Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Spirits of Lebanon, Part 7

It was possible to escape from Darrow, legally, for a weekend, if your grades and behavior were good enough. My roommate Dean invited me to his home in the fall of our senior year. But we ignored the rules and restrictions about leaving the campus, and our antics nearly had us expelled.

I couldn't remember the details of this incident, so I e-mailed Dean and asked him for his recollection.
"We were seen by the music teacher, hitchhiking (which was strictly forbidden) on Route 20 on our way to Albany and eventually my home, at that time, in Niskayuna. We had forged leave slips saying that we were going to be picked up and returned by my mother - forged in the sense that my mother didn't pick us up.
"When we returned with my mother, the headmaster questioned us (me, you, and my mother). We lied. You caved under the severe and acute stress. We were sentenced to not being allowed to leave campus for a month or so."

Dean went on to explain that we would most likely have been expelled if the headmaster had not received word that Edward McIlvain Jr., a recent Darrow graduate, had been killed in action in Vietnam on Oct, 18, 1966.
"It seems to me we also had to put our hands to work and our hearts to God for a length of time," Dean wrote.

Yes, I do remember now working off all those penalty hours on weekends, digging a drainage ditch until we could no longer turn the frozen earth.
And now I can recall my grilling by the headmaster. He had a stern, sharply chiseled face, as if sculpted from a pine log with a tomahawk. The anger came is a rosy blush to his cheeks and forehead. I could not have known at the time that I was not the major target of that anger, or of his grief.

Looking back, I see now why we weren't kicked out of school. We had violated his trust and had been dishonest, but our headmaster could not stomach losing another two boys. Not after losing one for good.

Today's gripe

Driving to work this morning, I saw a woman standing by the side of the road with a girl about 7 years old, waiting for the school bus to arrive. The child was wearing a short-sleeved summer dress. And goose bumps, I imagine. The temperature was 40 degrees, with a sprinkle of rain.

Some people have no sense.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Spirits of Lebanon, Part 6

Darrow made it perfectly clear that it had no connection with the Shaker Society and that the school favored no particular religion. But the Shaker idea of finding God within oneself was a good fit for a non-denominational school, and the administrators made sure we had plenty of time to do that searching.

We were required to attend chapel every evening but Saturday and on Sunday morning as well. Life at Darrow was regimental, our schedules designed to obliterate idleness. We attended classes on Saturday, too, but not on Wednesday - that was our time for "Hands to Work."

The student body was divided into work crews that spent Wednesdays doing maintenance, landscaping, repairs, farm chores and labor for Darrow Enterprises, which included the sale of apple cider, black walnut candy and wool. The designation came from the Shaker motto, "Hands to work, hearts to God." The Shakers believed that physical labor was an act of devotion, and an object made well or a job well done was in itself a prayer to the Almighty.

I have written occasionally over the past three years in this blog about Darrow, and some of you might recall my descriptions of my Hands to Work duties, which included picking apples and making cider, and working in the sheep pasture, mending fences and assisting the old ram to perform his mating duties.
Our Wednesday chores took us over the fields and into the woods to cut brush and clear fallen timber, and we often encountered evidence there of the old Shakers and their vigorous work ethic. I am still in awe of the walls they built, of rock chiseled and tightly fit to last through centuries, and wide and flat enough to accommodate horse-drawn hay wagons. We wondered where the huge, flat stones that made the surface of this "road" had come from. And how had they gotten there? It seemed as mysterious to us as the construction of the pyramids.

We resented the hard work we were made to do in those days, but inevitably some of the Shaker work ethic rubbed off on us and stayed with us.

Darrow has changed over the years. A few new buildings dot the campus. The student body is about 30 percent smaller, and half the students are girls now. Latin is no longer taught and there's no need for those three pay telephones in the basement of Wickersham anymore. But Wednesdays are still reserved for Hands to Work.

Sister Emma Neale would be proud.

Monday, April 28, 2008

The Spirits of Lebanon, Part 5

Sister Emma Neale came to the Shaker village at New Lebanon with her mother and sister in 1853. She spent the rest of her life on the mountainside, witnessing the sect's growth, its heyday and its decline. A teacher, a weaver and maker of cloaks, a trustee of the Society of Shakers, she and her younger sister, Sarah, operated the Darrow farm into their nineties.

In 1929, when the community's numbers had dwindled, her concern turned toward the village itself. She persuaded her friend and neighbor, attorney Charles Haight, to start a school for boys that would best use the facilities of the village and preserve something of the Shaker tradition.

Sister Emma died in 1943 at the age of 97, her sister living on a few years longer.
"Shaker" was an almost derogatory nickname for the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Coming. In theology, the sect was similar to the Quakers, but because they believed that God would be found within the person, they were often self-absorbed during religious services and prone to dancing, mumbling and shaking. It was this behavior, and their adherence to celibacy, that often subjected them to ridicule from the outside world.

