On a hot, late summer afternoon, children line the benches in the dugouts of the softball field in the middle of Grindstone, cheering their dads and fanning the heat even as they occupy the only shade in the park.
The home team: Grindstone Volunteer Fire Department, sponsors of Community Day. The away team: volunteer firemen from Smock, Footedale, West Leisenring and other neighboring communities.
By 2 p.m., they’ve already been playing for hours, and as a home team outfielder catches the final out, the last softball game of the day is over.
“Next year, guys,” says a player on the away team.
Fire Chief Rich Lenk says this is his community, this is Grindstone. “It’s real friendly,” he said.
Lenk is something like an unofficial mayor, although he won’t admit it. People call him when they need something done in Grindstone.
“There’s no borough council. The fire company is really the only thing here,” he said. While other incorporated towns are able to secure grant funding for community projects, Grindstone has to do for itself. There are cash bashes and other various fundraisers to support the fire department and bring people together.
Lenk’s cellphone rings pretty much all day. Sometimes it’s a resident with a basement full of water looking to get it pumped out. It might be a dog stuck on a roof. In July, he got a call about a woman lost in the woods.
Behind the chief is a dunk tank. His young grandson is first in line to try to dunk the fireman heckling people from the platform over the water. The boy gets within four feet of the target and winds up a pitch.
“Back it up! Where are we throwing from?” shouts the fireman.
Laughter erupts when, from the back of the crowd, someone yells, “Shut yer mouth and get dunked!”
Lenk’s grandson misses on all three throws, then dashes up and hits the target with his fist, which also elicits cheers from the audience.
The chief said the fire company uses the Community Day event to help fund memorial scholarships. Every year, two $1,000 scholarships are awarded to students in the Brownsville and Frazier school districts.
One of the scholarships is in remembrance of Angela Miller, a member of the fire department who died in a car accident weeks after graduating high school.
“We’re not blessed with money. We’re blessed with people,” Lenk said.
Residents streamed in and out of the festivities, a lot of them on foot or on bicycles coming from the surrounding patch. Everyone seems to know someone else.
Some older folks trickle in and begin to set up lawn chairs in a small circle.
Lenk said the goal is for the event to provide something for everybody, so events hosted by the fire company usually include oldies music for the elder members of the community to enjoy, on down to bounce houses for the younger set.
“You gotta give back to your community,” said Lenk.
A little history
Similar to other little towns throughout Fayette County, Grindstone has a history tied to coal. It was one of a handful of Colonial Coal and Coke Company patch towns, along with neighboring Rowes Run and Smock.
Folks who have lived there awhile might still refer to the adjacent patch towns as Colonial 1, 2, 3 and 4.
The topography of Grindstone is up and down, hills cut into the earth by the winding Redstone Creek. Consequently, some people who have lived around the area awhile still use the terms Old Hill, New Hill and Red Hill.
“Old Hill is the side with the church and the post office,” explained Karen Angelilli, former postmaster of Grindstone for 39 years. “Down from Old Hill is Red Hill.”
And the side with the ball field is New Hill.
Angelilli says she remembers her dad, Mickey Liptak, former Grindstone fire chief and postmaster (one of the last appointed by President Kennedy) before her, talking about picking coal from the slate dumps bordering the community.
Raw coal blasted out of mines sometimes contained enough slate that it couldn’t be sold as coal, and loads of slate were dumped near edges of some patches. Patch kids could pick nuggets of coal out to sell or supply the family home with fuel.
Lenk, who joined Angelilli in the home of long-time Grindstone resident Josephine Parr to talk about their recollections of the community, said the slate dump still burns.
“You can see the red dog on the bottom,” he said. Red dog is the leftover burnt pieces of slate.
“In the winter, the snow melts fast,” Lenk said. “You can smell it.”
“So that’s why we weren’t allowed to play in it as kids!” said Angelilli.
Parr laughed, saying when her grandchildren come to visit from Florida, one of the things they always look forward to doing, oddly enough, is running out to play in the slate dump.
Parr has been a part of the Grindstone community and the St. Cecilia Parish for some 40 or more years. Before that, she and her late husband Jack lived in suburban Washington, D.C., during his career as a police officer there for 14 and a half years.
