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Daughter, with mom's help, tells Norvelt tale in pictures
By Linda Harkcom   - 03/28/2010

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

More Info on This Book: Norvelt: A New Deal Subsistence Homestead

Two Norvelt women have collected more than 200 vintage photographs which they combined into a book that tells the story of the birth of Norvelt.

"Norvelt: A New Deal Subsistence Homestead" was produced by Sandra Wolk Schimizzi, the daughter of two original Westmoreland Homesteads residents, Joseph Wolk, and her co-author, Valeria Sofranko Wolk.

Schimizzi said the idea for the book came about after she had written an article for the Westmoreland Historical Society magazine.

"I had a lot of information left over, and I thought I just can't waste this information," she said.

This is the first book for Wolk, an original homestead resident who moved to Westmoreland Homesteads with her family in 1935 and continues to live in Norvelt with her husband.

Schimizzi, like her parents, grew up in Norvelt. Her interest in local history was inspired by visits to historical sites, as well as her parents' and grandparents' stories.

She said she enjoys reading and researching local history and compiling family histories and with a master's degree from the University of Pittsburgh in Rehabilitation Counseling, she is intrigued by how family and social histories shape individuals.

Her enjoyment of sharing memories of life in Westmoreland Homesteads with her family led her to her hobbies of compiling military and family histories and collecting memorabilia and photographs of Norvelt. She served on Norvelt's 75th Anniversary Commemorative Book Committee and History and Educational Committee.

The book begins in 1934 when the American Field Service Committee was recruited to build the fourth of 99 subsistence homestead communities subsidized by the federal government. The communities were being developed as a way to help impoverished miners and others hit hard by the Depression.

Schimizzi said 1,850 people from local patch towns applied, but only 245 were accepted. Those with children and skills that would benefit the community were chosen above others.

"It was an experimental community and there was the Red Scare, that it might be like a communist community. I was so proud that my grandparents made this choice to become part of this experimental community," she said.

The community was eventually named Norvelt in honor of Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of President Franklin Roosevelt, and an advocate for work programs.

Wolk said life in general was good in Norvelt and the family never dreamed of moving away.

"We like the way everything went. This is the whole reason for the book. We just love where we live and we want people to know about it."

The authors said the most challenging aspect to writing the book was finding the photographs.

"It was so hard. Some people would say we didn't have a camera or we didn't take pictures outside," she said. Her daughter added, "Many families didn't keep the photos after their parents passed on. They would just destroy them."

Schimizzi said they enlisted her father, Joe, to help with the book as well. He was quickly put to work identifying people and gathering information.

"I think it's pretty good. It's pretty accurate. It's a good start," he said. "I think they should look at what they did here and use it as a pattern for hard-hit communities today."

Michael Cary, who is a Professor of History and Political Science at Seton Hill University in Greensburg, provided the introduction to the book. He contributed greatly to Norvelt's 75th Anniversary Commemorative Book and History and Educational Committee. He was the keynote speaker at the anniversary banquet and provided a historical presentation during the anniversary speaker series.

He is in the process of writing, along with Tim Kelly, a history professor at St. Vincent College and Margaret Power, associate professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology, a book on Westmoreland Homesteads, titled "Hard Times and Community in Depression Era America: The Story of Norvelt" to be published in 2011.

All of the proceeds the mother and daughter receive from the sale of their book are being donated to the new Norvelt Historical Society.

"I just thought people gave us their precious pictures and their precious stories and the money should go back to the community," Schimizzi said.

Buy It Now: Norvelt: A New Deal Subsistence Homestead $21.99

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