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 the Mon Valley.
Bud Hudock is sitting on an old wooden bench in front of his small service shop — no more than a stone’s throw away from the banks of the Monongahela River. He is enjoying the warm afternoon sunshine after tinkering with a motor for a few hours.
The door to his shop is slightly ajar, revealing a hodgepodge of used lawnmowers and snow blowers waiting to be fixed or sold. But there’s no hurry to return to work. Occasional relaxation breaks are one of the fringe benefits of being self-employed in a sleepy, little town like Webster.
“People drive so fast that they could blink their eye and not even know that they passed through Webster,” said Hudock, 78, as he watches a car streak by on Route 906. “They should stick around a little while.”
Hudock is not exaggerating by that much: Webster encompasses just 0.59 square miles, and its business district is only 12 blocks long. But for anyone who is looking for a good deal on a vintage push lawnmower or a little friendly conversation, Hudock’s Radiator Service is the place to be.
Within a few minutes, Harry Marker, Jim Martin and Bill Buck join Hudock at this popular hangout, where they share some stories and exchange a few jokes. The clock seems to run slower in Webster and these men savor every minute they spend together.
“People have come here to shoot the breeze since I opened my shop in ’64,” said Hudock, a lifelong resident of Webster. “There aren’t as many of us left in Webster these days, but we are still like family. That’s what has kept our town going all these years: we stick together through thick and thin.”
So much has changed since Webster was founded in 1833. But then again, much has remained the same. People from Webster continue to embrace a simpler way of living and they share a common identity. Their close-knit community is proof that life in a small town still offers many advantages.
“When we tell outsiders where we are from, they often look at us in disbelief,” said Hudock with a chuckle. “You’re from Webster? It’s almost like they are sympathetic to us. But we are the lucky ones. Webster has always been a special place to live.”
Although it is one of Westmoreland County’ smallest municipalities, Webster was once a booming commercial center. In 1796, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania granted Peter Bothwell a tract of land, about 26 miles upstream of Pittsburgh on the east bank of the Monongahela River, where he built a grist mill. In 1833, Matthew and Ephraim Beazell formally established Webster and named the town in honor of the great American statesman and orator Daniel Webster.
Webster soon became one of the leading industrial communities in the Mon Valley. The town featured a flour mill, shipbuilding center, saw mill and cabinet making shop. Webster also was a robust coal mining center and became well known for its commercial fruit orchards. In the early 1920s, Webster had more than 30 businesses, including four hotels, two doctor’s offices, liquor stores, barber shops, saddle shop and a drugstore. Over the next 20 years, the population expanded to nearly 1,000 persons. Life was good in Webster. But that was about to change.
By the 1940s, Webster was overshadowed by Donora, its sister town on the other side of the Monongahela River. Thanks to its flourishing zinc works, Donora was growing rapidly and was now the industrial epicenter of the Mon Valley. While Donora provided good-paying jobs for many of the residents of Webster, its factories were jeopardizing the health of people who lived on both sides of the river.
“Pollution was out of control in those days and Webster seemed to get the worse of it,” said Bill Buck, whose family owned and operated Buck’s Garage—a thriving Chrysler/Plymouth dealership and service center in Webster. “The pollution from the Donora Zinc Works also wiped out all the trees on our hillside and destroyed the grass in our yards. As kids, we had to stop swimming in the river because it was so filthy.”
Hudock recalls experiencing the Donora smog disaster during the last week of October 1948. According to Public Health Service researchers, the smog did the most damage in Webster. Nearly 56 percent of the town’s residents reported having some health problems because of the smog. Several deaths were also attributed to this ecological catastrophe.
“I will never forget the thick, yellow smoke that hung over our town,” said Hudock. “It almost suffocated us. Even after the smog cleared up, pollution continued to be a problem for many years. At that time, we were more concerned about the jobs. Smog was just something you had to put up with.”
While Webster’s economy began to taper off during the next 30 years, it still continued to prosper into the 1970s.
Pauline Aitken, 81, now a resident of Fellsburg, lived in Webster Hollow until her she was 20. She remembers Webster being a vibrant community when she was a child.
“We had grocery and candy stores, barber’s shop, shoemaker’s shop, hotel and bar, small school, boat club and even a dairy bar where you could enjoy ice cream while dancing to music that was playing on the juke box,” she said. “Back in those days, a passenger train and Greyhound bus also stopped at Webster on their way to and from Pittsburgh.”
Merei Dran Burnfield, 57, who recently returned to live in Webster, also treasures her memories of growing up in a small town.
