By Joe Wiercinski
Herald Staff Writer
PHOTOGRAPHS – especially old photographs – tell the story of a community in a different way than words ever could. They are windows into the past, as every history buff knows.
Photographs of local people and local places from centuries past offer fascinating glimpses of how a town began through images of the people who built it. They help to explain how a settlement along railroad tracks not far from iron furnaces grew into the familiar town that Sharpsville has become.
Written records organized and displayed with photographs and artifacts can weave and tie the tapestry of a community’s story together. The process works best if there are dedicated volunteers with nimble minds and willing fingers to do the stitching.
Sharpsville Historical Society has all of those elements working together – donors of photos and historical objects and volunteers to put them in context for two anniversaries this year that have pleasingly round numbers associated with them.
The borough turns 140 this year and 2014 is the 20th anniversary of Sharpsville Historical Society. To observe those milestones and to raise money, society members and volunteers have produced a calendar featuring images dating to Sharpsville’s earliest days.
“The photos in the calendar date from 1898 to 1958,” said Ralph C. Mehler, a board member who also serves as treasurer of the group that has about 45 members but can use many, many more.
For 10 bucks – you don’t have to live in Shapsville to buy a calendar – you can scan the scrubbed faces of the 1910 fifth-grade class at Seventh Street School. There are 46 scholars in the January photo. Teacher makes 47.
Members hope maybe you can tell them if that’s your great-great-grandmother third from the right in the second row with her shining hair braided perfectly on top of her head. She is just on the verge of a smile in a photograph filled with mostly – but not entirely – solemn faces. Some look mischievous.
Who are the tough guys in the middle of the front row? Despite the necktie of one and suspenders of the other, they’re apparently defying the rules by each sticking one bare foot forward in a row of other boys’ feet, all shod in ankle-high brogans.
Mehler noted that old photos often don’t identify who’s who in the image but there almost certainly are descendants of that class scattered throughout the Shenango Valley and Mercer County area who might recognize one of their ancestors in the crisp black and white images and tell the society the name.
Yes, the year was 1909 when a photographer hired by Shenango Furnace Co. lined up four iron loaders and a foreman for an on-the-job portrait in front of a stack of “pigs” of iron that had to weigh 80 or 100 pounds each.
But Mehler can’t help wondering if among those burly men there was an Auchter, Lally, Sabella, Grandy or Knapp in the group whose identity might be recognized by a contemporary member of one of those longtime Sharpsville families who might be living these days in Grove City, Youngstown, Sandy Lake, West Middlesex or Los Angeles.
A view of the town in 1930 from atop Shenango’s No. 1 furnace; Walnut Street in 1920 with a peek at Muscarella’s Fruit Market; and the host of mourners and Italian Home members gathered for the 1927 funeral of Guiseppe Paglaroli outside St. Bartholomew’s Church are among the photos in the calendar.
“We have had a number of donors giving us photographs including one or two rather large collections,” Mehler said. “We began collecting about 10 years ago and they’ve really been pouring in over the last three years or so. We have made a DVD that has about 100 photographs on it but we have not previously published most of them.”
The society’s constantly growing collection includes historical objects and about 1,100 records, tools and artifacts of all kinds. There are hundreds of photographs, as well as news articles and official documents that speak of Sharpsville’s past.
“We have them in storage,” he said. “About one-third are on display at the historical society. Some donors aren’t quite ready to part with some of their collection but they have allowed us to make high-quality digital scans of their photos.”
Like other local historical societies, Sharpsville’s would be grateful for cash donations large and small to fund its operations and support the ongoing renovation of its headquarters in the former First Universalist Church built in 1884.
Help in adding context to the materials in its collection is one key to assembling displays that really tell something about the town’s past, Mehler said.
Writers for the bimonthly newsletters or history students who can ferret out historical facts would be welcome. So would volunteers willing to take the easy-to-learn steps to digitize copies of the fragile newspaper pages of the Sharpsville Advertiser.
“You can always put something on display,” Mehler said. “The big challenge is to interpret what we have, to add some interpretation that might be the beginning of a larger, more fascinating story.”
Calendars at $10 each are available around Sharpsville at St. Bartholmew’s Church, Pizza Joe’s, First National Bank, Mela’s Tax Service, Muscarella’s, Touch of Class Salon, Mehler Insurance, Sharpsville Floral, A.J. Kovach Tax Office, and Sharpsville Borough Building.
For more information about the society, see its website: sharpsvillehistorical.org or send an e-mail to email@example.com or join members for a meeting at 7 p.m. Feb. 3 at the headquarters at 131 N. Mercer Ave.