1970s grads' gab session: 'Home is where the heart is'

| Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2013, 12:46 a.m.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Today, the Daily Courier continues “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 December.

Those who graduated from Connellsville Area High School in the 1970s are long enough in the tooth to remember shopping for toys at Troutman's Department Store, munching on five-cent sticky rolls and doughnuts at the Double B Bakery and reading comic books at Whitey's Newsstand.

There weren't fast-food chains in town back then (except for Winky's); 45 records at Atkin's and Brown's Music stores cost 65 cents; and drugstores — such as Burns' and Swan's — concocted chocolate, cherry and vanilla Cokes to die for.

That was the consensus of a group of five Connellsville natives – and longtime friends — who met at the Daily Courier this summer for an impromptu trip down memory lane.

Susan McCarthy, Ellen Faris Bessell, Kirk Soxman and Gregg and Kim (Schroyer) Patterson hopped from subject to subject for more than three hours, recalling growing up in a city that (back then) had a thriving downtown.

The five friends graduated from Connellsville Area High School — Gregg Patterson in 1972 and the other four in 1974 — but their fondest memories lingered lovingly on their childhood years of the mid- to late-1960s, a time when, they declared, Connellsville was the perfect place in which to grow up.

“As soon as I went into Troutman's, I headed for the basement. That's where the toys were,” said McCarthy, the only one in the group who still lives in Connellsville. The others visit often, however, as they all have local family ties. “When I was in junior high, I moved upstairs to shop for clothes.”

In those days, Troutman's elevators were operated by a driver, and the store used a vacuum-tube system similar to today's drive-through banks for bill payments, McCarthy added. “It was really neat to watch.”

Recalling years past

Chattering onto another topic, Bessell remembered that Girl Scouts still wore green uniform dresses and socks back then along with their sashes, and girls played with Barbies a lot longer than today's kids do: “I was just wild about Barbie. My doll had three wigs. One of my favorite Christmases was the year that my mother decorated the tree with Barbie clothes.”

“One thing used to make me angry, though,” Bessell added, changing the subject again. “I wanted to be a patrol girl for the school — only no girls were allowed. Only boys. It was unfair!”

Soxman recalled how he and his classmates sold white tags downtown to raise money for school projects. “They looked like Minnie Pearl tags,” added Bessell.

Kids paid 10 cents apiece for stamps and pasted them in a booklet; when the booklet was filled, they'd proudly carry it to the bank in exchange for a $10 savings bond.

Even telephone numbers were simpler back then, McCarthy said. Before the common “628” and “626” exchanges, people dialed MA8 (which stood for Market 8). Rotary phones were the norm, and many still had party lines.

By the time they were old enough to drive cars, they were thrilled to make a trip all the way to New Stanton. “We'd go to Howard Johnson's in New Stanton. That was a big deal!” McCarthy said.

Enter Laurel Mall

Connellsville's downtown began a long decline as the classmates became teenagers.

“I think the turning point started with the opening of Laurel Mall (on Route 119 near Dunbar),” Soxman theorized. “And look at Laurel Mall today.”

Like downtowns across America, many malls such as Laurel Mall have multiple empty storefronts, forced out of business by “superstores” like Wal-Mart and Target.

It wasn't like that in the 1970s. Fayette County's first mall, Laurel Mall was as crowded on Saturdays as Connellsville's downtown was in its heyday.

“Connellsville's Class of 1972 had its post-prom party in the mall's lobby,” recalled Gregg Patterson.

He and his classmates expressed a fondness for their hometown, but the sentiment was tinged with regret — and hope for the future.

Soxman returns home often to visit, typically staying in Pittsburgh because the bank he works for, Tri-State Capital, is headquartered in the Steel City.

“I would like to move back home to southwestern Pennsylvania,” he noted. Asked whether he'd live in Connellsville, he hesitated. “Compared to other areas, Connellsville and other small towns often aren't as inclusive or accepting of cultural differences. But I have missed this area.”

“Demographically, it's gorgeous around here. However, there is a lack of cultural depth,” said Kim Patterson.

“There's slowness here to embrace diversity,” Bessell added. “However, I'm hopeful things may turn around. Look at Pittsburgh's rebirth (since the steel industry collapsed in the 1980s).”

Hopeful future?

The group named several projects that may be catalysts for a brighter future: the efforts being made to recruit a hotel; renovation of the long-vacant Aaron's Furniture Store; Connellsville ArtWorks gallery; the city's pending Connellsville Canteen Cafe/Harry Clark Indian Creek Valley railroad museum; and development of the Edwin S. Porter Theater at Connellsville Community Center.

They were enthusiastic about the opening of the Great Allegheny Passage bike trail. Grand-opening ceremonies were held in Pittsburgh in June; the 335-mile trail runs all the way to Cumberland, Md., where it links with the C&O Canal Towpath Trail to Washington. An estimated 80,000 people passed through Connellsville on the trail, smack through Yough River Park. City officials, with help from volunteers and civic-minded people, are behind the scenes, working on ways to give those trail users — and other out-of-towners — reasons to make Connellsville their destination.

As for McCarthy, she's not one bit sorry she moved home from Washington more than a decade ago. “I believe in Connellsville,” she said, simply. Involved with various community groups, she noted the efforts of such, including the grassroots Believe in Connellsville group.

“It's really grassroots, which we believe in. Various age groups have participated in projects such as city cleanups, storefront window competitions and other things,” she pointed out.

It proves, she added, that home is where the heart is.

Thursday: Connellsville — just a swell place to grow up.

Laura Szepesi is a contributing writer.

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