Sunday, May 27, 2007


(News-Herald, March 2003) As a student of local history, I have learned the answers to plenty of questions.

I know, for instance, where Coal Oil Johnny’s house stands. I have a rough idea of where the three forts stood in Franklin. I know where the bridge at the south end of Oil City used to cross the river to carry the trolley out to Monarch Park.

But there are certain local history answers that still elude me. Most of them are matters that are probably irresolvable, short of the development of time travel apparatus.

I keep thinking that some day, someone is going to come here with some serious high tech equipment and find the French plaque that Celeron planted down by Indian God Rock back in colonial times. In this day and age we ought to be able to beam some secret x-ray vision space satellite and spot where that little sucker has gotten to.

Some mysteries are just personal concerns. For instance, I don’t know the names of any of the original Franklin Silver Cornet Band members in 1856. I wish I did. Some of my other favorite mysteries are of more general concern.

Did George Washington fall into French Creek? Did he even have to cross it? I can believe that the young woodsman got his boots wet here on his colonial scouting mission, but fall in? I don’t know that anyone will ever be able to confirm whether or not George Washington slipped here.

Then there’s the carousel at Monarch Park. It’s widespread enough to count as oral tradition that the carousel was transported to Conneaut Lake Park when Monarch Park folded in the mid-twenties. It’s a cool story, and I’d love to believe it, but I’ve never come across anything that would corroborate it. I know lots of folks who have “always heard” it, but that comes a hair short of conclusive evidence.

I think there’s a lot of history still locked away in people’s heads in this area. For instance, I believe there still have to be many tales to be told about Monarch Park. The park thrived for almost thirty years at the beginning of the 20th Century; that’s a lot of warm summer evenings and sunny Sunday afternoons.

I’ve been out to the site of the park; bits and pieces of it are still in evidence. You can tell where the dance hall stood, where the trolley tracks ran. I stand there and try to imagine what it was like when thousands of area residents strolled through the garden, listened to a band concert or enjoyed a family picnic. There must be so many stories still to tell, and I wish I could hear, or read, each one.

The same holds true of the Sugarcreek Pavilion. It was a skating rink, a dance hall, and a revival tabernacle. It was this dance hall, and others like it, that helped put the nails in the coffin of places like Monarch Park—why sit and be taken, family in tow, on the trolley when you can hop in your automobile and go dancing with just your friends. Some of the hottest, best bands of the day played at Sugarcreek: Isham Jones, Fletcher Handerson, Coon-Sanders Nighthawks, Vincent Lopez. I wish I could know what it was like to hear them shake the rafters. Even as a skating rink, it must have been a sight to see. And Kathryn Kuhlman—well, I’ve seen pictures of her and while I’m sure her preaching skills deserve to be legendary, I’m guessing that it didn’t hurt that she was a major babe.

Then there’s Glenfern Park, apparently located on the lower end of Franklin, with some springs attached. I’ve encountered passing references to it but never heard any good stories, though I know they must be out there.

I’ve also come across indirect references in newspaper stories to a skating rink in Franklin, but never come across a direct mention of it. Where was it? What was it? Or was the writer making some sort of sly in-joke that has not aged well across seven or eight decades?

I bring this up now because it’s the mucky part of spring, not quite nice to be always out and about yet. This would be a good time to collect up some of these tales and set them down on paper, before they vanish into the dim past. You can lock them up in the family vault, send them to the Historical Society, or mail them to me here at the newspaper. The important thing is to hold onto these little bits of history.

Friday, May 25, 2007


(News-Herald, May 24) Nostalgia is a powerful force, powerful enough to disable some brain cells while filling others with a rosy glow of altered old images.

A favorite decade for rosy reminiscence is the fifties.

I don’t have a strong personal connection to the decade, but then, I was only alive for the last three years of it, and I will admit that in those days I didn’t pay much attention to current events.

But what I read about the fifties does not make me sad that I more or less missed them.

The decade opened with a really scary global power grab by Communists that pretty well ruined the warm afterglow of accomplishment left over from WWII. We had gone from leaders of the free world to one of the last beleaguered outposts of it. We got to wrap our heads around the nuclear arms race and the mysteries that accompanied it.

