New Castle News

Local News

September 4, 2013

New Wilmington Sesquicentennial, Part 1: Anniversary recalls sweet memories

NEW WILMINGTON — The chimes that sound every 15 minutes from Westminster College’s Old Main are a welcome sound for Susan Erdeky Fisher.

The longtime New Wilmington resident, who was born in 1942, said that while she was growing up, the chimes were how everyone kept track of time.

In some ways, New Wilmington — with the neighborliness that comes with a small community, a low crime rate, an ever-revolving door of students at Westminster College, contented residents and a landmark known as The Tavern — has not changed much through the years.

As New Wilmington prepares to celebrate its 150th anniversary this week, residents reflect on days gone by and applaud efforts made through the years by borough officials to keep the town clean, safe and a pleasant place to live.

“There are a lot of activities for people from all over to come and enjoy; it’s not just open to the New Wilmington community,” said Sherie Babb, co-chairperson of the 150 Fest.


The square became the commercial center of the town in the 1920s. There was a bank, pool hall and bowling alley, J.K. “Kenny” Wilson’s general variety and news shop, a grocery store, barber shops, Chester McCrumb’s butcher shop, a bakery, a millinery shop and two hardware stores.

That was a decade, when according to “The History of New Wilmington,” 1797-2003, The Story of a Small Town,” the Fuller Brush Man went door to door selling new products.

Mayor Wendell Wagner recalled that his father owned a storage and repair shop on Market Street in the early part of the 1900s.

Isaly’s came to town in 1936 and that was an exciting time for George Robinson, 91.

“That was a big deal,” Robinson said. “They gave away ice cream cones. All the kids in town and some adults came for that.”

Robinson pointed out that in about 1927, there were six grocery stores in town and Hogue’s Drug Store had a soda fountain.

For Sam Farmerie, curator of cultural artifacts at Westminster College, Jim Miller’s variety store on South Market Street was “where you could find almost anything you wanted like zippers, model airplanes, candles and light bulbs.”

Kenny Wilson’s, which is now part of Gilliland’s Market, was at the center of town, recalled Jean Hosie.

“It’s where we got penny candy,” Hosie noted.

Fisher remembers the toys sold there.

“We spent time as kids all over town, going through the alleys and went to Wilson’s with a nickel or dime to buy the new specialty he had. One time when I was about 10, Mr. Wilson got little parachutes and we went down to the cement plant by the college to drop them from the ramp that was several stories high.”

David Nastal, who graduated from Westminster College in 1976, was enamored of the hardware store near the square.

“Walking in there was like a whiplash back in time,” he said.

Nastal said the milkshakes at Isaly’s were the best and college students “packed into cars after Vespers” to eat at Porter’s Restaurant, now Ryder’s, just outside the borough.


Some people can’t say New Wilmington without mentioning The Tavern in the next breath.

It’s an institution in the borough.

What was originally the residence of Dr. and Mrs. Seth Poppino — built in 1849 — became The Tavern restaurant in 1931 when it was purchased by Ernst and Cora Durrast.

The Durrasts were good friends of Robinson, who worked in New Wilmington’s post office for 10 years.

“Ernest was like a second dad to me.”

Poppino was a founding member of the town’s Methodist church, a physician and an abolitionist. It’s reputed that The Tavern was once a stop on the Underground Railroad.

The Durrasts were icons in the community, according to Susan Hougelman, who with her husband, Joseph, purchased The Tavern in 2008.

To be a student at Westminster College and not taste the gooey goodness that is known as sticky buns — an item The Tavern was noted for — would be a travesty.

“I ate lot of sticky buns,” Robinson said.

“Under Cora’s strong and careful guidance, the Tavern’s reputation for fine dining became recognized in travel guides regionally and nationally,” Hougelman explained. “Cora oversaw the restaurant for 66 years. She evokes smiles when people see her picture that sits atop the serving stand in the main dining room.”

Hougelman acknowledged that many customers remember waiter Dean Brooks as the proper “thank-you man.”

“Mr. Brooks astonished Tavern guests with his complete memory of the menu and customers’ favorite orders.”

Her parents owned the former Short Stop Inn and the first pizza shop in New Wilmington, Prima’s Pizza, where there was a game room with the only Pac-Man machine in town.

“We also got to keep all of the records from the jukebox, after they were updated. Everyone from New Wilmington hung around Prima’s Pizza during the 1970’s and ’80s.”


Businesses make up a town, but it is also defined by churches, schools and residents.

The Scotch-Irish settlement in New Wilmington led to the early appearance of Presbyterian churches. Neshannock Presbyterian Church traces its origin to 1799, before the borough was established. Soon after, another Presbyterian church was born, which is now New Wilmington Presbyterian Church. The borough is also home to New Wilmington Methodist Church and the Christian and Missionary Alliance Church.

There were many notable residents, including Dr. Elizabeth McLaughry, who  opened what was originally called Overlook Sanitarium, built on her family’s hilltop property in 1911.

After her death in 1967 at age 102, the Overlook moved away from the mental health field and became an extended care nursing home.

It’s one of the many buildings that helps the borough maintain its ever-present charm.


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