Tarentum, PA – July 2017

My paternal Barrett and Koontz grandparents were from Pennsylvania, and my father and his siblings were born there, in the town of Tarentum.  The family moved to Indiana in the mid-1930s, and although some of my cousins who live in Indiana remember visiting family and friends in Tarentum with my grandparents, I have no memory of ever having been there.   So when Wayne and I had an opportunity to make a quick trip to PA in July 2017, I was excited about doing some genealogy research, meeting–in person–a second cousin I’ve known “online” for years, and seeing the town where my dad was born.

We left on Friday morning, July 7th, and drove north through the Shenandoah Valley on I-81. It was misty, with fog rolling over the mountains to our east, but by the time we got on Rt. 522 near Winchester, we had bright sunshine.  It had turned into a pretty day for a road trip!


Shortly after we crossed into West Virginia on 522, a Great Blue Heron flew over the road, directly in front of us.  We always pay attention to birds that we see on trips, so we made note of this one’s presence.

We crossed the Potomac River (which forms the boundary between West Virginia and Maryland), and within minutes we were in Pennsylvania, on I-70 West.


We were barely 5 miles into Pennsylvania when yet another Great Blue Heron flew directly in front of us, across the road.  Curious…

Near Breezewood, PA we got on I-76, which is better known as the Pennsylvania Turnpike. This toll road–advertised as “America’s First Superhighway”–took us the rest of the way to Tarentum.




Google Maps showed 299 miles from home to the motel just south of Tarentum where we had reservations, and–wow–it was exactly 299 miles!  Since it was early afternoon and we’d made pretty good time, we rested for a while before going out to explore.

Later, as we drove around this small town on the banks of the Allegheny River, I was surprised by how hilly it is!  1st Avenue runs right along the river, and each parallel avenue (2nd, 3rd, 4th, etc.) is higher up the hill.  I guess when Grandma Barrett went “downtown,” she literally went down to the town!

About a year ago, I’d identified the house where my dad had lived as a child by using old family pictures, census records, and Google Maps “street view” to confirm.  The shapes of the houses are very distinctive, and I felt sure I would be able to find it.

And it WAS easy to find!  I’d printed several of the old pictures to take with me on the trip, and being uncharacteristically bold, I grabbed the pictures and a notepad, walked up to the house, and knocked on the door….

I got the attention of the resident dog inside, but his or her owners weren’t home.  I’d hoped to ask permission to take some pictures, but since there was no one to ask


We heard someone in the next yard mowing, so we walked over and got his attention.  We explained what we were doing, and he graciously allowed us to take some pictures of the back of the house from his yard.  I gave him my phone number and email address and asked him to please tell his neighbors to contact me if they had any concerns or questions–or if they wanted to see the pictures I have of their house from the 1930s when the Barrett family lived there.

But too cool–at least I was able to stand close to where my uncle, aunt, and dad were standing in this picture. <3


From what I can tell from census records, my grandmother, Hazel Koontz Barrett, grew up in Tarentum.  Her father, however, John Victor Koontz, was born in Staunton, Virginia in 1861.  Sometime after 1880 (when he last appeared in Staunton, VA census records), John Victor Koontz moved to Allegheny County and the Tarentum area.  In 1887, he married my great-grandmother, Lottie, in neighboring Armstrong County.

Lottie has became a source of genealogical confusion….  I’d always heard that her name was Lottie May Wolfe, daughter of Benton L. Wolfe and Marietta (also spelled “Mary Etta”) McGraw Wolfe of Armstrong County, PA.  That’s what’s on her death certificate, and that’s also what’s on her obituary. However, when Lottie married John V. Koontz at the age of 16, Marietta had to sign a document stating that she, as her mother, gave her permission to get married, but listed Lottie’s parents as Mark and Mary Erwin!  Erwin was also listed as Lottie’s maiden name on the delayed birth certificate for her son, John.

I’ve been able to find a Mary Erwin in the 1870 census in Armstrong County, but I haven’t found a Mark Erwin anywhere in the area.  Mary Erwin was living in the household of Charles Albertson, whose occupation was listed as “Supt. of Oil Well.”  I can’t prove that this is the right Mary Erwin (mother of Lottie), but it’s the only Mary Erwin I’ve found in the area around the time of Lottie’s birth.  And of course I haven’t ruled out the possibility that Marietta/Mary Etta McGraw and Mary Erwin were the same person, but I’ve found nothing to indicate that Marietta was first married to an Erwin….

