State government too abstract, too far down road to stir voters' imaginations

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GOOD INTENT, Pa. -- Early in the '80s, when this small place was not yet smaller still, word went round that the town had somehow been left off the latest state road map.

Curt Naeser was livid. He ran the general store -- they still had one back then -- and his son Gary remembers his dad contacting his state legislator about the slight. No one's sure if the Washington County town really had been left off the map; possibly Mr. Naeser was looking at the wrong one. The place is easy to miss -- a dot at the end of a twig of a road branching off another in Pennsylvania's lower left corner, the part Virginians called Yohogania back in the days when these sorts of things were still being sorted out at gunpoint.

Real or imagined, the map story found its way into the mists of spoken lore, along with the one about the founder's mother-in-law being killed by the Indians. Mr. Naeser is unavailable for comment -- he died in 1995 -- though Bill Acor speaks of him as if he's in the next room.

"Oh, yeah, I remember hearing it. They just forgot us, I guess," says Mr. Acor, a retired telephone worker who repaired to the green of the hills in 1970 and found, if not heaven, certainly home.

In the cozy house on the hillside, sitting atop land he just leased to a drilling company for a tidy sum that everyone is too polite to ask about, Mr. Acor and his wife, Pat, remember the town that was.

"At one point there were close to 30 kids getting on the school buses here," she said. The town had a school, a church, a blacksmith and a barbershop. Today it's a dozen houses, counting the abandoned ones. Even the barber's name is hard to recall.

"Gene. Gene somebody." A week later, visiting friends, he's reminded it was Gene Wright -- a man, like much of this town's population, now long gone.

This village in West Finley is in many ways as much a place living in the past tense as in the future. It is also a slice of Pennsylvania that speaks to a commonwealth that is really an assemblage of wishes linked by a fixed boundary but often little else. Mr. Acor knows one man who lives in nearby Dallas, Pa., gets his mail in West Alexander, Pa., and earns his paycheck in Ohio.

"And he never went more than five miles," said Mr. Acor, nodding soberly. "His taxes were a nightmare."

Pennsylvania is full of Good Intents. William Penn planned it as a colony based on religious liberty and Quaker tolerance and fair play. Industrial wizards of the 19th century planned it as the engine of the world. Every man or woman who wants to be its governor proposes to transform it into a paradigm of sober leadership, civic progress and public virtue.

For all that good intent, Penn's sons cheated the Indians in the infamous "walking purchase," the industrial base sputters and the capital in Harrisburg is so notable for its sleaze that two former speakers of the House currently face criminal trials.

Scandals don't reach here any more than does the traffic that whizzes past the village on nearby Route 231. Distrust? It's inescapable in any place reached by television and newspaper. Controversy? There is the occasional ruckus, such as the ongoing worry about the old house that was once the barbershop.

Its owner died. His widow lived out of the family car for a while and then moved in with a son somewhere. Neighbors complain about the high weeds, the junk on the porch. Up the road a ways, a 1950s Studebaker Commander has been rusting away since Mr. Acor arrived 40 years ago. Some cluck over how it hasn't been scooped up by a collector and restored.

"We call this part of town the ghetto," said Mr. Acor, driving past an old house with a porch full of junk piled chin-high.

Maybe the biggest excitement was a tornado that skipped through a few years back, knocked down the Acors' barn, blew him across the street and, like everything else, moved along into memory.

Good Intent is part of Pennsylvania. So is Erie. Wilkes-Barre and State College and York and Philadelphia all are part of the commonwealth as well, yet from accents to industries to sports allegiances, these are more states of Pennsylvania than a single state of Pennsylvania.

"There are four or five maybe six distinct regions with different culture, mores, traditions," said Ed Rendell, the departing governor who'll be replaced this November after running out the state constitution's two-term limit.

These distinct regions can be tricky to govern in tandem.

"They're dissimilar. It makes it a difficult state to gain consensus in. It stops us from having one, common identity," Mr. Rendell said.

He has heard of Good Intent. Hasn't been there, but if there's an exotic-sounding place in Pennsylvania -- be it Bird-in-Hand, Intercourse or Nanty Glo -- a governor is reminded.

"Sure. I know all the funny names in Pennsylvania. People send me a lot of Pennsylvania trivia," he said.

Good Intent rarely would see an outsider save for the trucks and dozers now rumbling about the hills, laying the pipeline that will carry the gas from the Marcellus Shale from here to the terminals. That mineral strike deep in the earth has made men like Bill Acor a little more comfortable, their retirements incrementally safer, but it hasn't changed the constant deliberation needed to live here.

"You buy two of everything when you go to the store," said Mr. Acor. It's a 15-mile drive to the corner store. "In winter, you stock up a bit."

People here don't think much of Barack Obama. One local, Marvin Darnell, repeats the canard that the president is not a native-born citizen. Mr. Rendell has stirred little excitement. Asked what the state can do for them, there are two views.

Mr. Acor: Leave us alone.

Joyce Darnell, Marvin's wife: Send a snow plow through in winter, clear the road and move on.

Judging from most comments here, Mr. Rendell is not so much unpopular as simply something of an abstraction, much as is the rest of state government. Mr. Darnell, who doubts a Democratic president's citizenship, is a Democrat, if only because he once was a union miner. Joyce Darnell is the family Republican. Asked about elections, she said she's pretty sure at least one of their children does not vote.

It isn't a matter of partisanship in this town. It's a matter of enthusiasm.

Aside from the farms, work in this corner of Pennsylvania was much like work elsewhere long ago. There were coal mines. Some people drove the distance to work the mills. Mr. Darnell worked his grandfather's farm here in summers, then worked a coal mine. Now, he's a mechanic on Neville Island, nearly 40 miles away.

"It's treacherous in wintertime getting out," he said.

Getting out, save for work or to stock up, isn't something folks worry about here. Mrs. Darnell has never been to Philadelphia. Miami? Yes, but it was a bit worrisome.

In 1984, after he was laid off at the mine, Mr. Darnell decided to take a long vacation.

"I asked her where she wanted to go, she said Florida," he said. "We went to the park -- what's that park down there? Disney World?"

They packed their four-wheel drive American Eagle, visited a friend in North Carolina on the way down, then reached Miami. They didn't stay long. Mrs. Darnell was worried about breaking down. She wasn't sure they would find parts.

There has never been a car dealership back home, but they would know where to look.

on the web

Just in time for November's major elections, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette prize-winning reporter Dennis Roddy -- who for 37 years has been looking at politics from the ground up -- debuts a weekly column for Early Returns on Tuesday, making one of Pennsylvania's best politics blogs even better.

Dennis B. Roddy: or 412-263-1965. First Published September 26, 2010 4:15 AM


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