Westmoreland County's Laughlintown goes lowest with arrival of frigid weather
In the name of doughnuts, Sherry Davis layered on the clothes and pulled a fur hat over her head for the pre-dawn trek through ice, snow and minus-17 temperatures to serve her customers at the iconic Original Pie Shoppe in Laughlintown in Westmoreland County.
Little did she know that before Tuesday morning was over, Laughlintown would realize its 15 minutes of fame when the National Weather Service proclaimed it the coldest spot in Southwestern Pennsylvania during a blast of frigid weather that sent temperatures across the nation plunging to levels not seen in two decades.
At its coldest, Laughlintown felt like minus-39 degrees with the wind chill, according to the weather service, still warmer than the coldest spot in America — International Falls, Minn., where temperatures plummeted to minus-26 degrees and the wind chill was minus-50 degrees.
Other places in Southwestern Pennsylvania were cold — wind chills hit minus-38 in Plum and minus-37 in Vandergrift, Monroeville and Perryopolis — but none were as frosty as Laughlintown, the sleepy, unincorporated village in Ligonier Township about 20 miles southeast of Greensburg and perched at the base of Laurel Mountain.
“It was so cold you felt like your eyeballs were going to freeze,” said Davis, a cashier at the shop.
But Davis knew that a little thing like “couldn't-breathe cold” wouldn't keep her regulars from the chit chat, crusty breads and gooey pastries served up at the shop since 1947 when former Navy cook Melvin Columbus and his mother, Mildred, set up shop along a two-lane stretch of Route 30.
So Davis bundled up in a coat, three pairs of socks and two hooded sweatshirts to make the brisk walk down a deserted highway to the shop.
About 3:30 a.m., the temperature inside was just 46 degrees and, though the heat was on overnight, some pipes froze.
“We were literally waiting on customers with hats and gloves on. At least we had unlimited coffee,” Davis said, laughing.
By noon, the store had sold out of cheeseburger soup and macaroni and cheese — “they want hot food, obviously,” she said.
But for the popular restaurant, business was slow.
“On a normal day, we'd be sold out of everything,” said cashier Lucy Adkins, noting some customers buy chicken pot pies a hundred at a time in the winter.
Throughout the day, cold-weary customers stumbled into the pie shop, grabbing a bite and telling their tales of braving the chill.
Bundled in three coats, thermal pants, three pairs of wool socks and boots, Kris Provence of North Huntingdon stopped in for a slice of pizza for lunch, despite his “frozen” hands and feet.
A veteran of cold-weather work, he had spent the morning installing TV satellite dishes. In 1994's record-breaking cold, he recalled, he had shoveled driveways.
But for most around town, residents did their best to just cope, tending to dead car batteries and struggling furnaces.
And they came down from Laurel Mountain, elevation 2,684 feet, where brutal winds whipped snow across the roads, stinging any patch of skin left exposed.
Some hardy souls just made the trip to stop at the post office for their mail.
But even that wasn't easy.
It was so cold the post office door was frozen solid.
“That wind chill — that wind's stiff out there,” said Bill McCargo, who stopped to pick up mail while taking a break from fixing a broken heating pipe.
Rossilynne Skena Culgan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-6646 or firstname.lastname@example.org.