“When the Whistle Blows, Come Home”
The Sounds of My Home Town: Ligonier, Pennsylvania
Valley Voices – August 2013
Written by Jim Ramsey
Transcribed and edited by Jennifer Sopko
Pictures courtesy of the Pennsylvania Room, Ligonier Valley Library
I was born and grew to adulthood in my home town of Ligonier, Pennsylvania. Many of my memories, primarily from the 1930s through the period of my youth, are the sounds I remember of my home town. I lived on West Vincent Street with my parents and an older brother. This was not very far from the Diamond, the old town hall, the grade school and the old wooden high school next to it. I remember the old wooden town hall that housed one fire truck, the two jail cells and a meeting room on the second floor. In the winter, vagrants (bums) were allowed to sleep in the jail overnight. It burned beyond repair when a gas fired space heater ignited a wall. It was replaced in the mid 1930s with the cut stone building that stands there today.
I could run, without stopping, in a minute from home to any of these places. I just needed a good start and a leap from our back porch. From home I could hear the bell toll the time on the town clock, the evening curfew bell from the town hall, the bells from each of the seven churches in town, the bell at the Bethlen Orphanage, the church on the hill northwest of town, plus the singular lonesome wail of the fire siren, which except at noon on Saturday, meant someone needed help.
Eighty years have passed, yet I now well recall their sounds along with many others. I wish to tell you of these. They are part of many fond memories of my hometown.
Sounds of summer, sounds of night. On a warm, calm, clear summer night, too warm to be in the house, I would quietly sit on our front porch. It was dark. It was quiet. Facing north I would stare out into the horizon and see the fiery red glow in the sky: the reflection of the 100-plus coke ovens at Marietta, Wilpen and Fort Palmer that were about five miles away.
On these quiet, clear and still nights I would raise my eyes above this wondrous sight to the sky above and see hundreds, even thousands, of bright clear twinkling stars shining from one horizon to another. There were few people out, and those that were, they were very likely doing the same as me: sitting on the porch enjoying the peace, the quiet and the beauty of the night.
But there was more than just what I saw with my eyes on those summer nights. My memory is full of the special sounds that accompanied these visions. I remember hearing and knowing the precise in-step sound of the clicking of the Newton sisters’ high-heeled shoes coming along the sidewalk. Usually on Wednesday nights, coming home from prayer meeting about 9:00, they always walked at the same speed in perfect step with each tap of the shoe heel striking the pavement in lock step just like a trained military marching unit. They never missed a step or clicked a heel out of time. When I heard this precise “tap, tap, tap” coming along the sidewalk toward my house I knew who was coming just by the sound.
Just over one block west and down the street from my home the Ligonier Valley Railroad tracks crossed West Vincent Street. Four sets of tracks crossed here as this was the area where cars and engines were moved to assemble the coal trains from Wilpen and Fort Palmer mines prior to running them to Latrobe to connect with the Pennsylvania RailRoad. Nearly all the freight carried on the Ligonier Valley Rail Road was coal or coke.
I spent lots of time around the railroad yard. It was a thrill for a young boy to be around the big steam engines and the coal cars they pulled. From the daytime I learned to recognize the sounds of each of these and relate it to their number. My brother and I would sit on our porch and identify which engine was making the sounds we could hear. If we didn’t agree we would run from our house to the railroad and verify the number.
Number 14 had a whistle that was deeper tone than the others, sort of like a big old coon dog on the trail. The bell on 14 was of medium tone but a little flat and tolled a little faster than 16 or 18.
The sound of 16 was like a strong flute with a little piccolo squeal at the top, almost like two different whistles blowing at the same time. The engineers seemed to give shorter blasts on 16 than the other engines. I still wonder why? The Number 16 bell was the beauty of the bells. It was a happy bell with a smile. Its tone was crisp and clear. As Engine Number 16, with the bell ringing slowly, crossed Vincent Street the sound would resonate from house to house as it moved up Vincent Street to our house. The sound seemed to stay in my ears and I know it was coming from Engine 16. I can close my eyes today and hear the smile of the bell.
