Bella Fontana

A weekly column about life in Bellefonte, PA, reprinted from the Centre Daily Times

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Quarry is no place for spectators

On warm, summer nights, I have heard through the open bedroom windows shouts and laughter coming from the region of the quarry. This would be the abandoned Bellefonte Quarry, owned by Graymont, the lime company with operations in Pleasant Gap and Coleville.

Curious about the site, I asked several people how to get there. No one said it was off-limits.

So when I set out with a friend on a sunny afternoon on a quest for the quarry, we thought this would be just a hike in the woods. The tragedy of another drowning in the quarry pond had not yet taken place.

Thinking about it now, with a police helicopter hovering over the area, the warnings should have been clear: This was an accident waiting to happen.

After a lot of walking along an ATV trail littered with odd bits of clothing, old car parts and even a junked car overturned in a ditch, we came to a "Danger: No Trespassing" sign facing the area we had just come through. We figured we must have missed the quarry and should head out in the opposite direction.

By this time we were surrounded by warning signs. It was time to leave.

An online search for "Bellefonte Quarry" came up with a number of sites that revealed the real reason, other than hanging out, for interest in the quarry. What may seem like a secret to outsiders is a rock climber's paradise. Web sites are filled with explicit descriptions and pictures of the different climbs. Each one has a name, such as El Crackitan and White Lightning, Blade Runner and Realm of the Senseless.

One site declines to give specific directions to the quarry. Others are more forthright, explaining where to park and how to proceed to the Upper Quarry and the Lower Quarry. Only a couple of sources mention that technically everyone who goes in is trespassing.

Many stories have been told about the quarry. Before the drowning, the one I recall most clearly was of the young man in 1996 who dived to his death, having struck his head on a rock ledge. The water's deep color deceives; the pond is treacherous.

Hugh Manchester recalled an earlier incident in a 1996 Big Spring column in the Centre Daily Times: A young man who was reported missing by swimming companions in 1942 showed up back in Bellefonte after the war.

The safest way to see the quarry is to look at pictures online. There, you can see climbers rappelling and belaying and whatever else they do in spite of snakes, the danger of falling and $300 fines.

Two guys sitting on their porch near where my friend and I came out told us, "They haven't started kicking people out yet."

Checking with the police department, I was told "Oh, yes, they have."

And now, one hopes, they will do so more than ever.

Friday, June 24, 2005

At Centre Crest's open house, one could really feel at home

From the outside, Centre Crest, on East Howard Street, looks like any well-maintained apartment building. Only ramps, handrails and rocking chairs at the entrance give any clue that this is a residence for mostly elderly people who require nursing care.

I pass Centre Crest every day, glancing up past the terraces bordered by mountain stone to the red-brick roofline, often wondering what goes on inside. A recent Sunday afternoon, when the Centre Crest Auxiliary held an open house, seemed like a good time to find out.

The crowd around the refreshment table was about three deep and included folks in wheelchairs, a friendly dog and many of the members of the auxiliary, whose philosophy is "to provide a warm, comforting home environment for the residents."

Accepting an iced tea from Sharon Eminhizer, auxiliary president, I clipped on a "Visitor" tag and looked around, not quite sure what to expect, but thinking this would be a good time to look up friends for whom Centre Crest is home.

I passed a cage of exotic birds and a tank of tropical fish. I saw dining rooms where tables were covered with turquoise cloths and further brightened by flower arrangements.

In an upstairs hallway, I glanced into the room of a friend who was waiting to be taken down to dinner and saw what I thought was a stuffed cat on a chair. Taking a closer look, I saw it was a real cat, snow white, and as much at home at Centre Crest as any of the other residents.

The nightstand of one friend's room held her collection of dolls and stuffed animals. An entire wall in another friend's room was covered with family pictures, a gallery she could enjoy when going to sleep and waking up.

Years ago, when I was contemplating a move, a friend said to me, "Home is wherever you decide to make it."

I thought about this on my brief tour of Centre Crest, recognizing the efforts of staff and volunteers to provide not just the look of home but also the feeling of family and comfort that comes from encouraging residents to invest in their surroundings. Whether that means watering a plant or feeding the fish or just arranging their favorite items, the payoff comes in the form of increased alertness and less loneliness.

Unlike the pictures in home magazines that seem so designed and impersonal it's hard to imagine anyone actually living there, Centre Crest is a real home for real people.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Educators could use schooling

The front parlor of the Bellefonte Museum is, for now, a one-room schoolhouse. With books lying open on the students' desks and an exercise on the blackboard, you might think the kids had just run outside for recess.

"School Days," an exhibit that runs until Sept. 3, is also a retrospective of teaching materials through the years, from old McGuffey readers up through "Dick and Jane."

On the teacher's desk are a globe, an apple and a handbell. There is no jar of M&Ms. There are no smiley-face stickers -- the self-esteem movement still was generations away.

I recall a teachers' in-service meeting when we were given handouts listing 100 ways to tell the kids how great they were. I never believed in telling students they had done a good job when they hadn't fooled anyone.

And I doubt that teachers in the old days worried a lot about students' self-esteem.

