Education: Heritage Discovery Center

Johnstown Area Heritage Association
Background Reading

Peopling Pennsylvania, Part 2: Creating Community


black and white photo of ballet dance group, four rows of people, men in back row, young children in front row, ethnically dressed, approx. 30 people total

Groups like the one pictured here allowed parents to pass on traditions from their home countries to their American-born children.

2.2 Culture: Proud of who we are

A group's shared memories, experiences, language, traditions, heroes, and beliefs bind them together in a culture. Culture is the glue that keeps communities together, the feeling of "belonging" or being part of a group! (Some people use the words "ethnic" or "ethnicity" instead of "culture.")


Language is a big part of culture. Even after immigrants learned English, people in different cultures may use different words for the same thing. For example, people living in the anthracite coal region (northeast) use the word "breaker" for the building where coal is sorted and washed. In the bituminous regions that building is called a "tipple." Scrap rock was thrown away in a "boney pile" in bituminous country and a "culm bank" in anthracite country. The boys who sorted plain rock from coal were "breaker boys" in anthracite areas and "boney pickers" in bituminous areas.

Do you have any grinnies (chipmunks) or sputzies (sparrows) in your yard? Do you redd up (tidy up) your room before company comes? Those words are pure Pennsylvania! Some people say "yunz," or "yinz" (western PA) and others say "youse" or "yiz" (eastern PA) to mean the same thing Southerners mean when they say "y'all." This language is all part of our community's special culture. When you go traveling far away from home and year someone say they need to redd up their house, you know you've found a fellow Pennsylvanian!


black and white photo of all-male band, each with their instrument, dark uniforms with hats, approx 25 men total

Bands like this one played music from the "old country" and helped to keep cultural heritage alive within their small communities. 

People pass on their culture to their children through traditions. Traditions can include foods, holidays, music, art, music, dance or just about anything that can be passed down from parents to children.

Holidays and customs remind us what our culture believes. For example, decorating Christmas trees is a Christian tradition. The evergreen tree is a symbol for everlasting life. Lighting menorahs is a Hanukkah tradition. The lights are a symbol of the miracle of the triumph of a few, weak people over many strong people.

Ukrainians paint beautiful pysanky (Easter eggs). The designs on the eggs are symbols to remind them of their faith. Pennsylvania Germans would decorate beautifully lettered marriage certificates. Their decorated writing was called fraktur. They also became famous for painting symbols to decorate furniture, pottery, and even the sides of their barns.

Crafts were not just for decoration or celebrations. African American quilters saved very small scraps of fabric to make the "string quilts" that kept their families warm. The Polish glued cut-paper shapes to their walls to seal out drafts. Just by folding and cutting paper they made amazing animals, trees, flowers, and other plants.

Many cultural groups use music to create community. Playing music together in bands is a great way to celebrate holidays. Those who can't play can dance to the music!

Traditions also help family members show their love and respect for each other. Your family probably has a traditional way to celebrate birthdays. You probably also have special foods that came down from your grandparents and their parents. You may even have traditions for deciding who does what chores, what you do first thing in the morning and last thing at night.

Telling tales

Most families have stories they like to tell: How mom and dad met; what it was like when grandpa was in the war; what the day you were born was like; what your parents did when they were kids. Next time someone tells one of these stories, listen for the hidden message. There's a reason this story is important to your family -- what is it? (They may not realize the reason either!) A story may be about someone's courage or an embarrassing moment they survived. Stories tell what your family cares about.

black and white photo of parade of school childrren infront of church, children all dressed in white, waving flags, with flower rings on their heads

Many of the churches also provided schools for the children.  These schools provided a place to carry on traditions such as the one pictured here.  This parade was for Gen. Pulaski Day.

Some stories have taken off and become bigger than life! You read about Mike Fink the keelboatman in chapter five. He was a real Scotch-Irish hero who was tough and always ready to defend himself. John Henry may also have been a real person. He was an African American railroad worker who bet that he could drive steel spikes into the rock faster than a new machine drill. A famous folk song tells the sad, but brave story of John Henry dying while beating the machine.

Joe Magarac was a made-up hero of the steel communities around Pittsburgh. Legend says he was made of steel and stronger than any man alive. He hung around the steel mills, watching for accidents ready to happen. When something went wrong Joe was right there to fix it! One time he ended up being melted into a load of the hot molten steel. Don't worry! He lives on in the steel frame of a building!

Real-life heroes help cultural groups feel proud of themselves. In the early 1900s African Americans were not allowed to play on white baseball teams. They formed the Negro League with teams from all over the United States. Josh Simpson and Satchel Paige were two of the best baseball players of all time. They played for black teams Pittsburgh Crawfords and the Homestead Grays. Their playing won the respect of many white baseball fans. In Philadelphia Julius Erving (Dr. J) and Wilt Chamberlain earned the same kind of respect in basketball.

Probably Pennsylvania's greatest athlete was Jim Thorpe, who was an American Indian who went to school in Pennsylvania. He was an Olympic track star and a professional baseball and football player! Some say he was the greatest athlete of all time. The town of Mauck Chunk changed its name to Jim Thorpe in his honor!

black and white photo of downtown street decorated for a parade with streamers and banners

Johnstown celebrates Columbus Day 1892. Christopher Columbus was an Italian hero who was "adopted" by all Americans.

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Excerpted with permission from the textbook Pennsylvania, Our Home by Susan K. Donley (Layton, UT: Gibbs-Smith Publisher, 2005)

See also: "Peopling Pennsylvania, Part 1, Push and Pull"


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