Friday, September 3, 2021

Stepping Back in Time in the Schuylkill County Coal Region

Last Saturday, I was up for a change of scenery, minus a long car ride, so I decided to spend a jam-packed Saturday afternoon in the Pottsville area, which is located about an hour away from where I live. It's something I had never done before, so everything in this blog was new to me. 

Since my husband loves kielbasa, our first stop was at a well-known area kielbasa shop. That was followed by a trip down history lane where we enjoyed tours of the Schuylkill County Historical Society, the Yuengling Brewery and Jerry's Automobile Museum. That was followed by a trip to the beautiful Hope Hill Lavendar Farm and dinner at a railroad station-turned restaurant in Tamaqua. 

A Destination Fit for Foodies

No coal region visit is complete without visiting a kielbasy place. (I'm going with their spelling now.) My husband, who is wild for the stuff, was like a kid in a candy store when he entered Kowalonek's in Shenandoah. The small shop started out as a grocery store in 1911 at Chestnut and Chester Street in Shenandoah and later moved to its current location on 332 S. Main Street. You can learn more about the place from the video below.

Shoppers visit the beloved institution for everything kielbasy: fresh or smoked keilbasy, dried kielbasy, kielbasy cabbage bake, kielbasy bacon bombs (pieces of kielbasy wrapped in bacon and finished with a mustard glaze), kielbasy burgers, kielbasy lunch meat and more. Also for sale are meatballs, crab cakes, hot bologna, hot dogs, slab bacon and pierogies, to name just a few. Be sure to take a cooler along; we did.

Learning about History at the Schuylkill County Historical Society

The Schuylkill County Historical Society is located in what was once the Centre Street 
Grammar School.

The next stop on our visit was the Schuylkill County Historical Society at 305 N. Centre Street. For $5, you can take the official tour through the handsome, two-story building, which was once the location of the Centre Street Grammar School constructed during the Civil War. My friend Susan Dellock is a volunteer there and arranged for Jay Zane, President of the Board of Directors of the Schuylkill County Historical Society, to lead us through the building, explaining exhibits along the way.

Exhibits at the Schuylkill County Historical Society.

Guests who take the tour will begin by learning about the Native Americans that initially inhabited the area and afterwards, the coal miners who worked long, hard hours to support their families. A fun fact about coal and its relationship to Schuylkill County: despite two centuries of active mining, the county's 783 square miles still boasts the largest accessible reserves of hard coal known in the world.

Another interesting tidbit about the area is that the famous Dorsey brothers hailed from Shenandoah. Jimmy Dorsey released "Tangerine" in January of 1942, a song written by another Schuylkill County native, Victor Schertringer (of Mahanoy City). The record remained at the top of the charts for 15 weeks. Another song made famous by the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra with vocalist Frank Sinatra, was "I'll Never Smile Again."  In 1996, the post office released a stamp celebrating the dynamic due and their influence on popular music. The clip below is Sinatra and the Dorsey Brothers in Las Vegas Nights (1941). 

Also featured at the historical society is the story of an unsung hero of technology, John Walson (1913-1993), who is responsible for creating the first cable TV system. Walson owned an appliance story in Mahanoy City and set his mind to fixing the pesky problem of the mountains blocking the signal from Philadelphia television stations. In 1948, he erected an antenna tower on top of a nearby mountain and ran army surplus wire from the mountan to his store, connecting homes along the way. In 1979, Congress and the National Cable Television Association recognized him as "the founder of the cable television industry."

John Walson, of Mahanoy City, is recognized today as the "founder of the cable television industry."

Another famous Schuylkill resident featured at the society is Pottsville author John O'Hara. You may be aware of his many works like Appointment in Samarra, Pal Joey, A Family Party and The Big Laugh.  He was said to have modeled his characters after 1920s Pottsville socialites, renaming Pottsville Gibbstown--a topic I'll touch upon later in this blog.

Author John O'Hara hails from Pottsville.

As guests are led to the second floor, they will learn more about famous individuals who were born in the area, like four-star Army General George Joulwan (RET), who served our country for 36 years and finished his military career as the Commander-in-Chief United States European Command and Supreme Allied Commander in 1997. The Joulwan exhibit  shows how the son of an immigrant family from rural Pottsville rose to the highest pinnacle in the United States Military. Visitors will see many of Joulwan's personal items, starting with his days at Pottsville High School and West Point, then proceeding through the phases of his career.

There is an extensive Civil War exhibit on the same floor in which a great many native sons who served are profiled.

The Historical Society also features Pottsville natives who were not so upstanding, like a few members of the Molly McGuires. Visitors will learn more about these notorious individuals who met their demise at the end of a rope.

These are but a few of the enlightening stories that unfold at the Schuylkill County Historical Society. The society is open Wednesday-Friday from 10-4 p.m. and on Saturdays from 10-2 p.m.

To learn more, visit their website by clicking here.

A Visit to America's Oldest Operating Brewery

The exterior of America's oldest operating brewery.

Next on the list was a visit to the Yuengling Brewery. Free tours are held from 10:30 to 3:00 p.m. Monday-Saturday. During our visit, we learned that Yuengling was established in 1829 and is the oldest operating brewery. It is currently run by Richard L. Yuengling and his four daughters, who are the sixth generation and will be taking over the brewery when he steps down.

Guests are led through the underground caves where they used to fill the barrels of beer. Word has it that about a half dozen workers would congregate there every morning and they'd bring their coffee cups to fill them with beer before starting work. 

During our tour, much of the Brewhaus was closed due to Covid restrictions, but we did have the opportunity to view the bottling room and the breakroom, otherwise known as the Rathskellar, where the workers could relax and unwind with a cold brew before heading back to work. Perhaps I picked the wrong places to work! Astonishingly, it wasn't until the 1990's that the permissive practice was prohibited. 

