Editor’s note: The following story is part of an occasional series of articles that examine the people, culture and history of the small towns that dot the landscape of the Mon Valley.
It’s Tuesday evening and that means bingo night at the Stockdale Volunteer Fire Department. The social hall is packed with diehard bingo enthusiasts of all ages. Each player is eagerly waiting for the next ball to drop and for his or her lucky number to be called.
The bingo caller, who is seated at that all too familiar elevated electronic bingo console next to a side wall, flicks a switch and 75 multi-colored balls bounce around the blower chamber. As one of the balls is ejected from the chamber, the caller gives it a quick look and places it on the ball tray.
“B-9,” the caller shouts, as the letter-number combination flickers on the long electronic flashboard mounted from the ceiling.
The players silently study their bingo cards and highlight numbers with their daubers. No winners yet. The caller waits a few moments before giving the blower chamber another spin.
“N-36,” he calls out again.
There is a pause then a cry from the back of the room. “Bingo!” yells a middle-aged woman as she waves her bingo card. “I’m in the money!”
“Bingo has been called,” announces the caller. “Any others?”
Hearing no response, the caller dispatches a teenage girl to the lucky woman’s table to verify the winning bingo card.
Several tables away, Linda Caruso good naturedly bemoans her tough luck. “I come here to donate,” says Caruso with a chuckle, as she arranges several new bingo cards in front of her. “But it’s for a good cause.”
B-4 it was too late
Caruso, 70, who lives in Long Branch, belongs to a group of players that calls itself the “Bingo Bubbas.” She has been a regular at the Stockdale bingo games for many years. Even though she doesn’t win the jackpot that often, Caruso enjoys the camaraderie.
“Bingo is probably our top social activity around here,” she says. “It gives the people of Stockdale, Roscoe and the other small communities an opportunity to catch up and have some fun together.”
Caruso said she credits the department’s chief, Tom Wilkinson, for bringing the bingo back, when, she said, it looked like it was gone for good.
Across the hall, near the counter in front of the kitchen, Wilkinson watches the action as he takes a sip of coffee. He is pleased with the turnout. Nearly 80 people are in attendance tonight, including a few newcomers.
“We are fortunate that we still have a bingo,” says Wilkinson, who also serves as mayor of Roscoe. “It’s getting harder for the smaller bingo halls to compete with the casinos. In fact, we had to shut down our bingo for a few years before we decided to give it another go last September. Now we are stronger than ever. Bingo night has helped to bring these riverfront communities together.”
Although he hasn’t asked any of the bingo players why they have come back, Wilkinson has a hunch why bingo night is enjoying such a strong resurgence — and why the lower riverfront communities in the Mon Valley have such an enduring appeal for so many people.
“People like the atmosphere here,” he says. “It’s quiet, relaxed and friendly. Practically everyone knows each other, and we are like one big, happy family. That’s the beauty of life in small towns such as Roscoe and Stockdale.”
Compared to other small towns, Roscoe and Stockdale are tiny villages. Located less than 36 miles south of Pittsburgh, both towns are nestled between the west bank of the Monongahela River and a railroad track that runs parallel to Route 88. Roscoe encompasses 0.2 square miles, and most of its homes are squeezed into an area that is only three blocks wide. Stockdale isn’t much larger. And at last count, Roscoe had around 824 residents while Stockdale had about 508 residents. But there is a lot of history and tradition packed into those small communities.
Early birds settle in
According to some accounts, the area was originally inhabited by Eastern Indian tribes such the Delaware, Seneca, Ottawa and Miami nations. In 1781, Thomas Stockdale, an English Quaker from Montgomery County, settled in the area with his three sons after his first wife died. He eventually married Amy (Ema) Allen who inherited a tract of land from her father that was called “Allen’s Delight.”
During the next 100 years, more people settled in Allen’s Delight, which became formally known as the borough of Stockdale on April 28, 1894. Around that time, Stockdale had about 600 residents and featured a school house, mission church, post office, two hotels and bar.
A few miles south, another burgeoning community was taking shape. In 1784, Joshua Dixon, an English settler, purchased a tract of land from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania that would later become Roscoe; in 1852, this settlement became known as Allen Township, a community that encompassed present-day Allenport, Dunlevy, Elco, Long Branch, Roscoe, Speers, Stockdale, Twilight and Vesta.
In the late 1860s, part of this land was acquired by the Sphar family and became known as Lucyville. However, many residents of Lucyville felt the town’s name didn’t sound virile enough. By a popular vote, the community changed its name to Roscoe, in honor of the maiden name of Mrs. Joseph Underwood, a local resident. Over time, Roscoe grew and added stores, restaurants, hotels, a slaughterhouse and a lumber company, among many other businesses.
Most of the residents of Roscoe and Stockdale were employed by the neighboring coal mines; others found jobs at the steel mills in Allenport and Monessen. Still, a few locals left the area to achieve fame and fortune in various fields, including W. Rea Furlong, a rear admiral in the U.S. Navy; Howard Brewer, a highly decorated WWII veteran; Sally Cairns, a model and Hollywood actress who had supporting roles in a few films during the 1940s; Lisa Kirk, a Broadway and TV actress; and William Philip Davies, a flyweight boxing champion.
