Connellsville Canteen reborn 7 decades after World War II
As Connellsville continues to reinvent itself from a time of deteriorating buildings and a nearly vacant downtown, one of the new focal points is the Connellsville Canteen.
Outside and inside this newly constructed building reflects a long ago era that was an important part of the city's history. World War II was raging overseas, and on the home front a group of dedicated volunteers, most of whom were women, gave of their time and energy to welcome the steady stream of service personnel who rode through Connellsville by rail to destinations far and wide. The canteen and those who made it run offered comfort to weary military travelers — a smile, a meal, encouraging words, a safe overnight stay, all of these things made the stop in Connellsville a memorable one for many.
“Connellsville was a major railroad hub in the 1940s. Many trains, including troop trains, traveled through Connellsville during the war,” said Karen Hechler, Connellsville Area Historical Society president. “These trains carried homesick, frightened, hungry young people who were coming from the war effort or being shipped to the combat zones around the world.
“What could civilians do in a time of rationed goods to show these soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, WACS and WAVES that their sacrifices were appreciated? Connellsville natives could meet each train carrying military personnel with hot coffee, milk, homemade sandwiches, cookies, donuts, stuffed eggs, and even cigarettes — all given free to servicemen and women,” she added.
But where did the money come from for such a major undertaking in those difficult times?
People in the area were extremely generous, according to the historical society's minutes.
One man from Morgantown, W.Va., donated $5. A Mrs. Ellenberger donated 6 dozen eggs. One lady donated 50 cents. People donated cookies, cupcakes, doughnuts, sugar, cinnamon rolls, relish, oranges, meat, peppers, grapes, tomatoes, potato chips, even though it was a time when sugar and other supplies were scarce and used with care. Donations came from individuals, churches, Sunday School classes, lodges and clubs.
Anyone having an idea for a fundraiser had to contact the Executive Board of the Canteen. Plays were produced; there were fabric drives and concerts at East Park. Letters were sent to the outlying districts — such as Brownsville, Uniontown, Monarch, Dawson, Vanderbilt, Scottdale and Dunbar — to keep them involved. Scottdale even had a tag day for the Connellsville Canteen and turned over $305 to the Canteen treasurer, as researched by Hechler and included in the current issue of “Connellsville Crossroads.” Thank-you letters were run in the local paper from time to time for all the support given to the Canteen.
On Thanksgiving Day in 1944, the ladies made the holiday special by serving chicken sandwiches. Many services were initiated as a result of the military needs. Mrs. Rose Cavalier was in charge of the Motor Corps. Servicepeople could be driven home within a 12-mile radius after the streetcars stopped running for the day. This service was for military people on leave.
Bell Telephone placed a pay station in the Canteen. Victory gardens were planted, an important resource in those years. The new Connellsville Canteen will have a garden growing behind the building to reflect those times.
After the war
The war ended and the need for the Canteen ceased to exist. On March 13, 1946, the Executive Board and the 24-hour Chairmen met at Mrs. Rose Brady's home. They decided to close the Canteen on April 10, 1946, the second anniversary of the Canteen. All together, this dedicated group of people served 512,911 sandwiches and 494,607 cups of coffee. This figure does not include the many quarts of milk, dozens of doughnuts, dozens of cookies, eggs, oranges, apples, etc. that were served. Through many sources of fundraisers, a total of $49,968.97 was raised to pay expenses. A balance remaining after all expenses were paid of over $3,000 was divided and given to Connellsville and South Connellsville to help pay for ambulances.
“These figures don't even touch the hundreds of hours of time and energy, love and devotion to this massive project that were exhibited by those who made this Canteen function day after day, season after season, holiday after holiday for two solid years,” Hechler said.
Nearly 70 years have passed. Although the new Connellsville Canteen is not completely finished, a sneak preview of the building will take place from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Dec. 7. Those who visit the Canteen will get a glimpse of the nearly finished structure that holds the lifelong project of Harry R. Clark — a model railroad that represents the area's rich railroading history.
The walls of the Canteen are filled with displays of that era, photographs of “hometown boys” and women, who proudly and bravely served their country.
Art McGann's military photo is on the wall of the new Canteen. He and his four brothers — Bill, Paul, Walter and Harry — were all in the war at the same time; two in the Army, two in the Navy and Art in the Air Force. They made it home safely.
Homer Cavanaugh was killed one month and one day before the end of the war. His photo is hung on the Canteen wall with his Purple Heart certificate, along with photos of his three brothers — Ralph, Jim “RJ” and Gene — who served at the same time and returned home.
A military photo of John R. Hanlon also hangs at the Canteen.