“Even though Webster wasn’t that big, kids had a lot to do here,” she said. “We rode our dirt bikes on the hills and spent a lot of time at the ballfield in the summer. Back in the 70s, Nalepas General Store was still open and we went there for ice cream and candy. When we felt adventurous, we trekked across the Donora-Webster Bridge to go shopping at J.C. Penney’s or Greco’s Fruit Market.”
Burnfield was one of numerous Webster residents who depended on the Donora-Webster Bridge for quick access to stores, doctor’s offices and churches in Donora. Built in 1908, the bridge originally served rail traffic and later was converted for automobile usage.
“Many people from Webster didn’t drive, so they would walk across the bridge to Donora,” said Burnfield. “I got a little nervous crossing that bridge. You could see the river through the open grates on the bridge’s walkway. The bridge would also shake when a truck would drive across.”
Bridge stories are common in Webster and no one tells them better than Jim Martin.
“When they first opened the bridge, my grandfather rode a bull across the bridge and joined the inauguration parade in Donora,” he said. “Something spooked the bull and it jumped through a plate glass window in one of the buildings. Thanks goodness that my grandfather survived that harrowing experience.”
Martin lets that story sink in, then he begins telling an even more incredible tale of survival on the Monongahela.
“I recall hearing about a woman who became despondent and decided to jump off the Donora-Webster Bridge. She landed in a coal barge that was passing by. Fortunately, the coal softened her landing and she only suffered minor injuries. That lucky lady ended up turning her life around after that incident.”
While Webster has mostly led a quiet and uneventful existence, it has made the headlines a few times over the years.
On Oct. 13, 1962, President John F. Kennedy’s motorcade drove through Webster to Monessen, where the president delivered a speech at the A&P parking lot. About a decade later, Ernest Kline, who grew up in Webster and was a star quarterback at Rostraver High School, started an eight-year term as lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania.
Webster also got some notoriety in the 1960s when Ray Schultz killed his lover and her husband during an argument at a house on Kline Street. Then in 2011, Eli Franklin Myers III was killed in a gunfight with police outside his home on Shell Street, after he shot and killed East Washington police officer John David Dryer the previous night on Route 70.
Perhaps the biggest media story in recent years was the demolition of the Donora-Webster Bridge in 2015. For the most part, Webster’s residents took the news in stride. Life would go on for the community, just as it always has.
“It was sad to see the bridge go but I think it has caused more of an inconvenience for Donora, rather than Webster,” said Marker. “Now, people from Donora have to go across the Donora-Monessen Bridge, backtrack across Route 906 and head up Fellsburg Road to get to Route 51.”
Ironically, Hudock’s Radiator Service has benefited indirectly from the closure of the Donora-Webster Bridge. “There’s a lot more traffic going past my shop now and that has increased business,” said Hudock.
Today, Webster is struggling to hold its own. According to this year’s census, Webster’s population has dropped to 253 residents. Buck’s Garage closed about 30 years ago and the town no longer has a bank or gas station. Webster currently is home to only six businesses now: Hudock’s Radiator Service, Morgan Excavating, Site Safe Solutions, Webster Metals & Recycling, Flea & Consignment Store and Barb’s Place, a small bar hidden behind Rostraver Volunteer Department No. 1. Even Webster’s faith community has been hard it by the changing times. Only three churches remain standing: Webster United Methodist Church, The Carpenter’s Cross Church and Mon-Valley River of Life Church.
Still, there is much for the residents of Webster to be grateful for. Property values have remained fairly stable and taxes are still reasonable. Compared to other towns, Webster is a relatively safe place to live. And Webster has once again become a “green” community. (“We think Donora’s Hercules chemical plant sent over a plume of smoke that fertilized our hillside and made the trees grow again,” joked Hudock.)
But most importantly, Webster is still a place where people live in harmony and look out for each other.
As Webster’s sole Postal Service Employee, Ethel Minkus, 53, knows most of the residents very well. Because there is no mail delivery in Webster, people have to come to the Post Office on Wall Street to pick up their mail.
“They call our Post Office the Webster Café,” said Minkus with a laugh. “People like to stay around a little while and chat. But that’s a good thing because everyone gets to know each other. And that helps to build a strong and friendly community. I couldn’t think of a better place to live and work.”
As Hudock stands up and prepares to resume work in his shop, he pauses for a moment to reflect on what Webster means to him.
“Webster is like a pair of your favorite, well-worn shoes,” he said. “You can never get rid of them because they are so comfortable. Newer towns may come and go, but this community will always be home for me.”