The Rathskellar, or breakroom, where workers unwound with a beer before heading back to work.

Other interesting facts: Yuengling sources their hops from Washington State and each barrel is aged 21 days.  The brewery makes 16,208 cases a day and taxes are, not surprisingly, rather hefty. Currently, the state takes $2.48 a barrel and the feds get an $18 cut.  The company had to pivot to making ice cream during prohibition, but people could still order their Porter for medicinal purposes.

Yuengling Porter was accessible via prescription for "medicinal purposes." I wonder how many politicians suffered ailments requiring these prescriptions during that era.

At the end of the tour, we were treated to two large beer samples. On tap were Yuengling Porter, Yuengling Lager, their oldest product known as Lord Chesterfield Ale, their light beer known as Flight and Oktoberfest.

My friends Sue and Paul enjoying a beer with my husband Mike.

Guests depart through the gift shop, which features tee-shirts, sweatshirts, hats and other Yuengling memorabilia, along with various types of beer, available by the case.

A Trip Down Memory Lane at Jerry's Classic Cars & Collectibles Museum

Jerry's Classic Cars & Collectibles, located at 394 S. Centre Street, is ranked as the #2 attraction in Pottsville on TripAdvisor. Guests will see a collection of not only classic cars, but other items that are designed to transport visitors back in time to a simpler era.


Jerry Enders and his wife Janet opened the museum in 1994, after spending many hours transforming  the Morgan Studebaker dealership from the 1900s, into what it is today. Guests can admire classic cars in both of the two showrooms on the first floor, then climb the stairs to the second floor to see a millinery, a soda shop, a kitchen, an auto parts store, a barbershop and more--all dating back to the 1950's era.

Scenes from the second floor of Jerry's Classic Cars & Collectibles.

Remember when I mentioned author O'Hara earlier in this post? Well, I stopped to read a newspaper article focused on John O'Hara and posted on a window on the second floor of the museum. The title read, "How much of Gibbsville is Pottsville, Balitas asks?" In the article, Dr. Vincent Balitas gave a lecture on this very topic. Balitas said that when O'Hara visited Pottsville after Samarra was published in 1934, people he barely knew approached him on the street and took him to task for allegedly putting them in his book. It goes on to say that the book's sexual frankness and depiction of corruption in Gibbsville's upper classes made it taboo in Pottsville for several years. 

What struck me as interesting about the article is that Edith Patterson, the city's librarian, refused to put it on the shelves. "He brought a farm vocabulary to our people, one that they never had," she said. It's things like this that visitors may miss if they hurry through the museum, so be sure to take the time and take things in and you may be surprised at the interesting tidbits you'll encounter.

Jerry's Classic Cars & Collectibles is open Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 5 p.m. from May through October. 

Enjoying the Sights and Smells at Hope Hill Lavendar Farm

Wendy and Troy Jochems owned two horses and wanted to take charge of their boarding, so they did the obvious thing—they purchased a farm. “We bought a 33-acre Christmas tree farm in Pottsville, and after the trees were all harvested, we decided to put in lavender,” says Wendy, adding that it was her husband’s idea. The pair bought the plants as plugs, then grew them in a greenhouse in four-inch pots before planting all 1500 of them on Memorial Day weekend in 2011.

The public responded well to the business, inspiring the couple to expand operations. They now tend to  approximately 3,000 plants. The duo also sells lavender items online and in a farm store located on site where they also carry works from local artists and Made in USA products. “We dry our lavender and use it for bouquets, sachets, and culinary lavender. We also distill essential oils for soaps, lotions, cremes, eye masks and neck wraps, and every Mother’s Day weekend we host a plant sale as well,” said Wendy.

Staci Keen from Mohnton is a regular customer. “I teach massage. Our group visits to learn how to make essential oils, and the farm is just beautiful,” she says. Keen also likes the skincare products that the couple sells, including the lavender toner and moisturizer. 

Wendy says what she enjoys most about the business is interacting with customers like Keen. “What I like about lavender is that it is so versatile. It’s not only a lot of fun, but we also make friends with our customers. That might be the best part of what we do,” says Wendy.

Hope Hill Lavender Farm is located at 2375 Panther Road, Pottsville.

Good Eats! 

If you, like me, are fascinated with repurposed destinations, you'll love what's been done to the Tamaqua Railroad Station. John Ross and his wife opened the restaurant in 2016, using a photo from when the railroad opened in 1874 as a guide to map out the new decor. I think they did quite the job, wouldn't you say?

A shot of the Tamaqua railroad station circa 1874.

The Tamaqua Station Restaurant today.

Selections include appetizers like potstickers and crab-stuffed mushrooms, soups and salads and burgers and sandwiches. Entrees include steaks, salmon, swordfish and even old-school dishes like liver and onions. The restaurant offers a variety of craft cocktails as well,  like mules, martinis and mojitos.

And last, but not least, is the Sunday brunch, where customers can order items like crabcakes, lobster omelettes, prime rib, filet mignon and lobster tail and more.

If that has you salivating, you can learn more about the Tamaqua Station Restaurant here.

Schuylkill County is like stepping back in time in so many ways, from the old-school storefronts, to the people who are friendly and will still smile and offer greetings when they pass you in the street. One thing that causes me to chuckle is the inexplicable profusion of bars that seem to be housed inside residences, but that's another thing that makes this area unique.

There's more to do in Schuylkill County, but I thought this might give readers an idea of a few ways to make the most of their day if they decide to visit this interesting and eclectic neck of the woods.