Memories of THE ROCKS - The Thoughts a Simple Bike Ride Can Conjure

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Stephen Arch                              sparch@comcast.net                      www.sparch@facebook.com

  West Park Bottling Company - best pop in Pittsburgh.  My favorite flavor was orange.  

West Park Bottling Company - best pop in Pittsburgh.  My favorite flavor was orange.  

I have always loved riding my bike.  When I was younger, I used to ride from McKees Rocks, down West Carson Street (when it was a decent road and had a sidewalk, into town, and usually out to Oakland or points beyond. It was fun just to ride all day, with an every changing scenery that was interesting and fun.  

More recently, I spend time riding on the Montour Trail, but unless you can explore the entire trail and make an 8 hour day trip out of the ride, other than getting great exercise, it does get a bit tedious (although the trail is beautiful, it does have the same scenery throughout) - even from the trail head at Coraopolis through McDonald. Many sites to see, but a lot of trees and shrubbery, which I love but tire every once in a while and need a change of pace.  And the stretch from Boggs Avenue into McDonald, a route of about 8 miles, is uphill - a slight grade that seems to go on for a long time.  I don't mind hills (that much) but it becomes more work than pleasure.  But it is still a beautiful site.

Last week, I decided a change of scenery was in order for my bike routine.  I've done the downtown bike rides many times, North Shore, South Side, Oakland, around the stadiums, the Point.  So, my thoughts took me back to my roots, "The Rocks."  I decided to take my bike to McKees Rocks plaza and begin a journey that not only would give me adequate exercise on this 92 degree day, but provide me with so many memories of my youth and before. Sort of visit up close and personal those spaces that I haven't seen in a while.  

I parked my truck at the McKees Rocks Plaza outside of where Big Lots used to be (which actually was the site of an large hardware store called Clabers.  Not your average hardware store, but much larger and carried more product, sort of the forerunner of Home Depot and Lowes.  I drove up Chartiers Avenue and then on to Broadway heading toward Stowe.  

The beginning of my bike ride officially started at Mancini's Bakery, a place I have frequented all of my life.  I don't have to remind anyone who grew up in The Rocks or Stowe Township or anywhere in Pittsburgh what Mancini's meant to us growing up.  My memories are my friends and I stopping just about every evening after hanging out in West Park to grab a couple Mancini's bread sticks. Every night, after basketball practice, after games, after just hanging out. Bread sticks, warm and fresh from the oven.  And the smell. Nowhere has that special fresh break baking smell. Wonderful. Who needed McDonalds, Wendys, Burger King when you had Mancini's. 

  This may look a bit sloppy, but if you're from McKees Rocks, you KNOW this image - several times, I am sure

This may look a bit sloppy, but if you're from McKees Rocks, you KNOW this image - several times, I am sure

I drove down Broadway, passing Kisow's Market (gone), Third Street Park (gone), and then turned onto Chartiers Avenue, with my old hometown church St. Mary's  looming in the background. I passed Quality Cleaners and headed down past Pasquarelli's Pizza Shop, which is on the other side of the street from what "was" the White Front Market (where I worked as a stock boy for several years growing up, supplying the shelves with West Park Bottling Soda Pop. See above photo). This was just next to the Exxon gas station where Family Dollar now sits, across the street from St. Francis De Sales (we called it the "Irish" catholic church because most of it's congregation had Irish roots).  

  St. Mary's Help of Christian Church (The "German" church because it was built by the then thriving German community as a replica of the Cathedral in Koln, Germany).  My great grandparents helped fund the building of this church.  I do believe that building a church of this magnitude would be impossible today because of costs.  Beautiful structure.

St. Mary's Help of Christian Church (The "German" church because it was built by the then thriving German community as a replica of the Cathedral in Koln, Germany).  My great grandparents helped fund the building of this church.  I do believe that building a church of this magnitude would be impossible today because of costs.  Beautiful structure.

  St. Francis DeSales Church, circa 1920's.  I always thought St. Francis de Sales looked more like a synagogue than a Catholic church. But again, a massive structure that is now a banquet hall.

