Nellie Bly’s hometown
If it were not for Nellie’s 150th birthday on 5 May 2014, I might not have known about the Apollo Area Historical Society in southwestern Pennsylvania and its esteem for Nellie Bly, their famous hometown girl. Run by local volunteers who look after their own Apollo Historical Museum, the Society keeps alive the spirit and pluck of Nellie Bly and honour her each year on her birthday. Her 150th was commemorated with a films and a performance by Apollo-Ridge High School drama club members. It made the Valley News Dispatch and I found the article on the internet which included the Society’s facebook page.
I got in touch with Vice President Sue Ott and said I wanted to visit Nellie Bly’s hometown the weekend of 5-6 October which just happened to coincide with the Society’s monthly meeting. Of course I would be delighted to address the Society about my trip. I’d be in Washington DC anyway, a mere four-hour drive away. In any case, I would be eligible for the Apollo Area Historical Society discount at Dolly McCoy’s Guest House if I wanted to stay in town. I did.
It feels like most people in Apollo, 35 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, know each other — or may even be related. Apollo’s heyday seems to have passed, but the Historical Society keeps alive its vibrant past as a prominent steel and iron town.
Locals gather at Lackey’s Dairy Queen, or the authentic Yakkity Yak Diner just down the road. Lackey’s Dairy Queen opened in 1955 and is owned by Dolly McCoy’s sister-in-law. It closes for the season as autumn approaches. When I was there, people were stocking up on ice cream supplies ready for the harsh Pennsylvania winter. They know it will be harsh because so many furry black caterpillars have been spotted – a true omen in these parts.
After dinner at the Yakkitty Yak Diner, we headed to the Apollo Area Historial Museum for the monthly meeting. It’s in the former Women’s Christian Temperance Union building. An entire case is devoted to Nellie Bly. Bliss.
Going upstairs to the meeting room, I was presented with a hand-stencilled hot pink poster announcing the bicentennial of Apollo in 2016 by Donna Darlene Dunmore who wanted me to take it to England in hopes that the Queen might see it. I did. I took it with me on a recent visit to Gerberoy, France – the country’s smallest city and one of its most beautiful, where I snapped a photo of Mayor Pierre Chavonnet, holding it in front of Gerberoy’s own historical museum.
It felt really good to be in the company of true blue Nellie Bly fans—where they knew as much, or more, than I did about her. I basked in their knowledge; nothing needed to be explained from scratch as it had in Sri Lanka, Singapore, Hong Kong, China and Japan, even the UK. And they were pleased as punch that I was celebrating Nellie’s record-breaking world journey.
In nearby Cochran Mills where Nellie Bly was born, a mill stone is embedded with a special plaque honouring their hometown girl. She was born Elizabeth Jane Cochran at Cochran Mills, Pennsylvania on 5 May 1864 to Michael and Mary Jane Cochran. Her father ran a prosperous grist mill there on the banks of Crooked Creek.
Dolly McCoy of the Apollo Area Historical Society (and Dolly’s Guest House) and Arnold Blystone, co-founder of the Burrell Township Historical Society took a morning off to show me around Nellie’s birthplace. The house where she was born and the mill run by her father are long since gone. The only vestiges of the once thriving mill town are a few foundation stones shrouded in moss. But Nellie remains the area’s most famous resident and her legacy carries on.