Students dutifully learned to duck and cover; an educational film of the era shows a family pulling a picnic blanket over their heads for protection from a nuclear explosion. A certain amount of the 1950’s peace of mind came from believing whatever the government told us, no matter how stupid it was.

Socially, there was not too much unrest. That was because people who were “Not Normal” knew their place and stayed in it. When the nostalgia starts flowing like Clarabelle’s seltzer water, you don’t usually hear elderly African Americans wishing they could be confined to the back of the bus again.

Anyone who dared to step outside the lines, who dared to suggest that some aspects of society were less than delightful, was some sort of dangerous whacko. When southern men killed Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old Black from Chicago, for daring to whistle at a white woman, people who called for their conviction were accused of being “Communist agitators.”

The fabled peace and quiet of the fifties seems to have come, in retrospect, at the price of squelching the voice of most unique individual persons in the era. The affection for staying inside the lines is understandable; in its own way, it was even reasonable. After all, if you were an adult in 1955, you would be hard pressed to remember a time when the world was not on the brink of one sort of disaster or another. A period of relative peace and quiet had to be mighty attractive.

At the same time, the intolerance for anything that might disturb the peace and quiet seems a bit extreme. After all, it was in the fifties that Congress held hearings to discuss the dangerous, destabilizing, morally corrosive effects of comic books (shudder). Of course, that was before the rise of Elvis and Brando, scary young men who oozed sex.

There were certainly things to love about the fifties (as near as I can tell). There was a great sense of progress—people were able to enjoy financial stability beyond anything their parents had imagined, and even lower-middle class folks could enjoy luxuries beyond anything imagined in all of human history.

And while life was certainly repressive and difficult for many folks, there was also little sense that everyone was entitled to live in a perfect world in which some Higher Authority guaranteed that all would be Perfectly Fair. It’s the irony of the fifties that people probably had more reason than today to be discontented, but were less likely to complain.

It’s worth noting, though, that in all of my reading from the period, I’ve seen little to suggest that folks felt they were living in a golden age. The Commies are everywhere! New weapons like the H-Bomb are scary! Mass media are become morally suspect! And what the heck is that darn rock-and-roll music, if not the herald trumpet of decaying youth!

It’s true of every decade-- at the time, nobody is cheering the splendor of the age. It’s only in the rear-view mirror that joys of the day appear larger than they actually were.

There’s a lesson in that. Someday folks are going to look back at the Ought’s and speak in loving tones. There will be tv shows celebrating the special spirit of the times. It seems a shame to wait until a time is past to love it. It seems a shame to wish that you could go back and live in a time that you did, in fact, already live in; all the bigger shame if, at the time, you were busy wishing you were back in an earlier time.

Better to see spot what we will miss about today while it’s still today, and enjoy it while it’s still warm reality and not a faded memory.

Friday, May 18, 2007


(News-Herald, May 17) Twenty was barely noticeable, thirty was kind of exciting, and forty came at kind of an odd time in my life. But in a couple of days I turn fifty, and that’s a whole different experience.

I have the advantage of being on the tail end of the Baby Boomers. The Boomers, who originally declared, “Don’t trust anyone over thirty” have, as we’ve aged, regularly re-defined “old.” According to one recent article, sixty is the new forty; I have now been middle-aged for roughly twenty years.

There are some unavoidable symptoms of this age. Parts of me just aren’t as nimble or responsive as they once were. I have a library of glasses for various functions, and sometimes I still can’t see. Some of my hair has deserted, and some has migrated.

I came late to exercise, and now, with effort and sweat, I can almost manage to be in the same lousy shape as when I never moved my lazy twenty-something posterior off the couch.

But there’s more than just physical slackage to face at fifty. I’m forced to really confront the list of things that are never going to happen.

I’m not talking about the things that were always highly unlikely, like my canoe trip down the Mississippi, my torrid fling with Sheryl Crow, or my international tour as a highly-acclaimed tailgate trombonist. Other things aren’t going to happen as the result of the choices that pile up in five decades.

I chose work where there is no professional advancement—ten years from now I’ll still have the same level of responsibility and power that I had when I started twenty-five years ago. When I was young, I didn’t think I’d care, but it turns out that I do, a little.

I didn’t think I’d ever want to teach on, say, the college level. But a few years ago the notion grabbed hold of me, and I discovered that that door has closed for me. My financial situation is certainly not bad, but I have a gift—in general I would have done better with an investment strategy of burying money in a mason jar in the back yard.

