An Interview on the life of Ralph H. Pearce (1917-2002)

Ralph H. Pearce (c.1990)

At our home in Moon Twp., Allegheny Co., PA
Conducted by son & daughter
Larry & Ellen Pearce
Transcribed from a tape recording
(with comments by wife, Ruth)

Richard & Charles Pearce house c.1900, today North Park Administration HQ

LP: What’s the first thing you remember as a child growing up at North Park?

RP: We had the feed mill right next door, and Uncle Wilbur and Aunt Edith lived right next door to us. We went to a one-room school, Walters School, but we had to walk up a hill to get to it.

LP: Before you went to school, do you remember playing around the mill? Did you have pets or animals?

Pearce Mill
c. 1925

RP: Well, with regard to the mill, when we were kids, they had a hired man by the name of Dave Irwin, and when us kids would go down to the mill, he didn’t want us climbing up over the bags because he was afraid they’d fall down on us. So, he would grab us and either open up the chute and threaten to throw us down the chute, or he would put us over his knee and with a long sewing needle, for bags, he’d put it through our pants and send us home. (laughing) He knew we were going to be in trouble whenever we got home.

LP: Was he concerned about the machinery?

RP: He was mostly concerned about the bags falling on us. They were all 100# bags.

LP: Were there big hoppers of grain?

RP: The hopper bins went down through the floor and through a grinder that ground up feed.

LP: Did the grain come in bags, and then they’d dump the bags in?

RP: These were mostly nearby farmers who brought the bags in to have it ground – (voice of daughter, Ellen with question) corn, oats, wheat.

LP: Was the mill pond there at the time, and were you afraid. Did you go out on that?

RP: The mill pond was done away with. They had a natural gas engine that did the grinding.

LP: What do you remember about the little girl who drowned, Pearl?

RP: I don’t remember anything about that. That was before my time.

LP: There were several little girls who died that are buried up at the Cross Roads Cemetery. (interruption by wife, Ruth) Who were you playing with at that time – Dale? Where were Walt and Howard?

RP: Walt was quite a bit older than me, so when he became 16, he worked for the county and put up deer fence around two or three farms. That was North Park, Allegheny County. He used a horse with a sled and hauled the fence, posts, [cement,] and wire around the area that they were fencing in.

LP: Was Howard part of that? Where was he at this time?

RP: He wasn’t more than 10 or 11 years old.

LP: He was a couple of years older than you?

RP: He was three years older than me.

LP: You would have been 9 when you moved to Mars, and Dale was younger than you. Did you play together?

RP: Oh, yeh. I was the only one who had a wagon. One Christmas, they wanted to know what I wanted, and I said, “A wagon,” so we had a place in our shed where I kept the wagon. I’d back it in as if it were a piece of equipment.

LP: Now, your grandfather and your great-grandfather each had 9 or 10 kids, so their must have been a lot of cousins around. Do you remember any of those?

RP: Uncle Wilbur and Aunt Edith had Beulah (now Miller), and Uncle Ed had Glen and Bessie and Albert.

LP: Where they around to play with?

RP: They were older. It was our house and Uncle Ed’s, I think called the Warner house, a farm nearby.

LP: If you were nine when you moved, did you have regular chores to do at North Park?

RP: I can’t think of anything specific.

LP: Where were your dad and mom while you were at North Park? Was she in the kitchen or did she have outside things, and what about your dad?

RP: In the summertime, she went out and worked in the fields, gathering up hay and potatoes and so forth.

Wesley & Bessie Pearce  with my brothers, Carl & Paul (1943)

LP: Did your dad have cows?

RP: He had cows and he milked them and he took the milk, at that time, down to the street car tracks, about six miles away, to go into Pittsburgh.

LP: At that time did he have a wagon or a truck?

RP: He probably started out with a wagon, but I don’t remember that.

LP: What kind of a truck did he have?

RP: He never had a truck until we were ready to move out to Mars. He put the milk cans in the back of a Ford touring car, maybe four or five cans.

LP: How many cows did he have?

RP: Oh, maybe 8 or 10.

LP: What did he do in the wintertime?

RP: I can’t remember. In the busy fall he would go down to help at the mill. He would take the afternoon and night shift up to midnight at the mill. They worked two shifts.

LP: And your mother, did she do a lot of cooking?

RP: Yeh, she did all of her own cooking and canning. We had a pretty good size garden right above the house. We raised chickens and took a lot of those to market in Pittsburgh.

LP: And eggs?

RP: Yeh, Eggs, and chickens, and vegetables.

LP: Do you remember eating the grain for cereal, or did she buy sugar and flour from the stores in a bag?

