Over Thanksgiving, we accompanied my grandmother to Foxburg on what she called her “Sentimental Journey.”
She had wanted to do this trip for a long time— especially after publishing her memoir, A Good, Long Life, a few years ago. We were looking for a time when we could all come together, and Thanksgiving worked out perfectly.
In the weeks leading up, my mom contacted a number of people— from the director of my grandmother’s nursing academy in Pittsburgh to the Foxburg town librarian—asking if granny could meet with them. She forwarded us response after response from people who were happy to help.
My grandmother was born Anna Mae Sheakley in Foxburg in 1922. Though it had been some 30 years since her last visit there, my grandma still knew Foxburg like the back of her hand. As soon as we neared St. Petersburg, she told us exactly which exit to take and proceeded to give us detailed directions to the house she was born in. We barely needed the GPS because granny’s flawless memory led us to every landmark on her itinerary!
She knew, for instance, that the second house she lived in as a child was four lots from the end of the street… which road to take to her church… and how to get up to the golf course clubhouse, where she once had a family party. It was all filed away in that steel trap of hers— 91 years’ worth of memories.
My grandmother especially loved visiting the library in Foxburg. The librarian and bookkeeper were so gracious, bringing out yearbooks and albums with photos of my grandmother through the years. We even saw a photo of her father with his coronet and an old teacher’s gradebook listing all his straight-As!
Another special moment happened on the last day of our trip. As I was running around Foxburg in the early morning, I passed the United Methodist Church and saw there was a service at 8:30. Granny was still asleep, but I thought it would be nice to go on her behalf and see the church she spent so many Sundays in. I was clearly an outsider there, but every single person welcomed me in with a smile and a handshake. Many of them knew my grandmother’s family. One gentleman carpooled with my great grandfather and another worked with my grandmother’s brother at a furniture store. He and his lovely wife came down to the café afterwards to meet my grandmother. I know that meant a lot to her.
Later that day, as we gathered for one last meal together, we decided to interview Granny about her trip. Here’s what she had to say:
Q:What has changed in Foxburg since you lived there?
A:Well that’s a long story… we don’t have enough time! I mean it’s a tremendous change. It was a sleepy little town then, and it’s been restored. There’s a significant change in the atmosphere. The bridge –which was the entrance to our little village – used to be quaint, and now it’s very modern. The shops are nicer too. Before, it was just where we spent all our time. We had our church and our school, and that was our recreation. Everything seemed minimal to me… a lot smaller. Of course things are missing that used to be, but I can still picture it the way it was. That’s progress. I mean, I left long ago… so the changes are good, and it’s all for the better.
Q:What do you think of Foxburg today?
A:Oh, the people are so friendly, just like they always were. They didn’t know us from Adam, but they were all so kind. Maybe I look like a little country girl! I think Foxburg is more of a vacation spot now. It’s where people can come to relax. If they want a chocolate bar, they can go to the candy store. And if they want to go wine tasting, that’s OK too. I like the little red caboose because Foxburg was a railroad town, and my dad probably spent some time in that little red caboose!
Q:What brought your family there?
A:Well, I really can’t recall where my grandparents were born, but it was in Pennsylvania. Mother and dad both lived way out in the country before they came here. Their parents were maybe farmers in the area. A lot of my family came from Punxsutawney, but I don’t know that we have a family rich heritage. Our name is probably not in the archives anyplace. We were just kind of poor, country folks. The railroad is what brought my parents to Foxburg. My dad worked for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and mother had gone to the teacher’s college about 20 miles away. She taught in a country school outside of St. Petersburg.
Q:What was it like talking to the people in Foxburg?
A:It made me feel like I was amongst friends and neighbors. I may not have lived next door to them, but they were all neighbors in a way. The names were all familiar too, and fortunately I remembered them. One of the men was a McCoy and said he lived down by the bait house— and that’s where Fred McCoy lived! Foxburg is where I made my beginning. It’s good to come back and see the people here. Not many of the people of my era are still here, but perhaps their offspring are. If I saw a child on the street, I probably knew his great grandmother! I would say it’s very nostalgic for me, thinking about how it used to be and what it is now.
Q:I know you liked going to the library a lot. Was that your favorite part of the weekend?
A:That was a good beginning and much more than I expected. Obviously, the bookkeeper found just the right things. Carol knew we were coming and made us feel welcome, like family was there. I looked up at the wall and saw my dad playing his coronet, and that meant a lot. It was the beginning of the weekend, and I felt like I was back home, more or less.
Q:How did it feel to be back after all these years?
A:I’m so grateful that you guys did this for me. I haven’t cried a lot, but I’ve had a few tears. It meant a good deal to stand by that red door of the church because I knew every nook and cranny of that place. And to go across the river and see where my parents lived in their final years… where grandpa planted a yard full of evergreens and they grew big and tall… that was neat. They’re gone now, but it’s still neat. It was good to see people who knew my parents. It was good to talk to someone who knew my only brother and my dad. It was a real joy being here.
I know I speak for my whole family when I say we couldn’t agree more. We had a great time in Foxburg.
Over our three days in your beautiful town, we had a chance to celebrate Thanksgiving in the cozy Allegheny Grille, did a tasting at Foxburg Wine Cellars, stuffed ourselves silly at the delicious Foxburg Pizza and Country Store and came in for lots of caffeinated treats at Divani Chocolatier & Barista.
Thank you for having us and being so wonderful to our beloved granny. We felt incredibly blessed to take this journey with her and enjoyed every moment in “Northwest Pennsylvania’s best-kept secret!”