There was a time when I thought it would be nice to be, eventually, sitting on the porch next to the same woman that I’d been looking at for fifty or sixty years. That’s not going to happen. I sometimes wish I’d gotten real musical training. Also not going to happen.

Mind you, I am not boo-hooing over any of this. You get older and you leave stuff behind, pick other stuff up along the way. I have two nearly grown children who are really fine people. I get to do work that I love, and I get to spend my free time on things I really value. I did finally learn how to play banjo and paddle a kayak. I have known thousands of people, and hardly a one that I didn’t like. I have made some good choices and some bad, and while the good ones haven’t always paid off, there are some bad ones that never cost me as much as they could have.

If you’ve been around many years, your life is really great, and your life is really awful. You get to pick which way you want to see it. At fifty, regardless of what you’ve gained and lost, you get to learn a few things about yourself.

When you’re twenty, you have a set of things you like to believe about yourself. By fifty, you learn which are true, and which are not. Some are pleasant surprises—you always believed you were a crumudgeon, but it turns out you like people. Some are hard to face—you always wanted to see yourself as responsible, but it turns out that people really can’t depend on you.

When you’re younger, you can write your own story from scratch. But by fifty, instead of writing fiction, you’re looking at history. It’s a matter of record, instead of what you can make up. At twenty, strength of character is about trying to be the person you ought to be. At fifty, strength of character is about facing the person it turns out you actually are.

By fifty, you’re had a chance to test your theories about how the world works. Sometimes it’s difficult to face the results of those tests—if you got it wrong, there’s no chance to do it over, and hard to find someone who wants to hear what you’ve figured out.

I have to admit—this is not what I thought my life would look like at fifty. But it’s not always a bad thing to face the unexpected, and we can always learn a few new tricks.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007


(News-Herald, February 2003) Today we revisit Ben Hogan, one of oildoms more colorful figures.

According to The Golden Flood by Herbert Asbury (author of Gangs of New York on which the Martin Scorsese movie is loosely based, and actually an interesting story in his own right), Ben was born Benedict Hagan in Wurttemberg province, Germany, in 1841. His parents, a cabinet maker and an acrobat, brought him to the East Side of New York City in 1852; the family’s first lesson in new world economics came when a shopkeeper promised to change their life savings ($800 in gold) but instead stole it. 11-year-old Ben returned with a cohort and asked for the money. When the shopkeeper refused, they beat him to death. According to Ben, they took only the $800 they were due.

At age 17, already an experienced thief, Ben went to sea. It was during this time that he learned boxing. In New Orleans when the Civil War broke out, Ben became a spy and blockade runner for both sides, doing steady trade smuggling drugs and alcohol. He also joined a band of bounty jumpers—men who enlisted for the few hundred dollars bounty and then deserted, cash in hand.

By 1864, Ben was back in the job that brought him to Pithole—brothel bouncer. In Pithole he started out at Emma Fenton’s house, where he met up with French Kate. According to some sources, Kate had been a notorious spy, part of the Surrat circle in DC, and a friend of John Wilkes Booth. No evidence of this has ever turned up, but then, anti-government spy conspiracies are notoriously bad at record-keeping.

Ben and Kate left the Fenton establishment and went into business for themselves (a difficult separation, eventually requiring Ben to beat up Emma). Hogan’s Lager Beer Hall was successful, employing fifteen ladies. Over the door, Ben hung the sign “Ben Hogan, The Wickedest man in the World.”

The bull-necked Hogan could neither read nor write, but apparently could summon up charm when needed. When temperance ladies who attacked his bar were abused by the patrons, Ben said he wouldn’t allow rudeness to ladies in his presence. According to Hildegarde Dolson’s Great Oildorado he said, “Men, remember you too had a mother. Let’s drink to the health of these good ladies.”

In another oft-cited story, Ben, at a court appearance, explained that he was only running a “gymnasium where members of both sexes may enjoy wholesome exercise using the different parts of the body in such a way as to bring all the muscles into play.”

He worked in oil country with a traveling brothel, then in 1870 went that one better in Clarion County with Ben Hogan’s Floating Palace of Pleasure on an old river steamer, which traveled in and out of Clarion, Armstrong and Allegheny counties, depending on which county’s officers were trying to catch him at the time.