But Shaker philosophy encompassed far more than devotional practices. The following two paragraphs sum up that philosophy well. They are taken from "The Story of Darrow School," a handbook given to me in 1964 at my enrollment:
'This New Lebanon Society was not only the oldest, but the strongest, most important, and largest, of the societies. It was the model which others followed and once had 600 people, 100 buildings, and 6,000 acres of land. Almost entirely self-sustaining, the Shakers grew their food, flax, and herbs; they built their buildings, made their clothes, drugs, equipment, furniture, stoves, and tools; they provided their own dyes, lumber, waterpower, instruction, and entertainment. Shaker chairs, cloaks, and seeds were well known, for they were sold to the general public.
"As one saintly Shaker sister expressed it, 'the Shakers were thoroughly grounded in goodness.' They were celibate, they did not vote, refused to bear arms. They were a simple people – clean, prudent, temperate and resourceful. They believed in purity of mind and body, honesty and integrity in words and dealings, humanity and kindness to friend and foe, the education of children, the common ownership of property, diligence in business, manual labor, suitable employment for all, freedom from debt. They believed, too, in suitable provision being made for their people in health, sickness, and in old age."

Sister Emma had hoped these beliefs would survive as traditions at the school. What would she have thought of the Darrow School of the 1960s? What would she think of it today?

Actually, she might not be so shocked.

Publisher's choice

My boss, Tom Northrop, publisher of the Observer-Reporter, lent me his copy of Marina Lewycka's "A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian," first published three years ago. He said I'd enjoy its quirky humor.

The author of this first novel was born to Ukrainian parents in a refugee camp in Germany shorty after World War II but grew up in England, just like her narrator. This is a funny book that revolves around the narrator's elderly widowed father and the woman with whom he falls in love, a 36-year-old Ukrainian divorcee who "exploded into our lives like a fluffy pink grenade."

As funny as it is, the book is woven with melancholy threads that run through several generations. Horrible things happened back in Ukraine before and during the war - things that can never be forgotten.

This is a touching and insightful examination of immigrants and their behavior, and although the author strives for laughs, she does it without condescending.

Best of all, this is a novel filled with three-dimensional characters - character with real depth who are never quite what they at first seem.

Friday, April 25, 2008

The Spirits of Lebanon, Part 4

Without television or radio, our access to the outside world was limited to the U.S. mail, the copy of the daily newspaper available in the library and the three pay telephones in the basement of Wickersham Hall. We relied on our masters - that's what we called the teachers, who also lived at the school and who had televisions in their living quarters - to inform us. But we did have opportunities to escape this shelter.

Traveling to other boys' schools for games or to girls' schools for dances wasn't really getting out in the world, however. We were just moving from one shelter to another. Still, the dances were exciting and an opportunity for mischief.

I can recall a winter night in Albany, slow-dancing to Simon & Garfunkel's "Sounds of Silence," in the darkened rec hall at St. Agnes Academy for Girls, our chaperons patrolling like prison guards, we were damp with sweat and desire, breathing through perfumed hair, thigh to thigh we danced, and then later a bunch of us sneaking out the door to huddle in the cold dark to share a forbidden cigarette.

There were times, when traveling to and from school from home, when we were loose in the world. They took a busload of us from school to the Albany train station just before Thanksgiving in 1965. We were all dressed for travel in coats and sport jackets and London Fog trench coats, most of us headed for New York City, and from there to home. I went straight to a kiosk in the station and bought a pack of cigarettes. Soon I'd be on the train, in the bar car and trying out my new fake ID and being served gin and tonics. I was feeling grown-up, but I was only 16 and uncommonly naïve. I'd always been that way - the last kid on the block to believe in Santa Claus, the last kid to realize how babies were made. I was so trusting of adults and sure they would never lie to kids or engage in filthy physical activity.

While sitting and smoking in the waiting area, a man about twice my age approached me. "I'm in a bit of a fix," he said. "I need some help. Are you interested in earning $20?"
"Sure!" I blurted out. "But I've got to catch a train in an hour. What sort of work do you have?"
"It won’t take long, it's just around the corner," he said.
I followed him out to the street. The sky was overcast, the same grimy gray as the streets and the dust-caked windows of buildings covered in a patina of charcoal factory soot. Albany never seemed to have recovered from winter. We walked two blocks.
"Where is this work you have?" I asked.
"My place is just around the corner," he answered.
And then I realized what was happening. I felt nauseous and fearful. "I gotta go," I said, turning and running back toward the station.
"Hey! Where are you going! It's just around the corner!" the man yelled after me, but I kept running and didn't stop until I'd found a group of my friends with which to surround myself, in case he'd followed me back.

This clutch of three or four classmates was my shelter. Darrow may have seemed like a prison to us then, but it, and the boys that made it, was our refuge. I can understand that now.

Today's gripe

I read in today's sports section that fans will be booing Jaromir Jagr every time he touches the puck tonight in the opening game of the NHL playoff series between the Penguins and the Rangers. Jagr is, of course, the longtime Penguins player who helped the Penguins win the Stanley Cup, then later moved on to other teams and bigger paychecks.