And before that, she grew up in another Fayette County patch town — Allison 1. Most patches, fortunately, were alike, meaning they were populated by good, hard-working people, she said.
Parr doesn’t want people to think she doesn’t like living in the patch, but she did say moving back here took some adjustment. City life was so convenient, she said, and the pace was enlivening.
The house she lives in is a softball’s throw from Jack Parr field where Community Day is held. In fact, softballs do land in her yard from time to time.
“The kids play patch ball here every single day,” said Lenk.
Jack Parr played minor league baseball in his younger days and spent a lot of his later years teaching kids in the neighborhood the finer points.
“He played two and a half years in the minors with the Brooklyn Dodgers,” said Mrs. Parr. Later her husband coached little league in Jefferson Township and Brownsville and coached the American Legion team to the state championships.
“I played ball for his American Legion team,” said Lenk, who remembered Jack Parr as the kind of guy who didn’t take any nonsense, someone kids and people in the community respected.
“Jack would kick kids in the butt, when you were allowed to kick kids in the butt,” Lenk said with a chuckle.
“This is the home my husband was born and raised in,” said Mrs. Parr. When her husband died, she said she felt the embrace of the community. She also lost two sons, and each time, the community came to her side.
“They rallied around me,” Parr said, bringing her food, keeping her company, comforting and praying with her.
In her observation, that doesn’t happen just anywhere. “How do you thank a community who does that for you?”
Parr and Angelilli talked about a time when people took pride in their respective pieces of the patch, keeping nice yards and maintaining their houses properly.
“We weren’t really allowed to wander out of the patch,” said Angelilli, but there wasn’t really any reason to.
The elementary school was right in the patch, and the neighborhood store carried a little bit of everything — pop for a dime and penny pretzels, Angelilli remembers.
The old company store, the kind popularized in song as the place where a man sold his soul after loading 16 tons of coal every back-breaking day, eventually turned into a Pechin’s store.
“My mom would send me down and I would get three pounds of hamburg for a dollar,” said Angelilli.
Everybody knew everybody, they all looked out for one another and, if someone got out of line, his or her parents would already know by the time they got home, the two women agreed.
Angelilli recalled carnivals held every year in Grindstone by the fire department.
She looked back on how exciting that time of year was, all the activity for the wives and children of the firemen as they pitched in their efforts to put the carnival together. It was fun, peeling potatoes to make the french fries, Angelilli said, and something she looked forward to every year.
“They had a parade, and fireworks,” Angelilli said. “And I remember the fireworks had these little parachutes coming from them.”
“In those days, you didn’t go to Sea World or Idlewild or Ocean City,” Parr said. The carnival was in town for a week, and that was what everyone waited for all year.
All the noise and activity in the fire hall let people know the community was alive.
Lenk said although the fire department no longer has carnivals or parades, because it can’t afford the insurance, there’s still plenty of activity.
It’s important to give kids something to do, Lenk said, to keep them out of trouble, especially when it seems like trouble is closing in. That’s why he and other firemen keep the grass trimmed and the grounds and concession stand maintained at the ball field — to provide a safe and inviting environment for people to come together.
Lenk has a vested interest in keeping the community safe and crime-free. These days there are times when state police are called in, but the fire department is closer. Firefighters are being called to domestic incidents, for example, he said, and some will soon be outfitted with bulletproof vests.
Grindstone has changed over the years, like anywhere else. People have moved away and been replaced with those who don’t have a connection to the community’s past. Drug addiction has made an impact there, as it has in towns across the county. But they continue to keep an eye out for each other and try to remain a community.
Although neighbors don’t make rounds after Midnight Mass like they used to, people come together for light-up night at Christmas time.
They turn out for Easter time activities, and give generously to trick-or-treaters at Halloween.
When Grace Baptist Church burned down not long ago, the fire department opened up the fire hall for the worshippers to hold services on Sundays for two years, until they could build a new church.
The new church is right behind the fire hall.
“My kids want me to move,” Parr said, “but I say there’s such good people here.” She loves her church and her neighbors, she said. Angelilli said her husband suggested moving too, and she jokingly told him he’d have to go by himself.
“We still have a lot of good people here, kind people, good-hearted people,” said Parr.
“It’s about love and family,” said Angelilli.
Parr said, “And that’s what you have in the patch.”