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For several Saturdays in April, I wanted to start my road trip season by heading 90 miles east to Butler County, Pa., just north of Pittsburgh. But the unusually rainy weather prevented me from doing so until last month.
After sending for a visitors guide for the county, I wanted to check out several towns which sounded interesting, including the county seat of Butler (population about 13,500). The Bantam Jeep was developed there.
The city is not a tough place to reach. To get there, one can go east on Interstate 76 to I-680 through Youngstown and then take Routes 224 and 422. It takes about 1 1/2 hours to get there.
The fact that the Bantam Jeep originated in Butler and the city was the builder of steel railroad cars for 80 years were fascinating historical facts for me. Rail cars were built there from 1902 to 1982.
At one time early in the 20th century, Butler was home to five automobile builders -- Russell-Sherman, Huselton, Standard Eight, American Austin and American Bantam. Austin eventually merged with Bantam.
The Bantam story is the most interesting. The company made Bantams from 1937-40 in the same factory, and that facility made trailers until its 1956 closing.
The firm recognized the potential for a light reconnaissance vehicle for military use in the late 1930s, and delivered a Bantam Reconnaissance Car prototype to the military in 1940.
But the U.S. Army gave Ford and Willys-Overland the Bantam's blueprints and they ended up producing the vehicles the Army required. The two firms made 600,000 Jeeps during World War II.
Bantam's Jeep evolved into the Willys MB and Ford GPW. After producing only 2,675 Jeeps, Bantam ceased production and went into making trailers. The Bantam Jeep Heritage Festival takes place each June in Butler. In fact, it's coming up this weekend.
Diamond Jim Brady and John Hansen opened the Standard Steel Car Works in Butler, which merged with Pullman Inc. in the 1930s to become Pullman-Standard.
After WW II, 4,000 people worked at the Butler plant, and about 3,000 were working there just prior to the plant closing in 1982, resulting in a $60 million loss to the county, plus a loss of 2,000 jobs at related county industries.
In the 1990s, the plant was raised and Pullman Square shopping center was built there. The large Pullman-Standard office building, erected in 1910, sets vacant, with plans to possibly renovate it into apartments or condos.
WHAT'S IN BUTLER
The Butler County Historical Society operates three properties of interest to history buffs -- Sen. Walter Lowrie House (1828), Little Red Schoolhouse (1838) and Cooper Cabin (1810). The Lowrie House sets behind the courthouse and the schoolhouse is near Butler Middle and High schools.
Furnishings from a past owner of the house are situated in appropriate rooms, the original Wilton wall-to-wall carpet has been recreated and the house has been returned to its look in the late 19th century. It is open for tours at various times during the year.
Little Red was used as a school until 1874, then as an office, library, meeting room and center for the American Red Cross during WW II. It has been a museum since 1966 and was renovated in the 1990s.
Nancy Cooper was born and lived in Cooper Cabin for 100 years from 1861 to 1961. The historical society took it over in 1976. It is furnished with family heirlooms, period pieces and memorabilia. A spinning house, spring house, tool shed and herb garden are on the grounds.
The Maridon Museum is a fantastic place for art enthusiasts. Open since 2004, it is the only museum in western Pennsylvania with a focus on Chinese and Japanese art and culture. It is the legacy of lifelong Butler resident Mary Hulton Phillips.
The Maridon's permanent collection includes more than 800 art objects, including jade and ivory sculptures, tapestries, landscape paintings, scrolls and artifacts. Some items date back to the second and third millennium B.C.
Kelly Automotive Park, built in 1934 and known as Pullman Park until recent years, is home to the Butler Blue Sox of the summer collegiate Prospect League and local school and community teams. Former occupants were farm clubs of the New York Yankees, Cleveland Indians and Detroit Tigers.
Among some Major League greats who played there were Lou Gehrig, Whitey Ford and Joe DiMaggio. Across the street is the iconic Pullman Park Bar, one exterior side of which is painted with a mural featuring ball players and the town's Jeep and steel heritage.
And speaking of murals, there are several around town relating to the Pullman-Standard Co., steel industry, town namesake Gen. Richard Butler and other things, including a colorful old-fashioned Coca-Cola advertisement.
The county courthouse was built in 1885, and is a three-story, brick and sandstone building in an interpretation of the high Victorian gothic style. It features a large central, four-faced clock tower with two double pyramid-shaped roofs, several stained glass windows and a grand staircase connecting the first and second floors.
Butler has a downtown theater on North Main Street called the Penn, but it sets empty now, although some restoration work has been done in recent years. There also are two craft breweries within two blocks of each other on Main Street.
AK Steel's Butler Works is one of the largest employers in town. It sets on 1,300 acres along Connoquenessing Creek, a major waterway through the city.
Founded in 1908 to make railroad wheels, the Forged Steel Wheel plant became Columbia Steel Co. in the early 1920s, was taken over by the American Rolling Mill Co. (ARMCO) in 1927 and AK Steel in 1999. The plant makes flat-rolled carbon, stainless and electrical steels, plus pipe and tubular products.
There also are some beautiful old churches downtown, including St. Paul Catholic, First United Methodist and Grace Calvary Lutheran.
OVER IN ZELIENOPLE
The borough of Zelinople is on the Butler-Beaver counties border and has a population of about 3,800. It was named for the eldest daughter of founder Baron Dettmar Basse, whose name was Zelie. The baron arrived in 1802. Townfolks refer to the borough as "Zelie."
The Zelienople Historical Society operates the 1805 Buhl House and the 1808 Passavant House on Main Street. The Buhl House displays artifacts related to the town's schools, commerce and daily life, and the Passavant House features clothing, furnishings, family portraits and several thousand letters written by and to the Passavant family.
Phone: 330-541-9400, Ext. 4189