St. Francis DeSales Church, circa 1920's.  I always thought St. Francis de Sales looked more like a synagogue than a Catholic church. But again, a massive structure that is now a banquet hall.

I took the "back route" and rode to St. John Street, the street where I grew up, right behind the still standing and thriving Quality Cleaners. Again, I used to work there as a young boy making sure I could afford clothing, particularly my "confirmation suit" (please see "Growing up Catholic" in the Archived Blog section of THEDAILYARCH.NET).  

  Pete Hewlett, band leader of Peter's Pipers

Pete Hewlett, band leader of Peter's Pipers

I remember the GRAND OPENING of Quality Dry Cleaners - the "headline" performers were "Peter's Pipers" featuring Pete Hewlett, a Pittsburgh rock legend. Pete was an all around great guy and talented musician, and I had the honor of teaching his children at Montour High School when the "grew up."   It was a really fun day and a new beginning of a "new" McKees Rocks.  We didn't have much new construction, and Mr. Gottus gave us our money's worth. Mr. James Gottus (my former boss) owned and built the new store, which is now owned by Jim Cermak.  Can't ever forget how much fun we had that day. 

  Streaks in the front windows of Quality Dry Cleaners in McKees Rocks drove my boss crazy. The windows had to be perfect because they were the showcase of the storefront.

Streaks in the front windows of Quality Dry Cleaners in McKees Rocks drove my boss crazy. The windows had to be perfect because they were the showcase of the storefront.

I remember one day, at the beginning of my working shift at Quality Cleaners, Mr. Gottus instructed me to clean the huge front windows of the store.  In the back of the dry cleaners, there were two large containers.  One contained clothes washing detergent and the other window washing detergent.  Obviously, being the "smart" person I was, I "accidentally" filled my window cleaning bucket with the clothes detergent and began to wash the windows.  You should have seen two things:  1) the streaks on the huge windows in the front of the store, and 2) the look on Mr. Gottus' face when he saw what I had done.  Close to being fired, I apologized, stayed late with no extra pay, and re-washed the windows.  It took hours to get the streaks out of the windows.  They were the showcase for the business, and Mr. Gottus demanded that they sparkle.  My first experience with doing something actually "wrong" in my life.  But no worries:  even though Mr. Gottus tried to put on a tough exterior, he was a great guy, as were all members of his family, including young Jim Gottus who took over the business when his father retired.

I rode down Herbst Alley past my old house.  

  36 St. John Street. The house where I spent my childhood

36 St. John Street. The house where I spent my childhood

  Image of what my bike looked like.  Check out the sissybar and gear shift "on the column."

Image of what my bike looked like.  Check out the sissybar and gear shift "on the column."

Right up the street from my house was Bakers Bicycle Shop.  Home of the STINGRAY.  What a life I had having a bike shop only yards away from my house.  Our bikes were all "tricked out" Stingrays.

Right across the alley from my house was A.J Haser Funeral home. The funeral home was next to Frank Urbano Photography - when he moved from his shop in Preston and opened up in the former Three Rivers Eye Glass company - a company that made eyeglass lenses.  (Worked there cleaning all of the cleaning solution from the floors - what a mess).  I distinctly remember the day they closed, and as I watched them "cleaning out" the funeral home, the workers refused to go into the funeral home to remove the caskets and paraphernalia that went along with death. The moving crew wanted NOTHING to do with the spirits living in the funeral home.  I do believe they quit and the owners had to hire a new, tougher cleaning crew to empty the funeral home.

I then headed  past the old AK Hardware. A town favorite.  Bob, the owner, knew everything about everything. And it wasn't much for him to install a new hot water tank, take care of some plumbing issues, fix an air conditioner, and just recommend the "right" tools for the job. I loved talking with Bob about hardware and repair issues.  He really knew what he was talking about.

It's no longer there, but right across the street from AK Hardware, at the base of the steps to Railroad Street, stood iconic Fritzy's Chicken.  Just chicken and fries, all the time,  Just as we made nightly stops at Mancini's, so we did at Fritzy's Chicken.  Fritzy was old back then; a nice guy who sold the best deep fried chicken in the area - wings and legs.  They were not like today's "wings' that everyone eats at bars and restaurants.  These were "wing dings" - used to be able to by them in the store. Very greasy, which meant they were very tasty.  You could buy a bag of Fritzy's wings for about $2 for ten wings.  The wings were tremendous, and just the right touch after a  long night of  "carousing" and trying to stay out of trouble.

