Belle Vernon Bicentennial just beginning for history hunter
Sherry Shondelmyer is desperately seeking history.
Wanted: historical photos, maps, newspaper clippings, and event programs from Belle Vernon's past – to be published in a booklet for the borough's bicentennial celebration in June.
However, she is looking beyond this year, as a larger publication is planned by 2014.
Shondelmyer has already obtained and scanned more than 100 photos from residents.
“We're looking for pictures of old businesses, old fire trucks, police cars,” she said. “The pictures should ideally be in good condition, and the older, the better. We kind of just go and see what they've got and wing it from there.
“We're hoping for more unique stuff, but anything that's in good condition is safe for the book.”
Shondelmyer, an admitted history junkie, hasn't always delved into the past.
A 1987 Belle Vernon Area High School graduate, she barely maintained interest in the subject.
In 2000, Shondelmyer began researching her family tree. She's been chasing history ever since, starting with the tales spun by her grandmother, Emma McGowan.
“She used to tell us stories about her family, and that's all they were to me – stories,” Shondelmyer said. “When I started doing the family tree and finding newspaper articles online, they became more than just stories to me. They were true events.
“She had told us her Grandpap's house caught on fire. Well, I found it in the newspaper.”
She said his name was John David Perry, and he lived to be 101 years old. He was walking along the road and ended up getting hit by a car. That's why Perry Road (in Washington Township) has its name.”
Since then, Shondelmyer has taken on the role of caretaker at Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Fayette City. Both sets of her fraternal great-grandparents, the McGowans and the Dulls, are buried there.
“It's not too hard to date stuff,” Shondelmyer explained.
“All we do is look up the census record, and you can tell when these people were alive and lived there. It's just getting the stories and the photos.”
It wasn't long after Shondelmyer strolled into the borough's bicentennial meeting last year that councilwoman Marybeth Secleter recruited her to be the event's volunteer historian.
Tom Hewitt, a longtime friend and superintendent of Belle Vernon Cemetery, is scanning the photos and collecting them on a flash drive for the bicentennial booklet.
Shondelmyer said she's willing to make house calls and bring a handheld photo scanner to collect snapshots of the past.
“Maybe if the older people are too sick or don't want to leave their houses, we'll go to them,” Shondelmyer said.
“We've been lucky; they've come to us. People don't want to (loan) us their pictures and feel a lot safer having them scanned right away. I understand.
“These are their family photos that were passed down from generation to generation.”
Among the more interesting finds are photos of an old jailhouse on State Street dating back to the late 1800s.
The current owner preserved some of the original metal bars in a wall. There's also a piece of wood from the jail that is carved with the initials “WMK” and “1883.”
She obtained a 1954 photo of three parallel bridges: the original Belle Vernon-Speers Bridge, the newer Belle Vernon-Speers Bridge and the Belle Vernon Railroad Bridge.
Some of the older photos contain shots of McClure's Restaurant and billiard parlor at the corner of Main and Second streets and the train station on Water Street.
Both are estimated to been snapped sometime in the 1880s, Shondelmyer said.
“My favorite one is the old train station that was right before where the (current) fire hall is, and these horses and guys are lined up, and there's a train in the background,” she said.
“The train station was made into apartments, we just don't know if it was the original train station. I haven't been able to prove that yet.”
Shondelmyer hopes to acquire more photos of the Gibsonton Distillery.
“They were known worldwide for their whiskey,” Shondelmyer said.
“Noah Speers, the son of Henry Speers, built a mansion in Gibsonton. All that's really left now is a couple of row houses. There's still a Gibsonton Cemetery, but nobody knows it's there.”
The most interesting acquisition, Shondelmyer said, was a picture of Belle Vernon undertaker Paul Curtis Reppert taken around the turn of the century and submitted courtesy of the Reppert family.
Paul Curtis Reppert is pictured driving a horse-drawn hearse.
He owned and operated the Curtis Reppert and Sons Funeral Home along the main street in Belle Vernon.
The family was in the furniture and undertaking businesses from 1895 to 1918.
She has also gathered century-old ads, including one from 1873 for W.F. Morgan's Grocery Store at 424 State St. The ad declares: “Peace has returned still we will continue our war against high prices.”
The war, in this case, was the Civil War.
The bicentennial committee still has fundraisers planned, including an Oldies Dance on April 27 and a Gun Bash May 11, both at the Belle Vernon Volunteer Fire Department social hall.
In the meantime, Shondelmyer plans to be out and about gathering history – one photo at a time.
“I wish I got paid for this ... it's more hours than my job,” she said, laughing. “It's in my blood. You've got to preserve that history.”
Anyone willing to submit photos can contact Shondelmyer at 724-929-9418 or at the Facebook site “200 Years of Belle Vernon Borough History.”
Rick Bruni Jr. is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 724-684-2635.