Through these years, he supplemented his income with the occasional prize fight and scam. When his brothel at Parker’s Landing burned down, Ben pursued a theatrical career, but became bored. He returned to Elk City in 1876 to set up a brothel, but was double-crossed by his mistress.

In 1877, while in New York City, Ben met and fell in love with a mission worker on Broadway. They married in the spring of ’78. But according to Asbury, Ben remained troubled. He had told her only part of his unsavory past (the part that didn’t involve pimping). Walking on Broadway on August 22, 1878, trying to decide how to unburden himself, Ben heard music coming from the Park Theater. He took a seat, hoping to see a show, and found himself instead in a revival meeting run by Charles Sawyer, famous as “the converted soak.”

According to Hogan’s own book (wonderfully reprinted by Margo Mong and available in fine local historical outlets) Hogan attended revivals for the next two evenings, spent a long troubled night asking his wife to read scripture to him, and emerged a newly converted man.

Did Ben Hogan really see the light? Well, he certainly stayed in the mission business longer than any other line of work he had ever pursued. There is a certain practical sincerity in his book, issued in 1887. His instructions on how to run a mission make it clear that he used his own background to spot men who would try to play missions as a scam. Although he whitewashes his gangland past a bit, he is free of the self-congratulations and righteousness of many new converts.

Ben and the missus staged revivals in the oil region, even preaching at the Methodist church in Franklin, but crowds were sparse and skeptical. So instead they spread the word successfully elsewhere. Famed revivalist Dwight L. Moody helped set them up with a mission in Chicago slums. One of Moody’s great backers was John D. Rockefeller-- interesting to think of the Reverend as a link between two men who captured much of the worst and best of oil country.

Friday, May 11, 2007


(News-Herald, May 10)
I’m not always one to count down to election day, but I’ll be glad when the primaries are over Tuesday.

The newspaper’s real reporters will no doubt continue their fair and even-handed coverage of the upcoming election. Fortunately, I am not bound by any requirements to be fair or reasonable, so I can present you with my totally biased voting guide.


Act 1 is Smilin’ Ed Rendell’s latest attempt to pretend to provide property tax reform in Pennsylvania. All of these attempts have had one thing in common; they’ve been set up so that if people like them, Harrisburg can take the credit, and if people don’t, Harrisburg can blame it one someone else.

The saga has been marked by a struggle between local school boards, who keep refusing to do what they’re told, and Smilin’ Ed, who keeps looking for ways to force them to.

Act 1 will not reduce taxes. It will just move them around. The question that voters get to answer, unfortunately is not “Do you think this is stupid?” The question instead is, “We’re going to force someone to pay some of Grampa’s property tax. Should we force people who work for a living, or people who have investments?”

Retired homeowners will be the big winners. Depending on where you live, big losers may be A) people with jobs who rent or B) people with significant investment income. Should be interesting to see what effect the decision has on where people choose to live, since school districts can make themselves investor havens or renters’ hell.


I just had no idea that a judge job was such a plum. I am becoming tempted to run for the office myself.

It’s not just the astonishing amount of money being spent on the campaign—it’s that it’s all been spent so badly.

There’s the signage, enough that if we could make a sizable papier mache addition to the courthouse. There’s the small forest of junk mail bending the backs of Venangoland mail deliverers. And there’s the endless onslaught of phone calls, many of which sound as if they’re coming from a call center somewhere folks couldn’t even find Venango County on a map.

And out of this very expensive onslaught of campaigning, we get these basic messages:

1) This is my name.

2) This is what I look like.

3) I want to be judge.

4) I think fairness, integrity and experience are important.

From the weight given to #4, you would assume that the candidates think

they're running against a sleazy crook who has never seen the inside of a courtroom. If that guy were running, at least he would stand out in some significant way from the other three. As it is, we’ll all just vote for the one we’ve got the best impression of based on hearsay, stories we’ve heard at church and the grocery store, and any personal info we have. We could have done that without record-breaking attempts to buy the office.


Here’s a clue. If you think one of the major issues facing the commissioners is how to handle Two Mile Run County Park, you shouldn’t be a county commissioner.

I’ll settle for someone who has a reasonably good grasp of how to handle the nuts and bolts of keeping the county functioning. I would love to see people in politics in the region who have some drive and a plan, some sort of vision for the county beyond plodding along with business almost as usual.