Just to make things clear: Real hockey fans won't be booing Jagr. The people doing the booing are not lovers of the sport but simply people who bought tickets and people who, apparently, were born yesterday.

Jagr came to Pittsburgh as a teenager and put in the best years of his career here. Eventually, as happens with just about every professional sports star, it was time to move on to another team, and to megamillions.

The real hockey fans, the ones who follow the game and love the sport, won't be booing tonight. They'll have a different sensation when they see Jagr's stick touch the puck. They'll recall the thrill of playoff hockey of the past, when Jagr's incredible speed and game-winning goals had fans blowing the top off the Arena.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Spirits of Lebanon, Part 3

"Tannery Pond Concerts presents a season of six to seven chamber concerts between May and October in the Tannery on the grounds of the Darrow School in New Lebanon, NY.
"The Tannery, built by the Shakers in 1834, is a plain barn-like structure of warmly resonant wood unusually favorable to the sounds of chamber music, whether string ensemble, voice, piano, or small orchestra. Its size (it seats 290) fosters an intimate and interactive relationship between performers and artists, providing an unusual and exciting opportunity for closeness with the renowned artists that have appeared at Tannery Pond since its inception in 1991."

I stumbled upon the Tannery Pond Concerts Web site by accident. It got me to thinking. I guess musicians from all over the world are performing in the old tannery now. It was formally known on campus at the Laflin Whitehead Chapel, and we knew it well. It was where the entire school assembled every night but Saturday for vespers, a contemplative service before supper, and for church on Sunday.

I like to imagine that some of the richness of the acoustics of that building is due to the history of sound produced within it. I like to think that its oak and chestnut beams and woodwork have absorbed a couple of centuries of sound that are teased out by the vibrations from oboe and viola.

What sounds? How about the low rumble of 175 boys entering at the north door, descending the steps to the cellar, kicking off their muddy rubber boots, then ascending the steps at the south end and marching into the chapel. Or picture the suppressed laughter of a row of boys reacting to an inadvertent fart. The droning voices of a student body singing Shaker hymns under duress. The squawking of ducks copulating on Tannery Pond. The creaking of cherry benches. The chirping and fluttering of birds in the rafters. The low buzz of a June bug, tapping against dusty balcony windows. The groaning of timbers leaned on by wind. The sharp, scolding lecture of a headmaster railing against ungentlemanly conduct.

Have these sounds escaped into space, or are they trapped in the old barn forever?
I have gone back to that place. The last time, 11 years ago, my roommate Dean and I sat alone there for awhile, in the afternoon, the chapel on fire with the light of the descending sun, not saying anything. Just listening. Just listening to the spirits.

Whine, whine, whine

A reader called first thing this morning to complain about the preponderance of photos involving orange jumpsuits on the front page of our newspaper. I have to agree with her.

We call these photos "perp walks." "Perp" is short for perpetrator, which is cop talk for criminal. Often, the walk from the jail to the courthouse is our only opportunity to photograph these people. But consistently using these photos as the main photographic element for the front page of the newspaper has become monotonous and demonstrates a lack of imagination on our part.

If the county jail were to issue jumpsuits in different colors and styles, just for the sake of variety, surprise or humor, it would be quite another thing. I think it would be a hoot to see a homicide suspect paraded to court in a French maid's uniform or and Uncle Sam costume. But that's not going to happen.

It must be our task to come up with the variety and surprise.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Spirits of Lebanon, Part 2

Our school was isolated from the rest of the world. The buildings lined a dirt road that came up from the village of New Lebanon, wound up through the woods and across the state line, where it met up with Route 20, the main road for traffic to Pittsfield, Mass. Almost no one used this old Shaker road, and the upper part was rocky and deeply rutted. But every so often, a carload of teenagers would pass through the campus, yelling insults and obscenities and hurling empty beer cans from their windows.

One afternoon, a carload of boys came roaring down the road in a cloud of dust and slowed as it passed a group of boys coming back from the gym. "Darrow fairies!" someone yelled. The group quickly surmised that they were Pittsfield boys headed down to the village in New York state to buy beer. (The drinking age was 18 in New York then, and 21 in Massachusetts.) Word spread quickly that the car might be coming back through campus. When it did, 60 or 70 "Darrow fairies" streamed out of their dormitories, screaming at the top of their lungs and waving baseball bats and lacrosse sticks. I was up the road in front of my dorm, Ann Lee Cottage, and watched the road fill with students and saw the car come to a sliding stop, then move rapidly in reverse, fishtailing back toward the valley in a shower of stones.

Another time, on a warm, spring Sunday afternoon, a convertible came down the road, a young woman standing on the back seat with nothing on from the waist up. I was elsewhere when this happened, much to my disappointment. I peppered the witnesses with questions: "Who else was in the car? Did she say anything? How slow was the car going? Did you get a good look? Was she good-looking?"

