©2013 Text & Photos by LeeZard
Tuesday August 18 – Ft. Loramie, OH-Latrobe, PA
Leaving Ft. Loramie, I drive a variety of Ohio state roads for a few miles each. The landscape is still primarily agricultural and it is still mostly corn. No surprise, not only is corn the biggest crop in America, we are the largest producers in the world. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates the 2013 yield will be 13.8-billion bushels, up from 10.8-billion in 2012.
Not unlike Ohio, the many small towns along the way show their age with the classic colonial buildings along their main thoroughfares. There is so much history here. I wish I had time to stop and soak it all up. This was the post-revolutionary “Northwest” as those New Americans began to explore their continent. Not only did they explore and build overland, they built canals to move their goods and they fought Indian Wars to establish new territories. Many of these towns – and their buildings – date from the early-to-mid 19th Century.
Finally I am on U.S. 33 North, a four-lane freeway, and the scenery starts to change. The number of farms diminishes and at first there are more groups of trees and those groups soon become forests. As agriculture fades I begin to see more – and larger – manufacturing plants. The biggest one so far is the Honda plant in Marysville, OH. It was the first Japanese auto plant in America (1982) and has its own interchange. Forty two hundred people work there.
Finally, I become slave to I-70 east. There is nothing but thick forest on either side and the land begins to roll as I near the Pennsylvania State Line. I cross into Western Pennsylvania. After more than 5,000 meandering miles and 11 states across the middle of America I am on the East Coast. I am reminded this used to be Steel Country as I pass through Bethlehem, PA. Those days, and many of the mills, are gone changing the economies here forever. Some towns haven’t fully recovered yet.
I am north of the Allegheny Mountains but still, the terrain becomes rockier and I notice the overloaded Jeep is slowing more often as it climbs the grades. I exit the freeway at New Stanton. U.S. Rtes. 119 and 30 will take me to Latrobe.
Some people here pronounce it LUH trobe while others say LAY trobe. Arnold Palmer always called it LUH trobe so that’s my preferred pronunciation. I chose this city of 8,235 people (down a little over one percent from the 2010 Census) for several reasons. Aside from its proximity to camping in the beautiful Keystone State Park, Latrobe is the hometown of two people for whom I have the greatest respect.
While I am certainly not a golf fan, I’ve always been an Arnie Palmer fan. Don’t ask me why. Latrobe is also the boyhood home of Fred Rogers, the famous kid show host Mr. Rogers. While I found his style somewhat unctuous, I liked the positive and empowering messages he had for kids. But, neither Arnold Palmer nor Fred Rogers are the most famous thing to come out of Latrobe, PA. That honor goes to the banana split!
In 1904 23-year-old David Strickler was an apprentice at Latrobe’s Tassel Pharmacy and Soda Fountain. Strickler enjoyed making up new ice cream combinations for customers and one day came up with the banana-based triple scoop sundae. Tassel’s charged 10¢ for the new concoction, twice the price of a regular sundae. Word quickly spread by word-of-mouth and in print until everyone in America knew about it. Latrobe celebrates its most famous export every year in August with Banana Split Days. I missed this year’s bash by a few days.
|Carpenter Steel Mill|
Only 43 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, Latrobe still has a very rural feel to it. Rolling forestland surrounds the city. Steel used to drive the town’s economy. Now, there is only one large mill remaining, Carpenter Steel and a few smaller mills. It is not even the largest employment sector in Latrobe. Three local hospitals employ more than 1,000 people between them.
David Cullaney is 49-years old. His family has owned and operated the town’s largest bakery for 65-years. “This has always been a distressed area,” he tells me. The numbers bear that out. Per capita income is only $21,393, $6,500 less than the entire state.
Unemployment figures and the housing market show the recession hit Latrobe the hardest in early 2010 and into 2011. Cullaney says, “At worst our business dropped about 20 percent. We provide baked goods for a lot of restaurants in town and along the highway; people just weren’t going out to eat anymore. Our business was never threatened, though; weddings, baked goods for homes and fundraisers got us through.”
Throughout my journey I’ve been looking for a law enforcement perspective. Other than my near apprehension and almost interview in the Missouri Ozarks, no police officer would talk to me – until I met Sgt. Nunzio Santo Columbo walking a beat in downtown Latrobe. At 30 years on the force he is the senior cop in the city. This is clearly his town as evidenced by the way he stops and talks to people in a personable and low-key manner. He certainly has a good perspective on the entire community.
“In 2009 you started to see the decline in business,” he says. “The steel mills started cutting hours. The largest hospital had to sell out and the new owners cut a lot of services. They went from about 1,200 employees to about 500 now.”
I asked Sgt. Columbo (He was NOT wearing a rumpled trench coat) what he saw as a police officer. “It kept me busy, I’ll tell ya that, lots of overtime. We had a lot more property crime, people stealing from the cars, a lot of bad checks, drug abuse went up and we had a lot more alcohol related calls.”
“More violence?” I ask.
“No, not really,” Columbo replies, “we don’t have a lot of violent crime here but people were taking what they needed.”
Luckily, he tells me, only one position was lost in the department and that due to attrition. Before letting the good Sargent continue his rounds, I get his recommendation for the best Italian restaurant in LUH trobe.