04 September 2007

Bradford, Pennsylvania: Going "Home" Again

Under sad circumstances, we visited our hometown of Bradford, Pennsylvania, for my mother-in-law's funderal. Jan's mom, Jean G. Vigliotti, died rather unexpectedly at the age of 77. Though a sad occasion, it was also a chance to contemplate the place that Jan & I grew up.

A post-industrial city, Bradford shares a deep history with places such as our current home of Butte, Montana. With the crude oil craze of the late nineteenth century, Bradford's population soared to (perhaps) more than 25,000. When Jan & I graduated high school in the early 1970s, there were about 15,000 residents. Today fewer than 10,000 people remain, and the population decline correlated directly with industrial decline: Kendall Oil faded into history, Case knives were eclipsed by cheaper imports, and Zippo lighters suffered from the decline in smoking & rise of disposable butane lighters.

The Bradford Oil Field produced more than 600 million barrels from 1871 to 1967, and at its peak in 1881 supplied more than 80% of America's oil. The local newspaper -- The Bradford Era -- used to have a banner billing the town as "The High Grade Oil Metropolis of the World." Like Butte's still-operating copper mine, Bradford still has a few producing oilwells, with many pumping on city lots next to people's homes:

Like many shallow oil fields, there are numerous fossils in various area outcrops. A shale quarry in our old neighborhood along High Street is always good for a few hours of amateur paleontology with the kids. Watch out for potential rockfalls, though!

Lots of critters from the Devonian period:

Shale was dug from the fossil quarry by the Hanley Brick Company, and Bradford was truly a red brick town. Imagine a time when bricks (and labor!) were cheap enough to pave roads and sidewalks. They are durable (but also slick when wet or snowy) compared with asphalt:

Here's an interesting sidewalk brick pattern, laid a century ago, and with little or no maintenance over the past fifty years:

Brick was a sign of upward mobility, the rising commercial class, and the industrial & political might of a growing nation. Naturally it was used for public buildings such as City Hall (sorry for the weird angles introduced by PhotoStitch):

The US Post Office:

And also for public structures funded by private foundations, such as the Carnegie Public Library:

I wasted many hours of my youth here, and was viewed by my friends as a little peculiar because I would often stop by for an hour or two of reading on the way home from school. In a home that could not afford books, "Free to the People" really meant something:

Well, there was a time when "education" really meant something to American families and the politicians that represented them. Here are a couple of panels from the old Sixth Ward school--one of the last of the old (brick, of course) ward schools still standing, though it's abandoned and no doubt will soon be demolished. These fine old schools -- and the spirit they represented -- have largely been replaced by shopping mall crap:

The wealthy Bradfordians lived in brick houses, while the rest of us made do in cheap wooden frame homes that required considerable repair and maintenance in the very wet climate (45 to 50 inches of precipitation per year). They don't age particularly well:

With Bradford's decline in population and the suburban flight of younger families, I'll bet the old houses sell cheap:

Three of Grandma Jean's grandkids joined me for a walk through the old 'hood (the "Bloody Fifth," named for its many brawls) up on Rochester St:

Including a stop at the old Fifth Ward School Playground:

Where some local kids tried to talk Emily and cousin Katie into taking home a "free" kitten. That's Katie's brother, Danny, checking whether it's OK with Mom. Of course, in the days before cell phones, the kids would have taken the kitten home under the old "It's better to beg forgiveness than to ask permission" rule:

As I made plans to travel to Bradford, I dreamed about hikes to the many places that I rambled as a child of nature. But "time be time, Man," and there be only time enough for a quick hike up to Turkey Rock, between Kushequa and the former Kinzua Bridge, just above the old brick works at Gaffney. Jan, Emily, and nephew Sam joined me. What lush country, practically a rain forest. You usually can't see your feet for the ferns:

Turkey Rock is a rock shelter used by native peoples in Paleolithic times. It was always a sure place to call in a big gobbler or to shoot a whitetail buck. Here's Emily with a little rock art that she made on her last visit, at least five years ago:

Well, you can go home. But it ain't the home you left. Time changes all things, and with the American "century of progress" behind us, maybe we can do a little better when it comes time to end this one.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for looking at our mutual hometown with such a keen eye for interesting historic (natural and man made) details. Very enjoyable! Bob H. Erie, PA

Anonymous said...

Hey the blog is great full of information and history. My Dad and my grandma uset to tell me all the time about bradford way back when. Its nice to know that some one out there still remembers it. Thanks for the page

BradfordToday said...

I just found this post. Great photos of Bradford... We'd love to provide a link to them at our Bradford PA community site...

Thanks for this post, we're always searching for great Bradford related stuff, wish I had found it sooner.

EcoRover said...

Thanks, BT! I love my old hometown, and sometimes in my dreams still tromp along the hardwood forested ridges...

KathieB said...

Great pictures. I grew up in Bradford too.

Amanwhoblogs said...

GreatInfo!Many memories here.I live here just outside of town.ah home !!

Jan Sardal said...

what's going on there Americans?
Turkey what?
It s too shame!
I can't beleive you! OMG!
Just kidding boys:)
by the way where is Bradford zippos? I'm looking this staff from Turkey and I'm tried and little thirsty! Could you help me :P

bwriter said...

Great photos, observations, and memories. I still live here, and I have to say the cost of living is very low. There are a lot of natural delights. You were right in assuming that property is very cheap.

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KC Byrnes said...

I felt that Bradford initiated me into my own tree-hugging, nature-loving, flora-and-fauna preserving, composting-in-NYC, botanical-garden visiting, rock-hounding, animal-rescuing, earth-advocating self.

I'm a bit older than you are, but glad to see that living close to old-growth forests and Devonian fossils did collective good! (I never go back there ... but that's for other reasons).

Best, KC

PS: Doing some research for writing and came across you ...

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Anonymous said...

I grew up in Bradford on High Street and was once "park girl" at 5th ward park.

I loved these picutres.

Janice Tehie said...

I taught in the Education Dept at the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford from 1999-2003. I left because the economic situation in Bradford was so poor and because medical care was also poor; I have type 1 diabetes and needed more attention than I could get there. I loved my job, though, and I sometimes am sorry that I ever left. The cost of living in Bradford is low and many of the people are wonderful. I miss it but I think in the long run I made the right decision. Most of my teaching colleagues from that period have retired and moved out of there. I will always have a fond place in my heart for this community.