It has been better than two decades since I moved away from Parkesburg, and it is likely a different place now then when I was growing up there. I only recently learned that a distant cousin of mine is now serving on Borough Council. As opposed to the 1930s and 1940s, when my maternal grandfather, F. Roy Connell was both Fire Chief and Tax Collector, and his brother, Alton "Kelly" Connell, was a member of Borough Council, while another great-uncle, Paul Varnes, was a Chester County commissioner.I started school in September, 1967, at the circa-1900 Parkes-burg School that faced Strasburg Avenue, but was accessed by most of its students by the long flight of concrete steps that rose from Main Street to the door on its south side. At the time, the Parkesburg school housed grades kindergarten through fifth grade and was ably staffed by several Master teachers, some that come to mind were Mary Jane Keim for kindergarten; Betty Garnett and Betty Jane Trout for First Grade; Grace Davis and Louella Gill for Second Grade; Florence Pinkerton and Violet Althouse for Third Grade; Irma Norris for Fourth Grade and Doris Gabel for Fifth Grade.
My kindergarten class, taught by Mrs. Keim, met in the first-floor wing that was built on to the school after it was rebuilt following a fire in 1958. At the time, it seemed the largest room I had ever seen, with a huge expanse of windows facing south and offering a great view of Parkesburg from that lofty vantage point. Buried somewhere I am sure I still have the group photo of that class (my late Mother was a great saver of such articles), which I seem to think numbered about 25-30 students. Now, some four decades hence, I can only pinpoint a few names of that class for certain, but there was one student in our class whom I shall likely never forget; he being the late Robert Hoover.
I recall many details about Robert, most are best left unsaid-with the possible exception of the memory of "Fig Newton" cookies. Each day, we all brought in a nickel for our half-pint container of milk, and weekly we brought in yet another nickel known as "cookie money," which Mrs. Keim used to purchase cookies for us to wash down with our milk (I suspect she privately subsidized the cookie fund to some degree). She varied her purchases, but regularly included Fig Newtons in the mix. Robert Hoover loved those cookies and I could take them or leave them, so I always gave my Fig Newtons to him whenever she served them. It soon became a regular arrangement between the two of us. The events that soon unfolded likely formed the basis for why this trivial memory has remained with me.
The first week of January 1968 was one of subzero conditions. I was in the afternoon kindergarten class, and as was the case with many Parkesburg school students, I would walk to school with neighboring upperclassmen who were returning from their lunch periods that were long enough to permit a trek home and back. Such was likely the case on Thursday, January 4th, as many students innocently walked to and from the stately Parkesburg school.
The former Lukens Steel Company had a system in the 1960s where employees could work ten consecutive days and enjoy a four-day weekend the following week. My father followed this schedule regularly, and he had the day of Friday, January fifth off. I remember going downstairs to breakfast and sensed something was very wrong in Parkesburg that morning-my mother was listening to the radio in the kitchen and switched it off as soon as she saw me appear. She gave me a few vague details about there having been a horrific fire during the night. As the hour of 9 a.m. approached, I was dressed and ready to accompany my Father downtown to the former Farmer's Bank of Parkes-burg to do his biweekly banking. These trivial outings were always enjoyable at my young age of five-the interior of the old bank with its high ceiling and cool marble wainscoting, with the seemingly impenetrable safe door looming open in the rear-followed by a stroll a block east to Sarah Eby's store at 342 First Avenue for candy. The trip downtown that morning, however, was one of shock and horror.
The stillness on First Avenue on that crystal clear, frigid morning was deafening. There were more people milling around and murmuring to one another than I had ever seen before-or since. We exited the bank at First and Culvert Streets, crossed First Avenue, and slowly walked east, stopping at the parking lot between what was then Butler's Hardware Store and the Parkes-burg Acme Store. I remember looking across the vacant lot west of the former Hotel Parkesburg, and at first glance, a chunk of childhood innocence of mine was forever lost.
There stood the rear of the burned-out wreckage of a row of old frame houses, still smoking slightly and hideously covered with all sorts of ice formations left by the valiant efforts of the local firefighters to knock down the inferno that began only a few hours before. The fire had started in the middle of the night on Maple Street in a house occupied by my classmate Robert Hoover, his parents, and his seven siblings, and was quickly carried eastward over a narrow alley and engulfed four other houses east of theirs. Robert's parents escaped their burning home, and his eldest sister Mary, who was in my brother's fifth grade class at the time, fled from a second-floor window onto the front porch roof and jumped down to the street, suffering a broken arm as a result. Robert and his six other siblings perished in the conflagration that bitter cold night.
I remember walking back to school that noon with many other neighborhood youth, down under the Pennsylvania Railroad underpass on Culvert Street. Maple Street was blocked off at Culvert, but we all stood and gazed at the wreckage of the fire from the sidewalk on Culvert Street. Everything was heavily coated with ice-including the overhead wires and the cars parked along the narrow street. The strong aroma of burned wood lay heavily everywhere. The following week, a huge crane with a clamshell bucket was positioned on Maple Street and the sad, tedious process of sifting through the wreckage to recover the remains of the Hoover children began.
Three years ago, I was contacted by a group from the Class of 1980 of Octorara High School that was planning our 25th class reunion. One of the communications from this committee was a general question of memorials-members of the Class who were now deceased. I mentioned the name of Robert Hoover who would have graduated with the rest of his Parkesburg classmates in 1980, had he lived-and it seemed as if no one remembered him. After that experience, I will likely pass up any future class reunions.
In the months following the January 1968 tragedy, Parkes-burg school students raised money and purchased a glass display case in the memory of the Hoover children and placed it in the Parkesburg library. It was right inside the door of the library and was the first thing you saw upon entry. It had a brass plaque on the top listing the names of the Hoover children, in order from the eldest to the youngest, who was just an infant at the time. I hope that case is still in use, and that this windy Epistle serves as a well-intentioned reminder of it's origins.
Kerry Glenn Columbia