On warm spring nights when no wind was blowing up from the valley and we had the windows at Ann Lee propped wide open, you could hear some of the traffic on Route 20. One night, just after lights out, we heard a crash - the sounds of snapping trees and twisting metal, and then an explosion - and then a wash of yellow light came through the back windows. We ran out the back door and beheld what was left of a fireball in the sky, now pierced by a tower of flames.

A few days later, we hiked up to the scorched scar in the woods. It had been a gasoline tanker, we were told. The driver had died. There was almost nothing left of the truck. The aluminum tank had melted and flowed like lava and hardened into rivulets that we snapped off and kept as souvenirs. This was near the old dump we had found. I imagined the aluminum flowing down into the pit and filling the old Shaker boot like a mold, creating a sculpted foot of the owner that might last for millennia. What would future archaeologists think?

The world intruded on us with violence and lust and fire and death on the mountain. We were isolated and protected, but we yearned for the world. We were well cared for, but we never stopped plotting our escape.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Spirits of Lebanon, Part 1

The poet Robert Frost taught my roommate Dean and I how to bend birches. We read "Birches" in class, and then one Sunday afternoon in late September went up into the woods behind the school to do it.

"...He learned all there was
To learn about not launching out too soon
And so not carrying the tree away
Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise
To the top branches, climbing carefully
With the same pains you use to fill a cup
Up to the brim, and even above the brim.
Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,
Kicking his way down through the air to the ground..."

Up the side of the mountain we went, bending the white-barked trees as we went, until we reached a pit, sparkling at the bottom, bits of sunlight bouncing off broken bottles. We went down to investigate.

It was an old dump, ancient really. A recent rain had washed the soil from the top of the pile, from which protruded old medicine bottles, some of them cobalt blue, some with the corks still in them. We kicked through the pile. Here was the rusted business end of a pitchfork. Here a spring and a lead pipe. Then I pulled out a boot, much of it gone but the sole intact. It was an old boot for sure. We surmised it could have belonged to one of the Shakers. I brushed the dirt off and examined it: a hole clear through beneath the ball of the foot, the heel worn away on one side.

Even at that age, I was a skeptic, never having believed in ghosts or anything paranormal. But holding that shoe gave me a chill. Although its owner was probably long dead, this thing still spoke for him, still told me about his gait and the way he dragged his heel.

Would I leave these marks of my existence here? I thought about the wooden benches we sat in for the vespers service every night, the depressions, frictionless and smooth as a baby's skin, worn into the wood first by the rumps of Shakers and then by generations of schoolboys in corduroy pants. These material things long outlive us, but our use of them transforms them and lends them our spirit. Then I looked at the young birches, bowing respectfully toward the ground from our play, and wondered if they'd straighten or just grow the way we'd bent them.

Dean threw himself away from the thin trunk and was lowered slowly to the ground, collapsing in laughter and a shower of yellowing leaves. Pieces of poem tumbled from his lips.

"One could do worse than be a swinger of birches," he yelled.

Monday, April 21, 2008

A new story

I've often written in this space about Darrow, the boarding school where I spent three years in the 1960s. Its history is odd and fascinating; the school itself is a National Historic Landmark, with many of its building comprising the first Shaker community in the U.S. The Shakers, more formally known as the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Coming, once numbered 6,000 members living in 18 major communities in eight states. But because they were celibate and gained new members only by conversion and adoption, the sect largely died out by the early 20th century, and now only a handful remain in the community at Sabbathday Lake, Maine.

We teenage boys cloistered there in those days treated our school's Shaker heritage like an embarrassing family secret. The idea of celibacy was incomprehensible; we were obsessed with losing our virginity, not preserving it. We did our best to ignore the history, but we could not escape it. The Shakers first came to that Berkshire mountainside in 1781, and 100 years later had built Utopia. Then they dwindled, disappeared. We felt the chill of their presence in the dark corners of old buildings, imagined their whispers in the damp woods.

"The Shakers selected this spot for a purpose, " writes Cheryl Moore, an art teacher and theater director, on Darrow's Web site. "Something intangible happens to you here. You see poppies in bloom that were originally planted by the Shakers 200 years ago, and you feel a tremendous connection."

The community became the Lebanon School for Boys in 1932, and was renamed Darrow School in 1939. I'm wondering, now that a number of my own classmates have died, if someday, perhaps even now, the students at Darrow feel the chilling presence of not just the Shakers but the students of long ago.

That place has been worn smooth by humanity; it is rich in experience; its stories need to be told. I'll tell you a few of them in the next series, starting tomorrow. As with all of the series, I know how this one will start put not how or when it will end. Feel free to jump in and comment and offer up your own memories of coming of age. We'll call this one "The Spirits of Lebanon."

Friday, April 18, 2008

Whine, whine, whine

C: I'm sick of seeing Obama's face on every page of the web sight. I certainly hope he paid a hefty price to receive such constant and iritating coverage. It's bad enough that all of the media has been drouling over the two Democratic candidates, without taking the enjoyment out of reading your web sight with constant political bull!!! -C.B.

