Reflections on a Town Six People Named Northern Cambria

The Morning Fog Lifts Over Northern Cambria, PA (x)

I grew up chiefly in rural poverty. I spent for years living in the suburbs in a rented bungalow, living in what might be dubbed suburban poverty, though it might be better to call it suburban squalor. It is my aim to trenscend my upbringing and to defy what statistics see as my destiny.

Next month, I return to college for my first to final round. One thing I loved about college is how it let me appreciate my hometown more, and want to learn more about it. At this time, I am anything but satisfied being home, but I want to tell you about my hometown. Maybe, in doing so, I can remember its charms, and remember how I once said

Included are bits of writing I did on the Northern Cambria in my freshman year, during my first bout of homesickness.

Northern Cambria is a place that builds character, but if you don’t get out of there soon you never will. Most of the buildings are the skeletons of dreams, the names of their owners and purpose still displayed somewhere, and it’s like those poor buildings are tombstones. It’s a town of unwanted people and things, thought my younger self…

Back then, I wanted to rethink what my younger self thought. I succeeded, and I realize it’s not a town of unwanted people. Many stay here because there family is here and they want to stay together. The unwanted thing judgement may be valid. Since 2014, Milicia’s was torn down, Sabella’s, which my mother and I went to when it still existed, is on its way to demolition after years of rotting before our eyes. Its only use was as a memento of the town I loved when I didn’t know anything, and with it’s crumbling a discoloring, proof that time exists and to our detriment.

It was once two towns; Barnesboro and Spangler that “consolidated” for financial reasons in 2000, the year I started attending Northern Cambria Elementary/Middle School. Barnesboro was founded in 1894 and named after coal-mine-owner Thomas Barnes. Spangler was founded the year prior and named after the founders of the Blubaker Coal Company, who bought land in the area in 1887. I myself was born in the year of the centennial of my hometown. I, in an instance of shameless journalistic incest*, went to my grandmother, Marlene Back, to fill in some of the blanks.

*A word I learned form Leland Wood.*

By Marlene’s account, Barnesboro, as it had been known for most of her life, was the biggest town around. The town had two dress shops that sold expensive clothing, dress factories, two shoe stores, an A&P and a Shop N’ Save, two movie theaters, a roller skating rink, a bowling alley, two car dealerships, a full-time police force, and everyone worked at one of the four mines in town. “Spangler did not have much; Barnesboro had everything.” Today businesses suffer in both sides parts of the municipality.

Dealership after dealership takes one of the two car lots on Bigler Avenue, only to be abandoned within a year. Maybe it is more like a deposition, seeing as that the failed dealership is often replaced in the same amount of time it existed, as if it were one car salesman taking an ill-fated throne after another.

There least two buildings boarded up in downtown, Sabella’s Bakery and the old hotel. There is a Giant Eagle (Barnesboro area) and a Bilo (Spangler area), one struggling shoe store, two dollar stores, too many bars and only two churches remain from a town that once had four and a synagogue.

A great deal of the town’s population is composed of older people. Go to Giant Eagle at three in the afternoon and you are likely to find a convergence of haggard folks and people that perpetuate my grandmother’s statement that Pennsylvania is home to the ugliest people. You can tell a lot about a town from its people and places. Northern Cambria stays true to itself. The people are just like the places: desolate and damaged.

Angst and ageism. The first way to fix a problem is to recognize that it exists.

For more on what became of the former churches, please refer to this map.

Once the mines closed in the 1980s nearly everyone left. Those that remained seemed to be trapped there. I have said in the past that the hills encircling Northern Cambria are like the high walls that contain lions, tigers, and bears in zoos. They are fortifications to keep those who live there contained and the rest of the world out. Yet I go to Virginia and complain about how flat the landscape there is.

When I do move, I will miss the hills the most. Galiker’s chocolate milk will be a close second.

Northern Cambria is a lot like my father, who I used as the subject in an assignment about someone who inspires me by saying he inspires me by showing me what not to do: Northern Cambria shows me everything I do not want to live in. The back roads are lined with empty beer cans and beer bottles. Everyone listens to country. The most popular place in town is Sheetz.