“Soon after arriving in England, John R. Hanlon was given charge of the Mighty Eighth Air Force's Base Air Depot #2's engine-part section, orchestrating its growth from a spare-parts cage in one corner of the engine repair shop to the largest engine-parts section in the United Kingdom, occupying two giant hangars,” said his daughter Ceane O'Hanlon-Lincoln. “Before the war's end, Master Sergeant Hanlon, whose exceptional work helped speed tons of supplies each day to front-line fighter and bomber bases, was commended for his outstanding devotion to duty, technical knowledge and initiative.
“As Chief of the Engine-Parts Section, Master Sergeant Hanlon supervised the receiving, storing, and issuing of the thousands of engine parts needed to keep our fighters and bombers in the air over Germany,” she continued. “Base Air Depot #2's motto — ‘It Can Be Done!' — succinctly tells the tale, and though its personnel did not fly in combat, the task was no less important, for countless sacrifices were made to ensure that, indeed, it was done.”
Other interesting displays throughout the Canteen include: a Tuskegee Airmen photo grouping; Harold Betters' grouping with one of his trombones; Iwo Jima flag-raising; captured Japanese flag; the story of a double agent — Odetta; and a Morse code device.
The Andrews Sisters and other entertainers who performed for the troops at various Back Stage Canteens are also pictured.
The new Canteen
The rebirth of the Connellsville Canteen was made possible through the gift of the Clark model railroad by Tuffy Shallenberger.
The local businessman had the train display moved to Connellsville from its former home at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort & Spa. His construction company then built the railroad “station” to resemble the location of the Canteen those many years ago.
Fayette County Cultural Trust, which accepted the donation of the model railroad, has been selling WWII style dogtags as a way to raise funds needed to pay for the building and the installation of a complete commercial kitchen.
When funds are realized, the Canteen will operate as a tourism site as well as a coffee and sandwich shop. It is unknown how long it will take to accomplish this goal. Monetary donations are accepted and appreciated.
“We hope that the Connellsville Canteen will be just one of the many places people will want to visit while they are in town,” said Daniel Cocks, curator of the Canteen memorabilia. “Connellsville has a lot of treasures, and I am sure the Connellsville Canteen will prove to be another one of them.
“With Harry Clark's 75 years of building one of the best railroad displays in America, and learning about the area's World War II heroes, I am sure this is one stop you will not want to miss,” he added.
Todd Reagan is chairman of the newly formed Canteen Committee, a subcommittee of Fayette County Cultural Trust. The Canteen Committee is comprised of members of the community who bring enthusiasm and personal experience to the project. The committee will oversee operations for the new Connellsville Canteen.
“When we were given the opportunity to bring the late Harry Clark's remarkable model train display back to Connellsville for a permanent exhibit, the Cultural Trust jumped at the opportunity,” Reagan said. “Railroads and Connellsville are united in history, and no small city in America has a richer railroad connection.
“The model railroad display was a gift to the Cultural Trust from Tuffy Shallenberger, who has partnered with FCCT to build the new building that will be the permanent home of the exhibit, including a cafe and beautiful multipurpose room with a cabaret size stage,” he continued. “With Tuffy's community-minded idea and the ability of the Cultural Trust to support that, we have worked together to create the Connellsville Canteen. The Canteen name is a tribute to the historic WWll Connellsville Canteen that freely served thousands of soldiers passing through Connellsville on their way to parts unknown during the war.
“The new structure is designed to replicate an historic train station, and the interior of the building will house WWll memorabilia and artifacts from the 1940s.”
Cafe, railroad display
The cafe and the railroad display will be open to the community sometime in 2014. Regular events are being planned for the multipurpose room and stage.
The Canteen Committee decided not to have the Clark railroad display open during “It's A Connellsville Christmas” on Dec. 7, but the rest of the building will be open for visitors to see.
Harry Clark's son is still working on the model railroad display and reportedly does not want anyone to see it until it is all cleaned up and perfect, like it was when it was at his dad's home. Some damage occurred during the move. People viewing the Canteen walls can learn interesting facts about local service members and WWII.
“Before I started this project I had no idea of the depth that Connellsville citizens had contributed to the war efforts. There are many heroes, it is really fantastic,” Cocks said.
“We are grateful to Tuffy Shallenberger for partnering with the Cultural Trust to bring this project to Connellsville,” said Michael Edwards, president of FCCT. “We hope that the community comes out to see the tremendous amount of work that has gone into the Connellsville Canteen. Perhaps some who see the unfinished areas of the building will want to donate to the completion.”
“I am excited for Connellsville,” Reagan said. “I believe the new Connellsville Canteen will become a bright spot in our community and that the Cultural Trust has taken another big step forward in making the place we call home a better place to live.”
Nancy Henry is a contributing writer.