Harrison man goes back to school to tell Birdville history
Editor’s note: This is part of an occasional series that features Alle-Kiski Valley people and the notable things that they do.
Decades ago, approaching planes would send elementary students in Harrison running back to their classrooms.
The two-man, single engine propeller-driven planes would come in low near Birdville School, using a hook to collect mail from a station in the school’s backyard.
That’s why a blueprint-style image of a plane over the school is featured on the cover of Bob Barrage’s new book, “Birdville School — A Portrait of Small-Town America in the 20th Century.”
The airmail system that operated there in the 1940s is only one facet of the history of the school and its neighborhood covered in his book, eight years in the making.
The book is available from Lulu.com .
Barrage, 59, is an architect who attended Birdville School for kindergarten through sixth grade from 1965 to 1972. He and his wife, Lori, live nearby in the house in which he grew up.
At 740 pages, collecting the history of the school and its neighborhood took twice as long as Barrage expected, and the resulting product has four times as many words — 320,000.
“I wrote this book for me,” he said. “I wanted it to be a book I was interested in.”
Will others find it so? “I think they will,” he said.
How Birdville got its name
Although never incorporated, Birdville existed as a postal address in Harrison from 1899 to 1927, when it became Natrona Heights. It started as a triangular area bounded by Springhill, Freeport and Burtner roads and grew from there.
The name comes from Richard Bird, who bought the land and began building houses, which people called “Bird houses.” Some of the original houses remain, but Barrage said there’s nothing remarkable about them. It was a working-class neighborhood and a bedroom community for people working nearby for Penn Salt, a chemical company formerly in Natrona.
“The name never went away,” Barrage said. “The old-timers still call it Birdville.”
The Birdville School that Barrage attended opened in 1922 and closed in 1989. It was preceded by a four-room building built in 1897 that was torn down in 1930.
Part of the building was demolished in 1986 after being damaged by mine subsidence a decade earlier.
After Birdville, Barrage graduated from Highlands High School in 1978.
Barrage enjoyed his time at Birdville School.
“I always hated school, but I hated Birdville less,” he said. “The teachers were wonderful. Most of the students were wonderful. It was a lot of fun.”
Barrage said he started work on his book in 2011 to distract himself from the stress of buying out his retiring employer, Thomas Wasilowski, and becoming owner of Wasilowski & Barrage Registered Architects.
With an interest in history, he found little written about Birdville School and wanted more.
“Why isn’t there a book?” he recalled wondering. “I guess if there’s not a book, you should just go write one.”
“It became a more general history of the area,” he said. “I didn’t realize how much amazing history there was here.”
In addition to aviation, some of the history contained in the book includes the Ku Klux Klan donating Bibles to the school, and that there had been an airport where the Heights Plaza shopping center and Sheldon Park public housing plan are today.
It covers local matters such as industrial history and the evolution of the school district, to the impact of broader events such as the Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War and the space race.
It also includes personal histories, such as L.G. Ripper, the school’s first principal who was also a baseball player with the Natrona Triple Linkers and played against future Hall of Famers with the Homestead Grays and the Pittsburgh Pirates.
“If you’re interested in local history, it’s in there,” he said. “If you went to Birdville, it’s more interesting. There’s enough local history I think people from this area are going to be interested.”
Following ‘loose strings’
To assemble the book, Barrage dove into the local history room at the Community Library of Allegheny Valley in Tarentum, and waded through microfilm, old newspaper stories and other documents. He also handed out questionnaires to the school’s former students and teachers.
“I found that people’s memories are terrible,” he said. “But they guided me to where I needed to go. I just followed one loose string after another.”
Accuracy was important.
“I always did my best to fact check,” he said. “I worked really hard to find the real story.”
In addition to Barrage, the school’s other notable alumni include photographer John Filo, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his iconic picture of the shooting at Kent State in 1970.
What remains of Barrage’s school is now home to Citizens Hose, which finished its renovations there in 1995. Ambulances now park in what had been the cafeteria.
With his book complete, Barrage looks back and is glad he did it.
“I learned a lot,” he said. “I met a lot of amazing people and heard some great stories.”
Brian Rittmeyer is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Brian at 724-226-4701, [email protected] or via Twitter @BCRittmeyer.