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Thursday, February 16, 2017

Bill Pekarski: Day 170, Living life on my terms

Bill Pekarski:

Day 170, Living life on my terms.

This is the project that just keeps on going and going, and I am enjoying every minute of it. The funny thing is that I was never much of a “history buff,” but I love people and experiences. Things that are tangible, people who are real, and things that are innately interesting tend to make up the majority of my stories. Other stories serve to honor the people about whom I write.

I really enjoy writing of things and people around our area that are unique and may not be all that well known beyond our borders of Potter County. Take the Ice Mine for instance. I am certain that Gary Buchsen is champing at the bit to open for the season and welcome visitors from literally around the world. When you are there, you need to look through the sign-in book and see where visitors came from just to look at Potter County’s most famous natural wonder.

Thinking about that, there have been many discussions lately about “heritage tourism” and getting the word out about the many hidden gems around our area. Many of these places and things have been around for so long that local may tend to take them for granted, but with productive and aggressive advertising we could all profit from them as points of interest. Maybe we could develop a Potter County tourist guide to special places that can't be found anywhere else. I think it is time to “bang our drum,” don’t you?

One thing that comes to mind almost instantly for me is the story of Eliot Ness and how he spent the final years of his life in Coudersport, passing away here in 1957. The story has all sorts of local ties with places like the Crittenden Hotel, where Eliot toiled with writing his autobiography before it was sensationalized by Hollywood. We could have a walk through town and tell the real story of the man and how he was on the ground floor of the watermarking industry and the local company T-C Specialties. There are so many stories that could be extracted from his short 2 years in our town.

Many people don’t realize that one of the most famous musicians in the world attempted to build a community for Norwegians in the new world during the mid-1800’s right here in Potter County. Many people will hear the name of Ole Bull and they only recall a state park with that name. However, if you go over to the Scandinavian countries and say his name, you will get a much more eager and different response. Ole Bull was a hero in his home country of Norway and is still respected and revered to this day.

And then there is the sign one reads when approaching Shinglehouse on Pa. Rt. 44 -- "Home of the first Miss America?" Is that a legitimate claim? Is it a fact, or a legend? Well, it’s a complicated story, and my friend Paul Heimel enlightened me as he actually took time to investigate the assertion.

In 1880, Shinglehouse’s Myrtle Meriwether was indeed honored as “the most beautiful unmarried girl in the nation.” This took place during a pageant in Rehoboth City, Del., where P.T. Barnum-style promoters were billing the winner as “Miss United States.” Among the judges was inventor Thomas Alva Edison.

Just days before the 1880 pageant, Myrtle was tending to business at her modest millinery and gift shop in Shinglehouse, making plans to attend the annual convention of the Northern Pennsylvania Women’s League in Rehoboth City.

During a break, she was strolling along the boardwalk when she noticed a poster encouraging young women to enter a beauty contest. This piqued her interest, especially when she discovered that Pennsylvania was among the four states not yet represented.
The promoter convinced Myrtle that she met all of the contest’s criteria – physical beauty, single, young, at least five-foot-four and weighing less than 130 pounds.

According to records maintained by the Oswayo Valley Historical Society, Myrtle discussed the offer with her friends and, after a restless night, decided to buy a gown with what little cash she had and take the plunge.

Credible accounts of the pageant itself are lacking. Some writers over the years have speculated or embellished what few threads of information can be found. Col. Henry Shoemaker, whose colorful writings were published by the Pennsylvania Folklore Society, claimed, “Myrtle almost fainted from shock and trembled like an aspen when she was led forward to receive gifts of honor.”

What is known is that she was chosen based on “attractiveness of costume and the combination of poise, face, figure, hands, feet, carriage and grace.” She was presented a gilded plaque as well as a complete bridal outfit.

Now what we have to understand is this was long before Miss America would make public appearances and endorse commercial products as the idol of women across the nation. The title was no springboard to success in show business and modeling.

Instead, Miss Meriwether sold the bridal trousseau for about half of its $250 value. That money then covered the hotel bills from her extended stay and her train fare back to Shinglehouse.

P.T. Barnum and other exploiters actually did become involved later on. They succeeded in evolving the fledgling Miss United States competition in Delaware to the Miss America Pageant, which was headquartered in Atlantic City, N. J., for more than eight decades before its relocation to Las Vegas.

Myrtle Meriwether is relegated to a local footnote to national history. The modern Miss America organization only charts its history back to 1921. However, Miss Meriwether’s success is duly noted in the archives of the Rehoboth City Historical Society and the Rehoboth Beach-Dewey Beach Chamber of Commerce.

And, as far as the people of the Oswayo Valley are concerned, the attractive young shopkeeper gives them a distinction that no other area will ever have. Just another of the many drums that we need to start banging in my opinion.

Today I want to dedicate my progress to all the purveyors of our history who work hard to not only preserve them, but to also present them to the masses.

Bill Pekarski This picture of Myrtle Meriwether and others can be found in the archives of the Oswayo Valley Historical Society. A chance encounter in Rehoboth City, Delaware, led to her being crowned as “Miss United States” in 1880.

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