RP: I can’t recall. I know when we were in Mars, they had wheat ground up and we used our own wheat for cereal.

LP: As far as clothes, did she make her own clothes or did you buy most of those?

RP: I think we went to the North Side, Pittsburgh, and bought them.

LP: You told me that you don’t remember her delivering mail?

RP: No, that was before my time, before she was married. I had read something about it.

LP: Do you remember them saying how they met: Bessie Hill and Wesley Pearce?

RP: No I don’t.

LP: Were they pretty strict?

RP: Well, yes.

LP: Do you remember being disciplined or spanked?

RP: (laughing) Probably was. I don’t remember that.

LP: Do you remember going to church down at North Park? Did you go to the Methodist or the Presbyterian?

Salem Methodist Church, Pine Twp., PA (c.1900) Pearces, charter members

RP: They had a small Methodist Church up on Pearce Mill Road, about 2 miles up between 910 and the cross roads. Then they moved over to Wexford, Salem Church. I remember the time in 1924 when they moved from one site over to the other.

LP: Your Grandfather Charles was a charter member. He bought a window and the Pearce children bought a window, so that would be Wesley and his brothers and sisters.

RP: Wilbur, Ed . . .

(Ellen) How strict were your parents about church?

RP: All I remember was getting in the touring car, then at night for lights, they had lights up were the mirrors are on the new cars, like lanterns. That’s all the lights they had for the cars.

LP: Did you just go Sunday mornings, or did you go to night meeting too?

RP: We just went in the mornings.

LP: Did you visit then on Sunday afternoons?

RP: We either had company or we when to Neely’s or someplace Sunday after church.

LP: You didn’t have much connection, then, to the Presbyterian church?

RP: No.

LP: How is it that they’re all buried up at the Cross Roads Cemetery?

RP: That was the church that my mother went to before she got married, Cross Roads Presbyterian.

LP: So she was a Presbyterian and the Pearces were Methodist.

RP: Yes.

(Ellen) Did you have prayer and Bible study in the home as kids?

RP: Just at church, I think.

LP: Did you pray before each meal?

RP: (Laughing) About the way we do now – when we got company.

(interruption by Ruth about practices at the Gray house)

LP: Let’s talk about going to school. You’ve told stories about taking your sled to school and riding home. Was that big tree always there? [The old school foundation now supports the “School House Shelter” at North Park.]

RP: Walters School was up on the hill, and we took our sleds to school. At lunch time we’d ride down the hill. There was a real sharp turn down there. Sometimes if your couldn’t make the turn, you’d go up over the bank.

LP: Did you ever meet cars coming up?

RP: No. There weren’t many cars around at that time. Our one teacher had a car. That’s the only one I remember: Edward Anderson in Mars. He had a car.

LP: What was your favorite subject?

RP: Arithmetic.

LP: So, you were in the 3rd grade when you moved?

RP: Third or fourth grade. I think we went to Ingomar for two years.

LP: Do you remember getting trouble in school?

RP: No, I never got in trouble.

LP: You were quiet?

RP: Pretty much.

LP: So you and Dale were in the same school?

RP: Yeh. We went to Walters School for the first couple, three years and then over to Ingomar, and we rode a touring car driven by McKinna. Two people sat upfront beside the driver. Then they had a raised seat. Three people sat on that and three on the regular back seat. So that was 8 people from around our area.

(Ellen) Was there any pressure between going to school and staying out of school to do chores or work?

RP: Not in our case. Walt never went to high school. He just went to eighth grade.

(Ellen) Why did he leave early?

RP: First of all, there weren’t any high schools around. He wasn’t that good of a student. He started to work when he was 16, a couple of years on the fences and helping on the farm.

(Ellen) What kind of difficulties did he have with school, reading or .. .

RP: On one of his notes it talked about him doing something, and the teacher came out to correct him, and for some reason she went to kick at him, and he caught her foot. So that made it that our family had to go over to Uncle Lee Grubbs. He was the head of the school board. They had to go before a school board meeting to get him back in school. I can remember that.

LP: In his obituary it said that your Grandfather Charles was on the school board.

RP: I can’t recall. My dad was never on it, and I can’t recall any others, but Uncle Lee Grubbs was the head of the school board for McCandless Twp.

(Ellen) How many students did you have in a typical grade or class and how many grades were combined?

RP: I think there were eight grades.

(Ellen) Each grade . . . so there might be 25 ….

RP: One of the things I remember – one of the young girls in 1st grade wet her pants and the seat. The teacher made me go get a rag and wipe it up. (Laughing) I remember that!