But vision is hard to come by in local politics, and I don’t necessarily blame our politicians. I suspect that some days they feel that if they brought back a sack with a billion dollars in it, some local residents would complain about the composition of the sack, the stacking of the money, and how we should just throw the money out if those people are going to get some of it.

Beyond that, I don’t honestly know who half the commissioner candidates are. Heck, I couldn’t even tell you which office some of the names-on-signs are running for.

School board elections? As usual, there aren’t enough willing citizens to give voters a real choice, except in Cranberry, where it will be a circus no matter whom the voters elect.

One word of advice. If you have a true favorite candidate for one of the mob races, vote for just that candidate. When the ballot says “select up to three,” you can select just one, and that gives your candidate a better shot.

And whoever ends up running the county, I hope they vigorously pursue candidates who don’t take down their stupid signs promptly.

Friday, May 04, 2007


(News-Herald, May 3) Every time an organization goes through a crisis, it reveals two things about itself. It doesn’t matter what size the organization is. It can be as small as a family or as large as a government. And it doesn’t matter whether the organization intends to reveal these two things or not; in a time of crisis, the revelations cannot be avoided.

First, a crisis reveals who is on the team.

This works two ways. One is that we find out who steps up and who steps back. Some people don’t want to be on the team; they want to kibbitz and cheer and offer critiques of what the team did. But on the whole, they’d rather not be directly involved. Like the children in a family, they prefer the security of believing that the grown-ups, the team, will take care of everything.

Sometimes people who might have stepped up have simply given up trying. Because in a crisis, leaders show who they think is on the team. The easiest way to track this is by the flow of information. The people who get the information quickly and completely are on the team. Everyone else isn’t.

Leaders, managers, presidents of boards—they mostly know that they’re supposed to include everybody on the team. Sometimes they honestly mean to--sometimes they even think they’re doing it.

If you are in a leadership position, imagine a crisis developing. Immediately, you think, “I have to let X know what’s happening.” X = the actual members of the team.

You also think, “I need to let Y know, too—after I know what we can tell them and how and when.” Y = the people who are not on the team. And now that you haven’t included them, they know they’re not on the team.

The other thing that’s revealed in a crisis is what the organization really values. You can find the true values of the organization in the “have to” list.

In the midst of a crisis, whether it’s an onslaught of government regulation or a flat tire on the family vacation, leadership has to make choices about what to keep doing and what will have to be modified or dropped. Leaders will often talk as if these categories are decided by circumstance, but very often they are entirely a matter of choice.

When the front tire on the family mini-van blows, Dad can say, “Well, we’ll still eat lunch at noon, but it’ll be sandwiches instead of Burger King.” He could also say, “Well, we’ll still get our Whoppers, but it’ll be later than usual.” In each case, he may act as if the tire’s to blame, but he has told you whether he most values the schedule or the King.

It’s these two revelations, the revelation of the team and the revelation of values, that often give a crisis its most lasting effects.

At Virginia Tech, it turned out during the initial crisis that hardly anyone was on the team, and it appears that leadership valued things such as maintaining the slothlike bureaucratic process and keeping trouble quiet over making 100% sure that students were safe. But as the day wore on, as on 9/11, the team became larger, and the values that it revealed were values everyone across the country could share.

A crisis can bring an organization tightly together, one team united behind a shared goal.

But sometimes a crisis creates cracks in the foundation. An organization can weather the crisis itself, and yet months down the road find itself tearing apart, collapsing.

When your leaders cut you out of the loop, when you leap up to help and are told “Get back in your seat; the team will call you when we want you,” and when you find out that the things you value aren’t even close to the list of “have to’s”—well, those are hard things to bounce back from.

Leaders can tell their people time after time, “We’re all in this together; we’re all a part of the team.” But when crisis comes, if they don’t act as if they mean it, nobody is going to believe them. Leaders can tell their people time after time, “We’re here to make the best widgets we can for our customers.” But when crisis comes, if they holler, “Drop the widgets and help the lawyers keep us looking good,” all their nice widget words mean next to nothing.

Whether you manage a family or a business or a school, in the midst of crisis, you will tell your people the truth of what you really believe. You should hope that it matches what you tell them, and yourself, the rest of the time.

From my Flickr