The area became known as Hidden Valley*, for it was favored for hiding escaped slaves making their way north. Barnesboro had an Opera House in the early 20th century. By 1904, Spangler had a bank and a brewery.

*Cannot locate source*

Back in 2000, when Spangler and Barnesboro were becoming one, the town had to choose a name, and six people chose this one. I wish I could know what other names were in the air, what this town could have been called, and if that would have made a lick of difference.

On top of a hill in Northern Cambria is the Section-8-Housing area, Cherry Ridge Terrace. My grandmother lived there before it was overrun with dogs and hillbillies. The people were given the nickname Ridge Rats long before most of the people who inhabited the area resembled vermin. When there was nothing good on T.V., Grandma and I would turn down the volume and listen to her neighbors fight. As derogative as I am about the place as a whole I will give some praise. My Grandmother’s apartment was lovely, had a nice view and was close to the playground with the merry-go-round. The walls were white and prickly textured. It always smelled like rubber floor mat she had at the foot of the stairs. I miss it.

A month ago, Grandma and I were emptying totes for a yard sale. The totes held the belongings she had when she lived on Cherry Ridge. I was struck by how they smelled like her house, an unidentifiable smell that can only be described as being some hybrid of plastic fruit and the real thing. I took plastic grapes that seemed to hold the scent the most. It’s no longer as pungent, but I if I bring the grapes right to my nostrils, as if I’m trying to eat the plastic grapes through my nostrils, the scent is there and it clears my sinuses.

What’s the motto of Northern Cambria? What was the motto of Barnesboro? I look and find the death information for a man named Fredrick E. Motto (1920–2013). He died in Allegheny County. Is it the wrong word perhaps? I look for slogans and find even less. If only I could have goto library, the Northern Cambria public library. It is open 9 to 7, Mondays through Thursdays (Tuesday, Wednesday & Thursday 9 AM to 4 PM during the summer), 12 to 4 on Saturdays, and it is closed on Fridays and Sundays. Sundays I understand, but Fridays? It’s only one of my grievances.

The same circumstances exist today. I have not much need for the public library here now. I have the whole Pitt Library system to choose from, but it would be nice to research local history there, right from the horses mouth. If memory serves, what is now the library was once a men’s clothing store. If it was, it has not been for some time. The library opened in 1956. Grandma cannot recall what the building was before. The story of the clothing store came from a woman I met through medical transportation, who said that her uncle owned the clothing store. Even Google does not have the answer.

I’m not going to call the library to ask what the building was before 1956. They’ll recognize my voice.

My town is a character. Yes, I see now. My town has shown me that life is often stranger than anything imagination can yield.

The following is the concluding paragraph of the original essay I wrote freshman year. Though I told it was not a desirable ending, I include it now, only it won’t be the ending.

My town has taught me about life. Life is ugly. Life is pain. You have to find a way to amuse yourself, and all that Northern Cambria did wrong was live too simply, and I asked for too much. I wonder if I were to wake up in some metaphysical world where our hometowns take on a human form, if I would find myself.

Even harder than revisiting your past is revisting your past writing, when it is too much a part of you. It’s freeing to read what I wrote, see its faults and perfect them, but also see its promise and use it as justification for the writings existence. This the closest I’ll get to time travel, and it’s a less disturbing way of talking to myself. I feel better by knowing that I am better at writing/life and improving my writing/life, but this isn’t big enough of a finish.

Here’s the big, glittering, reflective ending.

Since I started college, I’ve been wanting to distant myself from the place of my origin, while still mentally taking it with me wherever I go, realizing that is part of my identity’s very foundation. It’s the reason I feel the campus is not my natural environment, and why I am steeling myself into adaptation. I am not the same girl who went into the hospital five times in the 2013–2014 school year. I am not the same girl I was in high school, though I feel that way when I encounter the people I knew back then. I don’t think Northern Cambria in a human form would look much like me. It would resemble the people who built the town and the people who remain generation after generation out of love, not the inability to leave. I do think the town and I would be friends. Distant friends, who talk every now and then, and like each other’s Facebook updates as a way to show we still care about each other.