Thursday, July 23, 2009

Emporium, PA: The Center of the Universe

Lucas and I are heading up to Pennsylvania tomorrow to drive with my parents to the annual family reunion for my dad's side of the family. We'll be going to the place of my birth, both of my parents' birth and all of my grandparents' birth: Emporium, PA. My mom and her brothers and sisters believe that Emporium is the center of the universe.

How do you find Emporium? First, you look at a map of the state of Pennsylvania. Then, you find the big spot in the north central part of the state without a single major road. Yeah, it's right there.

Emporium is county seat of Cameron County, PA. The county is 97% forest covered. With a population of just over 2,500 in the 2000 census, Emporium is the most populous town in Cameron County. When I was younger there was one stoplight in town. I believe there may now be two.

The sun doesn't rise in Emporium until about an hour after it does elsewhere and it sets about an hour earlier because the town is, quite literally, completely enclosed in mountains. Can you imagine how stunning it is in fall? How nice and cool it remains in summer? Can you imagine how many times my siblings and I barfed while crossing the mountains on our way to or from Emporium?

Are you questioning that whole "center of the universe" designation yet?

From a family history perspective my whole universe certainly revolves around this little valley surrounded by the most amazingly gorgeous mountains in the northeast. My parents moved from Emporium when I was about two. But, because it is the hometown of them both, we spent every major holiday, at least one week each summer and countless weekends in Emporium.

I haven't been back in about 7 years.

Mostly that is because my grandparents are now deceased. My mom tells me that when I was younger I thought that my grandparents' house (her childhood home) was Emporium. And, in a way, I guess it continues to be.

Emporium was cousins crammed six to a bedroom. It was showers that had to be "called" or you risked not getting one until after noon. It was highly competitive trivial pursuit. And, Scrabble, with a Scrabble dictionary close at hand. It was hours and hours on the front porch swinging with my grandfather. It was Christmas. It was political discussions. Religious discussions. It was $1 each to walk to the Little Shopper and spend on penny candy (true 1 cent penny candy!). It was canasta. It was huge pots of sloppy joe and made-from-scratch macaroni and cheese. It was where my grandmother looked me in the eye and told me, "it will not be a tragedy when your grandfather and I die. We have lived full lives." It was where she died. It was where their 5 living children, 18 grandchildren, a few great grandchildren and myriad in-laws gathered to mourn them both.

About a year after they died--within 6 months of each other after almost 55 years of marriage--their children sold the house. We all had dreams and discussions of holding onto it as a family gathering spot, but ultimately realized that would never work. None of the siblings or their children lived there anymore. It would get used maybe twice a year. And so it was sold. And the universe, in a way, became unmoored.

I have no illusions about this visit. Certainly the town will seem small and a bit shabby to me (the economy there has been depressed for decades, I can only imagine that this current economic downturn has hit it hard). My grandparents' house will not be open to me, nor will it look the same. I am not sure that the penny candy shop is as grand as in my visions or that the pizza at the Pizza Palace actually is, as I once thought, the best pizza in the world.

But, I do know that the mountains will be more lush and green than I remember. That the mountain spring supplying the creek next to the pavilion where our reunion will be held will be just as cold as in my memory. I know that Lucas will love playing in it as much as my cousins and I once did. As much as my parents each did when they were young. I am hopeful that some remnant of "Herbie's Trail"--one of the mountain trails my dad built when he was a park ranger there--will remain so that Lucas and I can hike a small part of it. I know that the hunt for the perfect marshmallow roasting stick will be just as easy as it always has been in the dense forest. I know that the air will smell just as fresh and that it will cleanse my soul.

And I know that in some small way the universe will shift to that spot while we are there. That we will be at its center. And that all will be right with the world.

Original post by Smiling Mama. Thanks for reading!


  1. Beautiful post, Aimee! Emporium sounds like a special place. What you have described sounds like a great setting for a book... I think that you should start writing it today!

    Have a fun trip!

  2. Have a great trip! I look forward to hearing your impressions after the trip. It makes me realize I haven't been back to my family's hometown, St. Louis, in over 10 years.

  3. Ok. Tears! Love, love, love this! Wishing I was going with you!

  4. oh, and I'm very very sorry to be the one who has to tell you this.. but I think The Little Shopper is closed. :(

  5. Tears, Tears and more tears! It has been hard for me to visit Emporium since Mom and Dad died, but your post made me remember all the wonderful things about it! Can't wait to show the sites to Lucas!

  6. Randy Frey from the Cameron County Community website linked to your post. I am almost a lifelong resident and you captured perfectly why I remain here. As I type the rooster is crowing in the yard,Canada geese are paddling about in the pond, wild rabits are venturing into the yard from the forest edge and the fog hasn't lifted...another reason why the sun appears an hour later than the rest of the world. Robin

  7. Hello, there. I hope that you were/are pleasantly surprised by all of the great things happening in Emporium these days. Yes, times are tough but many folks are banding together to help repaint, remulch, plant flowers, repair landscaping, etc. in our downtown so folks will want to start businesses and visit here :) Enjoy your time back at what we all still like to think is "the center of the universe"...kudos to your grandparents for instilling nostalgia into your life and pass that along to your Lucas :) ~Dana

  8. Hi Aimee - my sister-in-law sent me a link to your post and it is amazing to read! Your description of growing up could have been written by any of my nieces or nephews, you so perfectly capture the emporium experience. My parents lived the last 25 years of their lives on maple street, just a few houses up the road from their good friends, your grandparents. It is hard to go back sometimes but it is an incredibly unique place, tucked away in the mtns, safe from the 'real' world. I have a sister still living in town and i don't get there enough but i have no doubt your son will love it. A place where you can let your kids walk around the block and play on the courthouse lawn, where the clock still strikes the hour. Makes me want to jump in the car right now!


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