A little piece of paradise
Anyone who has been around the Shenango Valley for the past 50 years has seen the transformation of Hermitage from farmland to city. But no one has seen it better – or worse – than Jackie and Eugene Blair and their family. Certainly no one has been closer to the action. They have lived for more than 50 years literally within a stone’s throw from what is now the Shenango Valley Mall.
Jackie was born in New Kensington in 1928 to Ludwig and Agnes Urban. She was very young when her dad moved the family to Farrell. They moved again when Jackie was twelve, into a house Ludwig built on the corner of Maple Drive and Morefield. He converted part of it into a gas station, with pumps out front.
“I told the kids at school that we were moving to Hickory,” Jackie said. “They said, ‘Where’s Hickory?’ Nobody knew about Hickory.”
Maybe that was because there wasn’t much there at the time. North of State Street, from Hermitage Road (Route 18) to Keel Ridge Road, there was nothing but farms – Colter’s (later McConnell’s), Beatty’s, and Snyder’s. There was a gas station on the corner of Hermitage Road and State Street.
“It used to be called the Pennzoil,” Jackie said. “It was like you used to see in the movies, with a little soda bar. After school or games the kids used to go over there and had pop and stuff.”
It was Jackie’s father who started the commercial development along State Street near the present location of Snyder Road. While running his gas station on Maple Drive, he acquired several school buses to run for Hickory. He needed a place to house them, so he bought some land from Pete Beatty and put up a building where the ambulance garage and May’s Shoe Repair is now. Later he opened a marine supply business in that building.
The only other buildings in the area were Beatty’s barn, outbuildings, and farmhouse, which was on the present site of Wheaton Cleaners. Farther up State Street, at the corner Keel Ridge Road, was Snyder’s farmhouse – the large white house with the cupola on top that was torn down recently.
Jackie attended school at Hickory High (now the Middle School), just up the road from the Pennzoil. One day while she was a Sophomore she went to the movies and met a Sharon High School Sophomore named Eugene H. Blair. They dated all through high school, and got married in 1948, two years after they graduated.
They lived for a while in a house in Sharpsville. Then they bought from Jackie’s father a small pie-shaped piece of land behind his building on State Street. They converted part of that building into living space and set to work erecting a house on their property.
“It was just a big briar patch,” Jackie said. “My husband cut it all down with a sickle and burned it. He drew up the plans for the house, and we built the whole thing ourselves. We did it the old fashioned way. I dug the footer for the back part myself, while my kids had a good time running around. We poured the cement ourselves.”
They bought additional land from Snyders, whose farm was east and north of them, ending up with about an acre. Colter’s farm (later McConnell’s) was west of them. It was the perfect place to raise a family – except for one thing.
“I was all alone out here,” Jackie said. “The only other building besides our house was my Dad’s building. It was pitch black at night. When my husband worked the midnight shift at Westinghouse, the kids and I were all alone. I heard every sound. I was scared to death.”
Other than that, it was paradise – or, according to Jackie’s daughter Sue (Meszaro), even better.
“In the movie Field of Dreams, Shoeless Joe Jackson steps out of a cornfield and asks if this is heaven,” she said. “Kevin Costner’s character says no. If he had been here at our place, I would have said yes.”
The farms around them provided Jackie’s children with lots of fun.
“The biggest thrill was when Snyder’s had a full load of hay,” Sue said. My brother and my one friend and I used to climb way up on top and then Mr. Synder would drive up east state street to his barn. It was so exciting.”
Their yard was surrounded by a fence to keep McConnell’s cows and horses out.
“One time I had a bushel of apples,” Jackie said, “and they were disappearing fast. The kids were little, I knew they couldn’t eat that many. Then I caught the culprit. I watched Sue go out the back door, and as soon as she did, all the horses came up to the fence. They were looking for their treats. It was so cute.”
Sue would ride McConnell’s ponies bareback, clinging to the mane.
“They’d go lickety clip,” Sue said. “I fell off a couple of times. I remember once when the ponies got out of the fence and were in our yard. It was awesome. McConnell’s sons came back here with their horses and chased the horses and cows out of the yard.”
