Education: Heritage Discovery Center

Johnstown Area Heritage Association
Background Reading

Peopling Pennsylvania

black and white photo of butcher shop storefront, three men and one woman standing on front steps, men in aprons, meat hanging in windows

This butcher shop was located in Cambria City, a place where many immigrants first arrived.  Shops like this one allowed immigrants to find familiar foods that reminded them of home. 

Part 2: Creating Community

Making a place a home

When immigrants arrive in their new place, it doesn't feel like home at first. They may speak a different language, dress differently, eat different foods, and celebrate different holidays.

Imagine going to the grocery store, but the foods don't look anything like you like to eat! The signs are all in a language you don't understand. The money looks different and you don't know how much anything costs. When you are done shopping, you have to figure out which bus to get on. Then you have to find your street and your house!

What must the first day of school be like for a new immigrant? If someone at your school came from another country, ask them! Moving to a new school is hard enough when you know the language!

To help them adjust new migrants usually try to link up with other migrants from their old homes. Someone who had been in Pennsylvania for a little while can tell a newcomer what to expect. They can coach them before doing something new.
They tried to live near each other in the same neighborhoods. Living nearby let them speak their own language while they learned English. They could open grocery stores that sold the kind of foods they liked. One of the first things they would do together is to build a church, synagogue, or temple that would hold services in their language. Often the church had a school, so children could learn in their old languages. Finally, this new place felt like home.

black and white photo of ornate altar at front of church, pillars on both sides, arch above the altar

The altar at St. Mary's.


In other words, to make a home, the migrants had to create a community. A community shares the same language, customs, foods, interests, and important beliefs and values. It is possible to have more than one community in a neighborhood. Your class is a community within your school. There are many other classes in your school, too. Even though you share busses, the cafeteria, playground, and possibly sports teams, most of your friends are probably in your own class.

In Pennsylvania it is not unusual to see a neighborhood with six different Catholic churches! Why? Because the neighborhood is home to six different immigrant groups that all speak different languages! Each group built a church where their language would be spoken.

It is also possible to be a member of more than one community! For example, you may belong to the scouts, a 4-H Club, and a church. All of these groups are a community of people who share interests, believe the same things, speak the same language (for example, your 4H group probably talks about things that someone living in the city wouldn't even understand -- even if they speak English!). You might even wear the same uniforms or similar clothes.

Immigrants, too, could be members of more than one community. Some members of the German community were also members of the Protestant community. Other members of the German community were members of the Roman Catholic community.

Churches and synagogues were just one kind of organization that migrant groups started. Often they had their own schools where students could learn their language. They might also start their own hospitals and banks where no one would discriminate against them (some American organizations were prejudiced and would not serve migrants).

Newspapers in their languages reported news from the "Old Country." They set up special organizations to help families when someone died or got sick. People who liked music organized bands to play on holidays. People who liked sports organized teams. These organizations allowed new immigrants to survive while they learned their new jobs, language, and customs.

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.

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 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.

Becoming "American"

What happens when all these cultures come together in Pennsylvania?

After they've been in their new place for a while, most immigrants begin to feel like they were part of two communities: their immigrant community and their American community. After another while, most feel closer to America than their old country. They decide to become American citizens.

Meanwhile, while a migrant adapts to his or her new home, something interesting happens. The new home adapts too!

"Culture is contagious," one anthropologist says! Even if cultures conflict, they always exchange something with each other when they meet. When a traditional song, food, or story travels across continents it constantly adapts to new surroundings, languages, religions, and cultures. Bitter enemies can share the same traditions!

black and white photo standing in front of store, bins of vegetables and fruits on both sides along the sidewalk

Many immigrants opened stores that provided people of their ethnic group with foods they recognized from the Old Country.

black and white photo of buildings on left side of street, store signs on building, people on sidewalk

Along Washington Street in downtown Johnstown, the Penn Traffic Company had a grocery department.  The woman at the center of the photo is dressed as an "American" - no babushka for her!  Notice the signs for the dentist and the doctor on the left.

Here's an example. Over 200 years have past since most of Pennsylvania's Indians were pushed out of our state. Yet the parts of their culture that Europeans adopted are still with us. Place names like Youghiogheny, Punxsutawney, Erie, Tioga, and Aliquippa still remind us they were here. We still eat corn, squash, beans, and other Native American foods.

A business like "Polish Hill Pizza" in Pittsburgh is an example of cultures meeting! Philadelphia's Italian Market is an example of cultures adapting. It started out as a place for Italian merchants to sell to Italians. Now it sells products from other cultures, too, to customers of many different cultures.

Some of America's favorite music came about when several cultures blended. Traditional African American music was a blend of African music and English and Scotch music sung in the South. Out of that blend grew jazz and the blues. Before long the blues blended with gospel singing and country music and gave birth to rock and roll.Section divider


As each generation goes by, families' ties to the old culture get weaker. They start to speak English instead of their native language. Then they may pick up foods and traditions from other cultures. The next generation decides to move out of the old neighborhood to the suburbs. Their children might marry someone of a different faith or nationality. They create a new culture that combines the old ways with the new.

People whose ancestors came a long time ago sometimes look for ways to keep their traditions alive. They want to pass them on to their children and grandchildren. Family

Many Pennsylvanians also hold festivals to show off traditional food, music, dances, arts, and storytelling.

Living in a state where many cultures have come together makes our lives rich. We all have a chance to eat pasta, tacos, potato pancakes, pierogies, spring rolls, gyros, pita bread, and sushi!

We all benefit from the new ideas new migrants bring to our state. They are the kind of people who are willing to take risks and try new things. They also remind us what is good about our country. Our freedoms and way of life are treasures that people are willing to leave home to find!

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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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