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July 25, 2013

Bessemer at 100, Part 3: When business boomed, it was the best of times

NEW CASTLE — Where there’s industry, there’s business.

And when business was good, Bessemer thrived.

There once was a department store, several grocery stores, Griffin’s Hardware and even a car dealership. Isaly’s was a popular hangout, Murtland’s Pharmacy — established in 1918 — had a soda fountain and to get good pizza, you went to Carlo’s.

Businesses have come and gone, but the advantage of small-town living is knowing everyone.

GOOD ‘OLE DAYS

One of the most notable names in Bessemer is Cunningham. H. Ralph “Chutty” Cunningham is the fifth generation to operate a funeral home. His family moved to Bessemer when he was 3, and he graduated from the former Bessemer High School in 1952, where he played football and basketball.

And perhaps the most unlikely of places was where groups gathered. For Cunningham, it was at the corner of the bridge built in 1919 at Main Street and Poland Avenue.

“We would sit on the round pipe railing and go to Murtland’s where they had an old-fashioned soda fountain,” Cunningham said. “Back then, we always knew who was baking what on different days.”

In the summer, kids went swimming in the quarries.

“We would be gone all day, go home and make a quick lunch and go back out until the whistles went off at 9 p.m. That was our curfew and we had to be indoors by then.”

In the winter, there was sled riding down the hill on South Main Street and ice skating on ponds that would freeze over.

For Paul Tenhula, the hangout in the mid 1960s was Carlo’s Pizza, owned by Carlo Masucci, in what was called the Stewart building. It was originally two-stories high and also consisted of Leav’s Department Store, which sold clothing and shoes, and a pharmacy. Isaly’s was run by two sisters, Mary Grgurina and Bertha Andretich.

He especially remembers the ice cream sundaes served there.

At Murtland’s, Stan Grebenz and his friends could purchase lots of penny candy and bubble gum.

“We would go after school or at lunch time,” Grebenz, 67, recalled.

His family shopped at the A&P, which was also in the Stewart building at one time and the fire/police station was on the town square.

“Almost every Saturday, in the early 1960s, when I was a teen-ager, the American Legion Hall had a sock hop with deejays and live bands. Kids came from all over. We were listening to do-wop.”

Later, Terry Busin bought the Stewart Building, which had apartments upstairs and he ran Terry’s Store from 1969 to 1988.

When the drug store went out of business, Busin purchased it and expanded.

“When I came to Bessemer, there were seven or eight small family stores remaining like the corner grocery store. When I left, there was only one store like that.”

HUNGRY YET?

For years, the most popular hang-out, especially after football and basketball games, was Carlo’s.

“That was the place to go,” said John Kliem, president of Bessemer Borough Council.

Howard Lipp, 87, of East Palestine, worked at the cement plant for 44 years.

“I knew everybody in town. There was always a restaurant.”

Isaly’s on East Poland Avenue was a popular hangout for a young Grebenz.

Many former and current residents recall Spencer “Spence” Carr as a pillar of the community.

Carr was a longtime mayor and also ran the hardware store. Tenhula described it as the old fashioned kind that offered a variety of items.

Carr was also remembered by Diane Nord, secretary of the Bessemer Municipal Authority.

“Spence Carr was an awesome guy,” Nord said, adding her uncle, Walter “Shorty” Nord worked there, too.

Eateries bring back much reminiscing.

In addition to Carlo’s, through the years there was Nancy’s Lunch, a hot dog place and the Bessemer Diner.

What’s been around the longest is undoubtedly the Bessemer Croatian Club on East Poland Avenue, now managed by Randall Vlah. It was founded in 1935 to celebrate that culture and those of other ethnicnities who were working in the local brick and cement companies. Not only is it a place for banquets and wedding receptions, it’s also the place to get fish dinners.

“They have excellent fish and coleslaw,” noted Brenda Frazier, who grew up in Bessemer and left in 1985.

Busin, who is her father, said Friday dish dinners attracted a lot of people.

“It was the big thing,” Busin said.

People also gathered to talk and catch up with one another at the post office, said Kliem.

And this year’s four-day slate of events to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the borough will give folks a chance to relive all those memories, Kliem explained.

“Part of the centennial is to get people to remember and talk about the old times.”

For Cunningham, those days were the best.

“It was a great place to grow up. People were good. And we had a ball out here.”

(Email: lhudson@ncnewsonline.com.)

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