Serving the community
Imagine taking a stroll up Idaho Street in Farrell on a Saturday in August, 1940. It might have gone something like this:
You park on Broadway and start up the hill on the north side of the street. You walk past the White Cross Pharmacy and stop into Dewey Brooks’s place to get your shoes shined. Then you continue up past Newman’s Market, cross Market Avenue, and glance in the windows of Speizer’s Hardware Store. As you pass John Drndarsky’s barber shop you remember that you need a haircut, but you’re not in the mood to sit there on such a nice day. You think about that again as you spot Toby Morris’s barber shop a few doors farther on.
After passing People’s Hardware and Furniture Company, you cross Lee Avenue and stroll past GC Murphy 5 & 10 Cent Store, the City Fish Market, and the A & P Store. You cross Idaho to Jimmie’s Department Store. You browse around and buy a pair of socks for 5 cents. You go back across Idaho and into Lewis Levine Clothier. A spiffy new suit catches your eye. You check the price tag: $19.95. You look at a pair of dress trousers and remember seeing some in Jimmie’s for $1.00. These are a little more expensive, but a lot nicer. You admire the selection of shirts that are on sale, ranging from $1.29 to $2.45.
You hear an animated discussion in the back of the store. Mayor Lewis Levine is exchanging ideas with his son Merle and a couple of other men about how to solve the housing shortage in Farrell. You go and join in.
Another man strides into the store and butts right into the conversation. “Mayor, I hope you’re going to do something about those damn medicine shows. There’s one just over the line in Sharon. They’re selling junk they claim will cure everything from headache to fallen arches.”
“Don’t worry, I won’t let them into Farrell,” the mayor says.
You turn to the mayor’s son. “Did you see yesterday’s Farrell Press? Jimmy Dorsey is coming to Yankee Lake on August 25.”
“Yeah, but did you see the price? 65 cents in advance and 85 cents at the door. Way too much! We can dance to good bands there every night of the week for 35 cents.”
You take your leave and continue on up Idaho, past Pannuto’s Barber Shop and the City Barber Shop. You cross Darr Avenue and go into the Pocket Billiards Club. You pull out your wallet, count your cash, then turn and walk right back out the door.
You stroll past more stores, including the Sanitary Baking Company, Lengyel’s Market, and Nevant Brothers’ Sporting Goods. Across the street you see Isaly’s Dairy, the Liberty Restaurant, and Frank Galicia’s Barber Shop. At the corner of Spearman, you check out the playbills in front of the Colonial Theatre. It’s a double feature: “Lucky Cisco Kid” with Cesar Romero, and “The Return of Wild Bill,” along with an “Our Gang” comedy extra. Coming soon is Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan in “Tarzan Finds a Son.”
You cross Spearman. You see the Capitol Barber Shop on the other side of the street as you come to the Capitol Theater. It’s showing Walter Brennan in “Maryland” and a Walt Disney Cartoon. Next door is the California Confectionery Store. Some of the bonbons call your name. When you come out, you see the Square Deal Barber Shop upstairs across the street. You know there are two more barber shops within the next couple of blocks. Fate must be trying to tell you something. You go over, climb the stairs, sit down, and wait your turn.
That is the Farrell that Merle Levine remembers – and still loves.
“Idaho was quite a street back then,” he said. “You wouldn’t believe it. On Saturday nights, I swear, there was not room for everyone on the sidewalks. On Idaho Street from Lee Avenue to Wallis Avenue there were three theaters – the Colonial, the Capital, and the Rex. There was a fourth one on Broadway called The Strand.”
Merle spent most of his working life right in the center of all that, in his father’s clothing store.
“My father opened the clothing store with close friend Jake Goldberg about 1912. When my father got married, the store wasn’t able to support both, so Jake went into scrap business. The Goldbergs became very wealthy from it. I often told Jake’s son Dave it should have been the other way around. My father should have gone into the scrap business!”
It wasn’t Merle’s original plan to work in the clothing business. After graduating from Farrell High School in 1931, he went to the University of Michigan for two years, majoring in accounting. The Depression made money tight, so he came back to continue his education at Westminster.
“My father bought me a car to commute. It was a brand new Plymouth, a three-seater, with a rumble seat. It cost $475 brand new. In those days, it was a big deal to have a new car at that age.”
Then Merle met a young lady named Helen Mermelstein. He was faced with a decision: marry her, or finish college. He decided to try to do both.
“I was twenty, and she was eighteen. We got married secretly in Weirton, West Virginia. About ten months later, my mother-in-law was house cleaning. I don’t know why she opened an old hat box, but she found our marriage certificate in it. Then all hell broke loose. Everybody in town was expecting that a baby would be coming soon, but we fooled them. That was not why we got married.”
That was the end of Merle’s college education, but he has no regrets.
“My father decided if I was old enough to be married, I was old enough to work in the clothing store. So that’s where I ended up. But Helen was a wonderful wife, wonderful mother, wonderful cook and baker. She gave me three beautiful children.”
Their first child, David, came four years after they got married. Barbara was born three years later, and Jane five years after Barbara.
The Valley was a great place to raise a family.
“Buhl Park was a great place. We used to have a lot of picnics, and a lot of fun in the playgrounds with the swings and the slides, the whole works, swimming and everything. In the wintertime there were hills around here for sledding. In Farrell there’s a street called Indiana Avenue. The Eckles School was at the top of it. It was a relatively steep hill, a good two blocks long. When there was enough snow, the city would put ashes at the bottom of it. They would close off the street, and that’s where we would sled ride.
Merle’s father, Lewis, was Farrell councilman from 1932 to 1936, then mayor from 1936 to 1948. His store was the heart of Farrell not only in terms of geography, but also in terms of community life.
“Our store sold a high-type clothing, but it was kind of a hang-out place, a gathering spot for the politicians. My father ended up as a pretty well-known character. He was a little old Jewish guy who was elected three times mayor of Farrell, a town that was 90% Catholic.”
Merle himself was committed to public service.
“I was on the Farrell School Board when they built the new high school. At that time we had a great need for it. Not too many years later it was too big. They could have housed the whole Farrell school district in that one building. When we built it, we had the Lincoln Building, the Eckles Building, the Washington Building, the Pargny Building, the Washington Building, the Junior High School, and the Senior High School.”
Unfortunately, Farrell began to decline rapidly in the 1960s.
“There were twenty burglaries in four years, and there were the riots. I can still remember one particularly bad night. The state police were out front, and my son and I were inside the store with guns trying to protect it. The police got a riot call down the lower end of Farrell towards Wheatland. They said, ‘Sorry, we have to leave.’ That was kind of a ticklish night.”
As a result of the security problems, the clothing store lost its insurance. Merle moved the store to the Hickory Plaza in October, 1972. He never enjoyed the clothing business as much after that, but he kept the store open until January, 1979, two years after his wife Helen passed away.
After retiring, Merle met former Sharon High School teacher Barbara Lewis. They were married on February 7, 1981.
“I loved Sharon High School,” Barbara said. “It was like going to heaven. Then I went to Westminster, and they took me in to teach at Sharon and I loved it. I taught there about 40 years. The kids were really good. If you take care of them and tell them how great they are, they’re easy.”
A walk up Idaho Street from Broadway today is a lonely one. There’s virtually nothing left of the thriving Farrell business district Merle still remembers so fondly. But the building which housed Lewis Levine Clothiers is still standing – now all alone on a block that used to be crowded with stores and people. It is still serving the community – as the home of VFW Post 7597.
Excerpted from Lives of Quiet Inspiration, Volume 2, by Joe Zentis. Hermitage, PA: Green Street Press, 2008