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September 4, 2013

New Wilmington Sesquicentennial, Part 2: Residents dive into the past by recalling memories

NEW WILMINGTON — Growing up in New Wilmington was the best part of Peg McLaughry Lehto’s life.

“I have many happy memories there, including when the school kids walked from the Vine Street school to see a ‘classic’ movie like the original ‘Les Miserables’ and ‘King’s Solomon Mine,’ ” Lehto said.

Those were happy days for other natives, too. Some even have special love stories, having met in high school or at Westminster College.

Childhood memories for Wendell Wagner included hopping on a bike and going anywhere in the borough, especially to New Wilmington Borough Park in the summertime.

That time of year and the pool are as synonymous as picnics and ants.

The town pool has always been a favorite spot. It was then and is today.

“We would go swimming for the whole day,” Wagner recalled. “That’s where everything took place.”

The pool was constructed in 1931, said Mary Jo Elder, a lifetime New Wilmington resident who graduated from Wilmington High in 1949.

For the longest time, residents could go to the pool for free, noted Jean Hosie.

“I would spend all afternoon there until our parents called us home to help with family chores,” she said. “The park is just a big plus for New Wilmington.”

For Susan Hougelman — growing up a few decades later — memories are of walking to the pool with her younger sister.

“The lifeguards were our baby-sitters, and Mrs. Horrigan would make sure that we behaved ourselves,” Hougelman said. “There would be little wire baskets that we would put our street clothes and shoes in. She would have extra ponytail holders if we forgot one.”

THE WAY IT WAS

The pool shut down for lunch and Hougelman recalls her mother occasionally treating the children at The Grille, where Pizza Joe’s is now located.  

“We would order a chili dog and fries and a milk shake.”

Starting in the 1940s, The Grille was a popular college hang-out, noted Matt Hosie.

“During World War II, very few kids had cars and there was gas rationing so we sat in front of The Grille and listened to the radio.”

George Robinson, 91, served as acting postmaster in New Wilmington during the Korean War. He and his late wife, Jean, built their home on East Neshannock Avenue in 1947.

Growing up just outside town, the World War II Navy veteran loved the outdoors and fishing, and remembers that all the stores closed at 9 p.m. on Saturday.

“That was it until Monday.”

There were eight kids in the Robinson family and it was a big deal to listen to the radio when he was a youngster.

“At 6:45 every night, the 10 of us gathered around to listen to Lowell Thomas do the news.”

As children, Susan Erdeky Fisher and her friends went in and out of buildings at the college.

“It was like a beautifully maintained park,” she said. “New Wilmington was a great place to grow up.”

For years, the theater was a main source of entertainment, and Elder worked there during high school.

“There were three shows a night and the movie changed three times a week,” she said.

An annual Halloween party for the community sponsored by the New Wilmington Kiwanis Club was also highly anticipated.

“There was a parade and we got a giant-size Hershey bar from Cora Durrast for participating,” said Fisher.

During World War II, youngsters had other things to do.

For wartime scrap drives, “we town kids went door to door collecting tin cans,” said Bill McLaughry, a longtime New Wilmington native now living in Denver. “On V-E Day, May 8, 1945, when the news came that war in Europe was over, school was let out immediately.”

BEST OF TIMES

A romance that has lasted for 61 years is that of the Hosies, who graduated from Wilmington High and Westminster College. They left the area for about 40 years but returned to live in Wilmington Township in 1990.

“When we moved back, we noticed how nice many of the older houses have been kept up,” Matt said.

The home Jean grew up in is at 227 S. Market Street and was built in the late 1800s.

“The town was always defined by its alleys,” the former Jean Swindler said, adding she rode her bike up one alley and down another as a kid — even to the college where her father was a professor for 36 years.

The small-town flavor has always stayed.

Fisher met her husband, Jim, at Wallace Memorial Chapel. That was 1960 and they married in 1964.

The Fishers lived away from New Wilmington from 1964 to 1976 but easily settled into “coming back home again.”

There’s a familiarity about the borough that brings contentment.

As a college student in the early 1970s, David Nastal of Washington, D.C., said New Wilmington is an “intricate woven tapestry of the Amish and collegiate atmosphere that has a vibrancy.”

“It’s a very proud community that has kept its self identity.”

The town is so special that many who left often come back, Wagner explained.

Frank and Beth Verterano moved there from New Castle 12 years ago.

“Rather than asking, ‘What do you like about New Wilmington?, the better question may be, what’s not to like about living in New Wilmington?” Beth Verterano noted. “It combines the advantages of living in a rural area with the benefits of living in a city.”

She said the couple loves living in the borough, have great neighbors, and all the people they have met since relocating are very friendly and take pride in their community.

Matt Hosie’s favorite landmark is the tower by Old Main.

“As the sun comes over the hill, we can see the farmland, the tower and the way the town is laid out. It’s the most beautiful thing. I’m awed by the tower and the landscape, and I still get that feeling every time.”

(Email: lhudson@ncnewsonline.com.)

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