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Aspinwall, Pa
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contributed (Aug., 2009) by former resident
Ben Freudenreich,

Last Update:  August 24, 2009

Aspinwall’s Hill

Behind our house on Fifth Street was “the hill.”  The hill was the location of Streets 6 through 12, and was a major part of Aspinwall.  Several of my classmates lived there.  Dorothy Thompson and her older sister Margaret lived on Sixth Street.  Marguerite Beachler and Marjorie Klee lived higher on the hill.  Others who lived in Aspinwall on the hill included Charlie Clouse, Harold Hamre, Rick Kalsey, Fred Roney, and Tom Hartman.

On the hill directly behind our house were a couple of fairly large estates.  Directly behind us and reasonably far up the hillside was the home of Mr. Frank Schade.  It was a large wooden house that was quite attractive.  The wooden steps up to Schades’ house began at Sixth Street and went straight up the hill.  About half way to the house, the steps were interrupted by a path that began at Western Avenue and traversed the hill to a nice white house on about the same level as Schades’ but about 100 yeads to the west of it.  It was occupied by Mrs. Swan.  The Schades and Swans were related by marriage.   Access to these two homes was from Guyasuta Road, an unpaved cinder road that ran behind them as it ascended the hill from the western end of Sixth Street to the very top of the hill.    

The Shades and Swan properties were dotted with many trees, some of which bore good fruit in season.  I remember getting excellent pears from the Schades.  All in all, the hillside with the two houses was picturesque. 

Mrs. Swan had an Irish Setter dog that she called “Lady.”  I loved that dog just as I loved most dogs and cats.  One day, Mrs. Swan was displeased that some of us children were playing on her property, and as we descended the hill, she “sicced” Lady on us.  Lady came bounding toward me, barking loudly.  But when she got closer, she recognized me and came wagging her tail to be petted.  Mrs. Swan’s plan to chase us had backfired, and she called for Lady to return to the house.  She never sicced Lady on me again.

It was when I moved to Columbus that I became aware of how much comfort the hill had provided me.  What struck me about Columbus was the flat terrain.  When a storm approached, I felt unprotected, much as the feeling that “North by Northwest” imparts when Cary Grant is attacked by a low-flying aircraft while he is alone in a field.  In Aspinwall, the hill behind our house and the houses close on each side of us gave us a sense of protection from storms.

That isn’t to say that the summer storms in Aspinwall were mild. Not by any means.  The storms roared up the valley of the Allegheny River, lightning flashed, and thunder shook the house.  At night in my bed, I could feel the house shake from side to side when the wind blew strong.  During a storm, Grandma would get up and walk through the second floor sprinkling Holy Water and praying for protection.  She would come to the bottom of the stairs to the attic and say, “Come down, Benny Lee.”  But I enjoyed the storms and the little bit of fear they generated in me, and I stayed in bed.

The Woods

That hill and the one to its west formed a valley where there was a small stream.  The Aspinwall Historical Book describes this as “an unusable glen” called Dog Hollow.  It says that the 33 acres were owned by the Windsor Land Company until Aspinwall bought it for delinquent taxes in the 1950s.  The woods and the stream were favorite places for my friends and me to play.

The stream through the hollow flowed to the end of Sixth Street behind the playground where it entered a culvert that we called “The Bear Trap.”  The culvert took the water from the stream (or “crick,” as we called it) and carried it underground to another stream that flowed through Guyasuta Boy Scout Reservation (Scouts’ Hollow) between Aspinwall and Sharpsburg.  We spent many happy hours walking those streams, catching crayfish (craw dads), and playing in the woods around them. 

To catch a crayfish, I would lift a rock from the bed of the stream, and often a crayfish would be hiding underneath.  The challenge was to catch the biggest one of the crayfish.  The crayfish look like small lobsters, and have big claws, but they are only two or three inches long.  By quickly grabbing the fish just behind the head, we were able to pluck them from the creek and examine them.  Then we would throw them back.  One day, however, I didn’t catch the fish in the right place, and he was able to pinch me with one of his claws.  OUCH!  Those little devils could really pinch!

Grandpap introduced me to the woods when he took me with him to pick blackberries, elderberries, and crab apples.  I don’t recall where we found the elderberries, but the best blackberry patch was at the top of the hill off Guyasuta Road.  My grade school friend Georgiana Gardner lived at the top of that hill, and the blackberry patch was along the road near her home.  Down over the hill toward the creek was something resembling a crab apple orchard.  Grandpap and I would fill our buckets and take the berries and apples home for my grandmother and my mother to make jelly or preserves.