A: How do you suppose that we can make this Web site available to you for free? With advertising, of course. Maybe you haven't noticed, but political candidates tend to buy advertising just before elections. It's just what they do.

Here's my suggestion to you: Take your hand off that mouse; turn off the computer; back slowly away from your screen; go outside and enjoy the fresh air.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Today's gripe

Sometimes, I'm embarrassed to admit that I am part of the media. Like this morning. We in the media are always complaining that the candidates avoid talking about important issues and instead choose to snipe at each other and exchange ridiculous charges about character. Then, when we get a chance to ask them really substantive questions, like at last night's debate between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, what do we do? We ask them nothing but stupid questions that have nothing to do with important issues.

People often blame the media for being part of the problem. And we are.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Whine, whine, whine

C: I was upset that the O-R did not cover or write about Hillary Clinton being in Uniontown, Fayette County. I've noticed that the O-R rarely says anything nice about her. - J.S.

A: We didn't cover Hillary Clinton when she was in Allegheny County, either, nor when she was in Cambria County or in Philadelphia. That's because we cover Washington and Greene counties. We covered Bill Clinton's visit to Washington & Jefferson College, and this morning's visit of Chelsea Clinton to Waynesburg and will cover Hillary's visit to California University on Thursday, because all those visits are in our coverage area.

As for being nice... well, we just haven't gotten around to starting that "Nice Things About the Candidates" page. Maybe we'll get around to that in mid-November. Until then, I'm afraid, we're just going to treat them like the politicians that they are.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Stop and listen

If you want to hear a good story, tune into your public radio station on Friday mornings. The "Morning Edition" news show has a segment called "StoryCorps." Here's what happens...

Ordinary people walk into a booth in New York's Grand Central Station or in mobile booths around the country operated by the StoryCorps Project and tell the story of their lives. The idea of the project is to preserve personal history in oral form for the ages. The recordings are stored in the Library of Congress, and segments of these stories are broadcast on the PBS program. These conversations are riveting: touching, hilarious, tragic, frightening.

If you can't manage to listen to the radio or to the segments online, then you can buy the book - "Listening Is an Act of Love," edited by StoryCorps' creator, Dave Isay.

Something happens in that booth, when one friend talks to another, when a parent speaks to a child, when a husband listens to his wife. Emotions are released. Truth happens. In reading, you can almost hear the voices of Scott and Catherine Kohanek as they spin the improbable tale of a school janitor and a teacher who fall in love. Or prison inmates Paul Mortimer and Shawn Fox, exchanging regrets about their murders and drug use. Or Martha Conant, telling her daughter-in-law about how much more meaning her life and relationships have since she survived unhurt a plane crash in which 111 others died.

If there was ever a book that described the character of Americans, this is it.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Tour our vault

Come with the G.O.E. on a tour of the O-R's spooky paper vault - Click here for video.

Life of Enos, Part 14

The Christman Publishing Co. was formed in 1891, with Enos as president and son William as manager. It was under William's direction that The Reporter five years later purchased a Cox Duplex press able to print 4,000 copies an hour. In 1897, two Mergenthaler Linotype machines were put into operation. Each machine cost $8,000 and could set type at more than four times the speed of a human printer. Later that year, Enos turned over ownership of company to his children, William, Elizabeth and Harry.

On May 6, 1899, after a lingering illness, Ellen died. She had born Enos nine children, eight of whom survived. She had been the light of Enos' life for 50 years. Her death was the end of a great love story, but not the end of Enos' love. He would marry and bury another woman, Catherine Stofer, and marry a third time, to Emma Winebrenner, before Enos himself died at age 83 on Jan. 12, 1912.

William Christman would sell The Reporter to the Observer Publishing Co. in 1903 and quit the business 30 years to the day after he quit school to work for his father at the newspaper. But Christmans would continue to work at The Reporter and the Observer-Reporter for generations to come. The lastof the family to work at the paper was photographer Ron Christman, who died in a helicopter crash in 1973 while taking aerial photos for the annual Progress Edition.

Enos Christman, the old prospector, spent the last days of his life in the home he built on the aptly named Prospect Avenue. The old love story came to light many years after his death when his letters and journal were examined. In the introduction to "One Man's Gold: The Letters and Journal of a Forty Niner," niece Florence Morrow Christman in 1930 wrote:

"The tin box had no air of mystery although it had stood for three—quarters of a century in a dark closet under the stairs of an old Pennsylvania house. It was just a tin box - square-topped and high, double-padlocked and rusted. Everyone knew that all it contained were old letters and papers. It had been designed by one who had gone adventuring, to guard the records of his journeyings. But when his voice had become a memory, the old box was drawn from its corner, and again the dreams and the experiences of Enos Christman lived."

So much has happened in the century since Enos Christman died, yet so much of what he made remains: the house on West Prospect Avenue, the gas company, and most of all the newspaper. Many newspapers have come and gone from Washington; only one remains. It has published continuously for 200 years - daily since 1876 - and never missed a publication date.

