Even in the 60s and 70s, my hometown Linesville, Pennsylvania, for all of its perceived artlessness, was actually a small tourist town and remains so today, at least from Memorial Day through Labor Day. Each Saturday of Memorial Day weekend heralded the official start of summer, and the beaches and campgrounds of Pymatuning Lake unfurled themselves from the winter’s gloom and spring’s muddy wetness in time for another season of swimming, fishing, and camping. After Labor Day, Linesville and Pymatuning said goodbye to its summer explosion of visitors, exhaled, then folded inward onto itself, returning to attach to the high school as the epicenter for what passed as bustle and activity—much like most little towns of that era.
Summer in Linesville was unique if only because of the assortment of people who landed there from the working class steel cities south of Pymatuning—an array of out-of-towners who, whether it was for a week, a weekend, or for the entire season, straggled into the area towing their sleek campers and state-of-the-art fishing boats behind rusted out pickup trucks and patched station wagons. Along with the townies, these summer folks ate breakfast at the Driftwood Restaurant, played pinball and shopped for sundries at Coursen’s Cut Rate, bought Coleman lanterns and replacement propane tanks at Tabor’s Hardware, pawed through the musty assortment of tents and used camping supplies at Morrison’s Army Surplus, purchased Cokes and Saegertown Ginger Ale at Grant Woodard’s grocery store, stopped in to Isaly’s to stock up on chip-chop ham, wandered through the three cramped aisles of the Five and Ten for penny candy, plastic kiddie toys, and, of course, never failed to step next door to the bait and tackle shop to prepare for the day’s fishing. The summertime shower of out-of-towners were well aware that Linesville lacked the charm of more commercial tourist towns, towns like Put-in-Bay, in Ohio or Mackanaw Island, in Michigan; nonetheless, for a working class family from Pittsburgh or Youngstown or Kittanning, a camping excursion or a fishing trip to Pymatuning was a chance to break free from the grit of the city, breathe in some fresh air, drink Iron City beer, and roast wieners alongside other working class folks from Youngstown, Pittsburgh, or Kittanning.
If Linesville laid claim to Pymatuning Lake, its neighbor to the east, the Town of Conneaut Lake, boasted its pride and joy and its namesake–Conneaut Lake. Town-wise, there wasn’t a whole lot of difference between Linesville and the Town of Conneaut Lake, but an unspoken and solid reality existed: Conneaut Lake, and the Town of Conneaut Lake which sits right to its south, featured a captivating measure of vacation magic that made it much more alluring to tourists, especially those with more capital than Linesville’s summertime flotsam and jetsam. If Linesville was a bologna sandwich on white bread, Conneaut Lake was steak and lobster.
Though the lake itself was smaller, Conneaut Lake, unlike its bigger brother Pymatuning, was a clear, crisp, spring-fed glacier-made body of water that had existed long before the wooly mammoths and Iroquois Indians had inhabited the deciduous forest surrounding it. Its main attraction, its crowning glory, and, for many families, the pinnacle of their summer vacation was a magical day spent at Conneaut Lake Park, an historic turn-of-the-century amusement park featuring an exciting assortment of rides, its own charming boardwalk overlooking the entire lake, the popular nighttime hangout The Beach Club, the stately and prestigious Hotel Conneaut, an impressive and historic midway, and one of the country’s oldest and most thrilling wooden roller coasters, The Blue Streak. If one was looking for magic in this little corner of northwestern Pennsylvania, it certainly could be found at Conneaut Lake Park. The entire Park was gushing with enchantment, charm, and its own Fairyland Forest, a sweet addendum located across the road from the main Park, which showcased exotic creatures nested in a storybook setting—an added attraction for smaller children and animal lovers. That the establishment’s resident chimpanzee was notorious for flinging fresh feces at its gawkers and the bear was suffering from some type of mange did not detract from the number of delighted visitors flocking to Fairyland Forest for a calm respite following the bustle of The Park.
