Johnstown's past comes to life again in new brewery

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JOHNSTOWN -- They call this place Flood City, but after a muscle-straining 10 hours in its steel mills, immigrants wanted a drink stronger than water.

Knocking back a couple of cold ones at the West End Polish Citizens Club or the Croatian Hall was a regular ritual. Through the 1940s, scores of ethnic clubs operated here, but as the World War II generation died off, membership dwindled and many clubs closed.

Today, a handful remain, including several lodges of the Polish National Alliance, a Slovak Education Club, a couple of Slovenian clubs and a Sons of Italy.

"It's sort of like churches in Johnstown. Every year, there are fewer," said Dan Ingram, curator of the Johnstown Flood Museum. "Socializing for the younger generation is less about their ethnicity and more about convenience."

Even if your grandparents didn't come from Europe, you can still experience the atmosphere of a typical ethnic club on the last Friday of every month at the old Germania Brewery, an imposing, century-old brick building on Sixth Avenue. There, what had been a grimy storage room, is now a re-created ethnic club whose windows overlook the site of the former Cambria Iron Works.

The club, which was finished this spring, is on the fourth floor of the former brewery, renamed the Frank & Sylvia Pasquerilla Heritage Discovery Center in 2000. Its five stories contain four exhibitions devoted to this town's history of industry and immigration.

Near the club's entrance, a chalkboard from the Slovenian Home lists the various meeting times for clubs and singing groups. There's room to dance on the red-and-black tile floor and old photos of ethnic clubs from Johnstown hang on the walls. Retro red pendant-style lamps light the tables.

Period fixtures include a mahogany bar that cost $25 and red bar stools from an ice cream shop in Ligonier. A restored player piano has enough rolls of music to keep the place rockin'. (There's even a roll that plays the famous theme from "The Stripper.")

The club can be rented for private parties and is open the last Friday of every month from 5 to 10 p.m. Patrons can order refreshments (drinks, pierogies and light snacks) and enjoy live music.

"It's a universal working-class experience," said Mr. Ingram, whose radar for bargains in antiques rivals that of sharp-eyed dealers.

He got the idea for the re-created club 15 years ago when the museum staged an exhibition called "Down at the Club." To create the show in 1994, Mr. Ingram embarked on some serious, elbow-bending research with Curtis Miner, then a folk life coordinator at the Johnstown Flood Museum and now a curator at the State Museum in Harrisburg.

Meeting and talking with longtime ethnic club members, Dr. Miner recalled, "did require a lot of 'Deer Hunter'-like field work. You had to make sure to get to the happy hours and experience the club from the inside out."

Each ethnic club served as a time capsule of culture and history.

"We did a lot of interviews and took a lot of contemporary photographs of ethnic fraternal life in Johnstown. It was a lot of fun," Dr. Miner said.

And, as research missions go, inexpensive.

"These clubs were like stepping back into time. The beer was dirt cheap," Dr. Miner said, adding that a 12-ounce glass of Iron City sold for 50 cents in 1994.

That's because ethnic clubs were not established to make money; rather, they served as "mutual benefit societies," offering members death and funeral benefits as well as primitive forms of health insurance.

"In virtually every club, there was an image of FDR," said Mr. Ingram.

That's because Depression-era Democrats loved Franklin Roosevelt, who created jobs for Americans through the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps. It didn't hurt that FDR was in office when Pennsylvania repealed Prohibition, the 13-year ban on alcohol sales.

The clubs also were repositories of traditions and artifacts. The latter were often kept behind the bar, in trophy rooms or a back room. At one Slovenian club, members played their version of the Italian game called bocce. Chances to play games abounded.

"If you wanted to go rubber band duck pin bowling, you had to be a member of an ethnic club because they were the only places that had them," Dr. Miner said, adding that the small bowling pins with a big piece of rubber around their middle were replaced in many bowling alleys by automatic ten pins.

Ethnic clubs hung on to the rubber band duck pins because, "there was just no incentive for them to change in order to attract more patrons because they weren't in the business of making money," Dr. Miner said.

At the Slovenian Home, the duo found two huge painted textiles that showed scenes of the old country; they were used as stage drops when children performed plays and folk tales in Slovenian.

"They're so large that we don't have a space within the club that we could use them," said Mr. Ingram, who hopes to preserve the textiles and eventually exhibit them.

The Croatian Hall still operates on Broad Street near the museum.

"The people who go into those clubs are insiders. The old women always mistook Dan for an old flame they had when they were younger women," Dr. Miner said.

Mr. Ingram, a blue-eyed Irishman who is bearded and bespectacled, said female members played an important role in his research because they often served as club officers and outlived male members.

"As tradition bearers, they tended to be people who kept things. They had an interest in preserving their ethnicity, folk ways, traditional dances and costumes."

The re-created ethnic club is open from 5 to 10 p.m. on the last Friday of every month and is inside the Frank & Sylvia Pasquerilla Johnstown Heritage Discovery Center, 201 Sixth Ave., Johnstown. On July 31, the Southside Strays will play music by Bob Dylan, the Byrds and the Grateful Dead. First Published July 19, 2009 4:00 AM


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