La Bella Fontana

Report from Bellefonte PA, by Helen Fontana Bechdel

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Tiny things hit home in big ways

A Saturday in town could be just an ordinary day or, if you add it all up, an extraordinary one filled with pleasures that defy the putdown implied in the word "feel-good."

May 7, was that kind of Saturday for me.

First thing in the morning, a boy in a baseball uniform came to the door collecting for Little League. His father smiled from the sidewalk as I asked, "Are there girls on the team? Do they get to play?"

When he answered "yes" to both questions, I stuffed a dollar in his canister, thinking of the old days when the game was strictly for boys.

At the market, the bakery lady ran after a customer who had asked for sticky rolls. She had found one last package in her van and was happy to sell it to him. The egg lady eyed my torn jeans, which she could use for a rug she is weaving out of old ones -- as soon as I find time to get a new pair.

Cutting through the cemetery, I wondered why the caretaker stopped his mower. He wanted to make sure that nothing got thrown out at me from the blade.

On Howard Street, I looked over items at a yard sale and found out from the homeowner how to identify good cast iron. I may make a fortune yet.

Back on my street, two little boys took turns with a bike. One was barefoot -- a sure sign of warmer weather after a bone-chilling spring.

At evening services, Deacon Tom read a letter to mothers everywhere, thanking them for all the little things they do. And little things are what this day was all about, at least until I got home at 6 p.m. to watch the Kentucky Derby.

Jeremy Rose, riding Afleet Alex, the sentimental favorite to win, fought his way to what looked like the lead. As everyone now knows, he came in third in a breathtaking finish.

When I had Jeremy in senior homeroom, I missed him one morning when I took attendance. He came up to me later and said, "Mrs. Bechdel, you marked me absent this morning. I was there."

It's true. I didn't see him in the back of the room that day, but I couldn't miss him in his green-and-gold jockey silks riding a gorgeous horse in the country's biggest race.

For one Saturday in May, it was great to look past the irony and suspicion of our times and enjoy life's simple pleasures without apology.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Museum artifact on display in Pittsburgh

The cover of the Sunday Magazine section in the April 24 edition of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette carries an image of a powder horn with an incised design of Fort Pitt.

If the artifact looks familiar to local residents, the caption underneath explains why:

"The horn, to be on display in the 'Clash of Empires' exhibition at the Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center, is owned by the Centre County Library and Historical Museum in Bellefonte."

The powder horn is the museum's oldest item, dating from the French and Indian War, which is the focus of the exhibit at the Heinz Center. From Pittsburgh, the exhibit will travel to Canada and then to the Smithsonian before it makes its way back to the Centre County Historical Museum.

On any given day, Joyce Adgate, who manages the collection at the museum, may be fielding questions from families looking for their ancestors, cataloguing acquisitions, researching queries, filing and clipping andputting up or taking down exhibits. So I felt lucky the other day when she left her desk in the Pennsylvania Room to take me on a private tour of the museum.

One case in the main room holds American Indian artifacts such as arrowheads, drills, pottery and beaded leggings. In the military case is a Civil War cavalry saber and items from the War of 1812 and the French and Indian War. A wedding bouquet from 1838 sits under a glass bell.

The presence of women is a strong influence, from an inlaid sewing chest made in Ireland in 1888 to embroidered samplers and a book, "The Alphabet of Thought," by Anne Harris, daughter of the founder of Bellefonte, printed at a time when women were not supposed to know how to write.

The Linn Room is furnished with pieces from the estate of Mary Hunter Linn, including the gown worn by Mary Wilson to Abraham Lincoln's inaugural ball, which might fit today's fifth-grader. A cupboard spills over with gloves, jewelry and hats, including one very jaunty one from 1880 trimmed with a cascade of iridescent rooster feathers.

The Sieg Room depicts the history of Titan, now Cerro Metal Products, and other Bellefonte industries, such as glass and silk, matches and nails. A piano -- one of the first in town -- an ornately carved table and a magnificent Duncan Phyfe settee lend an air of quiet refinement to the setting.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Side streets hide town's true beauty

Originally uploaded by Alison Bechdel.
By Helen Bechdel

For the Center Daily Times

Tours of Bellefonte typically direct the visitor to look at the town from the perspective of its main streets, where historic buildings and residences predominate. But a walk along the lanes behind these streets presents a different picture entirely.

Carriage houses, stables and other outbuildings line the lanes, or alleys as they were formerly named, recalling a more muscular era before the appearance of the first automobile. Even though they have been converted to other uses, these structures retain many of their original architectural features.

On East Cherry Lane, behind the Undine Fire Company, a row of stables still looks as it must have in an earlier age. Built of stone, stucco and block, each a bit different from its neighbor, they resemble a mews in an old English village.

On West Cherry Lane, the outline of the original arch is still visible in a converted brick carriage house. Step-sided end walls and a gable surround a pitched roof. Another house at the end of the lane has undergone more of a transformation with its wrought-iron trim and picture window.

Decatur Lane, from Howard Street to Lamb Street, claims three carriage houses on the properties of large homes facing Allegheny Street. One is a private residence, one has been converted to apartments, and the third has recently been painted and restored to blend with the historic nature of its location.

Church Lane almost could have a walking tour of its own, starting from its intersection with Armor Street and heading west. The carriage house located at the rear of the Bellefonte Victorian Manor still contains two horse stalls with space for carriages and feed. Farther along is a brick stable with a hay door, and toward Allegheny street, a restored board-and-batten carriage house rises to an impressive height.

Most of the buildings encountered along the lanes of Bellefonte could be described as functional and relatively free of ornament. That description does not apply, however, to the ornate shingle-and-stone carriage house at the corner of Locust Lane and West Church, behind the Reynolds Mansion.

With its finial-topped ventilators, "flying" roof line and rounded windows, it is an architectural gem in its own right. You almost expect to hear the clatter of an elegant carriage turning down the drive.

To really do justice to an inside view of Bellefonte would require research on a large order. My examples are just a start.