Lottie May Erwin was born about a year before Benton L. Wolfe and Marietta (Mary Etta) McGraw were married, but whatever the history of her birth and parentage, she was most certainly raised as the Wolfe’s daughter.

Lottie and John Victor Koontz lived in several different houses in the Tarentum area, but by 1920, they were living in this house.


Their children (shown standing in front of the house) were Leonard, Hazel (my grandmother),  John, Eva, and Victor.

And so this was our NEXT destination in our exploration of Tarentum.  Once more, the house was easy to find, and I walked up and knocked on the door.  Actually, I knocked on both doors, since it’s a duplex, but no one was home.


When Eva Koontz married, she and her husband lived in one side of the duplex, and her parents lived in the other side.  Albert and Eva Koontz Allen continued to live there long after her parents had passed away.

My grandmother’s youngest brother, John Koontz, lived in Tarentum all of his life, in a house just one avenue up the hill.  He married and had two children, and his daughter–my 1st cousin 1x removed–still lives in the house she grew up in!  Despite writing at least a dozen letters to her over the last several years, sending copies of old pictures, sending pictures of me and my cousins (and kids, and parents, etc., etc.) and asking a ton of questions about our shared ancestry, she has never responded.  Ever. 🙁  We drove by her house a couple of times, but I didn’t want to push the issue by knocking on her door.   If I’d seen her on her porch, however, that would have been a different matter. 😉

From the Koontz house, we drove down to Riverview Park along the Allegheny.  This is a very pretty park, and the various memorials were still decorated from the 4th of July holiday.




The fence on the river-side of the park has lots of gates in it.  Most of the gates are padlocked closed, and down over the bank are docks and boats.  I’d never seen a set up like this before!  Some of the docks were pretty simple, but some, like the one on the left, were quite elaborate.


Before leaving the park, I stopped to read the names on the memorial for Tarentum men who died during WWI.  I’m sure my grandfather Barrett knew several of them….


We continued to drive south on 1st Avenue and under the Tarentum bridge to Tarentum Point Park.  A sign at the end of the parking lot told the history of this area; I always wondered how the town got its name!


There were some geese families at the Tarentum Point Park, and one caught my eye due to the unusual markings on her head.  In researching this, it’s possible that at some point in her history, a Canada goose mated with a snow goose.  Interesting.



As we looked across the Allegheny River, I could see a large bird flying upstream, but it was too far away to photograph.  Of course I had to wonder if it was yet another Great Blue Heron, since that seemed to be the trip’s animal totem. 🙂

And as we’ve done when visiting other rivers (and oceans), we paused for a moment to “bless the Allegheny” and toss in a small quartz crystal….


When we drove to the downtown area, I tried to see all of this through my grandmother Barrett’s eyes. For the first time, I realized how difficult it must have been for her to leave the town she’d grown up in, and to move to Indiana with her husband and three young children….

There’s a wonderful (closed) Facebook page called Tarentum and Surrounding Areas Pictures and Postcards, and from the pictures, I know this was once a thriving, bustling community, complete with shops, banks, and even an opera house!




I was especially interested in the train station, as this was most likely the way my great-grandfather, John Victor Koontz, had arrived in Tarentum from Staunton, Virginia, and almost assuredly the way HIS father, my great-great grandfather, John Peter Koontz, had come to Tarentum from Staunton sometime between 1895 and 1905.  More on him in a bit….



The train station is now a restaurant, J.G.’s Tarentum Station Grille, and while we weren’t really dressed for anywhere fancy, we discovered there was a more casual area out on the patio.  We ordered “Drunken Mussels” as an appetizer, and split an order of stuffed flounder.  Most excellent.



I was totally intrigued by the mural along the back of the restaurant, which portrays the history of the area.


