Ford City heritage festival grows into summer tradition
According to the American Heritage Dictionary, “heritage” can be property that is or can be inherited; an inheritance or something that is passed down from preceeding generations; a tradition.
As the 33rd annual celebration of Ford City's heritage opened Wednesday, it seems as if this event is living up to its name.
Bobbi Jo Furlong, chairperson of the Ford City Heritage Days committee, agrees, “Heritage Days has become tradition.”
A second generation is growing up with a community event that is synonymous with summer and the Fourth of July, the holiday that celebrates the hard-won independence that enabled people of all cultures to make this their home.
So, what is Ford City's heritage?
Heritage can be easily seen, and often smelled and tasted, at the Ford City Heritage Days. Fortunately, for festivalgoers, the heritage of cabbage and noodles and other ethnic edibles has been safely preserved to ensure consumption for all.
This year promises new foods to compliment the returning ones. J.L Costa will be serving up Bananas Foster waffles, Kaczar Ravioli will feature an Italian platter and Carol Shellhammer will focus on the American classic, the hamburger.
There are other examples of heritage around. In the traditional sense, residents can examine census and other records to determine where people emigrated from to live here.
With the help of the internet, data concerning present-day population and their ethnic roots can be accessed.
Histories of Ford City give detailed views of the lives and times of this town.
Ford City was the by product of an industrial expansion of John B. Ford's glassmaking business, which would come to be known as Pittsburgh Plate Glass, or eventually, just PPG.
Ford's purchase of highly sought riverfront property in 1887 began a fast-paced construction of a glassmaking factory and housing for its workers.
Initially referred to as Patterson by the U.S. Postal system, the town got its present-day name in 1891, when residents decided to name it Ford City in honor of their employer, John B. Ford.
Ford City would remain a company town until 1895, when PPG officials decided to allow the sale of its houses and properties.
A diverse population would come to call Ford City home. Eager to get the new glassmaking factory operational, PPG sought skilled workers from Europe and persuaded them to relocate here.
Population grew immediately. Within a year, nearly 3,000 people lived on Ford's land purchase.
In 1910, 4,850 people resided in Ford City, with an almost 50/50 ratio of “native whites” and of “foreign birth and unnaturalized.”
“Ford City, Pennsylvania 1887-1962,” a book written for the commemoration of Ford City's 75th anniversary, describes the early influx of workers: “First generation European immigrants predominated: Germans, Belgians, whose forebears had been glass workers in the “old country,” Czechs-Slovaks, English, Ukrainians, as well as others. It is a tribute to their character and good sense that they lived together in the same community all these years in perfect harmony.”
This industry would recruit African American farmers from states such as Kentucky and Tennessee for employment, primarily housing them in the segregated neighborhood which would become known as “Seldom Seen,” or the “Lower End.”
More than a dozen community groups, representing at least half as many ethnic groups, are pictured in the 75th Anniversary book. Many of them, such as the American Greek and First Slovak Catholic Unions, the Ukrainian National Association; the Polish National and Ladies Polish Alliance; Bavarian-Austrian Sick Society; the Macedono-American Benevolent Brotherhood and the Slovak Gymnastic Union Sokol, are no longer active in this area. Others, such as the Latin American Ladies Auxiliary and the Polish Falcons, are still a presence in Ford City.
According to current data, most of the ethnic groups cited in earlier sources are still claimed by current Ford City residents. City-Data.com reports that the five most claimed ancestries by Ford City folk today are: German (28.2 percent); Irish (14.9 percent); Polish (9.8 percent); Slovak (8.9 percent); Italian (6.3 percent) and Ukrainian (5.3 percent). Forty people were said to be foreign born, quite a contrast to the 2,314 of residents a century ago.
Historical reference books can give us useful statistics and other data; however, a recent project taken on by the Ford City Public Library contains history as told by those who experienced it.
With the help of a grant from the Federal Institute of Museum and Library services, library staff and volunteers interviewed local residents, capturing their stories on audio CDs and video DVDs. This “digital archive of local history and community memories” is now known as The John Englert Collection. Englert was an educator, historian and author, who was known for his knowledge of Ford City and his support of the library that he helped to found.
These personal accounts of local men and women include recollections of the Great Depression and WWII, as well as many other memories personal to each of them.
The oral histories can be accessed by visiting the library to view on their computers or by checking out materials for home use if you are a library member.
Copies can be purchased for a small fee. Online access can be found at www.armstronglibraries.org/fordcity/history.
The Ford City Public Library invites residents to use the facility, including the audio-video equipment, to capture their own histories.
For a small fee to cover material expenses, they can create your own video, with the help of experienced library staff and have a copy of the finished project, too.
The library also invites anyone interested to consider volunteering to help continue to grow the John Englert Collection.
There are many ways to help with donations of time and money.
Regardless of what your ethnicity is, diversity and uniqueness are celebrated at the Ford City Heritage Days and that's a legacy to pass on.
The event continues through Sunday.
Diane Orris Acerni is a Leader Times correspondent.
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