Beaver County

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Local History Essays & Commentary

Kevin Farkas

Back in February 2022 someone had posted a short local history piece about Thomas Midgley, Jr. to one of the Beaver County Facebook groups. Midgley’s accomplishments as an engineer and impact upon our environment was certainly central to the post. However, like a lot of local history narratives there was tacit encouragement that we should think of Midgley as “one of our own” or that we might interpret his accomplishments as our own “claim to fame.”
Personally, I say no thanks to the latter. Although Midgley’s career as an engineer is remarkable, the net effect of his inventions has been environmental damage on a global scale.
But that’s not why I’m writing this. Instead, I go back to my response to the earlier local history post about Midgley and what was not reported—that the historical record suggests that Midgley’s connection to Beaver County is actually trivial. That he lived here for a short time as a child is interesting, but the fact seems rather unimportant in the big scheme of things. Or does it?
Concluding each episode of his very popular radio show, Paul Harvey would finish up his suspenseful and meandering stories with the tag line: “. . . and now you know the rest of the story.” Listeners so entertained and intrigued couldn’t help but exclaim, “No kidding! Who would have known?”
That’s how I react whenever I read or hear these amazing and oftentimes little know historical true-to-life stories about people associated with Beaver Falls or the county. No kidding? That person’s from the area? Well, how about that!
Then I ask, so what? After all, everybody’s from somewhere. Why and how is someone’s hometown historically significant?
It’s a fair question, and if we get beyond the trivia we just might learn something about why and how one’s home town shaped their formative years. For example, does anyone not recognize and celebrate how certain social, economic, and cultural influences of growing up in Beaver Falls shaped a young athlete named Joe Namath? Think of that working class grit! That mill hunky determination!
No doubt, th
e communities in which we spend our formative years shape us. Namath still honors and pays respect to growing up in Beaver Falls. It’s his heritage.
“But what about a Beaver Falls guy like Thomas Midgley, Jr.. A native son? One of our own?
The website, Famous Scientists, writes: “Thomas Midgley Jr. was born in College Hill in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania on the 18th of May in 1889. His father, Thomas Midgley Sr. was also an inventor principally in the field of automobile tires and his mother was Hattie Emerson. His family moved to New Jersey and then, when he was aged around six, they settled in Columbus, Ohio.”
So, young Tom Midgley may have been born here in 1889, but that’s a footnote to most biographers who state: “He grew up in Columbus, Ohio.” In fact, some Ohio history writers completely gloss over his Pennsylvania roots and claim Midgley as a full-fledged Ohioan.
But we know young Tom lived in Beaver Falls for at least the first 6 years of his life. His parents were married in Beaver in 1886. His maternal grandmother died in Beaver Falls in 1877. The family’s local connection beyond that? Who knows? Why were they living on College Hill? Did his dad attend or teach at Geneva College? Did the Midgley family thrive in the intellectual atmosphere of the college town? Was young Tom inspired by the books, lectures, and academic thinkers of Geneva College?
Maybe some of our local historians could research this part of Thomas Midgley Jr.’s life so we might know . . . the beginning of the story.”
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