According to the 1920 census, my grandmother Barrett worked as a “timekeeper” for the company that became known as “Alcoa.”   My grandfather Barrett began working at the same company when he was in his early teens, continued working there after he returned from his service in WWI, and later transferred to Indiana after a factory was established there.  My great-grandfather Koontz worked as an electrician at the Plate Glass company, which was one of three glass factories in Tarentum.  (A wonderful history of the Tarentum area may be found at tarentumboro.com.  Check it out!)





It was nearly dark when we left the restaurant and started driving back towards the motel.  As we drove through the little town of Springdale, we passed by what seemed to be a very popular frozen custard stand.  Since it was still open, we turned around and drove back to Glen’s Homemade Custard.  Turns out, my cousins who grew up in the area LOVE this place!  We certainly enjoyed it, too. 🙂


I thought about everything we’d seen and done in the short time we’d been in Tarentum, and how this trip was really about honoring my dad and his family’s history.  When we pulled into the motel parking lot, however, the coincidental nature of the name on this tour bus made me laugh.  No, Mama, I didn’t forget you! 😉

The next morning we drove back into Tarentum to meet my 2nd cousin and her husband for breakfast at the Cycle Diner.  Vivian and I have known each other for years through genealogy research and then Facebook, but this was the first chance we’d had to actually meet each other!

While waiting for them, I took more pictures of the downtown area–and totally forgot to photograph the actual diner.  (If you visit the link above, you can see pictures of it.)


It was so nice to meet Vivian and Frank, and there was much talking and sharing all around. <3

After breakfast, we all went out to Prospect Cemetery so Vivian could show me where our shared ancestor, John F. Barrett, was buried.  My dad and Vivian’s mom were first cousins.  The resemblance is striking!


Our great-grandfather, John F. Barrett, and his daughter, Beulah Barrett, are buried in Prospect Cemetery, but our great-grandmother Almira Jane Truitt Barrett was buried in a cemetery in the northern part of Armstrong County.  Sadly, we just didn’t have time to go there on this trip.



But what a nice morning!  Many, many thanks to my cousin and her husband for getting up early on a Saturday morning to make the 45-minute drive in to Tarentum to see us!

When Wayne and I left Prospect Cemetery, we started driving towards Leechburg, PA (northeast of Tarentum and on the east side of the Allegheny River), to Forks-Zion Cemetery in Armstrong County.  There I HOPED to find the grave of my great-great grandfather, John Peter Koontz.


Johann Peter Kunz was born near Flums, Switzerland in 1827.  He and his wife came to the United States in the early 1860s and settled in Staunton, Virginia.  There were other Koontz families living in the Shenandoah Valley at that time, and while he certainly must have had connections to them, I have not been able to link him to any of the other families.

John Peter Koontz, as he became known in the U.S., was a musician and a dance instructor in Switzerland, but by 1862, he was serving in the Confederate army with the Staunton Artillery–McClanahan’s Battery.  When he was paroled in April 1865, his discharge papers described him as being 44 years old, 5’6″, with a dark complexion, light hair, blue eyes. I’m reasonably sure that this is a picture of him, and the granddaughter of J.P. Koontz’s youngest daughter (who was named Amelia Rose), agrees.

I’ve found several newspaper articles from Staunton, Virginia from the late 1800s describing the wonderful music of “Professor Koontz’s String Orchestra” at various social and civic events. The Koontz family lived on West Beverly Street in Staunton, and J.P. Koontz continued to live there, even after his three children (and possibly his wife) had moved north.

At some point after 1895, John Peter Koontz moved to his son’s house in Tarentum.  My grandmother, Hazel Koontz Barrett, said she remembered hearing him play his violin on the front porch of their house when she was a young girl.

He died in Tarentum on July 15, 1905.   According to his obituary, he was buried in Zion Cemetery in Armstrong County, and his body was taken there by train.  (This was another reason I wanted to see and photograph Tarentum’s train station.)

Was “Zion cemetery” Forks-Zion?  Or was it Mt. Zion cemetery, which is also in Armstrong County, PA?  I’ve had to assume Forks-Zion, as this was where his son and daughter-in-law were later buried, and also because he is not on the Find a Grave website for Mt. Zion.  (A few years ago, I added his name to the Forks-Zion Cemetery on the Find a Grave website, just because it’s the most likely place that he was buried.)

