And now it’s time for beaver county memories presented by St. Barnabas Beaver Meadows. In today’s segment, we will take a look at one of the more popular festivals that occurred in Beaver County around this time of year, Nationality Days, and its celebration of very diverse and beautiful cultures that developed following the mass influx of people from all over the world who migrated and settled in these parts.
Typically held around the third weekend of May, Nationality Days in Ambridge was the physical incarnation of a labor phenomenon that began happening about half a century earlier. Shortly after the industrial revolution, Beaver County was well on its way to becoming one of the leading areas for steel and other product manufacturing. The rivers located in this area provided two advantages that made the surrounding land attractive to industrial entrepreneurs. First, the waterways provided access to transportation to ship raw materials in like coal, and finished products out like steel coils, rolls and beams. Secondly, the naturally occurring stretches of flat land located along the waters, like the six mile stretch between Aliquippa and Monaca, where Jones and Laughlin Steel was built, created perfect places to set up rail transportation as well. The only thing missing was the people. But, just like barges floating slowly up the river delivering coal to feed a hungry steel mill, passenger ships full of immigrants soon began arriving in droves from across the Atlantic Ocean full of people that were in search of work, to the mills and factories in the area that couldn’t function without them.
They came from Croatia, Serbia, Greece, Italy, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, The Ukraine, and middle eastern nations like Syria and Lebanon, along with other countries. They also came in droves from southern states like Georgia and Mississippi. They came by the thousands, too. Beaver County’s population would more than double from the days before heavy industry and reach a peak of over 210,000 people in the 1970’s. Reportedly, in the earlier part of the twentieth century, Aliquippa’s Jones and Laughlin works was completing another house, every day, on average, as the company tried to keep up with the influx of new hires arriving to the town and provide housing for its workers.
Naturally, the incoming families to Beaver County lived, worshiped, and socialized with other people of the same mind set and national origin. This led to an additional advantage other than finding employment. It lead to the preservation and proliferation of many different foods, lifestyles, languages and ideas that added spice, figuratively and literally to the culture of Beaver County. One could travel the world without ever leaving Beaver County with churches, social halls, clubs, and even private schools springing up in every neighborhood displaying and proclaiming the traditions of the homeland from whence its members arrived.
Realizing the uniqueness of the situation, and the fact that they had a natural way to lure people to and promote their town, along with the obvious fun of being able to visit a giant food festival, The Greater Ambridge Chamber Of Commerce organized and started Nationality Days in 1966. According to an ad that appeared in the Beaver County Times that year, the event featured food booths from ten different churches in Ambridge and was set up on Merchant Street between 6th and 7th streets. The festival was held for three days and was a huge success with visitors flocking to Ambridge from all over the region to sample ethnic treats like Pierogi, haluski, gyros, baklava, kolbasi, Stuffed grape leaves, paczkis (poonch – kees) and many other delicacies representing the diverse groups of people living in the town.
In the peak years of the Nationality Days festival, it grew to stretch four blocks through the main part of town on Merchant Street, starting at 4th and going to the 7th street block and included dozens of food booths and crafters along with daily attractions and entertainment. Merchant street would become so crowded that it was hard to move. Festival goers packed the closed down street and sidewalk from one storefront on the east side of Merchant, all the way over to the storefronts on the west side. In its hay day, It was like a mosh pit, only with great tasting food. Nationality Days was a truly unique experience that was on everyone’s calendar, every year for the fifty years that it happened.
Even the best ideas run its course. Demographic shifts, declining population, and reduced interest from church volunteers to staff the booths eventually took its toll on the festival. In addition, the “Melting Pot” effect had blurred the lines over the course of time and strong ethnic tradition and culture preservation are naturally no longer as prominent in recent days. Attendance and vendor interest began to decline around the late nineties and early two thousands. The last Nationality Days Festival happened in 2016. All is not lost, however, Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Ambridge still hosts a very successful Greek food Festival annually in July, and St. Elijah Serbian Orthodox Church in Aliquippa stages an event of their own in early fall, among other smaller celebrations of ethnic culture that continue to occur throughout Beaver County.
This has been Beaver County memories, presented by St. Barnabas Beaver Meadows. Tune in every day at this time for more Beaver County memories. A transcript of this and other archived editions of Beaver County memories can be found at Beaver County radio dot com.