Keystone Markers give insights about towns but have fallen victim to time, theft or traffic accidents
The answer to the question, “What's in a name?” sometimes can be found forged in metal along area roads.
They're called Keystone Markers and they are links to the region's storied past.
The blue and gold signs originally were a project of the Pennsylvania Department of Highways, PennDOT's predecessor. Thousands of the signs were put up across the state between 1926 and 1943, mostly at municipal boundaries or creek and river crossings, although they can be found anywhere.
They contain the name of the town or village and give a clue to the origin of its name.
Greensburg, for example, is named after Gen. Nathaniel Green. Brackenridge is named after its founder, Hugh Brackenridge.
Some aren't so obvious: Boston, near McKeesport, is named for Boston, Mass., although, there is no apparent resemblance.
And others, well, even the historical facts on the signs don't quite sum up their popularity.
Although the Keystone Marker for the village of Intercourse, Pa., declares that it was formerly known as “Cross Keys,” passersby prefer to focus on the sexual connotation in the heart of Amish country.
“There are no more original signs left — they were stolen all of the time,” said Frank Howe, chairman of the board of supervisors for Leacock Township in Lancaster County where Intercourse is an unincorporated village.
But the popularity of the name was not lost on public officials. They had replicas made and welded them in place.
The markers have become popular destinations for tourists to photograph themselves.
For most of the markers, however, time — not theft — is the enemy. Deterioration, traffic accidents, road widening and poor memories contribute to the dwindling number of remaining signs.
Keystone Marker Trust
“We're losing more than we are saving,” said Jack Graham, 70, of New Bloomfield, vice president of the Keystone Marker Trust. The nonprofit catalogs and refurbishes the historical signs.
The signs are knocked down by traffic accidents, stolen and forgotten, but not by all.
“They are so beautiful and they tell you history in a nutshell,” said Graham.
The Keystone Marker Trust was established in 2010 and has cataloged about 600 markers, restored more than 100 and installed 25 new ones.
Trust members call them “beloved gateway guardians.” If there's an old sign in an old town announcing its name, some statistics, and distance to the next town, it is a Keystone Marker.
“Pennsylvania pioneered this program to promote their communities and history that nobody at that point had done — and they did it at a time when no one else was doing this,” said Nathaniel Guest of Pottstown, marker trust president.
Guest said rather than just put up a sign giving the town name, the state decided it was worthwhile to provide some information.
“The state had foresight to involve the folklorist Henry Shoemaker who wanted to do something more than create the mundane stop sign,” said Guest.
So the Marker program harnessed small-town histories: Blooming Valley in Crawford County is named for “a valley covered with flowers,” said Graham. “Sounds like a nice place, huh?”
Volunteers, towns maintain markers
PennDOT washed its hands of the marker program years ago, although the agency still refurbishes old or installs new markers for road projects such as one at the Boston Bridge in Elizabeth Township near McKeesport.
But mostly volunteers and local governments do the work.
Mike Wintermantel, 47, of Kilbuck Township, a board member of the Trust, was restoring a marker in Ohioville, “Named because of nearness to the Ohio River,” in Beaver County. While on site, he learned the borough had two other markers in storage that were felled years ago. He took them home to restore.
Some towns take care of the signs themselves.
In Export, named for the “First export coal mined in this territory,” the signs are a part of the borough's history, said Export Councilman John Nagoda.
“We didn't ask for money to repair them,” he said. “We just did it.”
Such is not the case with Greensburg's marker, which was at South Main Street and Mt. Pleasant Road. Like so many other markers, the sign was hit by a car and is now in pieces in the city's garage, according to Sue Trout, city administrator.
There are no plans to restore the marker that reminded motorists the city was “Named for General Nathaniel Green, patriot.”
Residents restore and respect
Victor Eddy, 82, of Delmont has seen Keystone Markers in terrible shape.
“I hate to see that kind of stuff,” said Eddy, who went on to sandblast and repaint his town's two markers, “Delmont: meaning a valley in the hills” more than a decade ago. He plans to refurbish them again.
Paul and Jan Valasek of Brackenridge decided recently to restore their town's Keystone Marker.
“It's historic, it has Brackenridge on it, the name of our town's founder Hugh Brackenridge, and it's a mile marker,' said Jan Valasek.
“I remember seeing these signs when I was a kid and people didn't pay much attention to them,” she said.
Freeport apparently once had a marker — at least that's what the Brackenridge sign along Freeport Road says.
Leechburg still has its sign, restored in the 1970s, according to local historian Bob Fiscus, 89, of Leechburg. “Leechburg really cares for its people and its history,” he said.
Sometimes that history even outlives the town.
Take the town of Dingmans Ferry in Pike County along the upper Delaware River. “The town is totally gone, torn down in anticipation of a dam and reservoir that were never built. Only their Keystone Marker remains,” said Graham.
Mary Ann Thomas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4691 or email@example.com.