Pennsylvania didn’t start issuing death certificates until 1906, and this is unfortunate because his place of burial probably would have been listed on a death certificate.  In consulting with the cemetery managers at Forks-Zion, there really are no records to show exactly who is buried where in the cemetery!  From them I did learn that Benton L. Wolfe (Lottie’s adopted/step father) purchased a section of 8 grave sites in the late 1800s, but that’s the only information available.

While we were at Tarentum Point Park the evening before, Sandy, one of the managers of the Forks-Zion cemetery called to give me directions to the graves of Benton and Marietta Wolfe (where John V. Koontz, Lottie, and their son, Victor are also buried).  And then she surprised me by saying that there was another Koontz grave in the section!  It wasn’t the grave of John Peter Koontz, but the name on the marker appeared to be “Ester.”  She said it was too worn to read the rest, but it certainly made me curious.  Who was this?!

Once we arrived at Forks-Zion cemetery, Sandy’s directions made it easy to find the section where my ancestors were buried.  I said a quick, “Hello!” to everyone, then sat down in front of “Ester’s” gravestone.

First impression was that the spacing was off, and with a little cleaning, we were able to see that the name was LESTER–Lester W. Koontz.  (Aha!  Census recorded confirmed that this was a child of John Victor Koontz and Lottie May Erwin Wolfe, as she had 6 children, 5 of whom were living.)

With more cleaning, we were able to read the rest of the inscription:

LESTER W. KOONTZ, July 11. 96 – AUG. 4. 96, Aged 24 Days.  A bud of earth, a bloom of heaven.

I noticed that a butterfly had landed on the gravestone for John V. Koontz, and its shadow pointed directly to his name.  It stayed there while I took these pictures:


I quickly photographed the other graves in the section:



If Benton Wolfe (spelled WOLF on his gravemarker) had, indeed, purchased 8 grave sites, it was interesting to note that not all of the sites were occupied–and one of their sons was actually buried in a different section of the cemetery. There was no “depression” in the ground to indicate an unmarked grave, and so Wayne and I split up to start walking through the rest of the cemetery, searching for John Peter Koontz’s grave.

Some of the stones in the cemetery are so worn that they’re illegible, but despite spending a couple of hours looking, we were just were not able to find his grave.  Sad to be so close, but still have no answers….

I heard the rain before I saw it, and while I was checking an area near the front of the church, I was caught in a brief–but absolutely torrential–downpour.   It was time to go home….


I wanted to take a different route home, especially since radar showed heavy rain right along the Pennsylvania Turnpike.  Wayne rationalized that it would be better to stick to the interstate rather than traveling on smaller, more rural secondary roads.  (Last year, coming home from Florida, we got into some crazy situations on secondary roads during bad storms….)

We drove south from Leechburg on Rt. 66 along the Kiskiminetas River until the junction with I-76, and there, somewhat reluctantly, I pointed myself east on the toll road. I can’t say this was necessarily a bad decision, as the rain had expanded and would have made travel on the secondary roads difficult, too, but we encountered some really awful driving conditions almost the entire time we were on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, and continuing even after we were back on Rt. 522.  Very, very stressful!  No fun, at all!


Just west of Winchester, however, the heavy, rain-soaked skies gave way to bright sunshine, and we were back in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley.



We stopped for a few minutes at the Rockfish Valley overlook on Rt. 250 east, and then I impulsively said I wanted to stop by the cemetery where my mom and dad are buried.  So for the second time that day, I was in a cemetery holding the picture of my dad and his first cousin–first at Prospect Cemetery in Tarentum, and then, about 9 hours later, at Hebron Cemetery in Nelson County, Virginia.


As we were leaving the cemetery, driving towards the front of the church, I glanced up,  and suddenly exclaimed, “HOLY SH*T!”

There in the sky above me, flying directly over the cemetery, were two Great Blue Herons!  I quickly scrambled out of the car and managed to get a couple of (blurry) pictures of them before they disappeared behind the trees….  Oddly, I found myself tearing up as I watched them fly over.  How “coincidental” to have seen this particular type of bird so many times during the trip.


We got home a little before 9:00 p.m., and out of curiosity, I looked up the symbolism of the Great Blue Heron.  This is what I found on one site:

If Heron is your Animal Totem

You love to explore various activities and dimensions of Earth life. On the surface, this may seem like a form of dabbling, but more than likely you are wonderfully successful at being a traditional ‘Jack of all trades’.