We kids loved the “Tarzan” movies and the way he would swing from tree to tree on the vines.  Our woods had trees and vines, so we would use the vines to swing out over the hillside as it dropped away from us.  We climbed the hillsides and cliffs on either side of the stream, and we spent hours just sitting in areas where the sun broke through the trees and helped grass to grow.  In the spring, there were fields of violets, and there were wild flowers galore.  On one occasion, Fred Roney’s grandmother took Fred, Jim Uleman, me and perhaps a couple of other children on a nature hike through the woods.  She was very familiar with the wildflowers, and as we walked, she pointed them out to us and named them.

On the hill in between the two valleys was an outcropping that provided a good vista of the Allegheny River, the Highland Park Bridge, and the other side of the river.  In the distance, we could see the top of the Cathedral of Learning at University of Pittsburgh about 5 miles away.

Not far from the outcropping was a natural spring with very good tasting cool water.  I often took a drink there, and I spent many hours on those rocks looking out over the river or just thinking about things.  One year there was an eclipse of the sun, and Tom Kanhofer and I went up on the rocks to watch it.  Although our parents warned us about looking directly at the eclipse, we did it anyway.  It is a wonder that we have our sight today.

The stream toward Sharpsburg ran through the Guyasuta Boy Scout Reservation, otherwise known as “Scout Hollow.”  Scout Hollow had a house for the ranger who lived there year round.  As we went upstream, we came to a “trading post” where the lifeguard and his assistant lived during 6 weeks or so of the summer and where campers could buy snacks.  The pool was just beyond that.  It was filled with water from a natural spring, and for the first several days after it was filled, it was very cold.  Farther upstream were cabins and lean-tos for the campers.

When we went far enough upstream, we came to a small waterfall known as “Washboard Falls” because the water flowed over the sloped surface of an outcropping of rocks rather than cascading from above.  We often hiked to the falls and climbed above them. -- Ben
(submitted August 12, 2009)


Some Nice Things in the 40s and 50s

Where do you mail a letter nowadays?  I know.  Snail mail is dying, but we still can send letters and greeting cards via the U. S. Postal Service.  But if you don’t just put the letter in your own box for the postman to pick up on his or her rounds, where do you mail it? 

We happen to have a large mailbox at the entrance to our neighborhood where mail is picked up daily, Monday through Friday, but not on Saturday or Sunday.  On Fifth Street in Aspinwall, there was a small box on the telephone pole (“telepole”) at the corner of Western Avenue.  It was at most a block from anyone’s house, and there were boxes like it all over town.  The postal carrier was Regis Horstman who lived on Third Street and was known by everyone.  

Do you remember the old man with the horse-drawn cart who came through Aspinwall from time to time calling out “Rags!  Old iron!”   I don’t know if this started just during WWII when everything was in short supply or whether it was something from farther back.  But I remember it clearly. 

In the 1940s and 1950s, things in Aspinwall were very convenient.  Just about everything we needed for our daily lives either was in walking distance or was brought to our doors. 

It was a time when there were many grocery stores in town, and when we went to them, we were “waited on.”  The proprietors and clerks knew us, and we knew them.  They were our neighbors. 

Except at the A&P, there was no “self serve.”  We went to the counter and told the clerk, who very often was the owner of the store, what we wanted.  And he or she would get it for us.  If another customer got there first, we had to wait our turn to get service.

And service is what they provided.  We could call the store and place an order so it would be ready when we went there to pick it up.  At least one store, Beck’s on Center Avenue, had a truck and made deliveries in town and into Fox Chapel and O’Hara Township. 

The proprietors knew their regular customers and made special efforts to take care of them. During the War when meat and butter were scarce, Howard, the butcher at Mary Conner’s store on Commercial Avenue, would set aside cuts of meat or pounds of butter for my family.  He knew that my grandfather’s diabetes diet called for a certain amount of butter and meat each day.

And at least some of the stores would extend credit to their regular customers.  When my mother took over handling the money at our house, she found that my grandmother had run up quite a debt at Mary Conner’s store.  She went to see Mary and made arrangements to pay off the debt a little at a time.

In many cases, we didn’t have to leave home to get our food.  There were two hucksters who came around regularly, and bread and milk companies delivered door-to-door, several times a week.  

Do you remember the Fasone Family market on Third Street?  Mr. Fasone and his son would come to our block once or twice a week selling fresh produce.  Mr. Fasone had one of the oldest trucks I’ve ever seen, and he cruised the streets in it driving about 5 mph.  After he died, the truck came around no more, but his wife and his daughter Rose continued to operate the store.

