“Ligonier Valley Vignettes” Fall Wrap-Up

As I look back on this year and the time that has passed since my book came out, I can’t believe some of the events that I have been a part of during my marketing campaign. I’ve participated in several book sales and signings and given two presentations. For someone who is a very nervous public speaker, that’s a big deal!

This fall, I wrapped up my year of marketing with two events centered around the Diamond: a slide presentation at the Ligonier Valley Library and a holiday book signing at the Ligonier Sweet Shop during Black Friday weekend.

Photo by David Zajdel

Photo by David Zajdel

On Tuesday, October 29, I had the pleasure to give a presentation at the Ligonier Valley Library based on Ligonier Valley Vignettes: Tales from the Laurel Highlands. As I summarized each section of my book and worked my way chronologically thorough the history of the Ligonier Valley, I displayed some slides containing images from my book. Afterwards, I met with some of the wonderful people who came out to hear my talk.

I also talked about the history of the Ligonier Valley Library and how a late-nineteenth century library presence eventually evolved into a community institution that’s connected to a county-wide system of libraries. The Ligonier Valley Library is very near and dear to my heart, as they have not only supported my research efforts for the past ten years, but I’ve made some wonderful friends there, most notably Pennsylvania Room Archivist Shirley Iscrupe, who I’ve talked about before. I can’t thank the Pennsylvania Room enough for its support. It’s been my haven for many years.  My book is intricately tied to the library, as many of the images contained in it are from the Pennsylvania Room’s collection.  One of the vignettes I included was a story I originally wrote for the Ligonier Echo about the library’s history that coincided with the 65th anniversary of the Ligonier Valley Library Association.  And, of course, Shirley wrote the wonderful foreword for Ligonier Valley Vignettes.  I really look forward to working with the library for many more years to come.

Photo by David Zajdel

Photo by David Zajdel

After my talk, Shirley presented me with a beautiful framed reprint of a map of Ligonier from 1900.  I will treasure it always.

I must thank the library, Director Janet Hudson, Pennsylvania Room Archivist Shirley Iscrupe and Pennsylvania Room Clerk Theresa Schwab for hosting my presentation and book signing event. Oh, and THANKS FOR THE COOKIES AND CIDER! (Yum!)

I also want to thank everyone who came out on a chilly fall night to hear my talk – I really appreciate you coming out to support me and learn about some of the great history that happened in the Ligonier Valley. It really means a lot!

Ligonier Sweet Shop 11-30-13

Photo by Jennifer Sopko

Also, this past weekend, the Ligonier Sweet Shop hosted me during a holiday book signing during Small Business Saturday. The town was really hopping that weekend, first with Light-Up Night on Friday, where Dave and I got to meet Santa Claus before he joined a short parade around the Diamond.  Saturday was a busy shopping day and lots of people were out and about patronizing the shops and restaurants that are integral to the tourism that support the town. I have been very lucky not only to partner with a great small business in town owned by very kind people, Cokie and Richard Lindsay, but also to be able to build another connection to my book, as Cokie’s family owned Ligonier Beach, which I talk about in Ligonier Valley Vignettes.  All in all, it was very nice to start the holiday season off with some fun holiday events in Ligonier.

I don’t have any other author events scheduled until the spring, so I plan to take some time this winter to brainstorm ideas for the next book… Any suggestions?


WWI Casualties William Tosh & Benjamin Byers Part of Ligonier Valley Library Collection

You never know when you are going to stumble across a piece of history or when one is going to come walking through your door.

While I was visiting the Pennsylvania Room this week, Shirley Iscrupe shared with me a recent donation of World War I memorabilia related to two soldiers with whom I am familiar.

One of the vignettes that I included in Ligonier Valley Vignettes tells the stories of these two young men who left their homes in Ligonier Valley to fight in World War I but sadly didn’t come back alive.

Private First Class Benjamin Byers and Private William Tosh were the first two soldiers from the Ligonier Valley to be killed during World War I. Byers and Tosh both served in the 110th Pennsylvania Regiment, which was deployed to France in the spring of 1918, near the Western Front with Germany.

Both soldiers tragically died on the same day: July 30, 1918. Private Tosh, only 18 years old, was killed when German forces blew up the 110th Regiment headquarters located in the French village of Courmont, where he was working as a telephone operator. The 29-year-old Byers was shot and killed on the battlefield during an attack against the German army at Sergy Hill.

The American Legion Byers-Tosh Post 267 was named after them when it was established in 1927.

Ligonier resident Mary Lou Mitchell, who is William Tosh’s niece, donated the following materials to the Pennsylvania Room: two memorial cards from William Tosh’s funeral; the program of the 1921 Memorial Day unveiling of the World War I Honor Roll tablet at the Westmoreland County Courthouse and admittance card; and Westmoreland County’s Casualty List for World War I, 1917-1918.

Both Byers and Tosh are listed in the honor roll program and the casualty list.