Oh yes, I remember well the sound of the whistle on Engine Number 18. The sound seemed to warble a little, like there was something fluttering around inside. Maybe there was because in the cold of winter the tone got higher, the sound less voluminous and the warble slowed. I don’t know why it changed but I could pick it out. Although it looked to be the same size as the others, the bell had a deep, melodious tone.
Sitting on the porch when Number 18 crossed Vincent Street with its bell ringing just made you stop and quietly, almost prayerfully, listen to its smooth velvety sound. Engine Number 17 didn’t seem to get as much running time as its three brothers. Why, I don’t know, but perhaps it is because it didn’t have a voice I could relate to and put into my memory bank.
As I ponder the sounds of the many bells in my hometown I realize now that I could identify each by its unique sound, not just by the direction from which it came.
The bell on the little white church on the corner of Walnut and Bunger in a way sounded like the church it belonged to. It was small in size and sound but clear as it beckoned its members to come.
One of the oldest bells in town rang from the tower of the St. James Lutheran Church on the crest of the hill on West Main Street. In my youth I tolled this bell many times. Its sound I liked and it carried well over the town. Most of all, I considered the sound to be slow and prayerful.
The bell I recall more than others was the school bell. This got me moving every school day for eleven years. It was located in the belfry on top of the three-story yellow brick grade school at the southwest corner of Market and Church Streets, across Market Street from Darr’s hardware store and Mellon Bank.
The school bell seemed to be the loudest and most commanding bell in town. Each morning there was the first bell which gave kids about fifteen minutes to be in school. The second bell gave about three or four minutes. Except when there was snow or ice I could wait for the second bell then run out the back door of my house, run all the way to school and be there in time for roll call.
In the 1930s most high school football games were played Saturday afternoon. It was a tradition that if Ligonier won team members would ring the school bell when they returned to town. Otherwise many would not have learned of the victory until they received Monday’s Latrobe Bulletin.
Ligonier in the 1930s was a pretty safe town for a boy to grow up in. On Saturdays I could jump on my bike and visit kids pretty much all over town. It was not unusual for me to eat breakfast and head out before 10:00AM. I was free, so to speak, but not quite. As I headed out the door, mother always said “Remember, when the whistle blows, come home.” This was the law. When the fire whistle blew at noon every Saturday, I had to be home within five to ten minutes. Her saying, “When the whistle blows, come home” still remains in my memory. It has taken on a different meaning. My father told me as I was leaving home to join the United States Navy, “You can take the boy out of Ligonier but you can’t take Ligonier out of the boy.” For over 40 years I worked and lived in four states and traveled to 26 countries. Upon retirement more than 20 years ago, I could hear the whistle blowing calling me home just as my mother had told me, “When the whistle blows, come home.”
About the Valley Voice: Jim Ramsey
Jim spent his childhood in this town. He was born on July 19, 1927, in the living room of his parents’ house located at 211 West Vincent Street in Ligonier Borough.
He graduated from Ligonier Valley High School and in 1945 enlisted in the U.S. Navy, towards the end of World War II. He didn’t see any action from the Sampson Naval Training Station in New York, where he spent his year and a half long service, but he did get to guard German prisoners that were sent to this basic training camp.
Jim’s more than 40-year career in the tungsten-carbine industry took him from western Pennsylvania to all over the world. While living in Wilkinsburg, PA, he worked in management at a building supply company in Braddock, PA until 1953. In the succeeding years he also spent time in Connecticut, Philadelphia and Nashville, Tennessee. He returned to Latrobe, PA in 1965 and worked at Kennametal until 1976. Around 1980 he began to travel internationally during the last ten years of his career before retiring.
In 1949, Jim married a local Ligonier girl, Katheryn Ruth Hamill, with whom he had three daughters. In addition, he now has five grandchildren. Today Jim and Katheryn live in Lawson Heights in Unity Township.
“I’ve had a fun life and a good life,” Jim says.
Enthusiastic about sharing the stories and memories of his childhood in Ligonier, which have stayed with him throughout his 86 years, Jim has so kindly shared his story of the sounds that played an important part in his life.