Water Under the Bridge

By John F. Oyler
Copyright © 2017



Father’s Day
June 15, 2017



Every year, when Father’s Day arrives and I begin thinking about my father, I realize I should record what I know of his life in a column. This year I planned ahead and was able to compile a modest biography of him.

Francis Marion Oyler was born in Quincy Township, Franklin County, Pennsylvania in 1891, the youngest of eight children, six of whom (five boys and a girl) survived childhood. Before he was a year old, his father was killed in an accident while working for the Cumberland Valley Railroad.

His mother was left with a farmhouse, some outbuildings, and five or six acres of farmland. With the help of her family, the Smiths, who lived on an adjoining farm, she was somehow able to keep the family together and see the children through to adulthood.

One of my father’s favorite books was “Five Acres and Independence”, a self-help book popular in the Depression. I am sure it reminded him of his youth when the family subsisted on a large garden, a couple of hogs each year, and a flock of chickens. To quote Hank Williams, Jr., “Country folks can survive!”

My father was able to graduate from Quincy High School in 1910 and then taught school in the Quincy Elementary School until the Fall of 1911 when he went to Cumberland Valley Normal School (now Shippensburg State University) for a two year program in teaching. Following this he taught grades 5 to 8 in the United Brethren Orphanage school in Quincy for a year. In the Fall of 1914 he enrolled at Penn State in their Civil Engineering Department.

His college career was interrupted after three years by World War I. He was among the first men to be drafted and was sent to Camp Grant, Illinois, for infantry basic training. Fortunately, at this time General Pershing had been to France and had concluded the existing railroad system could not support the AEF. He had everyone in the service with either engineering training or experience working for a railroad reassigned to building a new (Army) railroad.

He was assigned to the 35th Engineers in La Rochelle, France, and spent his time overseas assembling railroad cars from subassemblies shipped from the United States. He returned in time to go back to Penn State in the Fall of 1919 and to graduate in 1920.

We think he initially took a job with the Pennsylvania Department of Highways but soon moved to the Pennsylvania Railroad. He had assignments in the Maintenance of Way Departments at Gallitzin, Renovo, and West Brownsville before becoming Supervisor, Maintenance of Way at Gallitzin in 1929.

In 1926 he was involved in a horrible accident in Erie. According to a newspaper clipping in the November 17, 1926 Kane Republican, “He was crushed between two cars … and was so badly hurt that he is not expected to recover”. Fortunately the prognosis proved incorrect.

When he was assigned to the Renovo Division he lived in a boarding house (Sis Troxell) in Emporium. One of his friends there was Philip Klees, a fellow World War veteran who had been gassed during the war. Through Philip he met my mother who at the time was a widow with a young son, Wilbur Bingeman.

They were married in 1930 and moved into the large railroad building close to the Gallitzin Tunnels. He was very proud of the Gallitzin responsibility which included the Horseshoe Curve and the tunnels. In later years I met two of the track gang members who worked for him and was pleased to hear how well liked and respected he was.

The next year he was transferred to Dunkirk, New York, where I was born. That assignment ended in 1934 with a transfer to Pittsburgh. My parents and I moved into “the little stone bungalow” at 823 Bank Street, which we rented from Johnny Capozzoli on behalf of Silhol Realty.

One of my memories of those days is the 1936 St. Patrick’s Day Flood. My father showed up at home in midday to change clothes and pack a bag; a train was trapped inside a tunnel somewhere in Ohio. Three days later he returned home, exhausted and filthy dirty, carrying a long handled axe he had acquired. He promptly went to bed and slept for many hours.

At some point in these years my father decided that a job immune to regular transfers and the upheaval of moving was preferable to a career, so he transferred to the engineering department. I’m sure my imminent enrollment in first grade and the eagerly anticipated arrival of my brother Joe played a big part in this decision.

He was a passionate gardener and was frustrated at the lack of space at our Bank Street home to have a garden. One year he started a garden “over the hill”. Each evening we would walk down Chestnut Street to Chartiers and then go down the hill to a spot close to Chartiers Creek. Close by was a small natural pond that providing water for a garden.

Thanks to frequent tending the garden prospered and was approaching harvest when a severe summer storm forced the creek out of its bed and washed out the garden completely. I am sure this expedited his decision to find a new home with enough room for a real garden.

In 1937 we moved into 1953 Lafayette Street, a nice three bedroom two story brick house designed by architect James Wallace. It had a large, level backyard which soon became a highly productive garden. The 40’ by 40’ garden it provided was still not sufficient for my father; on several occasions he spaded up plots in nearby vacant lots to plant corn.

He was an excellent gardener, easily embarrassing the efforts of our neighbor Holland Russell (and later Joe DiMarco) to compete with him. We supplied the whole neighborhood with tomatoes, cucumbers, and squash and always had enough green beans, lima beans, carrots, corn, and peas to keep my mother busy canning.

