Summerhill, Pennsylvania, is a small town nestled in the Allegheny Mountains. It starts in one of the valleys formed by the Little Conemaugh River and makes its way up the mountain side. Only about 450 people live in Summerhill and the number is still declining. People cannot stay in the area and find jobs to support them.
Summerhill has a rich history as well. The town was established in 1810 as Somer Hill, named for the Somers family who also helped establish Somerset County, Pa. The name was changed to Summerhill when it was chartered as an official borough of Pennsylvania in 1892. The growth of the town can be drawn to the Pennsylvania Mainline Railroad. Summerhill was the lumber stop for the trains hauling everything from coal to passengers.
Today, there is none of that in Summerhill. Trains don’t stop. No wood is shipped out to make money for the borough.
However, it has still maintained its small town, picturesque personality.
Summerhill families have stayed the same, too. For generations, the same families of Irish and German immigrants have lived in Summerhill. Everyone is related to everyone else, though be it very distant today. You can’t describe someone as “the Schrift that married the Wirfel” because that wouldn’t deduce anything. Being that the town is so small and that everyone is distantly related, everyone knows everything about everyone.
In most cases, this would be a bad thing but in our town, nothing bad enough happens to create a controversy.
Our house is at the top of town, just under route 219. Being at the top of town puts us at the top of the hill too. This gave us a pretty good view of the town. I remember fall evenings when I would go up to the top of our yard and look down Main Street all the way to the bottom of town. What made the view better was that Summerhill is surrounded by hills that looked like giant green walls from the top of my yard. In the fall these hills turned all different colors as the leaves on the trees changed. During the first snow of the winter when we’d go sledding on my hill, the multi-colored walls turned to white as the wet snow gripped the branches and hillside brush.
I could always tell what time of day it was getting from the top of my hill because the sunset would shine on the hills and the shade line would creep up to the top until it was dusk. Then I would come back outside after dark on clear nights and just lay on my back and look up to the stars. Being in a small town, there was no light interference and nearly everything was visible in the night sky.
That place was my refuge. I’d go up there when I needed to get away from it all. Afterward, nothing seemed too important.
Summerhill didn’t have a smell in the winter, unless it was from the salt truck or snow-blower exhaust. But every other season it smelled like grass. The grass would smell different in the spring and early summer compared to the fall. It would smell sweet and fresh in the spring and smell dry and almost irritable in the fall.
All year round there was only one distinct sound in Summerhill: the sound of trains. Even though they didn’t stop in town anymore, that didn’t mean the Mainline shut down. Trains carrying coal, oil, timber, tractors, cars, and occasionally people still roll through town on their way from the mines to the cities. On foggy nights, the train whistles seem to echo through town almost eerily. But no one minds it anymore, it blends into the background.
There is one sound, though, that seems to catch everyone’s attention: the church bells. On sunny summer days, the warm sound of the church bells at noon and 6 p.m. are a welcome reminder of how close the citizens of Summerhill are. They remind us of our Catholic heritage. They remind us of our family. And, in the unsuspected case of the bell tolling to alert the town of a death, they remind us of our eventual common fate.
Nothing much ever happened in Summerhill. In 1999, we hosted the Cambria County Volunteer Firemen’s Association Convention. Being from a long line of firefighters, it was a big deal for me and my family. I couldn’t legally join the fire department until age 14, but at age 10, I was ready to do whatever I could to make myself a part of the department. There were so many people there. Summerhill probably never saw that many people in one week during its existence. The convention brought a lot of attention to Summerhill, too. That was something else the town wasn’t used to and hadn’t received since the 1977 Johnstown Flood. Not only was it new to the town, but it was new to me. I liked the fact that our little town was being talked about and was important. But, in a week, after the convention had finished, the attention was gone and Summerhill went on living its quiet life.
The only other memories that stand out in my mind and have a special place in my heart are those of my little league baseball days. There was nothing more exciting than waking up on game-day, whether we were playing home or away, and putting on my Summerhill uniform, getting ready to go out and represent the town I loved...even though I was just a little kid.
The sun shining, the ting of the aluminum bats in practice, the chomping of bubble gum in the mouths of eager kids ready to take the field, everything came together to make it a perfect summer day in Small Town, U.S.A.
I could never live the rest of my life in Summerhill and support myself or a family, but if I can spend the rest of my days in a town that is half as nice, I will be more than satisfied.