Seeking Stories & Photos for New Idlewild Park Book!

Photo by David Zajdel

Photo by David Zajdel

The next year is going to be pretty busy! I’m pleased to announce that I have started working on my second book for The History Press, which will tell the story of Idlewild Park, Pennsylvania’s oldest amusement park!

I need your help! I’m seeking never-before-heard stories and rare photographs from past and present visitors, employees and amusement park enthusiasts to feature in this forthcoming book on Idlewild Park. Anyone interested in sharing their memories is encouraged to join my Idlewild Park Memories Facebook Group, tweet me, or contact me through my website.

For more than a century, Idlewild and SoakZone in Ligonier, Pennsylvania, has captured the hearts and imaginations of those who grew up visiting what’s considered one of the most beloved children’s parks in America. What began as a scenic picnic ground for the Ligonier Valley Rail Road in the late 19th century is now recognized as the oldest amusement park in Pennsylvania, the third oldest in the country and the 12th oldest in the world. The park will celebrate its 140th season in 2017. This new book will revisit the history of Idlewild, from the historic land on which it was developed, to its connection with the railroad, the innovators that commercialized and expanded the park, the classic rides and attractions created there and the cherished memories of people who grew up or worked at Idlewild.

Idlewild Park is one of the best known and treasured landmarks in not only the Ligonier Valley but also in western Pennsylvania and beyond. I’m looking forward to delving deeper into the park’s fascinating history and sharing new and unique stories with the public!

Click here for official press release.

“When the Whistle Blows, Come Home,” by Jim Ramsey

“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

Ligonier's old wooden town hall was located at the corner of North Fairfield Street and Bank Alley. The stone building that replaced it is now the Ligonier Borough police station. (Courtesy of the Pennsylvania Room, Ligonier Valley Library)

Ligonier’s old wooden town hall was located at the corner of North Fairfield Street and Bank Alley. The stone building that replaced it is now the Ligonier Borough police station. (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.

This is a 1938 bird's eye view of Ligonier looking east. (Courtesy of the Pennsylvania Room, Ligonier Valley Library)

This is a 1938 bird’s eye view of Ligonier looking east. (Courtesy of the Pennsylvania Room, Ligonier Valley Library)

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.

This picture of the Ligonier Valley Rail Road's Engine Number 18 is dated September 24, 1932. (Courtesy of the Pennsylvania Room, Ligonier Valley Library)

This picture of the Ligonier Valley Rail Road’s Engine Number 18 is dated September 24, 1932. (Courtesy of the Pennsylvania Room, Ligonier Valley Library)

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.

This postcard shows St. James Lutheran Church, located on West Main Street in Ligonier. (Courtesy of the Pennsylvania Room, Ligonier Valley Library)

This postcard shows St. James Lutheran Church, located on West Main Street in Ligonier. (Courtesy of the Pennsylvania Room, Ligonier Valley Library)

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.

This postcard shows Ligonier's yellow brick grade school in 1914. (Courtesy of the Pennsylvania Room, Ligonier Valley Library)

This postcard shows Ligonier’s yellow brick grade school in 1914. (Courtesy of the Pennsylvania Room, Ligonier Valley Library)

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 RamseyJim Ramsey hasn’t lived in Ligonier, PA for many years, but the sights and sounds of growing up in the valley remain lodged in his memory, as constant and friendly companions.

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.

Along the Lincoln Highway with American Songline: Leg #3 –Stoystown Back to Greensburg

I’m gearing up for an upcoming trip back along the Lincoln Highway to Bedford, Pennsylvania, but before I do that, I should get us back to home base first…

After American Songline’s Cece Otto and I reached our final destination in Stoystown, Pennsylvania during our mini road trip this past spring, we turned around and retraced our steps back to Greensburg.  We had plenty of daylight left and wanted to check out a few more attractions along the Lincoln Highway Roadside Museum as we drove west. When we reached the stop light in Jennerstown (the lone stop light!), we made a right at the intersection onto Somerset Pike/Route 985, and stopped down the road at the Mountain Playhouse and Green Gables Restaurant to check out another vintage gas pump.

I love the vivid colors on this gas pumI love the vivid colors on this gas pump, located at the Mountain Playhouse and Green Gables Restaurant in Jennerstown, PA! (Photo by Jennifer Sopko)

I love the vivid colors on this gas pump, located at the Mountain Playhouse and Green Gables Restaurant in Jennerstown, PA! (Photo by Jennifer Sopko)

There’s a lot of history in these two places, both founded by farmer James Stoughton.  The Green Gables Restaurant started out as a roadside sandwich stand in 1927. Little by little, Stoughton and his sister, Louise Maust, gradually expanded the humble establishment.  In order to attract more business to the restaurant, Stoughton added the Mountain Playhouse next door. Not only is the Mountain Playhouse home to one of only 12 professional summer stock theater companies in America, it’s also Pennsylvania’s oldest professional summer stock theater.  The theater is actually an abandoned gristmill dating back to 1805 that was originally located in Roxbury, Somerset County.  Stoughton had it moved to its present site in Jennerstown in 1938.

As the playhouse grew in popularity after World War II, Stoughton kept improving and expanding Green Gables. The restaurant even kindled a romance between Stoughton and the architect he hired to design the main banquet room, which features timber and stone from local barns as well as four oak tree trunks from Stoughton’s mother’s family farm. Beautiful works of arts are also sprinkled throughout the restaurant and around the grounds. The Mountain Playhouse continues to feature Broadway-quality productions every season.

