Bridgeville Remembered

Bridgeville in the Depression Years

By John F. Oyler

According to data in the recently released 1940 Census, over half of the families in Bridgeville reported annual incomes lower than the poverty level that year. One wonders how they managed to survive. For many of them the first line of defense was the family itself. This was an era of large families linked to other large families by marriage, each committed to help its relatives.

Neighbors provided another source of support. A few years ago Sue Deblander gave me a recipe card she had found among her mother-in-law’s things. It was entitled “Mrs. Oyler’s Casserole – Very Good!” As soon as I looked at it, I realized its significance. It was for a lima bean casserole, her specialty whenever some family in the neighborhood had a problem – someone ill or a death in the family. There were many occasions when she sent me off on an errand of mercy delivering her lima bean casserole. And my memories of it confirmed Mrs. Deblander’s evaluation –“Very Good!”

The talk began with a discussion of a carryover event from the previous decade – the collapse of the Cow Hollow Trestle. In the 1920s Mayview Road crossed a ravine a few hundred yards south of Godwins’ greenhouse on a high, rickety trestle. In 1928 it collapsed, unable to support the weight of a heavy shovel being moved across it. The operator was trapped in the wreckage at the bottom of the ravine. It was reported that his screams could be heard in Bridgeville.

Doctors Rittenhouse and Sigmann responded to the emergency and freed the victim by amputating one of his legs. He was transported to Mayview Hospital where he died a few days later. Instead of rebuilding the trestle a massive embankment was constructed to carry Mayview Road across the ravine, with an eight foot square tunnel carrying a small stream through it. For some unknown reason it became known as “the Indian Tunnel”.

Mention of these doctors prompted a comparison of healthcare in those days with what we currently enjoy. An interesting tale from the 1930s involves a mother in Mudville with a seriously ill child. When she became alarmed at his coughing up blood in the middle of the night, she telephoned Dr. Pigossi. Twenty minutes later he arrived, diagnosed the patient, commended the mother for calling him in time to “nip this thing in the bud”, and asked to use her telephone. He promptly called Bill Bennett, in the middle of the night, and ordered medication, which Mr. Bennett delivered a few minutes later. Perhaps the disadvantage of being poor in those days was partially compensated by the outstanding service we received from everyone we dealt with.

After all this was the era of “service stations”. When a motorist pulled into one he was greeted by a cheerful attendant who responded to the request “Fill ‘er up” by pumping gas, cleaning the windshield, checking the air in the tires, and returning promptly with the change from a five dollar bill.

Mail was delivered twice a day by letter carriers on foot. The garbage collector willingly walked into your back yard to pick up your can, carried it to the truck, dumped it, and returned it to its original location, making sure the lid was properly attached. Utilities – natural gas, electricity, telephone, water – were provided by local companies and serviced by people who were your neighbors. I was reminded of this recently when I had a problem with the water company and ended up discussing it with a voice on the phone, whose owner turned out to be located in Pensacola, Florida.

Then there is the concept of “home delivery”. Regular visitors to our home delivered ice, milk, and bread. Nearly every day my mother telephoned Foster’s to order groceries and Harmuth’s to order meat; a few hours later their delivery trucks arrived. Several times a week the huckster, Louis Dernosek, and his truck arrived in the neighborhood, providing a ready source of fruits and vegetables. These delivery folks provided a service much more convenient than today’s ordeal of going to the super market.

There were some other folks who occasionally appeared in the neighborhood, providing services “door to door”. One was the umbrella man; about once a year he showed up to repair broken umbrellas. Another infrequent visitor was the old fellow who pushed a grinding wheel around and did a marvelous job of sharpening scissors and kitchen knives. These guys were godsends in an era when we tried to repair things rather than replace them.

The 1930s were the heyday of Baldwin Street. Folks who grew up there in those days insist that it was Bridgeville’s “Main Street” and that the only reason anyone went to Washington Avenue was to go to the bank or movie theater. To reinforce their argument they point out that Baldwin Street boasted a hotel, numerous stores, two pool parlours, the Owls Club, and the Italian Club.

The Murray Toney Home was typical of the multi-use buildings on Baldwin Street. In addition to serving as a residence for the Toney family, it also included a dry goods store and a barbershop. Mr. Toney began his business several decades earlier as a door-to-door peddler, selling fabric, thread, and sewing accessories to housewives in the company towns “up Millers Run”.

His son Don remembers his father’s tales about those early years. “Some of the women wouldn’t have the money to pay at the time of sale. He trusted them and would write the amount they owed on the wooden posts of their homes. He returned one day and found that all the houses had been painted, thought he was wiped out but unbelievably every customer knew what they owed and paid him in full. Those were the days when people were hard working honest people.”

Mr. Toney’s store on Baldwin Street sold clothing, at a time when most people didn’t spend much on that item. Ray Fagan used to tell us that he knew s ummer had arrived when his mother gave him a dollar bill and told to go to Toney’s store and buy a pair of tennis shoes and a pair of jeans. That was his clothing allotment for the summer. This was common for lots of families; most of them could have stored the whole family’s wardrobe in the walk-in closet in the master bedroom of one of today’s McMansions.

A series of photos chronicled the football career of Vic Vidoni from the 1930 BHS team to the 1935 Pittsburgh Steelers via the 1934 Duquesne Dukes. Actually the professional team for which Vidoni played was called “the Pirates”; the Steelers moniker was adopted in 1937.

A photo of another BHS football team includes right guard William Shadish. After graduation he worked in a steel mill for several years before enlisting in the Army early in World War II. There he earned a commission and the opportunity to enter Medical School. When the Korean War began he was sent to Korea and assigned to a combat battalion that was eventually overrun by Chinese soldiers. He spent 1010 days in prisoner of war camps where he performed miracles treating other prisoners, without adequate medical supplies. His story is told in a gripping book, “When Hell Froze Over”. One of the many prisoners who credit Shadish with saving his life is another Bridgeville soldier named Larry Donovan. Larry credits Dr. Shadish with saving his life.

In 1939 the former George P. Murray mansion at the corner of Hickman Street and Washington Avenue was torn down to permit the construction of a brand new post office. Many of us remember the mural that was painted on a wall in the public area. Entitled “The Smelters”, it was painted by artist Walter Carnelli as part of the federal government’s Depression Art economic stimulus program.

Mr. Carnelli came to Bridgeville and stayed with a family in a private home while he researched the work by visiting the Vanadium Corporation’s mill. Unfortunately the mural was destroyed during a renovation of the post office. All that remains is a monochromatic photograph of it; we hope someone finds a color photo of it in the future.

Coach Neil Brown came to Bridgeville High School in 1931 following his graduation from Grove City College and was named head coach in 1933. From then through the 1941/42 season he produced highly competitive football and basketball teams, before leaving for the head coaching job at Har-Brack High School. He finished his career at Clairton where his success was rewarded by having the high school football stadium named for him.

Although Cabana Beach was not located in Bridgeville it certainly was a significant part of local life in the 1030s. Located on the Washington Pike, south of the county line, it was a popular entertainment venue with a small lake, a large swimming pool, a dance pavilion, and numerous amusement park rides. Before he met Duke Ellington and became famous, Billy Strayhorn played piano there for dances.

Those of us who were children in Bridgeville in the 1930s would agree with Charles Dickens, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”. It all depends upon one’s perspective.

The Author

  • John Oyler's column,
    "Water Under The Bridge",
    appears weekly in the
    Bridgeville Area News, a TribTotal Media publication.
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