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Saturday, May 10, 1997
Pottsville Republican/Evening Herald

People helped make Shenandoah of 1950s a fascinating town
By Ione Geier

It's become something of a legend in Shenandoah.

Years ago, a Shenandoah policeman stopped a motorist for going through a red light. After studying the car's front and rear plates (in those days, vehicles had both), the traffic cop asked the driver where he was from. When the man replied, "Pittsburgh," the policeman snarled, "OK, wise guy. If you're from Pittsburgh, what are you doing with Pennsylvania tags on your car?"

I first heard the story about the geographically challenged policeman in 1951 when I went to work as a reporter for the Shenandoah Evening Herald. Joe Dalton, the Herald newsman who related the incident to me when I needed material for my column, swore it had actually happened. No doubt it had. The months I spent at the Herald convinced me that almost anything was possible in Shenandoah, a town I found endlessly fascinating.

For years, the premier coal-mining center of Schuylkill County, Shenandoah had a free-wheeling, anything-goes atmosphere that set it apart from Frackville, where I lived, and other nearby communities. Its every-night-is-Saturday-night aura was reminiscent of frontier towns in the Old West. Obviously, Francis N. Gallagher felt the same way. He wrote a book about Shenandoah, his birthplace, and called it "The Only Western Town in the East."

Another difference between Shenandoah and other Schuylkill County communities was appearance. As far back as its incorporation as a borough in 1866, there had been little room for expansion in Shenan- doah. The coal companies that owned adjacent land held on to it because of the anthracite under the ground. Shenandoah ended up with more than 3,200 buildings jammed into an area that measured barely one square mile. The lack of space meant that even single houses were constructed so close together that their roofs touched. "Clutching each other" is the way Darryl Ponicsan, a Shenandoah native, described the houses in 1973, when he wrote "Andoshen" a fictionalized account of his hometown. Years earlier, the town's crowded layout had also made an impression on Robert L. Ripley. In his nationally syndicated column, "Believe It or Not," he noted that there was more congestion in Shenandoah than in any similar-sized area in the country. In the early 1950s, the same statement could have been made about barrooms. Shenandoah, with a population of only 15,704, supported 112 establishments that sold liquor. It was also home to 25 social clubs, 10 of them affiliated with veterans' organizations. Ponicsan, now a Hollywood screenwriter, peopled his book about Shenandoah with colorful characters (including the geographically challenged policeman), as did Gallagher. When I think back to the town as it was when I began working at the Herald, some of my most vivid memories have to do with its interesting personalities. One of the first to come to mind is Joey Ferguson. Tall and slender, she was a woman of great style who imparted elegance to everything she wore. When she smoked, which she did incessantly, she used a long, ivory holder, the first of its kind I'd ever seen. A member by marriage of a prominent Shenandoah family (a street and hotel were named after the Fergusons), she had converted part of her home into an exclusive dress boutique where I shopped occasionally. I found her self-possession and pizzazz a little intimidating, but I never forgot her.

Edward Paskey, who owned the Jardin Street bar and restaurant where I ate an early lunch every day, also stays in my mind, mostly because he routinely wore a smoking jacket to eat breakfast. Every morning around 11:30, he strolled into the restaurant from his upstairs living quarters dressed in a crisp white shirt open at the neck, freshly pressed dark trousers and a silk smoking jacket with satin lapels. After eating his breakfast in the rear booth that was always reserved for him, he went upstairs and changed into a suit jacket before returning to oversee lunch operations. At first, I thought his late morning breakfasts were the result of riotous nights on the town. The truth was more prosaic. He tended bar at the restaurant every night and didn't get to bed until after the last customer had left.

Then there were the well-to-do ladies of the town who went shopping or met at local luncheonettes for coffee wearing hats, diamonds, and -- in winter -- furs. In Frackville, jewelry and furs were reserved for special occasions. I envied the Shenandoah women who had the courage to march to a different drummer in the matter of dress.

Some of Shenandoah's most interesting characters were the men who, year-round, debated the news of the day while lounging around street corners or sitting on folding chairs outside the pools (establishments to bet on numbers) and fire halls. For the most part retired or out-of-work miners, they were proud, forthright, afraid of nothing, pro-union, patriotic and opposed to wage increases for women (or so they seemed to me when I eavesdropped on their conversations while looking in shop windows or waiting to cross streets). Most of what I overheard I've long since forgotten. But rereading Herald files recently brought back some of their comments. An increase in the price of chestnut coal to $15 a ton gave rise to, "The coal companies get richer and our houses get colder;" the theft of no-parking signs from in front of the houses of Shenandoah physicians, "With the money docs charge, why should they have been getting special parking treatment anyway?"; a request from Schuylkill County private duty registered nurses for a raise to $10 for an eight-hour day, "That's too damn much; women shouldn't get that kind of money." Their reaction to President Truman's dismissal of World War II hero Gen. Douglas MacArthur was decidedly negative, and prompted a joke of sorts. "There's a Truman beer now. It's just like any other beer, but it doesn't have a head." The street-corner sages referred to area sporting figures and teams by their nicknames. The Shenandoah High School football coach, Ed Farrell, was "Scrapper;" light heavyweight boxer Ralph Gonzalez,"Kid;" Frackville squads, "Mountaintoppers" and Gilberton athletes, "Ducktowners."

By the time I started to work in Shenandoah, the town's population had dwindled to little more than half of its 1915 high of 29,000. Nevertheless, there were always people on the main streets, and the business district was home to an amazing variety of stores. There were at least seven women's apparel shops (Goodman's, Elton's and Friedberg's are the ones I remember best); two furriers, George Terzoplos and Wishnoffs; four or five men's stores, among them Harry Levit's and John Sublusky's; five and dimes (Woolworth's lunch counter always had customers no matter what the time of day), and a department store, J.C. Penney. Other shops I recall are Cook's, which sold stationery and cards; Wolowitz's, children's clothes; Horowitz's, luggage; Schoor's, curtains; Ruth V. Supowit, lingerie and corsets; and the Harris and Keithan bakeries. There were also several furniture stores (one was Davison's, another Siswein's), and shoe shops. The town's five jewelry stores all carried quality merchandise, but Levit's, with its ornate roofline and entryway of highly polished green marble, was by far the most imposing in appearance. In spite of its down-to-earth name, Steifs Cut-rate Drugstore and Lunchroom at Main and Centre streets also possessed a certain grandeur. Located on the first floor of a five-story limestone building that had once housed the Shenandoah Trust Company, it had high arched windows and massive fluted columns.

The architecture of several of Shenandoah's 21 churches was also impressive: the soaring angles of the First Methodist Church; the ornate windows and golden domes of St. Michael's Greek Catholic Church; the lofty towers of St. George's Roman Catholic Church.

Everything changes with time, and Shenandoah is no exception. The churches I remember are still there, but the land on which the Shenandoah Trust Company stood is now a parking lot. The town's population has dropped to less than 6,200. The main street continues to attract quite a few people. But the men and women I found so memorable are gone now and so are many of the clubs and businesses. Even the skyline is different. For years, only the Shenandoah Trust building and the churches' tall crosses and glittering domes rose above the town's huddled houses. Today, high-rises are also silhouetted against the horizon. Shenandoah as it was in the early 1950s has -- for the most part -- vanished. But it's not forgotten.

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