Moving on, Cece and I continued west out of Jennerstown, up and down Laurel Summit, through Laughlintown and back through the center of Ligonier. Basically we retraced our earlier journey east, which you can read about here and here, with a few exceptions. At the eastern end of Ligonier, we were able to take a portion of the original Lincoln Highway we could not access traveling east.  Instead of merging onto Route 30 (the Lincoln was later realigned here), we followed Old Route 30 bearing to the right past the Loyalhanna Watershed Association in order to continue along the 1913 route.

This is another scenic little stretch of road, climbing up the hill and winding down through an expansive farm field.  The road runs parallel to the Route 30 bypass (with a lake on the south side) and passes by the former site of Shirey’s Lake View Motel (a tourist cabin court), the Colonial Inn (which closed not too long ago… sadly before my friend Rose and I got to try their famous mushroom soup) and a pretty little lake around which you can see ducks and geese.  Rose and I actually had dinner with some of these guys one night at the Colonial Inn (sans mushroom soup).

Students at Eastern Westmoreland Career and Technology Center in Latrobe, PA designed and built this Lincoln Highway Roadside Giant in Ligonier. It's huge!  (Photo by Jennifer Sopko)

Students at Eastern Westmoreland Career and Technology Center in Latrobe, PA designed and built this Lincoln Highway Roadside Giant in Ligonier. It’s huge! (Photo by Jennifer Sopko)

Anyways, eventually Cece and I were forced to get back onto Route 30.  You can actually see a portion of the old road heading up into the hills but it’s on private property.  I’m not quite sure how much of the road still exists up in there.  The original Lincoln would have crested the hill and come back, joining up again around where another Roadside Giant sits near the former site of Donato’s Gas Station, at the intersection with Route 259.  This is my favorite of the Roadside Giants I’ve seen so far: a 25-foot-tall replica of a 1940s Bennett gas pump.  We got a couple beeps from passing motorists while we took pictures from various angles.

This pump is located along Route 30 West at the entrance to the Timberlinks Golf Course, across from Idlewild Park. (Photo by Jennifer Sopko)

This pump is located along Route 30 West at the entrance to the Timberlinks Golf Course, across from Idlewild Park. (Photo by Jennifer Sopko)

We continued along Route 30 westbound, which is still the Lincoln Highway for a brief stretch past Idlewild Park.  We stopped at the Timberlinks Golf Course to check out a weather beaten, carousel-themed gas pump. The golf course is closed (it was a bit tricky to pull my car in and turn around) and the gas pump looks like it has been forgotten.  A little further down, where the lanes of Route 30 split on either side of the Loyalhanna Creek, is where the Lincoln highway becomes the eastbound lanes, which we followed earlier that day.  So we were forced to continue on the Route 30 bypass, which was built atop the former roadbed of the Ligonier Valley Rail Road as it passed through the gorge.

To continue along the Lincoln Highway, before we reached Latrobe, we took an exit off of Route 30 to Youngstown and followed Main Street heading west.  Main Street, which passes through the small town, is the original Lincoln Highway. I got confused on the trip up and we missed this portion heading east, which would have spit us out a little ways before the Lincoln Highway Heritage Corridor offices located in the Johnston House near the Kingston Dam.  Dating back to 1815, the historic building originally served as a residence for the Alexander Johnston family as well as a travelers’ inn.  On our way through Youngstown we passed a historic roadhouse called the Tin Lizzie Tavern and followed some winding roads which led us to the Arnold Palmer Regional Airport. 

The original Lincoln Highway passed right through the airport, as I mentioned in my first post.  We drove into the airport in order to check out yet one last gas pump, located outside of the entrance to DeNunzio’s Restaurant.  We had just enough daylight to get a few pictures of this cool pump before jumping back onto Route 30 towards Greensburg, picking the Lincoln Highway back up along Frye Farm Road and crossing over near Westmoreland Mall.

At the spur west of the mall, we followed the Lincoln straight into Greensburg instead of bearing left on the bypass.  If you keep in mind that the purpose of the road was to tie all these main roads together, the route makes sense. Today, new bypasses are being built to funnel traffic outside of congested cities and towns, but a century ago, the point was to get the traffic into town so that local businesses could benefit from the visitors and tourists.

Left to right: Cece Otto, Brian Butko, Jennifer Sopko, Rick Sebak

Left to right: Cece Otto, Brian Butko, Jennifer Sopko, Rick Sebak

Our last stop was Little E’s Pizzeria, a gluten-free pizza shop in South Greensburg, where Dave met us for dinner.  The gluten-free, soy-free pizza we shared was surprisingly delicious!  A few days later Cece was continuing west towards Pittsburgh.  However, our time together was not quite over! A few days later met up for lunch at Enrico’s in the Strip District with some fellow local history buffs you might recognize: Brian Butko and Rick Sebak.   Here was some honest-to-goodness, face-to-face social networking, as Dave would say! We all work on different projects and in different formats, but we all have an appreciation for local history. In this instance, it was the Lincoln Highway that brought us together. What a nice afternoon!

All in all I spent a great day getting to know Cece and this small portion of the Lincoln Highway in western Pennsylvania. She’s in Wyoming now, and I’m really interested to see her finally reach the western terminus of the road in San Francisco within the next month. Maybe someday I’ll see as much of the Lincoln Highway as she has, but right now I’m just taking it a few miles at a time.