It's likely that this newspaper would not exist today if it were not for Enos and for Ellen, who convinced him of the broader definition of gold.


Thursday, April 10, 2008

Life of Enos, Part 13

Early settlers in this area dug wells to reach brine water, which provided them salt, a valuable commodity. Natural gas and oil were occasionally found when digging these wells, but it was not until 1882, when the Niagara Drilling Co. struck gas at 2,300 feet near Hickory that the extent of the reserves could be guessed.

That well became known as the Mighty McGugin. The roar of the gas escaping and burning could be heard as far away as Washington, and it would not be successfully capped and put to use for four years.

Inspired by this discovery, Enos Christman and four other Washington businessmen decided to drill a well closer to the city in hopes of using that gas to heat and light their businesses and homes. Some of the men remembered as boys swimming in the Old Kettle Hole in Chartiers Creek. They would often amuse themselves by lighting the gas that bubbled up from the creek bottom. They formed the Peoples Light & Heat Co. and chose a site near there on the Hess farm, west of Jefferson Avenue behind what is now Ann's Feeds, and began drilling in March 1884. They struck a pocket that would prove to be as productive as the McGugin.

Laying pipe moved with incredible speed. By July 1, the first connections were made to businesses in the borough of Washington. By the end of the month, 46 homes, including that of the Christman family, had gas service.

It was the availability of natural gas that attracted industry to Washington, with the first of several large glass factories started here in 1888. The gas strike inspired other drilling and the discovery of large reserves of oil. At one point, 18,575 barrels a day were being pumped from the Washington field.

Washington became a boomtown. Many became millionaires and the population exploded. The Peoples gas company grew and became Manufacturers Light & Heat, which eventually became the Columbia Gas System. And Enos Christman, pretty much forgotten these past 100 years, had much to do with that.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Life of Enos, Part 12

The Chinese and Koreans were using movable type as early as 1200, but Gutenberg introduced it to Europe in 1436. In 1876, type was still being set the same way: by hand, one letter at a time. That's what made printing a daily newspaper such a daunting endeavor.

It was one thing to print a four-page weekly newspaper, and quite another to do it six days a week. A printer was able to set only about 2 columns of type in a day, so producing four 6-column pages required two people working six days a week. A daily paper would require six times the workforce, but Washington was still a small town at the time, and there was no way to find six times as many advertisers or to convince advertisers to spend six times as much.

Enos Christman's business model was risky. Instead of printing his daily on the big sheets of paper to which his readers were accustomed, he would print a daily newspaper half the size, with half the type. It quickly gained the derisive nickname, "The Dinky." This paper was distributed only in the city. A twice-weekly, regular-size newspaper, using the already-set type from the daily, was distributed to outlying areas. In doing so, the paper would gain a huge advantage in timeliness over his weekly rivals.

Launching the daily was an experiment, conducted in total secrecy. The appearance of carriers on the street on Friday, Aug. 4, 1876, was a complete surprise to the public. The paper announced: "We propose delivering it free of charge at every house, office, store and shop in town for a week or 10 days for the purpose of giving the people an opportunity of seeing what the publication will be. If it is continued longer it will be one cent per copy or six cents per week. No one will be forced to take it."

Almost 1,000 copies were distributed each day during the trial. At least 500 paid subscribers were needed to continue the daily, and they got them, though just barely. When Aug. 4, 1877, rolled around, Christman and Moore had accumulated between 800 and 1,000 subscribers and announced that the experiment had proved successful and the daily newspaper would continue.

Two months later, his health failing, William Moore announced the sale of his interest in The Reporter, and on Dec. 30, 1877, he died. Five years later, Enos gained complete ownership of the business and began looking for ways to grow not just the newspaper, but the community.

That growth would be enormous, and it would all start with a few bubbles escaping from the bed of Chartiers Creek.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Today's gripe

This time of year, and in November, our newspaper's editorial board hosts a parade of candidates seeking office and our endorsement. What makes me cranky is that most of these candidates have spent a great deal of time raising money and figuring out how to get elected, but too little time studying the issues.

It's discouraging to ask a candidate for state office what form of taxation he or she supports for public education, for example, only to be answered by mumbling indicative of no investment of thought. The same goes for the candidate for Congress who answers with a blank stare a question about how government can insure that all its citizens receive proper medical care.

These are the candidates who want more than anything to hold public office. We need more candidates who want more than anything to solve the public's problems.

Life of Enos, Part 11

Publisher William Moore was elected to Congress on the Republican ticket in the fall of 1872. His partner James Kelley would be unable to take over The Reporter in his absence, and so Moore wrote to Enos Christman, who still owned an interest in the paper, and pleaded with him to return to Washington.

The Christmans, after a 15-year hiatus, returned to the growing borough, and Enos took over as editor and manager on April 2, 1873. His son William, then 15, who had been such a help to his father on the farm, and then delivering newspapers in West Chester, attended school on East Beau Street for only three weeks before quitting and going to work for his father. It would be a career that lasted 30 years to the day.