LP: Why did you have to do it?

RP: Well, somebody had to do it, I guess.

LP: Did you mind?

RP: (laughing) I remember it!

LP: Did you have a girlfriend back then? Because most of us had some kind of romantic crush in, oh, the third grade at least.

RP: No

(Ellen) What would a typical school day be like? How early did you start? How many classes in the day?

RP: We started at 9 o’clock in the morning. By the time I was in grade school, it was always 9:00. I can’t figure why they have school here that starts at 7.

LP: How long did it last? Any idea?

RP: I think the lower grades got out at 3. The others got out at 4.

LP: But you went home for lunch?

RP: We carried our lunch.

LP: You said that you rode sleds, so that was at lunchtime.

RP: Yeh.

(Ellen) How far did you live from your school? Were you walking?

RP: Probably a mile. From the house up over the hill.

LP: Do you remember any music at your house?

RP: No.

LP: But, yet your mother read a lot. Were there a lot of books in the house?

RP: Not that many. I can’t recall any books.

LP: There would have been a few at school but no library, I suppose.

RP: I think the only books were the ones that were required.

LP: How did you heat the house? You mentioned natural gas at the mill.

RP: We had natural gas at our house.

LP: You don’t remember wood or coal or anything like that?

RP: No, they had one good-sized gas burned that fed our house, the mill, and Uncle Wilbur’s and probably Uncle Ed’s.

LP: Do you remember anything about any of our Austens living around North Park, because some are buried up there at Cross Roads?

RP: No.

LP: How about out in Ohio, because there were some reunions, before you were born, out there? There was an Edwin Pearce, who would have been your great uncle who lived out there.

RP: Yeh, the one that lived out there we went out to visit. He and his son were in a grocery business. They delivered groceries from their home throughout the community. I think they had a small truck.

LP: There was an Austen in Etna or the North Side who had a grocery store too. But that was an Austen. I think Edwin may have had a mill too, at least in the beginning.

RP: I can’t recall. We were out there a couple of times to visit. I can’t remember any mill.

LP: Do you remember any family reunions held at the farm?

RP: We had one reunion down below our house. There were a few fruit trees and we set up some table down there.

LP: After the park was set up, they did have them in the various groves. [See “Pearce Grove.”]

RP: Yeh.

LP: What was your impression of those early reunions? Do you remember any of the Nelsons? We never hear of that name anymore.

RP: No, I can’t recall.

LP: What was the feeling about the county coming in a making you leave? 1927. Were there some hard feeling or fear?

RP: Yeh. Well, it made a complete change in the community. I can’t remember. At that time, whatever was said, I never heard.

LP: How would your dad know what he was going to do, where he was going to go?

RP: When he sold the place he started to work on the other farm.

LP: Which farm?

RP: Out at Mars. I can remember going with him one day taking machinery out from North Park with horse and wagon. Taking stuff out there and storing it until he moved out there in March or April.

LP: So he didn’t work for anyone else until he moved out there?

RP: He worked one year, I think, for the county.

LP: Do you remember what he paid for that farm?

RP: Seems like he paid $13,000.

LP: How did you feel about moving?

RP: (laughing) Well, we had no choice. I don’t remember having any special feelings.

LP: Did you have more to do when you moved out there – chores?

RP: No, I can’t say that we did.

LP: Did you have any trouble getting into your new school?

RP: No, that was the Gilbreath (?) School in Adams Twp. A one room school, I can remember that.

LP: Wasn’t there a school up at the end of the road by Three Degree Road?

RP: It was up there as you went toward Valencia about ¼ miles on the left hand side.

LP: Did you change churches too or did you still go to Salem?

RP: We always went to Salem as long as my dad and mother lived.

LP: How soon after you moved did you get your tractor?

RP: I don’t know. First we had two teams of horses.

Work horses from the Wesley Pearce farm, Mars, PA

LP: What were their names?

RP: Clyde and Maude was one. That was a matched team. One morning Maude had put her foot up over the rope in the stall and she broke her hip whenever she fell. We had to shoot her. But, they were the type of team that knew exactly what to do. When they went around, the one on the inside would walk slower and wait for the other. They were a matched team. The other horses were odds.

LP: You had chickens. Did you continue the egg route and so forth from North Park to the North Side?

RP: I can’t recall, but Howard started to raise chicken and eggs.

LP: How many cows did you have at Mars?

RP: About 12.

LP: Your brothers Walt and Howard built homes on the farm. Why didn’t you take part of the farm?

RP: Well, I just wasn’t interested.

LP: But you could have at least lived there and worked. How did they pay for that, or did they?