Through the years, the Monongahela River has been one of the most important assets for Roscoe and Stockdale. In the early days, steamboats and ferries provided residents with transportation to neighboring towns while barges hauled coal from the local mines. Showboats also made frequent stops to the area, treating residents to vaudeville shows such as “A Devil in Petticoats.” Other locals liked to swim in the river or “catch the wave” behind the paddle wheel of boats that passed through the area.
Landing the free space
While many of the other communities in the Mon Valley were harder hit by the shutdown of factories, Roscoe and Stockdale managed to keep on going without too much disruption.
John and Brenda Koval have been through many of the ups and downs and wouldn’t live anywhere else.
“Even if I won the lottery and had all the money in the world, I would definitely stay here,” said John Koval, 74, who retired from the steel mill in 2003 and has lived in the area since 1954. “We don’t have all the luxuries that you would find in a larger town, but we are pretty much self-sufficient. And you couldn’t find a quieter and safer area to live than Stockdale and Roscoe.”
Brenda Koval, 68, who grew up in Monongahela, moved to Stockdale after marrying John in 1973. She quickly fell in love with the small town atmosphere.
“The people here are very friendly and would give you the shirt off their backs,” said Brenda Koval, who makes crafts and sells them online. “In 1974, our young son, David, was killed while walking home from school. There was an outpouring of support from the residents during our time of grief. That meant a lot to us.”
Her husband nodded and gestured to the other homes in their small neighborhood.
“There are many other examples of what makes this area so special,” he said. “Back in 1985, Dunlevy had a big flood and everybody pulled together to help their neighbors get through that crisis. And whenever there is a major snowstorm, people will help each other dig out. That’s just the way we are around here.”
Lois Rock, 69, another resident of Stockdale, remembers plenty of hustle and bustle when she was growing up.
“As kids, we played on the hillside or swam in the river,” said Rock, while taking a break between games of bingo. “If we wanted to see a movie or go roller skating, we could easily take the bus to Charleroi. Because everyone knew each other, we all felt safe. It was like a big family. And in many ways, it’s still like that around here today.”
Monitoring the four corners
Wilkinson had a unique vantage point from which to experience life in both towns.
“I grew up in Stroall Acres, a one-block tract of land between Roscoe and Stockdale that is a part of Allenport,” said Wilkinson, now a Roscoe resident who works for the Pennsylvania Turnpike’s maintenance division. “Stroall is actually an acronym that’s formed from the first two letters of Stockdale, Roscoe and Allenport. Being in the middle, I became good friends with the kids from all those communities. Even though Roscoe and Stockdale had some differences, they also share many things in common.”
Wilkinson acknowledged that Roscoe and Stockdale have to deal with some challenges. “We would like to attract more businesses,” he said. “And sometimes maintaining properties can be a real hassle. Some of the banks that buy empty or foreclosed houses aren’t cutting the grass and trimming the weeds. That ends up falling back on the borough.”
He also is concerned about the growing drug problem in the Mon Valley. “That’s something we don’t want to see here in Roscoe and Stockdale,” said Wilkinson. “Fortunately, RESA, our regional police department, is doing a great job of keeping our area safe. Not only that, our towns are so small that a drug dealer would stick out like a sore thumb if he moved into town. We watch out for each other.”
Despite some of these problems, Roscoe and Stockdale have much to feel positive about, Wilkinson pointed out.
“Our quality of life is hard to beat,” said Wilkinson. “It’s a great place to live, work and play. Bingo is becoming a big attraction again and next month Stockdale will host its annual cash bash and car show. Both towns also have beautiful, riverfront parks. There’s something for everybody here. That makes our communities appealing for people who want to experience a slower pace of life in a quiet, little town.”
Robin, a clerk at Luntsky’s Market & More, a small convenience store that is located on Route 88, grew up in the area and decided to return to Roscoe after traveling around the world as a member of the U.S. Navy.
“It’s quiet and safe here,” said Robin, who declined to give her last name or age. “And being a water person, I enjoy water skiing and jet skiing on the river. I’m glad I came back.”
Enjoying the buy-in
Joslyn McWilliams Bilitski is another newcomer to the Roscoe-Stockdale area. After joining a dental practice in Roscoe, she met her future husband, Barry Bilitski, an admissions counselor at California University of Pennsylvania and native of Roscoe. Dr. Bilitski said that working and living in this area has been a dream come true.
“I always wanted to be part of a small community that I practiced in,” said Dr. Bilitski, 36, who grew up in Canonsburg and now lives in Stockdale. “Both of these communities are almost like little beach towns. Everything is so green and it’s so quiet you can actually hear the birds chirping and the waves lapping on the shore. I enjoy taking my three-year-old son Reed for bike rides to the park or downtown to watch the Halloween parade.”
Even though she has only lived in the area for a few years, Dr. Bilitski sees a bright future for Roscoe and Stockdale.
“There are a lot of nice families here who are active and take pride in their communities,” she said. “I think the residents of this area will continue to take good care of their respective towns.”
Wilkinson also feels optimistic about the future of Roscoe and Stockdale. And he even went so far as to make a bold prediction.
“Our towns get along well and are pulling it all together,” he said. “I don’t know if I’ll see it in my lifetime, but I think these two communities are so close-knit that they will eventually become one town. And that will make this area stronger than ever. We really are the Mon Valley’s best kept secret.”