It was Enos' need to find a suitable home in Washington for his large family and his inability to afford one that led to his founding the first building and loan association here. His house at 21 West Prospect Avenue, which still stands, was in 1874 the first to be built by the Washington Building & Loan Association. Before that pioneer institution passed out of existence, it had made possible the building of many homes and businesses in Washington and was an inspiration to the lending institutions that would follow.

Clark Bartlett, who worked as an editor for Christman, wrote in 1925 of his former employer: "The Major was by nature thrifty and conservative, yet courageously progressive when occasion demanded."
That courage would be put to the test when Christman launched Washington's first daily newspaper in 1876. Many of his competitors and business associates thought that venture was foolish and destined to fail.

And they were nearly right.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Life of Enos, Part 10

In May 1861, Enos Christman helped organize Company K of the Fourth Regiment, Pennsylvania Reserve Volunteer Corps, and was elected second lieutenant. He would not come marching home for two years.

In that time, Enos fought in the battles in front of Richmond known as Seven Days, the Second Bull Run, South Mountain and Fredericksburg. He also survived the bloodiest day in U.S. military history - Antietam. He would learn much later that on that day he fought in the same vicinity as his two brothers, William and Jefferson, none of whom was injured. He was promoted to captain, and then to major, and then President Lincoln sent him home to West Chester in May 1863 to serve as provost marshal of the Seventh District until the end of the war.

It seemed that West Chester had a gravitational pull that Enos could not escape, although he kept trying. At war's end, Enos and Ellen took their six children to Somerset County, Md., to try their hand at farming. It was a hard life, made more difficult by drought.

William, Enos' oldest son, recalled in an article in The Reporter in 1908 that he attended school only occasionally, when he was not needed for work on the farm. He spent many an hour riding a horse while his father followed with the plow, working corn, and hauling and chopping cordwood.

Four years later, the Christmans gave up and surrendered to the pull of home, where Enos once again took up the printing trade at The American Republic. The children kept coming and by 1872 numbered eight. It seemed that they were destined to live out their lives in West Chester, until in November a letter arrived from Enos' old partner in Washington, Pa., William Moore. It was a letter that would have a profound effect on the Christman family and would alter the course of local history.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Life of Enos, Part 9

It was cholera that had decimated the passengers on the steamer that brought Enos Christman back from the gold fields. And it was cholera that would cast its shadow on the door of the Christman home on West Chestnut Street in Washington two years later.

Ellen had given birth to her first child, Mary Elizabeth, on Aug. 15, 1853. Just 13 months later, the dreaded disease took the baby's life. She was buried in Washington Cemetery when there were but few graves there. As years went by, other members of the family would join her in that plot. There are no stones or markers there today. She lies beneath a grassy patch in the shade of a giant fir, overlooking the south and east of the city.
Not quite nine months later, the Christmans' second daughter, Sarah, was born in the house where they were then living on West Beau Street.

Enos and George Stouch managed to do well with the Commonwealth, despite the split and turmoil in the Whig party since the election of 1852. Their partnership came to an end, however, when Stouch died of tuberculosis on Dec. 28, 1855.
"He was a gentleman of fine social qualities - of generous impulses and a fine sense of honor," the obituary in The Reporter stated. "He has left a partner and one child with a large train of devoted friends to deplore his early call from the walks of life.
George Stouch was 28 years old.

Enos needed an editor and partner and found a capable one in William Moore, a 1848 graduate of Washington College. But following the 1856 election, the Whigs, once championed by Henry Clay and Abraham Lincoln, were reduced to an ineffective third party and dissolved, leaving the Commonwealth without cause or readership. By 1858, about the time the Christmans' son William was born, the Commonwealth merged with The Reporter, and Christman and Moore shared ownership of latter with Robert Strean.
Later in 1858, the Christmans left Washington and returned to West Chester, where Enos went to work as foreman for his old employer, Henry Evans, at The Village Record. Curiously, Enos did not sell his interest in The Reporter, a decision that would have a significant impact on Washington's future.

Ellen gave birth to another daughter, Elizabeth, in 1859, and she was pregnant with Ella in April 1861 when the darkest days in America began, when Enos would be pulled away from her again, not to return for years.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Life of Enos, Part 8

After Enos Christman returned home to West Chester, he repaid his former employer's advance, with interest, and he and Ellen were married on Oct. 20, 1852. They departed immediately for Washington, Pa., where Enos would take up an offer from a former fellow apprentice, George Stouch, to be his partner in a new newspaper, The Commonwealth, espousing the cause of the Whig party.