Just down the street from Fritzy's Chicken, in a small "storefront" (I guess you could call it a storefront - it was only about as wide as the front door), was Kenny's Shoeshine stand.  Kenny was a amiable man and always had a story to tell.  His shoe shine store was a place to hang out and just talk. Of course, none of us had leather shoes at the time (Chuck Taylor Converse basketball shoes were all we wore), so we never had our shoes shined by Kenny, but it was fun to talk to him nevertheless.

  Down the street on Island Avenue not more than a stone's throw from the F.O.R. building is Pierogies Plus

Down the street on Island Avenue not more than a stone's throw from the F.O.R. building is Pierogies Plus

I then headed past  the F.O.R. building (Focus on Renewal) run by the kind and caring Father Regis Ryan, a McKees Rocks and Pittsburgh folk hero and legend.  The F.O.R. building  was a former bank.  I remember going to the bank with my mother on several occasions. It was one of those grand old shining banks that cared about architecture, and, I really remember, the bank was so clean you could eat off the floor.  (Not that I would want to do that).

  Famous Hollowood landmark guitar on front of Hollowood Music and Sound, soon to be replaced by a new and cooler version

Famous Hollowood landmark guitar on front of Hollowood Music and Sound, soon to be replaced by a new and cooler version

  Hollowood Music and Sound

Hollowood Music and Sound

I continued my ride down Chartiers Avenue and made a quick turn past Duckstein Contracting and stopped at Hollowood Music and Sound, one of the few remaining thriving businesses in The Rocks and stopped by and said hello to my high school friend Don and his older brother Gary.  I remember Hollowood Music and Sound that Mr. Hollowood started in the basement of his home on the border of Stowe and McKees Rocks, behind the now Boys and Girls Club.  I visited Don and Gary and reminisced for a bit about his father and how I spent many hours at their house in Stowe. Mr. Hollowood was a nice and patient man who always had time to talk with us. He inspired me when I was younger to continue to play the guitar, and Don and Gary have continue to instill this passion in me.

Next to Hollowoods was Sousa's Restaurant.  A great place to eat.  The Sousa family were great friends of mine and my family.  I ate their all the time. My mother "Dolly Arch" was a cook at the restaurant for sometime, and every Friday, I was there at Sousa's for a fish sandwich and a dozen fresh pierogies (potato and cheese).  Sousa's was a town favorite and was saddened when it closed down, but I now the Sousa's have had a long tradition of running and starting restaurants in the Pittsburgh area.

Coming out of Hollowoods, I couldn't help but think that McKees Rocks had a hockey, ice arena in the area behind Hollowoods and Deitz's. The Rox Arena was "the place" to be.  I was just informed by my cousin, Lindy Donahue, that my uncle and her mother and my father and my mother fell in love and were eventually married because of the relationship they formed at the Rox Arena.  It seems like McKees Rocks had it all at one time.

roxarena1.jpg

Continuing further down Chartiers Avenue, I drove past my favorite florist (gone) - Dave Dietz Florist.  Dave's business was another fixture in the rocks and I assume he "held out" as long as he could before closing down. Another great family whose business took a hit when McKees Rocks began to decline.  I know the Dietz's kept their shop open as long as they could. They were the staple floral shot in McKees Rocks.

Just across from Hollowood Music was Silverman's Menswear Clothing store.  Silvermans, another fixture in the Rocks, sold great clothing at reasonable prices, and the neat thing about Mr. Silverman was the if he knew you couldn't afford a $5 shirt, he'd pull you aside and ask you what you had. If you had only $3, the shirt automatically was on sale for $3.  He would tailor pants to fit and his clothes were top of the line.  If he didn't have it in the store, it would be there in a couple of days for you.  If you needed it right away, he would always say "come back in two hours" and he had the garment.  And Silvermans, which we thought was just a local store, grew in size across the Pittsburgh region, with the McKees Rocks' store serving as the anchor store.   According to MCKEES ROCKS GENEALOGY AND HISTORY website (see site below:

Silverman's Clothing Store, founded in McKees Rocks, grew to more than 100 stores, added stores under the name American Eagle and continued to grow. It was eventually sold by the family to investors in the early 1990's.

