Friday, July 20, 2012

Filling the Bathtub with Gene Autry’s Money

Gene Autry was brought to
Lehighton by a train
and a need to get
his saddle fixed.  He put country
music into the mainstream, our
most famous singing cowboy.
He was the real deal.
(This article first appeared July 2012 in Al Zagofsky's "Carbon County Magazine.")

Everyone knows how to fill a bathtub.  The key is to put more water into it than is allowed to drain out.
Same is true for our local economy.  Keep more money here than we allow to leave.
Both of my grandfathers made the jump from farm-life to business in the early 1900s.  Cal Haas worked hard as a bread deliveryman for two bakeries to raise enough dough (couldn’t resist) to build his own general store in 1930. 
My grandfather Cal Haas is on the left.
A 2-seat carriage ride was part of his life led
him to delivering bread and later groceries.
He even borrowed a team and a sleigh to
deliver in the snow.
Cal promoting Freihofer's "Sonny Boy" bread.
A photo of the store owner holding their bread
was a common sight in many corner stores.
This 20"x28" photo hung at Haas' most of their
60+ years.

 Zach Rabenold was a welder at the Packerton Yard Shops.  On the side, he ran a tack shop in his backyard, one of his many leftover farm skills.  One day, Gene Autry and his entourage were passing through town and needed saddle work done.  Both Zach and Lehighton now had Autry’s money in our bathtub. 

Zach and his brother George worked during a time of much labor unrest
in the Packerton Yards.  It was a time when some of the men turned to violence
for better wages and working conditions.  One group even attempted
to blow up the Packerton Dam, which supplied the yards with water,
in an attempt to bring attention to their plight.
We are really fortunate here in Carbon County to have so much natural beauty that people can live in a place so many love to visit here to play.   (Rand McNally lists Jim Thorpe one of its ten best small towns in America.)  We have a good tourism infrastructure that continues to improve as we add more bike riding trails and more access to them.  Trails that bring tourists here to spend money earned elsewhere.

We have manufacturing too.  KME Kovatch and their  700-employees are set to send 100 trucks to China.  (Yes, EXPORTING to China at $500,000 a pop!)  They also have a large pending order to New York City, as well as many other major cities including Los Angeles.    You could say the Kovatch family and Nesquehoning are certainly doing their share to fill up the tub.

This is my Uncle Robert Haas on the last day of the store,
removing the letters from the store he owned for 30+ years
that his father started in 1930.
The same cannot be said of other corporations.  It is estimated that 70% of Pennsylvania corporations pay no corporate tax.  We can be glad that Wal Mart and Lowes have come here.  They do infuse new commerce here.  But their lack of paying Pennsylvania tax puts an undue tax burden on our smaller businesses, not to mention the business they take from them.
You could have asked my Uncle Bobby Haas about that in 1996.  That’s the year he had to close my grandfather’s corner grocery store.  I could mention other small businesses that have since closed as well.  Even though Kovatch is our largest manufacturer, they cannot compete with other large multi-state corporations with more tax loopholes to play in. 

Most of our Carbon businesses pay too much in taxes because of the sweetheart deals the much larger corporations get.  But Governor Corbett wants to continue giving big business big tax breaks that send our hard-earned money out of the state and out of the country (i.e. Royal Dutch Shell Oil is getting a $1.7 billion dollar tax credit from our Governor and General Assembly.  Dutch Shell is on pace to make a $30 billion profit this year.)

Our huge reserves of natural gas here in Pennsylvania should be filling our tub to the brim.  But there are some large holes in it.  Sadly, most of the natural gas drilling jobs created have been filled by out of state guest workers from places like Texas and Oklahoma and most of these workers stay here 2 weeks and go home for 2 weeks to spend most of their paychecks back home, sending more money down our drain.

Haas' Store after the remodeling of the early 1970s.
We own the most gas of any state yet we collect almost nothing from this state resource.  It has been a boom for the areas that have it, but the rest of the state earns nothing.  This and other leaks like the Delaware-loophole are draining away money that should stay here.  (We must plug it up the right way, not the way Governor Corbett has proposed.)

I owe my parents for instilling these insights in me, for they taught me how to always try to buy local.  Like my parents, I have never left town to buy a car.  Every washer, dryer, air conditioner, stove, etc was bought at one of two local businesses.   We have always been loyal to our small town businesses.

Zach relaxing at Flagstaff Park in the 1920s.
But we also need to make our tub ready to receive money.  We have many strengths here: we have manufacturing, we have biking, rafting  and skiing, we have green energy in our Nesquehoning solar field, we have an agricultural economy, we have a rock-solid work-ethic here.  If we invest more in ourselves, nothing will hold us back.
My grandfather's shop as it looks today.

The "Shop" as we all knew it, as it looked one spring
in the early 1970s.

Gene Autry coming to town is a forgotten footnote in our past.  But that doesn’t minimize the lesson in it.   Had we not had a rail line through town, he would not have stopped here.  Had no one here had the skills he was looking for, he would have
spent his money elsewhere.

