Bolivar: Tiny borough celebrates 150th year

The tiny, but tight-knit community of Bolivar Borough is still as strong as the bricks that were made there early in its 150-year history, say its residents.

And, that strength was evident last weekend as Bolivar, rhymes with "Oliver," its 501 residents and several hundred more visitors celebrated its sesquicentennial.

Incorporated in 1863, the Westmoreland County borough, partially surrounded by Fairfield on the Indiana County line, was then a flourishing community. It consisted mostly of Eastern European and Scottish immigrants who came to work at the Pennsylvania Canal, located along the Conemaugh River. Later, when the canal was closed, those same people got jobs in the several brickyards that gave Bolivar the name of "brick town."

Due to the availability of coal and clay, Bolivar's brickyards thrived at the turn of the 20th century. One of the brickyards was known for being the largest brickyard in North America, with the capacity to make 100,000 paving blocks each day.

In its early years, Bolivar boasted a population of nearly 3,000 and a thriving downtown that included an opera house, a train station and several hotels, grocery stores and restaurants, according to Patricia Betts, a borough native who moved back home after living elsewhere for 38 years.

The town, however, was hit hard by the Great Depression and today there is little evidence of its heyday.

"It was really something," said Ms. Betts, who served as treasurer of the borough's anniversary committee, which spent the past three years preparing for the three-day celebration that featured a parade and full schedule of events that included vendor booths and games, a trivia contest, a petting zoo, a brick toss competition and fireworks.

The celebration also featured commemorative coins and postcards, a recipe book and a large display of historical memorabilia. A bus shuttled visitors among venues.

"It's amazing what these people came together to do," said Mayor Tom Pickup, a borough native whose father was principal of then-Bolivar High School. Students from the borough now attend Ligonier Valley School District.

"I don't think they really realized what they achieved."

Mr. Pickup remembers the borough's better times but believes there's a bright future, too.

"This community has had tough times, but we're fighting our way back," he said.

Over the past several decades, little has changed in the borough, which has no police department and operates on a $60,000 annual budget.

"Bolivar really hasn't changed. The only change really is there are no old people anymore," said Wanda Clawson with a laugh.

Mrs. Clawson, 76, and Ann Bechtold, 90, served as the grand marshals of the anniversary parade. The women are the last two members of the committee that coordinated the borough's 100th anniversary celebration.

"The kids have all grown up, but other than that there's not many changes," Mrs. Clawson said.

Both women are lifelong residents of the borough, as their husbands were among the lucky ones to find work locally. Others may have moved away, but their hearts remained in Bolivar.

William Rolley, 64, traveled from his home in Erie to return to Bolivar for the celebration. His son, Mike Rolley, came in from Pittsburgh.

The father and son won their age brackets in the brick tossing competition. Mr. Rolley threw his 10-pound brick 34 feet, 4 inches in the 55-and-older bracket, while his son's winning throw sent the brick 53 feet, 8 inches, winning the 35-to-55-year-old bracket.

"It's a long tradition," said William Rolley, who pointed out that at the age of 35, he held the title for the longest brick throw of 68 feet, 4 inches.

"But that was a long time ago," he noted.

"It was all about celebrating the borough's history" and the people who call it home, said Mrs. Betts.

neigh_east - neigh_westmoreland

Linda Metz, freelance writer: First Published August 22, 2013 9:00 AM


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