For 34 years, one of the largest displays of American flags in any one place has flown at Hillcrest Memorial Park in Hermitage, Pa. The display was one stop on my recent trip to check out some attractions in Mercer County, just across the Ohio border.
The Avenue of 444 Flags originated during the hostage crisis in Iran, which began Nov. 4, 1979 when a mob took over the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and held 52 Americans hostage until Jan. 20, 1981.
Cemetery owner Tom Flynn first raised one American flag, surrounded by 50 state flags, at the park's entrance. After 100 days, 100 flags were raised along the boulevard into the park. The collection grew by one flag each day, reaching the number of days -- 444 -- the hostage siege lasted.
A photo of several flags was published in the Jan. 26, 1981 edition of Time magazine, the first edition after the hostages were freed.
The flag display became a permanent salute to American veterans of all wars, and a cremation garden for honorably discharged veterans and their families now encompasses the area inside circles of flags surrounding the War on Terror Veterans Memorial.
Several large granite monuments bear the names of those whose remains are buried in the cremation garden, and the memorial is topped off by two fountains -- one inside the circle of flags / monuments and one along the boulevard.
The cemetery is located on business Route 62, a couple of miles east of the Sharon city limits.
Hermitage became a city in 1976 after having been known as Hickory Township. The city today boasts about 16,250 residents. On May 31, 1985 it was struck by an F5 tornado that killed 18 people and injured 310 -- the strongest twister ever recorded in Pennsylvania.
A couple of miles east of the Avenue of 444 Flags is the Hermitage Historical Society, located in the three-story Italianate Robert Stewart House built in 1868.
A flea market was under way on the grounds when I stopped, but the museum inside the house was not open. The house contains exhibit rooms focusing on the township's military contributions, quilts and Scouts.
Between the Avenue of 444 Flags and the historical society is the Shenango Valley Mall.
EXPLORING SHARON, PA.
Sharon is a typical rust belt city. In the early 1950s, it boasted a population of more than 26,000, but now hovers around 14,000. It was once heavily industrialized, but today is famous for several well-known retail businesses.
The Sharon Iron Co. was founded in the 1860s in the Sharon-Farrell area and became Sharon Steel Castings Co. in 1887 under the leadership of Christian Buhl and his son Frank. In 1902, the plant was acquired by American Steel Foundries.
Several other large steel plants thrived in Farrell, including Carnegie-Illinois, the American Sheet and Tin Plate Co. and American Steel and Wire Co. The latter closed in 1938, and the two others became part of U.S. Steel Corp. in 1937.
Another successful steel firm was the Sharon Steel Hoop Co., which in 1936 became the Sharon Steel Co. It operated until 1992. Much of the plant, including its blast furnaces, has been leveled, and a part of the site is now occupied by the Mercer Tube Works.
Another large employer in Sharon was Westinghouse's transformer plant, which operated from 1922 to 1985. It made transformers for power substations, and in its heyday in the 1940s employed 10,000 workers.
The plant, buildings of which still stretch for about four or five blocks on the north side of the city, was placed on the federal Superfund list in 1990, and cleanup of toxic substances took place for several years.
In downtown Sharon -- just west of the Shenango River -- are the Winner, billed as "the world's largest off-price fashion store," and Reyers, billed as "the world's largest shoe store." They attract thousands of customers from western Pennsylvania and Northeast Ohio.
A famous restaurant chain which originated in Sharon is Quaker Steak & Lube. George "Jig" Warren III and Gary "Moe" Meszaros started the chain in 1974 -- it is celebrating its 40th anniversary -- in a closed gas station along the Shenango River.
It originally was a "cook your own steak" place, and is now famous for chicken wings. In the original restaurant was a 1936 Chevrolet, frozen in time on a hydraulic grease rack. Old gas pumps still stand in front of the Sharon building, and the chain now has about 65 locations.
Sharon has a neat stainless steel manufactured diner called Donna's Diner right beside the river downtown, where I enjoyed a tin roof sundae.
A couple of other famous retail businesses in the Sharon-Hermitage area are Daffin's Candies -- billed as "the world's largest candy store" -- and Philadelphia Candies, both on business Route 62.
Daffin's Chocolate Kingdom includes a 400-pound chocolate turtle, 125-pound chocolate reindeer, 75-pound chocolate frog, chocolate castles, train, village, and Ferris Wheel. People from miles around visit the store, and there are five others in Pennsylvania and Ohio.
Philadelphia Candies was founded in 1919 by two Greek brothers. It also has a location in Boardman.
The Buhl Mansion, now a bed and breakfast, is a stately Richardson Romanesque castle built in 1891 by industrialist Frank Buhl -- the "father of the industrial Shenango Valley." A block from Daffin's, it has 14 rooms and was restored by The Winner owner James Winner.
Buhl Farm Park is a couple of miles from the mansion. Buhl turned 300 acres of farmland into a municipal park in 1914. It features Lake Julia, a stone gatehouse, memorial garden, performing arts center and Buhland Golf Course, believed to be the only free golf course in the nation.
SHARPSVILLE AND CLARK
Just north of Sharon is the borough of Sharpsville (population 4,500), an interesting little town.
The Sharpsville Historical Society is located in the red brick former First Universalist Church (built in 1883), across the street from the former Pierce Opera House, a three-story building which now houses a business on the first floor.
Around the corner from the opera house site is the beautiful Jonas Pierce Mansion, still a private residence. He was the son of noted industrialist James Pierce, and President George W. Bush is a direct descendant of James.
A few blocks from the center of Sharpsville is the Raisch log cabin at a small park along the Shenango River. It dates from the late 1700s, and was found inside of and relocated when a home in Hermitage was torn down.
Down the Erie Extension Canal path near the log house is Lock 10, the only lock on the canal which ran from Lake Erie to Pittsburgh, still standing. Further down the path is the 68-foot Shenango Dam built in 1965 to control river flooding.
Northeast of Sharpsville about 3 miles is a small town called Clark. Overlooking the reservoir created by the dam's construction is Tara, an antebellum mansion now a lodging facility preserved by James Winner. Its original portion -- the Koonce home -- was built in 1859.
Another couple of miles north of Clark is the Kidds Mill covered bridge over the Shenango River. It was built in 1868 and restored in 1990, and is the last historic covered bridge in Mercer County and the only one in the state with an all-wood Smith truss design. It no longer carries motor traffic.
Near one end of the bridge is the historic Bigler home, which was relocated there. The Biglers were parents of two governors in the mid-1800s -- one in Pennsylvania and the other in California. The Shenango Conservancy operates the covered bridge and home.
Near the covered bridge and now occupied by an industrial park is the site of the former Camp Reynolds, a 3,300-acre U.S. Army camp from 1942-45, through which about one million U.S. troops passed during World War II.
Phone: 330-541-9400 ext. 4189