area Historical Society's records, Rite Aid opened in 1990. It continues in business today at the busy intersection that has changed many times over the years.
Transition and the passage of years, however, have not erased the memories that evolved there.
Ron Paglia is a freelance writer.