A mere ten miles to the west lay the vast and steady shores of Pymatuning, with its safely benign ten horsepower motor limit and profusion of fat pontoon boats teeming with life-jacketed retirees and flat-bottomed outboard fishing boats. Pymatuning was a “Fisherman’s Paradise”; its main attraction The Spillway, located about a mile south of town, an asphalt funnel about twenty feet in diameter where fish that were bred and hatched at the park’s upper lake fish hatchery would gather in such profusion (before being sucked through the funnel and ferried under the dividing causeway’s bridge to the lower lake) that it became a favorite stop for visitors who liked to throw bread over the rail and watch the fish devour it. Though a variety of fish were bred at the hatchery, The Spillway’s most frequent guests were carp,—big, bloated oversized goldfish that bullied themselves over to The Spillway because in some corner of their paraphyletic brains, they learned that food was being proffered. Then, once the area’s ducks discovered that human visitors were actually casting entire loaves of stale bread into the spillway to feed the bloated goldfish, these fowl were savvy enough to learn how to walk on the backs of those same fish in order to snatch the bread before it was consumed by the gaping, sucking mouths of the greedy carp. Thus, Linesville became known as the town “Where the Ducks Walk on the Fish”. Most first-time visitors to the area thought the moniker was a clever slogan made up by the Chamber of Commerce to entice hunters and fishermen to the area, but once initiated into the reality that is The Spillway, they soon discovered that the ducks do indeed walk on the fish in order to nick some bread—or empty beer cans, or the twist ties from the bread bags, or cigarette butts or any other manner of detritus cruelly heaved at fish and fowl.
Sadly, Conneaut Lake did not feature any manner of pedestrian attraction equal to the evolutionary marvel that The Spillway represented. On Conneaut Lake, though, visitors could delight at the panorama of slick Chris Crafts and Ski Nautiques pulling bikinied water skiers eagerly waving to the bathers on Fireman’s Beach or on the docks of the private Iroquois Club, or better yet, witness a ‘ski-by’ past The Park’s boardwalk. Those who vacationed on Conneaut Lake could choose among a variety of fun and exciting water activities—speed boating, water skiing, floating endlessly on plump, brightly colored rafts, and could enjoy swimming with inflatable toys, beach balls, and other accessories such as fins and masks, while Pymatuning’s water enthusiasts were left floating on Grandpa’s boat, fishing for walleye, or swimming at one of the State Park’s beaches notorious for their draconian rules (no inflatables!) that sucked all of the fun out of the swimming experience. This triggered envy among many of Pymatuning’s vacationers. If, in the course of their trip, they had been unfortunate enough to have peeked at the excitement that Conneaut Lake had to offer—perhaps after spending a dizzying day at The Park—these same folks might have longed for a more civilized holiday. Instead of a moldy tent or a musty pop up camper in which to sleep, they just might pine for the luxury of falling into deep Adirondack chairs perched on the back lawn of their lakeside cottage while watching the twinkling of boat lights on Conneaut Lake as their children enjoy a midnight swim off the dock. Pymatuning’s campers were the kids on the field trip to the ketchup factory; Conneaut Lake’s tourists were at Disney World. The younger the tourist, the more pleasure Conneaut Lake provided. It wasn’t unusual on a Saturday or Sunday to find ten to twenty boats lashed together on the sandbar in Conneaut Lake’s Huidekoper Bay, tethered coolers of beer floating between boats; the urine content of the bay most likely rendering the entire lake unsuitable for swimming. It was as if Conneaut Lake was the rich cousin with the expensive toys everyone wanted to play with and Pymatuning was the matron aunt with the comfortable lap and the stale breath that smelled like old people.
Curiously enough, this distinction often played out in the rivalry that existed between the townspeople of both Conneaut Lake and Linesville. Conneaut Lake was hip, it was fun, it was where everyone wanted to be in the summer; Pymatuning, and its accompanying village of Linesville, was like returning to something safe and quiet, earthy, and serene. Summertime cottages surrounded Conneaut Lake; Pymatuning’s shoreline was protected wildlife areas—the entire reservoir and its surrounding wetlands were all part of the state park.
Those summertime cottages that dotted Conneaut Lake’s shoreline were usually owned by wealthy folks from Pittsburgh; that is, they were wealthy by Linesville’s standards. Farther inland, the year round homes were either large family estates that had been broken up into smaller pieces of acreage and owned by locals, or were comprised of one or two acres upon which more modern mid-century ranch homes were built. Thus, not only did the summertime fun discrepancy between the two towns loom large, but the differences in lifestyles among each town’s inhabitants created an interesting dynamic when it came time to play each other in high school basketball.
Today, some parts of Linesville appear as if frozen in time, while others, like The Spillway—that steadfast attraction that remains thanks to the resolute nature of fish, ducks, and bread—have been updated and modernized. In contrast, Conneaut Lake, as the tragic result of The Park’s tumultuous management and mysterious demise, represents what happens when the stewardship of a veritable jewel falls into the hands of individuals with less than honorable motives. The Town and its surrounding area have sadly deteriorated.
Like many of life’s sparkling treasures, one doesn’t appreciate the gifts enjoyed in youth until they no longer exist.