This ability enables you to follow their own path. Most people will never quite understand the way you live because on the surface it seems to be unstructured without stability or security to it. It is, though, just a matter of perspective. There is security underneath it all, for it gives you the ability to do a variety of tasks. If one way does not work, then another will. This is something you seem to inherently know.

You do not seem to need a lot of people in your life, nor do you feel pressured to keep up with the material world, or to be traditional in your life roles. You stand out in your uniqueness, and you know how to snatch and take advantage of things and events that the average person would not even bother with.

I don’t know if the Heron is necessarily my animal “totem,” but in many ways–given all of my many, many interests–this description is pretty accurate. And regardless of the symbolism, I have to wonder if these birds were somehow our “guardians” or cosmic “mile markers,” letting us know that where we were was where we needed to be.

I am disappointed that we were unable to locate and photograph the grave of my great-great grandfather; I was really quite sure that we would find it.  Wayne and I talk about completing “circles”–following events or situations through to a meaningful completion.  I had so hoped to complete John Peter Koontz’s “circle,” and to discover the final resting place of a man who came to this country from Switzerland, lived through the Civil War, made his home in Staunton, Virginia (which is less than 30 miles from where I’ve lived most of my life), raised three children, and then spent his last years in the Allegheny River town of Tarentum.

But I am also deeply thankful that we had the opportunity to make the trip, so that I could finally meet a “genealogy cousin,” see where my dad, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and great-grandparents lived, and explore a little bit more of my family’s history.

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4 Responses to Tarentum, PA – July 2017

  1. Kim Lorrine Harris says:

    What a beautiful and endearing story of your trip to our tiny town of Tarentum, PA. I’m so sorry you weren’t able to locate the headstone of your great great grandfather, John Peter Koontz’ grave. I find it quite unusual that you spotted two great blue herons in the Tarentum area….I’ve NEVER seen them before in the area.
    The Facebook page you mention..Tarentum and Surrounding Areas Pictures and Postcards is a group my sweetheart, Pete Mangini formed, owns and administers. It’s quite a popular site…if you would like to become a member to access all the information he has listed, I would be happy to include you as a member! Thank you so very much for sharing your adventure, story and pictures. I’m going to try to share it with my mom….she would be very interested to read this as well!

  2. Sharon says:

    Kim, I’m already a member of Pete’s FB page–so many cool pictures of the town and buildings. 🙂
    You should be able to just copy and paste the link for this blog post to share with your mom.
    To clarify, we saw the first Great Blue Heron in WV, and the second when we were just a few miles into PA. We’re not sure if the other large bird flying along the Allegheny River was a Heron because it was on the far side of the river and too far away to photograph. But given the way the rest of the day had gone, I wouldn’t rule it out! 🙂

  3. Sandra (Sandy) Pilston Sherbondy says:

    Sharon, I’m Kim’s mother, and my name at present is Sandy Sherbondy. (Maiden name, Pilston.) I loved reading about your trip to Tarentum! My memories thereof are so special! Though in the early days we lived nearby in Natrona Heights, our special event of the week was our Saturday trip to Tarentum – and we always picked up Grandma Shoop. Mom (Monnajean Shoop Pilston) and Grandma went shopping – Weisburg’s meat market; DiGirolamo’s for fruits & vegetables, then the A&P. Then we went to Jake’s Restaurant – mostly for their WONDERFUL chicken noodle soup and butterscotch pie. Brother Neil and I would go on to the Palace or the Harris Theater for a movie, then the great adventure of taking the bus home! It’s amazing, at age 82, how many details I can remember about those days! Grandad Shoop owned a foundry in West Tarentum, where my father also worked. Too much info, I know; but you got me started!

  4. Sharon says:

    I LOVE hearing your memories of Tarentum! My dad, siblings and parents moved to Indiana sometime in the mid-1930s, but my grandmother’s sister (Eva Allen) and brother (Leonard Koontz) continued to live there. My grandparents and some of my cousins (in Indiana) went back to visit, but this was my first trip (at least the first trip that I can remember). 🙂

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