  Roxian Theater, Chartiers Avenue

Roxian Theater, Chartiers Avenue

Passing the vacant lot where McDonald's used to stand, I stopped and enjoyed the view of the Roxian Theater, a frequent hangout of mine and my friends.  A close friend of mine whose name I won't mention used to "sneak us" in to watch what would be called "R" rated movies at the time. We would sneak in the back door and hide in the balcony. I remember in 1971 (high school freshman year) sneaking in to watch A Clockwork Orange. I admit at that time I didn't know what it really was about, and when I did find out when I was in college by reading Anthony Burgess' novel, I soon found out what it was that I had witnessed as a young  9th grader. Shocking, sort of.

Directly across from the Roxian Theater was White Tower Restaurant, a McKees Rocks staple. White Tower was the first to have the mini burgers that are now called "sliders." You could eat six or eight of them at a sitting.

  Winky's was a special place for those of us who hung out in the Rocks.  It changed hands several times in the past.  Now, it sits empty, a former bank.  

Winky's was a special place for those of us who hung out in the Rocks.  It changed hands several times in the past.  Now, it sits empty, a former bank.  

Moving forward, I drove past the McKees Rocks police and borough building, which of course, was behind Winky's fast food restaurant, one of the first in Pittsburgh other than McDonalds.  Winky's was across the street from PNC Bank and Eat 'n Park. Uncle Sam's subs (now in Oakland, Squirrel Hill, Blawnox, and Robinson) started at the old Winky's store in the Rocks. Seems like a lot of Pittsburgh staples started in McKees Rocks.  Whenever I stop by either the Uncle Sam's Subs in Oakland and now at the Summit Towne Center in North Fayette, I always seem a need to remind the workers that Uncle Sams Subs started in "The Rocks."

I hesitated at this time to look across the street at Eat 'n Park.  I remember, when I was in grade school and high school, the reason for the name "Eat and Park" was because Eat 'n Park had drive up kiosks where you could pull up in your car, order on a speaker, and have your order brought out to you by "car hops" willing to serve you the famous "Super Burger" and Fries, with a shake to go along with it.

  Billy Elmer

Billy Elmer

From this point, I pedaled past Hays Manor (home to local comedic legend Billy Elmer) which is behind McKees Rocks plaza, past home of Clabers Hardware Store (the forerunner of Home Depot and Lowes). Passing through Hays Manor, I turned past legendary Crivelli Chevrolet and headed across the tracks toward The Bottoms.

  Jim Crivelli Chevrolet - an anchor for McKees Rocks Plaza

Jim Crivelli Chevrolet - an anchor for McKees Rocks Plaza

I passed under the railroad tunnel that contained the FLOOD GATE which was installed to prevent the Ohio River from flooding the Bottoms.  It was a huge gate (since dismantled) that would close on River Avenue to keep the flood waters from invading the low lying ares of the "below river level" Bottoms area. It could hold back up to 14 feet of water rushing down River Avenue towards the Bottoms.  In all my years, I have not seen a system that would lower a huge gate to keep high water levels out of the Bottoms. McKees Rocks, ahead of its times.  I don't even imagine that they have such a device in New Orleans.

In a 2010 story in the Post Gazette, the following was reported:

Beyond the sand bags, the borough has a metal gate on the front of the tunnel on River Road that can be lowered to block the flow of water through the tunnel, the mayor said.

The tunnel can stop a flow of water as high as 12 to 14 feet and is controlled by a gear system powered by pneumatic pressure.

  Former St. Marks Church, now Dargate Auction Gallary

Former St. Marks Church, now Dargate Auction Gallary

I proceeded to ride my bike back through the Bottoms - Shingiss Street, Munson Avenue, Helen Street, Ella Street and many more. I stopped in complete surprise that my favorite church, St. Marks, was sold by the diocese to Dargate Auction Gallery.