RP: The property was given to them. Walt had 20 acres, and Howard got about 7. He built about 3 houses on them.

LP: Did you and Dale feel like you should have had something?

RP: We didn’t get anything until my dad died. When we settled the estate, we didn’t give anything to Walt, but a portion went to Howard because he got less. I remember one night, we were in bed, and Walt came home – he was out on a date. He had a little two-door Ford truck. He pulled in the overshelf (?) under the barn, and he ran in the house shouting, “Come quick. There’s a fire in the barn.” Here the truck caught fire. It was in there with all the cattle and the horses and everything else. So we all rushed out and pushed his truck out of the overshelf and turned it around and let it got down into the fields below. So, that’s how close the barn got to being burned down.

Ralph H. Pearce, 1935 Mars High School yearbook photo

LP: After high school, did you consider either college or the service?

RP: No.

LP: Why is that?

RP: Well, at that time college wasn’t a real upcoming thing for farmers.

LP: That was 1935. So it was too soon for the war, and so they weren’t drafting anybody.

RP: So, as soon as I got old enough to work …

LP: Did you start with the Civilian Conservation Corps?

RP: No, I started working for the Butler County Road Department. The only thing I remember about that was up by Zelienople they hauled stone in, and each head of the family had to break 25 feet of stone on the road. That was a requirement. They were welfare employees. At that time they had to go out and work on the roads. I didn’t have to do too much. I laid out the stakes for the workers.

LP: Did you know that there was a Depression going on? How was that evident?

RP: Yeh. There just wasn’t any money around. We didn’t do much.

LP: But people could have jobs if they wanted them?

Ralph and Ruth Gray Pearce wedding photo

RP: If you got one, you were lucky. I started by doing road work with Butler County. Then I started with the [North Pittsburgh] telephone company in 1940.

LP: Can you tell me about the things you did, especially the splicing?

RP: I started out as a lineman, and then I started installing telephones. They fired the cable splicer they had because he was drunk all the time. So, I went to Butler and learned to splice cable. I was up there two weeks, went out on the job and had two boxes with a piece of cable between. I learned to wipe cable joints and splice cable.

LP: Do you remember the first telephone pole you climbed?

RP: That was down on Rt. 910. They were putting up cable, so my boss said to me, “Put these spurs on and start climbing.” That was the first I climbed.

LP: Was that hard work?

RP: Pretty hard.

LP: What about being up in that tent in the cold weather?

RP: We usually had some type of heat – a little blow torch. You had to be real careful that it didn’t catch fire. I think that’s the only heat we ever had up there.

LP: They didn’t tell you how dangerous lead was, did they?

RP: (laughing) You soon found out when it started flopping around and some got on your hand.

LP: After 17 years you lost your job. What all did you do between the telephone company and working for Calgon Corporation?

RP: One summer I worked for the Monroeville telephone company. I think I spliced cable down there.

LP: You had four kids at home. Were you a little bit concerned?

RP: Pretty much. Son Paul was old enough that he was starting college.

LP: Those were the days before financial aid and scholarships and all that.

RP: At the time, I think state colleges only cost about $500 a year.

(Ellen) When you got out of high school, did you have a sense in what you were interested in, or did you just pick up different skills along the way?

RP: One summer I worked for Treesdale Apple Orchards. That was up north of Evans City. Whatever there was to do up there.

LP: You started to build a house along Route 8. How did you get that property?

Heavy snow at Cooperstown home (Dec.’49)

RP: We made arrangements to buy it, and my mother and dad gave us $600.

(Ruth interjects, “We lived in the basement for 13 months) Cowens owned the property. We had an acre there.

(Ellen) Had you helped anyone else build a home?

RP: I worked for her [Ruth’s] dad for several years off and on.

(Ellen) He was a carpenter.

LP: And he helped to build that house too?

RP: Oh yeh. He did all the carpentry work.

LP: Did you have to pay him?

RP: Yes, I think we paid $1 and hour. He had one helper.

(Ellen) Did you come up with the floorplan yourself?

RP: I think he helped lay it out.

LP: You always had a big garden: strawberries, raspberries, you raised turkeys. Where’d you get that idea?

RP: We just had that stuff at that time. We raised enough turkeys that we sold them at Thanksgiving.

LP: I remember bringing home peepees at Easter from Norris’ Hatchery across the road. I’d name them and raise them, then you’d make me hold them while you chopped off their heads.

(Ellen) We always had them in the dining room and feed them rolled oats. And there was a Mason jar full of water turned upside down inside a pie plate. They were all brough up in the house and then transferred back to the chicken coop.

