New Castle News

July 24, 2013

Bessemer at 100, Part 2: From baseball to education, residents recall borough’s history

Lugene Hudson
New Castle News

NEW CASTLE — There wasn’t an official baseball field in Bessemer in the late 1950s.

So Stan Grebenz and his friends changed that. And Eagles Field became the center of their lives for a few summers.

“Most of the boys in town loved to play baseball, but we needed our own place,” Grebenz, 67, recalled.

A man donated 11⁄2 acres of ground on the corner of 13th and Clyde streets.

“About 20 of us worked and cleared the land. We got a snow fence for the outfield and lumber for the dugout, and even some old bases.”

Every morning during the summer, the boys rode their bike to the field and played ball until lunch. After eating, they swam in the quarries of North Main Street until dinner. Then it was back to the ball field until it got dark.

There are houses there now, said Grebenz, who served on Bessemer Borough Council for 30 years.

But those magical summers of playing ball will always be with him.



SUMMERTIME

HANGOUTS


Growing up in Bessemer holds some special memories for those who stayed and those who left.

For Brenda Frazier, summers were also spent at the quarries, which have since been closed off to the public.

“Everybody met there,” Frazier said. There were big rocks and one called ‘Flat Rock’ and we hung out there. They even put in a big diving board. It was the place to be.”

She has another memory — a slithery one.

“There were snakes out there but the older guys would pick them up and keep on going.”

Lifelong resident Paul Tenhula, 61, recalls the carnivals, too.

Those fun summer events were held on the lot of the Bessemer Elementary School, Tenhula said, adding parades were also held for Independence Day and sometimes on Halloween.

Diane Nord, 40, has lived in Bessemer all her life and is currently secretary of the Municipal Authority. She is also on the centennial committee, which is organizing all the events that will take place July 28-31.

“It’s a sense of community spirit,” Nord said. “Growing up, I always felt safe.”



SCHOOL DAYS

Grebenz was also the last class — 1963 — to graduate from the building that was once Bessemer High School but became known as Mohawk High School, in 1958.

It’s a vacant lot, now — the space across from Bessemer Presbyterian Church.

Grebenz, who now lives next door to the house he grew up in recalls going home for lunch everyday.

H. Ralph “Chutty” Cunningham graduated from the former Bessemer High School in 1952. He recalls it was a three-story brick building and the brick came from Bessemer Paving Brick.

“That was the number one brick in the country,” Cunningham said.

The first educational institution was a one-room schoolhouse located in the center of town. About 1890, it was replaced by the Bessemer Public School on North Main Street near the intersection of Poland Avenue.

In 1919, a new school at the intersection of Poland Avenue and Main Street was opened.

As class size grew, a junior-senior high school building was constructed in 1925 on North Main Street between Roosevelt and Bestview avenues. The older one became known as Bessemer Elementary School.

A jointure, which included the schools in North Beaver and Mahoning townships, resulted in the formation of the Mohawk Area School District.

At that time the old Bessemer Elementary School on Poland Avenue — the site of the current fire station — was mainly used as a library and for kindergarten class. The former Bessemer High School on North Main Street became the home to the Mohawk Elementary School at Bessemer and students from not only Bessemer, but also Mount Jackson and Hillsville attended classes there.

Finally, though, in 1966 the Poland Avenue School closed and 11 years later, the building was razed.

Grebenz attended Bessemer Elementary and so did Tenhula. He was in grade six at the school on North Main.



BOOK REVIEW

“That was a beautiful time,” Tenhula recalled. “Those were years of innocence.”

Tenhula, retired from WFMJ-TV where he was a television studio technician, lives in a home that was built in 1908 by Sears-Roebuck Co.

A special part of growing up was going to the F.D. Campbell Memorial Library on North Main Street.

The library was originally the Belco Hotel and was a three-story building with a front porch in the 1900s, said Lorena Williams, executive director of the library. Belco was an abbreviation for Bessemer Limestone Co.

According to Williams, the library got its start in 1920 but had several different locations including both Bessemer elementary and high schools.

After the hotel closed, it became the offices of Dr. F.D. Campbell, another beloved figure in the community, and for whom the library is named. He died in 1961.

“Everyone knew Dr. Campbell,” Tenhula said.

The library moved to that location in 1970.

Frazier said, “When I was 7 or 8, I would sit in the library for hours and read books, and I spent a lot of time there through my teens.”



THE SPIRITUAL SIDE

Another important part of Bessemer are the three churches —  St. Anthony’s Catholic Church, built in 1959, First Covenant Church and Bessemer Presbyterian Church.

 St. Anthony Parish was founded in 1909 and the initial church services were held in a hall above a local hardware store until the new church opened on Oak Street in October 1911.

The old church, located in what is now St. Anthony Cemetery, was razed sometime after the new church opened. With St. Lawrence Church in Hillsville, it is Christ the King Parish.

The Rev. Nathan Leslie is pastor of the Presbyterian church.

“This is one of the older institutions in the community,” Leslie explained, adding there is also a connection between the church and the library.

“Some of the original elders and founding members of the church were also instrumental in founding the library in 1920.”

The Swedish Mission Covenant Church was founded by a small group of Swedish immigrants in Bessemer in 1890. It was the first house of worship in Bessemer when it was dedicated in 1890. The name was changed to the First Covenant Church in 1966.

Frazier, who attended St. Anthony’s, also went to an after-school program — as a youngster —  called Trailblazers that was held in the basement of First Covenant.

“And the preacher there had big cookouts in his yard.”

As a youngster, Tenhula attended First Covenant Church and remembers Sunday school classes with his teacher, Lydia Carlson.

“Back in those days, Bessemer reminded me of the ‘Andy Griffith Show,’” Tenhula reminisced. “It was a small town like Mayberry, and you knew most of the people in town.”

For Grebenz, “It was a good place to grow up.”

And Frazier said she always felt safe and comfortable.

“Anybody would help you.”

(Email: lhudson@ncnewsonline.com.)