Foam for the Holidays
Wednesday, November 21, 2007
The sky was a dull gray and it was spitting snow as I approached Pottsville, Pa., on a recent Friday, appropriate weather for visiting this old coal-mining town three hours north of Washington.
I'd come to Pottsville to celebrate two of life's most basic pleasures: a beer and a book. First would be a tour of the D.G. Yuengling & Son Brewery, which was founded in 1829 and is the oldest brewery in the country. Then would be a drive around the city immortalized -- mostly unfavorably -- as "Gibbsville" by John O'Hara in his wonderful 1934 first novel, "Appointment in Samarra," and in short stories and later novels.
Pottsville has been declining economically since the anthracite mines, which brought considerable wealth to the region, began closing after World War II. Driving down Market Street, the main east-west road in Pottsville, one sees faded storefronts, car dealerships with art deco neon signs and neighborhood taverns that probably haven't seen a stranger in a decade. There seem to be a lot of churches and even more places to get a drink.
Recent efforts to spruce up the town and encourage tourism can't disguise a lack of vitality in Pottsville. But it has a rough charm for those with a sense of whimsy ("We Buy Anything Old" is the sign on one antiques shop) and an appreciation of history.
My first stop was the Yuengling brewery. Like many old mining towns, Pottsville was built on hilly terrain, and the streets around the brewery rise and fall sharply. It's across the street from O'Hara's childhood home and some blocks south of the stately mansions of the coal barons. This being Pottsville, the brewery is just a few doors down from St. Patrick's Catholic Church, where O'Hara served as an altar boy.
Before the 1:30 tour, I met with Dick Yuengling, the brewery's owner since 1985. Under his stewardship, Yuengling has transformed dramatically from a basic regional brewery that targeted a hardworking, hard-drinking clientele. It now offers a wider variety of brews and has expanded to 11 states in the mid-Atlantic and Southeast. The brewery has a snappy Web site; I like the historical timeline noting that Yuengling celebrated the end of Prohibition by sending a truckload of its newly legal brew to the White House. Yuengling said the site has improved the sales of his beers and company merchandise. (Style points go to the toy beer trucks and Pilsner glasses.)
The tours reflect this growth. "When I took over, we had no organized tours," Yuengling, 64, said in the cheerfully cluttered offices next to the brewery. "A couple of guys would want to tour the brewery, and we'd have a secretary show them around if she wasn't busy."
The opening of a brewery gift shop in 1985 and a museum some years later meant there were enough visitors to organize free tours. Now there are two daily tours Monday through Friday and three on Saturday.
On my visit, 35 people were waiting for their tour of the ancient facilities. That seemed like a lot for a Friday afternoon (and in Pottsville at that), but Ed, our friendly and knowledgeable guide, mentioned that he had led a group of more than 100 the previous Saturday.
A confession: I savor a good beer, but I'm not enough of a geek to become mesmerized by the minutiae of brewing, as several members of my group were. When one guy got into an arcane discussion with Ed about "hoppy" brews, I thought of Tolstoy: Hoppy beers are all alike, right?
But it was cool to see the huge brewing vats just a few feet away; in most brewery tours, you observe at a considerable distance. And I liked going through the bottle shop, where long conveyer belts whisk the bottles and cans through. (No bottling and canning on Saturdays, alas.)
The hour-long tour ends with a friendly beer pour; visitors of legal drinking age may sample two cups of the different Yuengling brews. Many visitors move on to the gift shop and museum, the latter offering a fascinating look at beer marketing through the ages. A World War II ad for the brewery's Pilsner, for instance, urged: "Buy Yuengling's by the quart. Save tin for victory." Ah, patriotism.
I then walked across the street to 606 Mahantongo, where a marker notes that "This was the home, from 1916 to 1928, of one of America's best-known novelists and short story writers." But John O'Hara's old home, a three-story rowhouse with peeling paint and weathered window frames, is a bit of a letdown. And you can't go inside because the building has been converted into apartments. So forget seeing the typewriter on which O'Hara wrote "Appointment in Samarra." Just get in the car.
It takes only a few blocks up Mahantongo before you see the roots of O'Hara's class consciousness that bitterly informed his books. Though his father was a doctor, and Mahantongo Street was home to many of Pottsville's elite, O'Hara's address was decidedly outre -- and he was of Irish ancestry, to boot. Up around 20th Street, where the mansions feature columns and wide porches and splendid gardens, was where the town's finest lived; even today, the mansions, perched high on hills, exude a majesty that's at odds with much of the rest of the city. So close, and yet a divide O'Hara could never breach.
So while you may never find a Six Flags Over John O'Hara in these parts, ask yourself: Is seeing a writing desk, no matter how authentic, really the best way to connect with a favorite author? Maybe the Pottsville way isn't so bad after all.