Not long after their arrival here, Enos received a grievous letter from John L. Haines in Sonora, Calif. "I am writing for the purpose of conveying to you the melancholy news of the death of D.W. Clinton Atkins, your fellow traveler through many trying times during your sojourn in this far-off land," the letter stated. "...on Christmas morning I thought I would go to see him and spend the day. It is impossible to describe my surprise when arriving at his cabin, blocked up with snow, I found him there alone, covered with smallpox and totally blind. He was sitting over his stove with a blanket around him and scarcely any fire. As soon as he became aware of my presence, he burst out crying and said, 'I am glad you have come for I thought I was to die here by myself and my cabin be my grave.' "

Atkins died on Jan. 4, 1853. Enos could not help recalling him when he and Ellen, then about 6 months pregnant, returned to the Philadelphia area for a visit and went down to the port to see the clipper Europe, on which the two young men had begun their adventure.
"What trying times those were for Atkins and myself," Enos wrote in his journal on May 9, 1853. "It is a true saying that health is the greatest of blessings. How easy it was for Clint to walk into trouble. He saw more hardships in three years than in his whole life before, and he breathed his last in a lonely cabin in that far-off land.
"But the thought of the dear burthen on my arm broke into my musings and reminded me that all was well with me. Indeed, my hopes have been gratified and I have realized a fortune."

For Enos and Ellen, their life together had just begun, and all did indeed seem well. It would not stay that way for very long, however.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Life of Enos, Part 7

Enos to Ellen, Oct. 26, 1851 - This morning I concluded to have my likeness taken (above), and I forward it with this to you. I am only sorry that it is not the original that is to go and the likeness to remain...
Ellen to Enos, Dec. 8, 1851 - How shall I express the unexpected joy I felt when I received your kind letter accompanied with your daguerreotype. You could have sent nothing except yourself, that would have been half so acceptable. Although it was a great pleasure to receive it, it made me feel rather sad to see how much thinner you are. But, oh, that awful California is enough to wear flesh and bones away...

Enos Christman was now living comfortably in the adobe building that housed the Sonora Herald, along with Lewis Gunn and his family, who had made the long sea journey to join him. He and Gunn were now partners and owners of the newspaper, and real success seemed not so many years distant. But Ellen's siren call was getting to him. As summer approached in 1852, Enos began making plans to go home.

On June 26, nearly three years to the day from when he left West Chester, Enos left San Francisco on a clipper bound for Panama, leaving behind his friend Atkins to seek his fortune in gold. Enos planned to take the short cut, traveling by horseback across the Isthmus, despite the danger that involved.
After crossing to the east coast of Panama, Enos boarded a steamer bound for New Orleans and New York. The trip would be comparatively quick, but the human cost high. "Tuesday, July 20 - A terrible day on board," he wrote in his journal. "There have been seven or eight deaths and burials, and a large addition to the sick-list." The next day, he wrote: "There are two new cases of sickness, and two deaths today… My clean shirts were stolen."

Cholera claimed 17 lives on the El Dorado before it docked on July 22 in New York Harbor. As Providence would have it, Enos Christman was not one of them.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Life of Enos, Part 6

(The two men standing in the doorway of this photo of the Sonora Herald are unidentified but could well be Lewis Gunn and Enos Christman. The photo is from "Newspaper in the Old West," by Robert F. Karolevitz.)

Around Stockton, there was a lot more money in harvesting hay than in panning for gold. Enos Christman hit the fields, but "Atkins is still too sick to work," he wrote in his journal on June 1, 1850. "But rich or poor as long as he is sick I shall stick by him and it shall never be said of me that I deserted a friend when health and fortune failed."

A few days later, Enos found work "sticking type" at the Stockton Times. The money was good – about $50 a week. The Times also began printing the first newspaper to serve the gold fields - the Sonora Herald - on July 4, and Enos was sent there to sell the papers, at 50 cents each. Eventually, the old Ramage press, which had printed The Californian, the first newspaper in that state, was sent up to Sonora, where Enos operated it along with editor Lewis Gunn. The two would eventually become partners and owners of the Herald.

There was no shortage of news or other jobs to print. The business of elections was brisk, particularly with California becoming a state. And then there were the Indian raids, the rampages of Mexican bandits, frequent murders and the swift justice of vigilance committees and lynch mobs when horse thieves were caught.

The letters, which usually took two months to be delivered, continued to flow between Enos and Ellen Apple, she always pleading for his return, he always maintaining that he would stay as long as necessary to return well enough off to repay his former employer's investment.

Ellen to Enos, July 14, 1850 - ... Dear Enos, you have made every effort to obtain gold. You have failed in the effort. Be not disheartened. Riches taketh wings and flies away but happiness no one can take away from us. I repeat what I have said in all my letters, that it is not every man's luck to make a fortune. If your health has improved and you have a safe return to your dearest friends, to have made the effort will perhaps be a lasting benefit and repay you for all your trouble. I have told you that a living can be made in Chester County and gold will not buy health and happiness...

Enos to Ellen, Oct. 6, 1850 - ... Advise me to stay and try my luck another season, and in a year from now I promise to be with you. Or beneath the waves of the ocean, or my bones bleaching on the plains, if Providence should so will it..."