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Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Pottsville, Freemasonry and Wistful Memories

I was asked a few weeks ago about coming to speak about Freemasons For Dummies in a little Pennsylvania mining town called Pottsville. If you've ever read any of John O'hara's short stories about the mythical town of Gibbsville, it's not a myth. It was Pottsville, and he lived in a house just two blocks from where I once lived.

Way back in the dark ages of 1968-1970, I spent three wonderful summers with my father and step-mother who lived for a while in Pottsville, at 803 Mahantongo Street, in a decayed mansion that was a deserted hulk when they bought it. It had been built in 1830 by Burd Patterson, a little-known man today, but the first American to pioneer inexpensive iron smelting techniques, as well as a new way to mine anthracite coal. Patterson was instrumental in the early industrial days of the US, helping to wrest control of the iron business from Europe. The Yuengling Brewery was just down the street, and is the oldest operating brewery in America. Elizabeth Yuengling lived in the house for a while in the late 1800s. Then two wacky, reclusive widows who always dressed alike moved in, and the house began to crumble. When they died, the house sat empty for almost 30 years.

These were the days long before people rehabbed old homes with anything like loving care, but they did it and turned an eyesore into the greatest house I would ever live in. Heady days for a ten year old kid who imagined ghosts in the attic, skeletons in the basement, a labyrinth in the tunnels that no doubt lurked beyond the eerie passage in the foundation that an underground spring passed through. We had an attic filled with steamer trunks. A 48 star flag. A real wine cellar behind two massive wooden grates. Gas chandeliers with Steuben glass chimneys that had never been wired for electricity. What electric lights were in the house had heavy, oblong Edison bulbs, with huge orange filaments that gave off more heat than light. Neil Armstrong walked on the moon in our front parlor room, I fell for my neighbor Vici Zimmerman, and we cooked for four days and nights during the Great Pottsville Blackout on a hibachi in the side yard. I hung out in the theatre downtown and saw "2001", "Yellow Submarine", and prophetically, "Where Were You When The Lights Went Out?" I learned about plumbing and wallpaper and wiring, about coal mines and railroads and preserving the past before it slips away.

And faltering economies. My father worked for Aetna Metal Products and when it closed, the house had to be sold and they moved to Virginia. It took me almost thirty years, but I was in Philadelphia with my wife at a mystery writer's convention in 1998 and we rented a car and drove to Pottsville just to see the house again. By luck, a family had just bought it from the doctor who had purchased it from my father all those years ago, and were ecstatic to let me drag them from one end of the place to the other telling them all I could remember. The previous owner had told them almost nothing about the house and its history, and I had seen it at its worst.

Curiously, the new owner, Paul Kulp, was a Freemason, and the topic of Masonry came up. I told him I was strongly considering joining after an experience we had in Texas when my father in law died and the participation in his funeral service of several Masons. Paul and his wife Jan enthusiastically encouraged me to pursue Masonic membership, and on my return to Indianapolis, I did just that. I was initiated two months later.

I wouldn't be the same person I am today without those three special years in Pottsville. And I might not be a Mason if I hadn't returned for those few short hours.

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