Editor’s note: The following story is part of a monthly series of articles that examine the people, culture and history of the small towns that dot the landscape of Fayette County.
Jean Croushore’s Fourth Street home in Fayette City comes with a bird’s-eye view of downtown where she sets her sights on Vargo’s Newstand each morning to pick up a copy of the local newspaper.
The 89-year-old native has been a loyal customer of the mom-and-pop store that is among a handful of surviving businesses on Main Street in what used to be a thriving coal mining town, and the site of the Naomi Mine explosion, Dec. 7, 1907.
Herb Vargo, mayor and owner of Vargo’s Newstand, said his late father bought and operated the family business that will celebrate 50 years in 2017.
“People come in when they need a quart of milk or something in a pinch,” said Vargo. “It’s hard for us little people to stay open, but we’re hanging in there.”
Situated on the corner is Eley/McCrory Funeral Home as you enter town from north of Route 201, which serves as the borough’s main thoroughfare.
And, nestled in between Vargo’s and the funeral home is Tom and Vic’s Tavern with all three businesses located a few buildings away from each other on the same side of the street.
Over the last 30 years, Jim Eley Sr., funeral home owner, said he’s watched the town’s buildings slowly close one-by-one. But, it wasn’t long ago the bustling community had a popular bugle corps he joined as a teenager in the 1950s.
Aside from its regular performances in parades, Eley recalled the corps also played at festivals in Winchester, Virginia and Hagerstown, Maryland. “You couldn’t get kids to do that today,” he chuckled.
The 75-year-old said he started working at the funeral home during high school when he was 16, but was drafted shortly after to serve in the Vietnam War.
When he returned, Eley attended the Pennsylvania State University and graduated from the Pittsburgh Institute of Mortuary Science.
Eley purchased the funeral home 20 years ago, and operates it along with his son, Jim Eley Jr.
Unlike today, Croushore said the town’s corridor used to bustle with families and children. “I’d like to see the town the way it was...it used to be a place where everyone went on Saturday and did their shopping downtown,” she said.
In the heart of town sits a vacant community center owned by Fayette City Volunteer Fire Department used for town meetings.
Vargo recalled at one time the three-story building was a recreation hub for family activities, most memorably plays.
Also shuttered are grocery stores, a bank, movie theater, restaurant, drug store, barbershop and hardware store, all left to deteriorate.
According to Vargo and Eley Jr., most of the buildings have been abandoned by their owners while others have either been razed, condemned or destroyed by fire and replaced by parking lots that are seldom occupied.
A landlord himself, Vargo pointed to a number of dilapidated buildings along Main Street that have fallen into disrepair by their owners. He said borough council is currently working to clean up the town’s blight by developing an ordinance to hold absentee landlords more responsible for maintaining their property.
Two blocks behind Vargo’s business is Water Street that runs along the Monongahela River where Croushore said a ferry served as the primary means of transportation in the 1930s while she was growing up.
She explained that a large iron wheel remains at the wharf, which sits at the foundation of the railroad track where people used to board for trips to neighboring Belle Vernon and Pittsburgh.
For a brief time, Croushore lived in the country a few miles out of town that is now part of Jefferson Estates and also in Philadelphia for five years during World War II working for the federal government.
Like Eley Sr., Croushoure returned home following the war to be with her family and take care of her parents.
On the corner of Water and Main streets is a former tailor shop. Eighty-three-year-old native Jim “Mac” McKevitt said he purchased the building 60 years ago for $388 and turned it into a barber shop.
Inside the shop, a homemade sign hangs next to a large mirror with handwritten prices for haircuts at $11 and beards, $5.
Customers like Carl Mood who’s been coming for 45 years don’t seem to mind waiting as they enjoy talking about baseball. Particularly, former classmates that became professional players in the major leagues, such as the late Jim Russell, who played center field for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Initially, McKevitt wanted to pursue a career in pharmacy after returning home from serving in the Korean War, but changed his mind because of the time involved. “It was six years and a barber was less,” said McKevitt. “I was already married, so I went to Pittsburgh Barber College on the North Side.”
During his childhood, McKevitt said he rode the ferry with his older brother and friends. They also took a street car to Pittsburgh and would watch Pirates games at the former Forbes Field. “There was no T.V.,” said McKevitt.
Eley Sr. said his grandfather, who migrated from Poland, operated the ferry while living in Allenport. He later moved to Fayette City and opened a store and confectionery situated across from the funeral home.
Despite the town’s economic hardship, families like the Vargo’s and Eley’s have remained active in their community.
Eley Sr. said he joined the fire department in 1957 and served 28 years as chief, while his son remains a member and is the borough council president.
Compared with many local towns, Eley said Fayette City was greatly affected during the Great Depression and never fully recovered. “When you look at when you start losing churches and stores you just lost your heritage,” he said.
Today, council is taking a positive approach to resurrect the town with plans to apply for federal funding for a park at the corner of Route 201 north where motorists enter from both directions.
Vargo said the park would be a place that residents could relax and bring their families. Plans are to construct it at the site of a former auto parts store that previously functioned as a bakery.
“We want to have something good to look at when people come in to town,” said Vargo.