Most learning in the old schools was by rote, a method given a D-minus by modern educators. I still don't know a better way to teach multiplication tables, even though I can never remember 8x7 or 9x6.

And then there is the lost art of memorizing poetry, which seems to have disappeared along with metal lunchboxes and slide rules.

Because the logistics of instructing as many as 20 pupils at various grade levels had to be met by some means, the one-room school became innovative in techniques such as small group instruction, independent study and open learning. When one group went up front to recite, the others worked at their desks. When a lesson was introduced to one group, it could be previewed by another.

Old schools spent more time on penmanship than we do today, because in those days legibility and speed were assets that could lead to a job. Students were grouped by ability rather than interests and were not offered choices about what they wanted to learn. Discipline, especially self-discipline, was an unwritten but essential part of the curriculum.

At a retirement party for a fellow teacher recently, we started talking about the old days: the food fights, fist fights and disrespect -- what we called at the time "being in the trenches."

I understand things are better now. But I think we could have saved ourselves some time if we'd had smaller schools, smaller classes and more individualized instruction.

In other words, we could have taken a lesson from the old schoolmarms and schoolmasters ourselves.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Do pow-wows and dowsing still hold water?

Can a psychic locate a missing district attorney?

Can a folk doctor stop a nosebleed or banish warts?

Where is the line between science and metaphysics, superstition and religion? Education and upbringing have a lot to do with where that line is drawn.

My great-grandmother could pow-wow, not in the American Indian sense, but in the German Christian tradition of healing that involved recitations from Scripture and sometimes massage.

For example, if a baby did not gain weight, a condition called the take-offs, she could cure it with an appropriate reading, possibly from John George Hohman's 1820 book "The Long Lost Friend."

If I believed in channeling, I could have consulted her about my first child, who weighed the same at six weeks as she did at birth.

I talked to two people lately who were pow-wowed as children -- one with a growth on her finger, which subsequently disappeared; the other with serious burns, which healed. I found out that the secrets of pow-wowing are passed from one family member to another, but only from man to woman or woman to man.

And, yes, I am told, there still are pow-wows in the area, and they can stop bleeding.

Another folk tradition, which has somewhat the same mystical qualities as pow-wowing, is dowsing, a way of locating underground water, and some say even lost bodies, by using divining rods.

You can make divining rods by straightening coat hangers and holding one in each hand while walking slowly over the ground. When the wires or rods cross, you are over the source of water.

Dowsing is still practiced around here by professionals, but some people tell me anyone can do it.

Carla Baron, the psychic consulted by the Bellefonte Police Department in their search for missing District Attorney Ray Gricar, was Carla Meyer when she lived in Lock Haven.

She and my daughter were on the same school trip to Paris, where Carla proved fluent in French. I remember her as a prodigy at the piano, and if she can help find a missing person, more power to her.

The scientific point of view accepts or rejects a theory depending on empirical evidence. Skeptics question everything; suckers believe anything.

Some people say if you want to sell your home, bury a statue of St. Joseph upside down in the back yard. Curious to see if the statues were available locally, I called three places and couldn't find any.

Real estate must be doing all right without them.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

A peek inside M&T Bank building brings back sweet memories

From the street, the interior renovation of the M&T Bank building grows more ominous every day.

Signs warning "Danger," "Hard Hat Area" and "No Trespassing" hang from chain-link and caution fences. Plywood covers one front window. A chute from the second floor spits trash into a Dumpster on High Street. From somewhere deep inside the lobby comes the angry sound of a jack hammer.

A few days ago, I glanced into the open front door. Besides the chandeliers, nothing visible remains of the opulent space that included, according to "Pierce's File: Commerce Bellefonte" of March 30, 1988, a counter "constructed of mahoganized cherry bearing a polish that brings out the richest color of the wood."

It is gone, along with the vaults and the brass tellers' cages.

The Centre County commissioners agreed a year ago to purchase the building from the parent company in Buffalo, N.Y., as a courthouse annex to provide much-needed space for a fourth county judge. The decision meant the building would be preserved, but changes would have to be made to the inside.

I remember being intimidated when I first opened an account about 25 years ago at what was then Mid-State Bank. First, there was the ceiling height, which seemed to soar to the stratosphere, diminishing everything at ground level, including me. Then there was the formal feeling of a bank that looked like a bank, not a gas station or a restaurant or a dentist's office.

But there also was a human side to the banking business, which I discovered when I wanted to take out a mortgage for a new home. The loan officer at Mid-State was not in; he had taken his son to a ballgame.

I tried the other banks. On that Friday afternoon in spring, there was no one in Bellefonte to lend me money. So on Monday, I went back to Mid-State.

Part of the mystique of the building was its rumored third-floor ballroom. When the commissioners ran a video tape of the building for an open house before the renovations began, there it was, in at least part of its former glory. Besides a ballroom, there also was a billiard room and lounge area for members of Mason Lodge, Bellefonte Chapter No. 241.

The exterior of the building is remarkably maintained, from its copper roof and weathervane-topped turret to its Palladian windows and pressed-brick walls.

Like any makeover, the process is painful. But the rewards, which we will see in November, should be worth it.