Two of Jeff Bales Jr.’s favorites words are “I remember.”
Bales collects memories like some people do stamps and coins.
His love of local history led him to start a web site called LawrenceCountyMemoirs.com, and it has made a lot of people smile.
Reliving the memories of a special place can do that.
The web site was launched in August 2011. Before that and since then, Bales has logged hundreds and hundreds of miles, exploring sites, snapping photos and talking to people.
Each photo not only tells a story that evokes memories, but Bales also includes text conducted by extensive research. There are physical steps and ones connected to compiling the information he has gathered.
And there’s much fact checking to do.
“For as long as I can remember I have had a love of history and it was always my favorite subject in school,” Bales pointed out. “To research and write about genealogy and local history is something I have always enjoyed, and I thank my mom for fostering that interest.”
Although he was born at the former St. Francis Hospital, he never lived in Lawrence County for an extended period of time. However, when the family was in the area, they stayed with relatives in Chewton and Wampum.
“My father was in the Navy and at the young age of 3, I was off to see the world.”
While growing up, Bales and his family lived in such places as Scotland, Morocco and Guam. He attended nine different schools on four continents, including the former Wampum Public School and Koppel Elementary, where he finished third grade.
His father grew up on Scott Street in New Castle, and his mother grew up in Chewton. Bales still has relatives in the area.
After the death of his father in 2009, “who always entertained me with his tales about growing up in the Croton area, I decided to find out what makes Lawrence County so special. I wanted to know where I’m from.”
FUELING THE PASSION
Often, Bales, 46, wanders off the familiar track, and some of his favorite spots are downtown New Castle along the Neshannock Creek, the Willow Grove Bridge on old Route 18, the Hillsville area and anything connected with Wampum or Chewton.
He gets submerged in walking through history.
Cemeteries such as Valley View in Mahoningtown hold a special fascination.
People often ask for assistance in locating the gravesites of loved ones, and Bales said he does his best to look for those graves on his next visit to a particular cemetery.
Lawrence County Memoirs is neatly organized. Towns and places are listed in alphabetical order. At the click of the mouse, one can read more about the Murder Swamp in Taylor Township, Volant College, Bill Henry’s Lunch Room in Wampum or the Moravia Bridge Collapse of 1904.
“Some of the most popular pages on my web site are those detailing the old schools of New Castle, such as the Croton, Terrace Avenue and Arthur McGill buildings,” Bales noted.
“I want to make it easy for people to scroll through. The stuff you see online is just the tip of the iceberg — a tenth of what I have.”
The page for the former Johnson Bronze attracts a lot of visitors, he said.
“People speak highly of it. I hear from people whose parents and grandparents worked there.”
One of those was Lyn Flaherty Goekel.
“I am awestruck by the amount of time and effort that you have put into this site,” Goekel wrote to Bales. “My father, Edward Flaherty, was president of the Johnson Bronze until it was sold in 1968.”
Bales is now starting to compile photos and information for the former Shenango China.
WALKING THE WALK
“A great percentage of the photos are of places that are no longer there,” Bales said. “I like more of the turn-of-the-century stuff and to show the history from beginning to end. There’s a lot of then and now in what I do.”
And what he does is make about a dozen trips a year to Lawrence County to conduct research. He prepares in advance a checklist of places he wants to visit and photograph.
Getting that accomplished requires a lot of work and more miles.
Bales, 46, is a criminal Intel analyst with the U.S. Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) Headquarters at Marine Corps Base in Quantico, Va. where he has worked for 25 years. He attended Penn State-Behrend and has lived in Maryland since the mid-1980s.
A typical trip has him leaving suburban Maryland outside the D.C. area about 2:30 a.m., driving the Pennsylvania Turnpike and arriving at Al’s Corner Store in Koppel at 7 a.m.
“From there I’m off on a full day of driving around the county exploring sites, snapping photos and talking to people. I often make the 4 1/2 hour return trip later that night.”
Sometimes, Bales stretches it into a two-day event.
One of his latest outings was to downtown New Castle and the Harbor area.
“I have a long list of places to visit. I always start with a photo, then the text. I make it visual and then tell the story in print.”
During the past five years, he has learned that Lawrence County indeed has quite a history.
He has also collaborated with the New Castle and Ellwood City Rotary clubs, the Lawrence County Historical Society, Pennsylvania State Game Commission and the Civil War Times magazine, and has fielded requests for information from college professors, high school teachers, college and graduate school students, history-themed photographers and authors writing new works of fiction and nonfiction.
“I don’t turn down anything. And I tell people not to throw out any photos.”
Bales has several thousand old postcards and photos waiting to be posted on his web site. It is a time-consuming process, he said.
Enthusiastic emails and postings are always waiting.
“The response has been overwhelmingly positive, and that is what fuels me today and makes it all worthwhile,” said Bales who doesn’t take or solicit monetary donations — paying for the web site on his own. Lawrence County Memoirs was “hidden” for two years until people started discovering it, and once they did, it opened the floodgates for inquiries, and sharing memories and contributions.
“It was satisfying to hear that someone’s grandfather worked at a certain place or other recollections.”
While he conducts research and work himself, he credits many who send photos and share memories such as Bill Cwynar, Harry Banks, Sherry Slater, Jill Craig, Mike Dean and Judy Stafford. Cwynar alone has contributed more than 150 photos, Bales said.
“I have my regular crew that helps out.”
He also garners information from old archives from the New Castle News, and noted the site wouldn’t exist without the newspaper.
“I receive about six or seven emails per day with information requests, photo submissions or general inquiries,” Bales explained. “Many people write and just plain thank me for my efforts. They say the web site helps trigger many pleasant memories and that they are very appreciative.”
The emails come from all across the U.S. and such countries as Canada, Israel, Romania, Hungary, Japan, South Africa, England, Scotland, France, Germany, Portugal and Spain.
“The stuff has been coming in fast and furious. The thank-you notes are nice, but I like information and contributions.”
For those like Julian Preisler who discover it, the gratitude is poured onto Bales for making local history available to all.
Sean Cavill wrote that, “It’s always nice to be able to put a picture on the places that were so important in their lives.”
Since starting the endeavor, Bales has collected more than 20,000 old photographs of Lawrence County. His collection of yearbooks from various schools and colleges exceeds 300. He has taken more than 40,000 photos of sites since he started in 2009, and each week, he adds a handful of photos and several new stories to the web site.
Bales began LawrenceCountyMemoirs.com to discover his own roots. But he is grateful so many others have learned about the area. And some day, he may put it all into book form.
“This is something I believe in. There’s no end in sight to this.”
What started out as a personal project went much further than Bales ever anticipated.
“It’s still personal but I want to share it.”
He has miles done. And he has miles to go.