'Growing up Connellsville' during the Great Depression
By Laura Szepesi
Published: Sunday, Dec. 8, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Starting today, the Daily Courier will begin “The Way We Were,” followed by “Where We're Headed,” a series of articles tracing Connellsville's past through the eyes of residents who lived it. From the 1930s through the New Millennium, “The Way We Were” will give a human perspective of Connellsville's boomtown years as well as its hard times and will end with a flourish, focusing on good news — we hope — for the future of our town in particular and Southwestern Pennsylvania in general. The series will run throughout the month of December.
When Fotenie Melassanos (Mongell) of Connellsville was born in the early 1920s, party-going women wore flapper dresses and favored the Charleston, dancing on tabletops of bootleg speakeasy bars because Prohibition was the law.
In 1923, Adolph Hitler — the German dictator whose warmongering and anti-Semitism led to the death of 50 million people worldwide during World War II — was arrested for an attempt to overthrow the government. He got five years in jail during which he wrote his Third Reich manifesto, “Mein Kampf,” or “My Struggle.”
When U.S. pilot Charles Lindbergh made his historic flight across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927, Mongell was about to enter grade school. That same year, actor Al Jolson thrilled audiences in the first “talking” movie, “The Jazz Singer” — and Yankee baseball fans cheered “The King of Swat” Babe Ruth on to a record-setting 60 home runs.
Penicillin was discovered by scientist Alexander Fleming in 1927 — the same year that pre-sliced bread was introduced by Otto Frederick Rohwedder of Iowa.
The Roaring 20s came to a screeching halt in 1929, despite the fanfare surrounding the first Academy Awards, during which German/Austrian film actor Emil Jannings walked away with the Best Actor statue for “The Way of All Flesh” and “The Last Command.”
That fact that Chicago gangster Al Capone orchestrated the murder of seven rival gangsters on Valentine's Day 1929, should have been a hint that the excesses of the 1920s would end in disaster. The decade closed in economic ruin after the U.S. Stock Exchanged crashed in October 1929 — touching off a worldwide Great Depression.
Fotenie Mongell and several of her classmates, interviewed this past summer at the Daily Courier, were just kids when the Great Depression deepened into America's bleakest years. She and Art McGann, Mary McCarthy, Betty Eutsey and Betty Sandusky have clear memories of those hard times. They were in elementary school when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office in 1931. He would stay in office until his death in 1945 — after their high school graduation.
During his tenure, Roosevelt initiated public works programs — such as the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps — that put millions of laid-off people back to work, building roads and other infrastructure and parks and replanting more than 3 billion trees to reforest a logged-out America. Medicare and Social Security benefits began with Roosevelt, who also lifted Prohibition in 1933.
During those same years, Adolph Hitler became Germany's dictator and opened the first concentration camp in the town of Dachau. It was an anti-Jewish move that would lead to the Holocaust, during which 6 million Jews and other prisoners would perish.
The 1930s were also an era dominated by organized crime. The Federal Bureau of Investigation was called into being — and into war against — gangsters. In 1931, Capone went to jail for tax evasion. Notorious bank robber John Dillinger was shot to death outside a Chicago movie theater in 1934 — the same year that renegades Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were gunned down in Louisiana.
Major ‘30s news
Other major news of the 1930s included the kidnapping and murder of Charles Lindbergh's baby. Severe drought crippled the Midwest, turning it into a Dust Bowl. A massive German dirigible named the Hindenburg blew up over New Jersey. Persecution of the Jews worsened in Europe. African American runner Jesse Owens earned four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin — and Connellsville runner Johnny Woodruff received one for the 800-meter dash.
Amid all this, in September 1939, when Fotenie Melassanos (Mongell) was a junior at Connellsville High School, Adolph Hitler invaded Poland, touching off the second World War. She was a recent high school graduate in 1941 when Japan attacked the U.S. Pacific fleet on Dec. 7. The other 1940s teenagers interviewed for this series were a couple of years younger, but all of them said that the hostilities were an unsettling backdrop for their high school years.
As they became young adults, they did so in a Connellsville that was a bona fide boomtown.
Fueled by an unprecedented coal and coke boom that had only begun to fade during the 1940s, Connellsville was still a place where one could easily find work to support a family, a bustling town that overflowed with business, a town so safe that many families never even bothered to lock their doors.
It was, Mongell and her classmates agreed, simply the best place to call hometown.
Tuesday: Teens in the 1940s in Connellsville, Mongell, McGann, McCarthy, Eutsey and Sandusky recall simpler, safer way of life.
Laura Szepesi is a contributing writer.
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