  Dargate Auction House in former St. Mark's Church in the bottoms

Dargate Auction House in former St. Mark's Church in the bottoms

Being away from the McKees Rocks Catholic Church scene the past years, this one slipped by me.  I do hope that Dargate does well, but I was saddened to see the overgrown parking lot to the priests house and the removal of the St. Mark's signage.  From here, I made it a point to ride my bike past all of the many churches in the Bottoms - Holy Ghost, St. Marks, St. Mary's, St. Johns.  And then, I passed Szal Funeral Home, across the street from St. Mary's Ukranian Catholic Church.  Many friends and relatives were buried from this funeral home.

  Szals Funeral Home

Szals Funeral Home

I worked my way over to Ranger Field (Uansa Field), home of the McKees Rocks High School Rangers.  I fondly remember the Stowe High School games versus the Rocks High School Game at Rangers Field. At that certain night, right before the merger, the Stowe/Rocks game was packed. Standing room only.  My father and I stood under the goal posts as County Police officers on horses kept the crowds in order.  It was THAT CROWDED and, needless to say, since it was Rocks versus Stowe, extremely volatile. Needless to say, Stowe and Rocks residents did not like each other those game nights.  I haven't seen a high school football game that crowded in all of my years of following sports.  What a game. I don't remember who won, but I do remember it was the dedication ceremony where Ranger Field officially became Uansa Field.  At the time, I had no idea who this man Uansa was, but the unveiled a statue and a bell that chimed in his memory. But I do remember the unveiling of a memorial to the man and a large bell that would ring during the games.

I don't know if it was the first game of the season or the last game of the season, but I do remember that every time McKees Rocks High School played Stowe High School, the night before the game,  the Rocks marching band would parade up St. John Street to what used to be Bryant Cement Company on the other side of the tracks down from St. Mary's. At that point, McKees Rocks High School would have a huge bonfire to celebrate the upcoming game. It was a celebratory and wonderful event to witness as a young child.  Get goose bumps thinking about it now. 

  Indian Mound

Indian Mound

Sadly, the memorial is gone at Rangers Field, and it is no longer called Uansa Field, and all physical references to this once historical football field sitting at the foothills of Indian Mound are long gone. It is now simply a "sandlot" field used for adult softball games, midget football games, and other recreational activities.  (It's not in very good shape these days).   This was the sad point of my journey; so, I decided to head back to my truck and take my bike and go home, after being flooded with memories, some sad, some comfortable, but many unsettling because so much has changed.  I am not a fan of change.  And this bike trip brought with it mixed memories.

Anyway, I explored the genealogy/rootsweb/ancestry website and found some interesting photos of the "former" McKees Rocks. The following are photos that I have collected provided by the website listed below.

Following photos provided by

MCKEES ROCKS GENEALOGY AND HISTORY

http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~mckeesrocks/photo_gallery/album_page14.htm

Images of McKees Rocks, including the flood of 1936.  Can you guess what these photos represent and where these photos were taken?  You'd have to be up in years to remember the ICE SKATING RINK which was behind the building where Hollowood Music stands - the parking lot between Chartiers Avenue and Chartiers Creek.  I think it is really cool that McKees Rocks had an actual ICE SKATING RINK.  My father was a hockey player on that rink, my mother an ice dancer, and my father's cousin - Dee Pateus - a member of the Ice Follies used the rink for practice.  Check the website above and see exactly where these photos were taken.  Other photos below show the original drawings and sketches of the McKees Rocks bridge, local schools, Kroger's Food store, the 1951 Ukranian Catholic Basketball Team (notice that local OLSH football coach and Pitt football quarterback Billy Daniels played on that team),  and just a variety of McKees Rocks schools, teams, floods, the construction of the McKees Rocks bridge, a variety of McKees Rocks post cards.  It is hard to believe  that McKees Rocks actually had post cards?  I do hope that these photos do bring back fond memories of "the Rocks" to you!  Please enjoy.

And, these are my views. If I missed anything important, please let me know.  I can easily add events, photos, and stories to this article.  I appreciate any help.