My grandfather and Gene Autry are long passed away, though Zach’s quaint Lehighton tack shop still stands at 9th and Mahoning Streets.   Who knows when the next Gene Autry may plan a visit here?  If we are wise, we will create ways to always be ready to attract and receive opportunities here.
The time is now to invest in the people and the promise of Carbon County.  We shouldn’t be foolish with any our resources and certainly not our greatest resource, our youth.  It’s time to put our emphasis on preparing them for the future, to ensure we have a skilled-workforce ready to meet the new needs of this ever changing economy. 

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

A Time of Renewal

Here is a story I posted on Al Zagofsky's e-zine "Carbon County Magazine" back in March.  It has been my pleasure to be a regular contributor to this effort that chronicles our lives here in Carbon.  Out of respect to Al, I always wait until after he publishes to re-post my stories here on my blog.  Please follow this link to his site and subscribe to this free and quality resource that serves our region with information you will not find anywhere else.  Be sure to watch for my up coming story due out in a few days entitled, "Filling Our Bathtub with Gene Autry's Money."  Enjoy and thanks for checking in again.

Late Spring in the Lehigh Gorge, facing north: Glen Onoko is out of frame to the left, the former Hotel Wahnetah site out of frame to the right, from atop the old Jersey Central Railroad Tunnel at Glen Onoko.

Springtime is a time of renewal.  Even though it hasn’t been too wintry, it is still nature’s time to awake from a long winter’s nap.

It is also “Keep America Beautiful” month, the month we celebrate “Earth Day,” and of course it is the time of the eternally spring holiday of Easter, which represents the most important renewal of all.
We are fortunate to live in this county with the kind of natural beauty that draws people from far and wide.  I am quite fond of our biking trails and I cherish the State Game Lands where my family and I have hunted all our lives.  This place is our heritage.

But nature’s ability to renew itself can easily fall behind the pace of our consumption.  The Easter Islands have hundreds of stoic statues to remind us of this.  By the early 1700s, the native people there virtually eliminated themselves.  They outstripped their own food supply by cutting down too many coconut trees, which they used to roll the statues from their quarry to the coast.

So how can we ensure our sustainability here in Carbon?  Perhaps a few simple things, like using dishtowels more than paper towels, or using safer household cleaning products.  What about all those seemingly countless recharging cords?  We could plug them into power strips that are turned off when we’re not home.  Can we say this is enough?

Besides helping out on my friend’s tree farm for many years, I have always enjoyed cultivating trees of my own.  On our 5-acre homestead, I’ve made a determined effort to grow more trees than I’ve cut down.   (So far I’ve planted over 26 to the 4 I’ve had to cut down in the past 20 years.)  Trees are something that transcend our enjoyment and go beyond us in time.  But we consume a lot of trees in the amount of paper and cardboard each of us is responsible for.  It is hard to imagine ever being able to keep up with all we consume.

We at times have been hard on our environment here.  If we look for it, we can still find man-made impacts nature and man have yet to fully renew.  The Blue Mountain in southern Carbon is just now showing signs of renewed life from the decades of destructive pollution from zinc smelting.  (Danny Kunkle of Lehighton deserves much credit for the progress there.)  In northern Carbon, we still find culm piles and stripping pits.  The land seems to always remember what we have done here.

The water remembers, too.  One of my favorite biking trails through the Lehigh Gorge runs along the Black Creek that enters the Lehigh from Weatherly.  The water appears to be pristine; the rocks are clean, the water clear.  But a closer look finds almost nothing living there.  Moss doesn’t even grow on the rocks.  This stream continues to have high ph levels from mine runoff and is contaminated with heavy metals from a beryllium plant.  Despite the passage of time and remediation attempts, it is still devoid of the once plentiful brook and brown trout once native there.

One of the cautionary lessons I relay to my students is on how little our culture seems to embrace delayed gratification today.  Everything must be done instantly.  This impatience and lack of goal-directed behavior comes with a cost.  The American video game addiction alone accounts for the amount of electricity to power all of San Diego each day.  Just to play games! 

We are even taking shortcuts on the food we eat.  Did you realize most large non-family farms use “Round-ReadyTM” seeds?  These herbicide-tolerant seeds are engineered to enable our food crops to withstand doses of herbicides that would otherwise kill them.  Are we sure of what all this could be doing to the food we eat?  How about our water?  Did we not learn the lessons of DDT in the 1970s?

I am disheartened that our state’s abundant wealth of natural gas is weakly legislated.   Our current law doesn’t generate enough revenue to offset the environmental risk.  (We rank last of all states in severance tax and environmental oversight.)  Our potential environmental risk is high, yet the reward is minimal at best.  How will we pay for the clean-up when our water supply turns up contaminated?  Where will we turn for water and how much will that cost?

We cannot afford to be foolish with the resources that sustain us.  This beautiful county of ours will continue to serve us well if we do the same.  We must remember, as the land does, that we are stewards here, for ourselves and our posterity.