The honor roll program and card were owned by Mitchell’s mother, Bessie Hoon, who survived the horrific 1912 wreck between freight and passenger trains on a blind curve along the Mill Creek branch of the Ligonier Valley Rail Road.  She fully recovered and went on to teach in the Ligonier Valley District for many years. Hoon and Tosh were brother and sister.

Thanks to Mitchell’s donation, these historic materials are now part of the permanent collection at the Ligonier Valley Library’s Pennsylvania Room.  The Pennsylvania Room is an incredible resource for local history and contains information about the numerous veterans and casualties from the Ligonier Valley, including Privates Byers and Tosh, who participated in the wars that shaped American history.

R&R at the R’n’R Hall of Fame

I’ve had quite a busy year so far, between working on my book, running back and forth between Pittsburgh for my day job and Ligonier for my night gig, and trying to get back on track with other long term writing projects and a community band.  So a weekend getaway was desperately needed!  We recently went to Cleveland and visited The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 01Regardless of certain opinions about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the institution’s questionable nomination criteria and practices (I probably agree with you), I think the museum showcases a wonderful collection of historic musical artifacts and that’s what I appreciate about it. It has Roger Daltrey‘s fringe outfit from the The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus! It has Bruce Springsteen’s lyric notebooks! Look, there’s Neil Peart’s snare drum! The rock hall has also opened up a library and archives on the outskirts of he city where I’d probably give my right arm to work.  Imagine all of the cool documents and artifacts they have there that are NOT on display!  Imagine putting together one of the rotating exhibits such as the current Rolling Stones exhibition! Imagine researching those pieces of history and writing those informative exhibit labels!  (Hire me?! I’ll work remotely from Pittsburgh!)

But I digress! I think Dave and I spent about five hours walking through the museum.  Both of us have been there before, but it was great to take our time absorbing every single bit of information imparted on all of those exhibit labels, gaze at the details of the guitars on display and find our favorite bands’ signatures on the Hall of Fame wall. We also found Dave’s name in a leather-bound notebook containing the master list of charter members who joined when the museum originally opened!  Here are some of my highlights from our visit:

My First Book Talk!

WCHS Talk 7-18-13

Photo by Jennifer Sopko

Thank you to everyone who came out last night to hear my first book talk at the Westmoreland County Historical Society! It was great to meet those of you I haven’t met before and chat with some of my friends and family.  Thank you to the Westmoreland County Historical Society for hosting last night’s event, which was a really fun ice cream social.  I really appreciate everyone’s support of Ligonier Valley Vignettes.

WCHS Talk 7-18-13

Mmmmm ice cream sundae! Fun fact: Joseph A. Greubel, grandfather of Valley Dairy’s “Ice Cream Joe” and great-grandfather of the current owner Joe E. Greubel, was the first to commercially manufacture ice cream in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jennifer Sopko)

It’s been about ten years since I’ve spoken in public and I was nervous about giving my first official talk about Ligonier Valley Vignettes but I think it went very well.  I wanted to introduce myself to those in the community who weren’t familiar with my work, summarize the history covered in my historical stories and explain how the book came about. Three of the vignettes in my book were originally published in the Westmoreland History Magazine, so I wanted to highlight those.  I also wanted to talk about some of the great experiences I had conducting research for my book by visiting historic sites and talking to some great local history experts and members of the community. I’m relieved to have made it through the experience to be rewarded with a delicious ice cream sundae afterwards, complete with ice cream from Valley Dairy, whose family’s history making ice cream stretches back into the late 19th century.

If you missed my talk, I’ll be giving another talk at the Ligonier Valley Library in late October.  I will be at the Summer in Ligonier Arts and Crafts Show this Saturday, July 20 from 12:00-2:00pm in the Ligonier Sweet Shop if you are out and about.  Check my events page for more details.

Thank you all again for coming out in the heat wave! I hope to see you all again soon! Thank you to everyone who send me good thoughts. And thank you to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for running a great piece on me and the ice cream social in yesterday’s edition.   Here are just a few pictures from last night’s event:

Joint Issue of The Civil War in Pennsylvania Available Now!

The Civil War in PennsylvaniaThe special joint Civil War issue of PA Heritage, Western PA, and PA Legacies is now available online at http://emag.heinzhistorycenter.org/ or you can purchase a print copy of the magazine here: http://ow.ly/mkTlW. Pennsylvania played a significant role in the Civil War and many soldiers from the state participated in battles. Over 1,100 (and counting!) of those Civil War soldiers were from the Ligonier Valley and are documented in the Ligonier Valley Library.

A Quick Visit to the Ligonier Valley Rail Road Museum

I really enjoyed the drive up Route 30 to Ligonier on Saturday mornings, especially when the sun is shining like it is today.  You’d never think that a giant snowstorm is slated to pound this area by Monday.  WHERE IS SPRING?