His competition was from the Zuccher brothers of Sharpsburg.  Tony and Jim had a more modern truck which they pulled into Fifth Street once or twice a week.  When they arrived, word would spread, and the women would come from their homes and line up to buy the goods.  Tony died, but Jim Zuccher was “semi-retired” and still working the job in 1986.

The huckster business required the vendors to get up very early (3 a.m.) in the morning and go to the part of Pittsburgh known as the “strip district.”  This was an area near the Pennsylvania Railroad station downtown where the trucks and rail cars carrying farm products would come into the city.  The hucksters and the people with markets would go there early in the morning to buy the things they needed for their businesses that day.  WQED, Pittsburgh’s educational TV station sells a video called “The Strip Show” that tells the story of that part of Pittsburgh.

The other vendor whose visits we looked forward to were those of Mr. Joseph King.  Mr. King had a farm in Valencia, PA, and he began coming into Aspinwall about once a week in the 1950s to sell produce, eggs, and freshly killed chickens.  Like the hucksters, Mr. King would pull into Fifth Street and park his truck with the back gate open.  There he weighed and sold his goods to the stay-at-home moms. 

As with the hucksters, if you wanted something that they might not always have on the truck, you could place an order for the next visit, and they would bring it to your door.  In time, Mr. King began bringing his daughters with him as he made his rounds.  During the 1950s, we watched those little girls grow in to very pretty young ladies.

I’m sure that the original Mr. King has passed away by now, but one of his descendants still operates the farm and brings produce to the Aspinwall Flea Market on Commercial Avenue every Sunday in the good weather.  King’s corn is probably the best I’ve ever eaten.  There’s no need to pull back the husk to check the quality; it’s all good.

Someone else who came to our street from time to time was the scissor grinder.  He would show up unannounced and set up his grinding wheel.  Then he would make his presence known, and people would bring him their scissors and knives for sharpening. He also would repair umbrellas.

At least three different milk companies delivered daily.  We dealt with Sealtest, but Meadow Gold and Aupkes also delivered.  The milk came in glass quart bottles that we returned to the milkman.  At the plant, the bottles were washed and refilled.  The stopper at the neck of the bottle was a cardboard wafer with a tab that we pulled to open the bottle, and the stopper was covered by a paper top.

Two or three different bakeries delivered bread.  Town Talk sliced bread was popular, but for Italian bread, we bought from Stagno’s. 

Who else came around door-to-door?  Well, the Jewel-T man and the proverbial Fuller Brush Man rounded out the list.  

In a town so small, it was easy to walk to the store.  Think of it.  In just a few minutes’ time, we could walk to a store, buy groceries, and walk back home in time to prepare dinner.  We didn’t need to drive.  We didn’t create pollution, and we didn’t have to pay for gas.  At our house, we had no freezer, just a simple (and small) refrigerator.  We couldn’t store frozen foods, and we couldn’t keep much food on hand, so trips to the store were almost daily.

In the 1940s, some people still had ice boxes, rather than or in addition to electric refrigerators.  For a short time while I was very young, the “ice man” would deliver big blocks of ice to private homes.  Our ice man was Frank Rak, a man I got to know later when he made deliveries for Dan Pizzica at Aspinwall Radio. 

Frank did general hauling, and in the 1940’s before we converted our furnace to burn natural gas, Frank delivered coal to our house. A man who helped Frank deliver coal, and maybe ice, too, was Ramon “Ray” Kurkiewicz.  Two of Ray’s daughters are married to my cousins Jerry and Jeff Davis. 

Nothing about the coal delivery was automated.  We would order a ton or so, and Frank would bring it in his truck.  He would back the truck toward the front of our house.  Then he and Ray would shovel the coal through the window into our coal cellar, the part of the house foundation under the front porch.

Of course, there was a door between the main part of the basement and the coal cellar, and we put boards across the door opening to hold the coal back from the door itself.  When we had used enough of the coal, we would remove those boards.  Nevertheless, the delivery of coal made a lot of coal dust in our basement.  And as we burned the coal, we had to collect and get rid of the ashes.  I think that maybe Frank picked them up each week.  Our house was a lot easier to keep clean after we got the gas furnace in the 1950s.

Alas, with the exception of the Brilliant Market, these things are gone.  The small stores, the hucksters, and the milk and bread delivery all are gone.  When you need to shop, you need to drive at least as far as the shopping areas beyond the old filtration beds.  The stores are bigger and rather impersonal.  And they all are self service.  Is this really better?
(submitted August 22, 2009)

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