LP: Then as they got a little older, we would put them in the garage in the corner. I remember riding my bike, and I finally got the thing going without the training wheels, and into the garage and right into the chicken coop the first time!

(Ruth) I have pictures of all that in black and white.

(Ellen) I remember you plowing the garden with a big seat on a riding tractor dragging the whatever, rototiller, behind that, and it would turnover sod almost like a wave coming in on the beach. I remember as a little tiny kid running behind that and getting my feet right under where the sod would turn over on my feet. It was warm, moist, and real soft dirt. Like playing in the sand.

RP: I probably brought the tractor over from the farm.

LP: Do you think you would have stayed on Route 8 if I- 79 had been built? You could have made it to Calgon in less than a half hour.

RP: I-79 didn’t exist at that time.

LP: So, how long did it take you to get to work?

RP: About an hour. Probably go down to Rt. 910 and across through Wexford.

LP: Would you have like to have stayed?

RP: Well, I though it was a permanent job for me. I think was caused me being fired at the telephone company was that I went over to Wexford one time and the man who had done the excavating was on the board of the telephone company. I saw the big hole he’d dug to put a concrete box down in for underground cable. He’d taken his backhoe and dug such a darn big hole, so when I went back to Gibsonia I told my boss about it. I guess he must have talked to Howard Brown, and it wasn’t too long after that . . .

LP: Yes, but you were involved in a strike, weren’t you? You were management and these guys were workers and you were between a rock and a hard place?

RP: I don’t ever remember being on strike. They weren’t union.

LP: I thought as management, you might have been involved in some politics there.

RP: No. During the war the company wasn’t allowed to give us a raise, so they set up a pension fund.

LP: How was it that Dale joined the Army but you were able to stay home?

RP: I was working for the telephone company, and I was their only cable splicer. So when my name came up several times, Kelly (?) went over and got my name taken off.

LP: Did Dale get drafted or did he volunteer?

RP: He got drafted. He had only taught in one school, I think, for a couple of years and he got drafted.

LP: Probably Walt was too old?

RP: Yeh. He was working for the steel mill and before that he worked for Wildwood Coal.

LP: I know they were making munitions or shells down there at Ambridge. I have a note here about Grandma Pearce being sick a lot. Was she that way when she was younger, and was your dad sick very much?

RP: The only time I knew my dad to be sick, he got a carbuncle under his arm and had to have it lanced. I remember they lanced it and they put cotton or something up in the hole, and that’s the way he got over it. He was down at North Park at that time.

LP: You tell the story of your dad being able to work out in the field all day with no water? I thought that was remarkable. You said he didn’t drink because he knew he’d just sweat.

RP: No, and he always wore heavy underwear, so when he would sweat it would absorb it. It was one-piece underwear with sleeves down to here (motion).

LP: And he was always real thin.

RP: Yeh.

LP: You mother was more stout like her sisters. Did you think she was sick a lot?

RP: Oh, I don’t think up until the last few years.

(Ruth – she fell off a ladder and broke her shoulder. She had an airplane bandage. I think we weren’t married then. Her bedroom was downstairs in the back near our living room.

LP: Did she help you with your homework? Was she that kind of a mother?

RP: I’m not sure that we did much homework at that time. No, if we had it, we did it out in the kitchen.

LP: Did you have a bathtub and running water?

RP: No.

LP: How’d you take a bath?

RP: A tub and a pitcher pump in the pantry.

LP: How old would you have been? A teenager?

RP: When we were out in Mars we had the back room that we bathed in. I think when we first went out, we bathed in the kitchen. That’s where the wood cookstove was.

(Ruth) We did the same thing went we lived in the basement.

LP: When did you get indoor plumbing then?

RP: Indoor plumbing out at the farm . . .Uncle Alec Nicely put it in. We had a windmill that made the water and we had a tank along side the coal range that heated the water. Then we ran a pipe up across the kitchen ceiling and into the one room upstairs.

LP: What about the telephone and electric? When did that come to North Park and Mars?

RP: We had a phone at North Park, and that was one of the things my dad and mother insisted on. He had to haul the poles from Mars.

LP: Electricity at North Park?

RP: We didn’t have electricity, I don’t think. Electricity was about 1933 or 35.

LP: At Mars?

RP: Yes.

LP: I have a note here that says that North Park was more for white people and all the black people went to South Park. Were you conscious of that? Do you remember when you saw your first black person?

RP: Personally, I don’t remember seeing any at North Park.

LP: And Mars?

RP: We had Mars High School and one or two families who worked at Treesdale were black.

[End of interview]

Last revised 2/16/24

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