My Town: Port Matilda
April 22, 2018 5:00 AM
by Centre County Gazette, Ron Bracken
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Boom! Boom! Boom!

Every afternoon, the quiet of Port Matilda was shattered by the dynamite blasts on the face of Bald Eagle Mountain above town, as McFeely Brick Company employees blasted ganister rock from the face of the mountain. The brickyard used the rock to make a particular type of silica brick in which the company specialized.

I loved those booms, because they were my excuse to get out of my afternoon nap. The dynamite woke me, I explained to my mother. She only partially believed me.

That was in the late 1940s, and the noise was the sign of a booming economy (pun intended).

But one day in 1959, the booming stopped. The brickyard, which had been bought from McFeely by General Refractories, closed, and the pervasive noise you heard then was the crumbling foundation of a town, one that had lost its heartbeat. A slice of Americana was pounded into the dirt and the brickyard was left to die.

Today, there are only scattered remnants of the brickyard, rusted and rotted, as evidence of what once was. You can’t go there anymore. It’s privately owned property, a chain across one access road, the other overgrown with brush.

This photo, circa 1950, shows Port Matilda, as seen from the air, during the heyday of the community.

There are thousands of Port Matildas across this country, some of which suffered the same fate — too dependent on one economic engine to survive its collapse. Port Matilda is the one I know about. I grew up within three football fields of the brickyard, played there, knew every crack and crevice and tunnel in the plant. It was my playground.

There was another playground in town, the one by the two-story school where all 12 grades went. I can still see the red-brick structure when I close my eyes; I see all the rooms in the interior where second and third grades and seventh and eighth grades shared classrooms. 

There was no cafeteria. We either carried our lunch or went home for it if we lived close enough. Nor was there a gymnasium. It was a big deal when they built a macadam basketball court alongside the school. 

That building is gone now, replaced by a one-story elementary school. But at least it was replaced.

So many of the other landmarks are long gone, alive only in the memories of those who grew up in that town, which boasted a population of 670 in the late ‘50s and ’60s.

Among them are:

■ The Clover Farm store, where you could buy a winter coat, a gallon of milk, a pound of hamburger or a comic book or magazine.

I still have the 1955 Milwaukee Braves stamp book I bought there for a quarter. The building which was the store is now an apartment building.

There were three other mom-and-pop stores — Steele’s, Bennett’s and Cowher’s — plus the feed store, which sat alongside the railroad tracks and where you could get a loaf of bread, a quart of milk or an ice-cold soda. The feed store is now the borough building.

■ The many gas stations.

At one time, there were 10 places in Port Matilda where you could buy gasoline. Now there is one.

■ The bank.

The Community Bank was the cornerstone of the town, and not just because it sat at the intersection of routes 220 and 322. In a way, it validated the place. 

■ The movie theater.

Many people are stunned to learn that in the late ‘40s there was a movie theater in town, sitting alongside Route 322 on the way to Philipsburg. On Saturday afternoon it showed serials, in addition to regular movies. 

■ The swimming pool.

At one time, there was a concrete swimming pool in Community Park, built by the men of the town in the 1930s. It closed in the early ‘50s.

■ The baseball field, largely sponsored by the brickyard and built with brickyard labor, was once the jewel of the Centre County League.  
It boasted covered grandstands and a pristine playing surface. It’s still there, lying dormant, but still a beautiful place.

■ The Presbyterian church.

The tall, stately building stood like a sentinel at the entrance to town as you entered from the north. It was carefully torn down and is stored, hopefully to be rebuilt at a different site someday.

■ The restaurant.

At one time, it was owned by a classmate’s father and later changed hands. Now it’s a part of the chain of Brothers’ Pizza shops.

■ The original Port Matilda Hotel.

That building stood adjacent to Route 322 West and was periodically shut down when the townsfolk voted to ban the sale of alcohol in the borough. There was a referendum every two years. Once, in the late ‘40s, when the vote was against alcohol, many of the town’s veterans of World War II protested and burned down the veterans’ monument that stood near the bank building. 

■ The original American Legion.

It stood behind the bank and later, in the 1960s, became The Twist Lounge, where teen dances were held. The population of the town doubled on those nights as teenagers from Tyrone, State College, Bellefonte, Philipsburg and all points in between converged on our little town, filling it with loud mufflers, squealing tires and young people full of raging hormones and machismo. There’s a parking lot there now.

■ There was once a funeral home, last run by Harry Bennett.

It closed in the 1950s and the building is now a private residence.

■ The town's second-largest business was Crain Lumber, which no longer exists.

The lumber industry was key to the town's founding.

With the demise of the brickyard, the demographics of the town changed. People had to look elsewhere for work, turning primarily to Penn State. There, they happily accepted jobs in food service and custodial departments, glad for the paychecks even if they were smaller than what they had earned making bricks.

And, soon, the families moved away, taking with them bits and pieces of the fabric of the town.

Oh, it’s still there, but it’s more of a bedroom community now. And, when Interstate 99 was completed, bypassing the town, it became somewhat isolated, even though routes 220 and 322 still run through the center of it, just as they did all those years ago when life was simple and good and Port Matilda was a leafy, lively little town I called home.

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