West Overton readies for World War II 'We Can Do It' exhibit
As West Overton Village prepares to take a step back in time and host the Senator John Heinz History Center’s traveling exhibit, “We Can Do It,” museum director of education Aaron Hollis is asking area residents to consider loaning World War II items to the temporary display.
The exhibit explores Western Pennsylvania’s impact on the home, industrial and battle fronts during World War II. It will be housed in the East Huntingdon museum Feb. 2 to March 26, and is provided at no cost to History Center Affiliates Program members, according to the history center’s website.
Participating sites are encouraged to display items from the era, including artifacts, photographs, clothing, home furnishings, tools and toys.
Westmoreland and Fayette are the predominant counties from which he hopes to draw.
He also is putting together a collection of items, including a 1927 manual typewriter from the museum’s own inventory, that likely will delight one generation and give another pause. “People can type on it. There will be people who will come to this exhibit who have never seen a typewriter,” Hollis says.
A call for memories
“Their (history center) exhibit thematically, historically, stretches basically from Erie to Uniontown. We said, well that’s pretty relevant, but we can do better and we can zoom in even further than that,” he adds.
Hollis, 27, is recording interviews with area residents who recall the era, a generation that, he notes, is fleeting.
“I’m still trying to find local people who have memories of that time period — whether they were veterans, whether they were women at the time or, and I would say especially, if they were children at the time. … What is the experience of a child who is enjoying the joy and innocence of childhood while going to bed at night and having nightmares about being bombed by Nazis?” he says.
Telling their stories
Among those he’s interviewed are a man who was a “newsie” in Connellsville. “He had just walked out of a movie theater and heard the news of Pearl Harbor. He ran over and started delivering a special edition of The (Connellsville) Courier,” Hollis recalls.
“Another woman, she’s from Greensburg, she was a member of the Women’s Army Corps — WAC — and she was a typist during the war. … Her (late) husband was a prisoner of war, and while he was a prisoner he created a scrapbook of these really cool drawings. I think he would have other guys in the camp draw in his book. She has a scrapbook that she made during the war, too,” both of which he hopes to include in the exhibit.
“I’d like to have a listening station. My hope is to be able to use period-looking headphones so people put those on and listen to clips of the interviews,” he says.
Archival copies could become research resources for historians, Hollis notes.
Telling more ‘current’ history
Founded in 1928, West Overton occasionally re-invents itself, Hollis says, from a museum of the American frontier to the birthplace of Henry Clay Frick, and now telling a bigger story of the site’s evolution from agriculture to industrialization.
”We exemplify this region’s industrialization because simultaneously distilleries, coal mines, coke ovens, people, were all accumulating here, growing here. … So though this distillery closed in 1920, and many of our coal mines closed with the Depression in 1930 or because of advancing technology, the war changed it. During the war, many of our local distilleries produced industrial alcohol to support the war effort for things like smokeless gun powder and cleaning supplies. … Our coal mines, I say, were almost duct taped back together overnight to meet the immediate demand for steel,” he says.
“This is an opportunity for us to educate our community about this area’s contributions to the war,” he says.
Those with items and/or memories to share are asked to contact Hollis before year’s end at 724-887-7910 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Mary Pickels is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Mary at 724-836-5401, email@example.com or via Twitter @MaryPickels.