Following President Roosevelt’s re-election in 1936 unemployment spiked again, approaching twenty percent. The railroad responded to this by temporarily furloughing employees, including my father. I have distinct memories of his frantic efforts to find another job, faced with a mortgage on a new house.

Fortunately he was able to find a good job with the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, as resident engineer for two of the contracts (between Donegal and New Stanton) for the original construction of the highway. Ironically, the training for this assignment was back at Shippensburg.

This was a job he enjoyed considerably although it required him to live in a rooming house in Mt. Pleasant, commuting home only on Wednesday nights and weekends. On one of the Wednesday night trips home he announced that I was going back with him the next morning. I spent a memorable two days with him, bouncing around the jobsite in a pickup truck and getting rides in a bull dozer.

The construction was nearly completed when he was called back by the railroad. He worked in the Panhandle Division engineering office until he suffered a stroke in 1956, a few months before his planned retirement. During this period I had a lot of opportunities to accompany him on local jobs, frequently functioning as a surveyor’s helper.

I think he enjoyed this job although it lacked the variety and excitement of his earlier assignments. It did allow him to come home each evening and work in the garden and to share the day by day activities in which my brother and I were involved.

Being a farm boy at heart my father always carried a pocket knife; in my memory, a Barlow. I inherited the habit, feeling uncomfortable if I don’t have my Swiss Army knife in my pocket. The biggest difference between us is that his knife was always perfectly sharp, so sharp that a significant part of the blade had been worn away by constantly sharpening.

Once we were old enough to enjoy flying kites he showed us how it really should be done. In those days engineering drawings were made on linen cloth covered with paper. Properly “washed out” the linen was perfect material for box kites, covering splines cut from orange crates. We had many happy days flying kites with him.

Up until he had his stroke one of his greatest joys was small game hunting, taking Joe or me along to flush out rabbits or pheasants from brush piles. He carried a “poacher’s gun” in the back pocket of his hunting coat. It was a twenty caliber Stevens that could be disassembled into two parts. Its barrel was sawed off to shorten it and the stock similarly made smaller.

Whenever he spotted a rabbit sitting in a clump of grass, he would pull out the gun, assemble it, insert a bullet, and hand it to Joe or me to shoot the rabbit. Quite a thrill for a child too young to hunt legally!

In addition to meeting our mother there, he enjoyed his stay in Emporium because the bird hunting was so good. Joe is convinced he hunted ruffed grouse there; I thought it was quail. At any rate he was proud of his ability to flush a covey of birds and to get one with each barrel of a double barreled shotgun.

He also enjoyed “shooting mark” and even set up a short indoor range rifle range in our basement. By opening the door to the coal cellar we were able to set up a target thirty or thirty feet away from the rear wall and fire “twenty twos” into it.

He recovered from his stroke sufficiently to be able to enjoy five more years before dying in 1961 a few months before his seventieth birthday. Ironically Philip Klees, whose health had been precarious as a result of his World War I experience, lived long enough to come to Bridgeville for the funeral and to buy a round of drinks at the Legion Hall in my father’s memory.

My biggest regret about his life is that he passed away before his grandchildren were born. He loved kids and would have been thrilled to know them.

Although he has been gone over fifty five years he is constantly in my thoughts. Every time I pass a decaying downed tree in the woods I remember the Sunday afternoon drives we used to take. We would go south on the Washington Pike and turn off on some obscure side road. Suddenly he would pull off the road and remove a bushel basket and a shovel and head off looking for such a log.

He called the decaying remains of logs “woods dirt” and was keenly aware of its value as a supplement to the soil in our garden. I suspect that block of ground on Lafayette Street still contains the most nutritious soil in Allegheny County.

Recently when I dug up a tiny plot at my wife’s headstone in the cemetery, I sensed my father shaking his head as soon as my foot engaged the shovel. He was skilled at all the chores farm did, and he really enjoyed spading a garden, one more thing I failed to master. Splitting firewood into kindling is another skill I never picked up; I think of him each time I attempt it.

He was thrilled with technology. He talked about the miracle of being able to hear Madame Ernestine Schumann-Heink sing “Stille Nacht” from New York, on the radio. Years later he was thrilled by watching Don Larsen pitch a perfect game for the New York Yankees in the 1956 World Series, on television.

He was always annoyed that both Francis and Marion could be considered girls’ names. His names came from the Revolutionary War hero, Francis Marion, ”the Swamp Fox”. His family, and my mother, called him Marion. Railroad associates called him Frank. He frequently signed his name “F. M. Oyler”, perhaps in mild rebellion.

Of all the things he could do well, best of all was his skill as a father. My brother and I are eternally grateful we had him as our father. Happy Father’s Day, Dad!

Water Under the Bridge

  • "Water Under the Bridge" is a column written by historian John Oyler. It appears weekly in the Bridgeville Area News, a TribTotal Media publication, as well as in a more expanded form on his blog.

The Author

  • Aside from being Bridgeville's foremost historian, Dr. John F. Oyler is also an associate professor at the Univeristy of Pittsburgh, where he teaches classes in civil engineering.

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