The restored Darlington station, taken March 2013

The restored Darlington station, taken March 2013. (Photo by Jennifer Sopko)

Anyways, on my way up to the library today, I stopped by the Ligonier Valley Rail Road Association Museum, which is located in the beautifully restored Darlington station near Idlewild Park & SoakZone on Idlewild Hill Lane, just off the eastbound lanes of Route 30.  I needed to return a few materials that I borrowed quite a while ago for my Ligonier Valley Vignettes book.   Association board president Bill Potthoff was there and chatted with me about the organization’s upcoming plans.

Eight engines can be seen in this photograph taken at the Ligonier wye. - Courtesy of the Pennsylvania Room, Ligonier Valley Library

Eight engines can be seen in this photograph taken at the Ligonier wye. – Courtesy of the Pennsylvania Room, Ligonier Valley Library

To me, the Ligonier Valley Rail Road is one of the most interesting stories in the valley’s modern history.  Former judge and prominent Pittsburgh businessman Thomas Mellon purchased and established the Ligonier Valley Rail Road in 1877 as a business venture for his sons, rescuing the unfinished line from 25 years of obscurity.  The railroad sparked an industrial boom in the Ligonier Valley and transported 9 million passengers and 32 million tons of freight during its 75-year history.    While the railroad transported materials such as timber and bluestone out of the valley, its best known freight was the coal mined from the Pittsburgh seam of coal north of the Ligonier and the coke that was produced in local ovens.  In addition, the Mellon family developed the scenic Idlewild Park along the line as a attraction to increase the line’s passenger traffic. Sadly, various factors including the popularity of the automobile and availability of other modes of freight transportation during the twentieth century, caused the the railroad to disband after its final run on August 31, 1952.

The Ligonier Valley Rail Road Association was the brainchild of railroad enthusiasts Bob Stutzman and Bill McCullough, who established the non-profit association in 2004.  According to the organization’s website, its mission is to preserve the legacy of the Ligonier Valley Rail Road, conserve its vestiges, collect relics and memorabilia and educate the public about the history of railroading in the Ligonier Valley.

The original Darlington station, August 26, 1906 - Courtesy of the Pennsylvania, Room, Ligonier Valley Library

The original Darlington station, August 26, 1906 – Courtesy of the Pennsylvania, Room, Ligonier Valley Library

Thanks to funding from the Richard King Mellon Foundation and the Allegheny Foundation, the LVRRA worked tirelessly to renovate the Darlington station as a home for its museum, which opened in May 2010.  The station was one of the earliest stations established along the line and one of the few survivors.  Idlewild parent company Kennywood Entertainment donated the station and encompassing land to the association.

The restored bobber caboose at the Ligonier Valley Rail Road Museum (Photo by Jennifer Sopko)

The restored bobber caboose at the Ligonier Valley Rail Road Museum (Photo by Jennifer Sopko)

The museum not only features pictures and relics that tell the story of the Ligonier Valley Rail Road, but it also touches upon the Pennsylvania Railroad and the Pittsburgh, Westmoreland and Somerset Railroad, as those lines connected with the Ligonier Valley Rail Road at both ends.  One highlight of the museum is a 1905 bobber caboose (specifically a PRR Class ND cabin car) which the association acquired and installed at the museum in February 2008.  My favorite part is the large interactive map in the main room.  The map shows the route of the Ligonier Valley Rail Road through the valley marked with color coded locations of the stations, coal mines, coke ovens and bluestone quarries along the line. Each location lights up at the press of a button, depending on the category you choose.  I love pressing those buttons!

The LVRRA  has been so very kind and obliging to me with all of my research requests throughout the past few years and I really enjoy visiting when I have the chance.  I hope to continue learning about the history If you would like to learn more about the Ligonier Valley Rail Road, I’ve included a section on it in my upcoming book of historical stories about the Ligonier Valley, entitled Ligonier Valley Vignettes: Tales From the Laurel Highlands.  If you are in the area, I highly encourage you to also visit the LVRRA’s website and its museum, which is open Wednesday through Saturday, from 11:00a.m. until 3:00p.m.  Admission is $5.00 for adults and yearly memberships are available.

Historical Aerial Photographs of Pennsylvania

I’d like to share a new online resource that I recently discovered: Penn Pilot, an online library of historical aerial photographs of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.   Special thanks to Brian Butko for forwarding me a link to this neat site!

Sponsored by the Pennsylvania Geological Survey, this interactive website allows visitors to download a plethora of historical photos of Pennsylvania from several time periods (1937 to 1942, 1957-1962 and 1967 to 1972).

Pittsburgh, PA - May 17, 1939I’ve been browsing this site and checking out photos of the cities and towns in Western Pennsylvania that are significant to my personal history.  Taken on May 17, 1939, this photograph shows the confluence of the three rivers in Pittsburgh: the Monongahela, Allegheny and Ohio Rivers.