There was a farm out back that raised Morgan horses.
“One time Sue went out there, and she comes back all covered with dirt,” Jackie said. “She’s holding her arm behind her back. And these two McCracken girls were with her, and they were looking at her, and looking down, and nobody is smiling. Then Sue holds out her arm and says I think I broke it.”
“Before my mom would take the to the hospital, she gave me a bath because I stunk like a horse,” Sue said.
“The doctor told her to keep her arm elevated and keep her off horses,” Jackie said. “So I’m at the kitchen sink and I’m wondering where’s my daughter. All of a sudden I see this little kid, her pigtails bouncing up and down, her sling way out behind her.
The Blairs loved to explore the old railroad bed that ran next to their property.
“I used to go back along the railroad bed and collect railroad ties,” Sue said. “I had a big pile of them. Don’t ask my why. We would find railroad spikes, insulators, all kinds of little glass bottles, things like that. I was a tomboy.”
Sue also collected animals. They would follow her home, and she would take care of them.
“They let me keep all the stray animals,” she said. “They were the greatest parents. When I got married, I think I left behind something like 37 cats and 17 dogs.”
During the 1950s, people started putting up buildings on State Street in front of the Blairs’ property. First was McCracken’s Floor Covering. That same building now houses Cornman Sweeperland, R&R Printing, and Conti & Harding Insurance. Then came the building which is now Moments Like This Flower Shop and Ekker, Kuster, McConnell & Epstein law offices . It was originally a gun shop and sporting goods store.
“I can’t remember when all the other buildings went up,” Jackie said. “They started building and building and building. There was a little lumber store. Where Jesse’s Restaurant is, there was a little dairy store – Ward’s Dairy. Above it was Dr. Noble’s dentist office. There was a little Texaco gas station right where Dunkin’ Donuts is. And the Hickory VFW went up.”
But the development wasn’t taking place only in front of them.
“They used to haul coal in trucks from mines back near McConnell Road,” Jackie said. “They drove right by our house on the old railroad bed. They built Snyder Road so they wouldn’t be driving so near to the house.”
It was a blessing not to have the trucks driving so close, but that blessing gradually turned into a curse as businesses started going up on Snyder Road. First was Dan’s Tires on the corner where the beer distributor is now. Then came Central TV, followed by all the rest.
“We used to get very good water from our well,” Jackie said. “When they built those buildings, it turned bad. And the storm water from the parking lots would run down through our yard. All the buildings along Snyder Road are right up against my property. All I see is their garbage dumpsters, storage trailers, and stuff.”
But far worse was yet to come on the other side of their property.
“One day George McConnell came back and told my husband that all of this would be like a little city under one building,” Jackie said. “He wouldn’t tell us any more. And that becamethe Shenango Valley Mall.”
The land from the Blairs’ property to Route 18 was a gradual continuous slope. Before long, bulldozers and dump trucks started hauling out tons of dirt to level the land for the mall. When it was all done, there was a steep seven foot drop right from the Blairs’ yard to the parking lot.
“There was a drought the year they dug it all out,” Jackie said. “I had to keep my windows closed and even stuff rags around the doors to keep out the dust. I could only do laundry at night.”
The erection of the mall left the Blairs’ property as a little oasis surrounded by the commercial development that, ironically, had been started by Jackie’s father. The only thing they could do was keep it as beautiful as possible, with trees and flowers – and family. Besides raising their son Gene and daughter Sue there, they have had almost all of their grandchildren living there at one time or another.
After retiring from Westinghouse, Eugene ran his own income tax service out of an office in the house, so he could do a lot of the gardening he loved. But maintaining the property has been much more difficult since he died in 2000, and even more so since their son Gene died in August of this year.
Jackie suffered a heart attack when her son died, and she feels that it’s time to sell the property and move on with her life. When she does, another little piece of paradise will be gone forever.
Excerpted from Lives of Quiet Inspiration, Volume 1, by Joe Zentis. Hermitage, PA: Green Street Press, 2007