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Publishing spouses turn local history into page-turners

Wednesday, July 17, 2002

By Patricia Lowry, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Two years ago when they were looking to start a business together, Cheryl Towers and husband Harold Maguire launched The Local History Company, dedicated to publishing history and heritage books, in their Shadyside home.

In "The Road Taken," Joan Morse Gordon takes a Pennsylvania road less traveled, informally documenting some of its history, geography and sociology.

"We were interested in publishing, we were interested in history, and there seemed to be an opportunity for a small publisher with a specific niche," said Towers, a former arts administrator and consultant to community groups. "The wonderful thing about history is that we're always making it, so you never run out of subject matter. People are interested in history, and all the more so since we have become a mobile society."

Towers does most of the editorial work while Maguire, an engineer, scientist and former Westinghouse executive, handles administration and sales. "He's more the publisher, I'm more the editor," said Towers. "But on any major decision we try to have a consensus."

The company rolled out its first two books late last year -- a hardbound history of Butler County and a soft-cover book about a central Pennsylvania back road, Route 45.

Later this year, it will publish Bernardine Hagan's memoir about building and living in Kentuck Knob, illustrated with some of the thousands of photographs her husband, I.N. Hagan, took over the years.

Hagan, now 93, wrote it over two weeks in the summer of 1997 at Chautauqua, N.Y., where she has vacationed for 25 years. Written like a chat with old friends, the memoir is filled with stories of the Hagans' interactions and negotiations with Frank Lloyd Wright, from whom they commissioned it in 1953. The Hagans moved in on their 26th wedding anniversary, July 29, 1956, and lived at Kentuck until 1985, when I.N. became ill with Alzheimer's.

In the fall, TLHC will bring out Bill Metzger's "Companion Guide to the Great Allegheny Passage," the 152-mile bicycle and walking trail-in-progress, connecting Cumberland, Md., with Pittsburgh.

"There's a lot of history about the whole surrounding area and its development" in the book, Towers said. "It can be used as a trail guide, but it's for someone who wants more information than just the trailhead." Metzger, a map maker and trail consultant who lives in Confluence, has produced detailed maps for the book, in 5-mile increments along the trail.

In September, Towers and Maguire will publish Pittsburgh native Lynn Van Dine's "The Search for Peter Hunt," about a Cape Cod folk artist active from the 1930s to the '50s.

"He was a fascinating guy, a child of German immigrants who invented himself" by changing his name from Frederick Schnitzer, moving from New Jersey to Greenwich Village to Cape Cod and ingratiating himself with collectors.

"Because he made up his life, it's very difficult to know what's true and isn't true. She's written it as a fictional biography."

Hunt's father, an alcoholic, was a defeated man when Hunt moved his parents to Cape Cod. But the father, known as Pa Hunt, took up painting, caught the attention of dealers and ended up in a Museum of Modern Art show and its collection.

"The father ended up getting recognition from the New York art establishment that the son never got," said Towers.

Under contract is a book about the development of aviation in Butler County, written by Holly Van Dine and focusing on Ken Scholter, who ran the county airport, now called Scholter Field, for years. Amelia Earhart trained there, likely because it had the first lighted runway in the country. In the 1930s, Scholter, a pilot, welder and mechanic, also helped build the prototype Taylor Cub, a popular small plane born at the Butler airport and later manufactured in Bradford.

The aviation book grew out of the publishing company's first book, "Butler County, Pennsylvania Celebrates Its Bicentennial" ($39.95), a compilation of stories that appeared in the Butler Eagle. Written by the Eagle staff and community groups and professionally indexed, it's more anecdotal than exhaustive in covering the county's early settlement and growth, oil industry, sports, the Cranberry boom and much more.

In "The Road Taken: A Journey in Time Down Pennsylvania Route 45" ($19.95), Joan Morse Gordon explores the history and geography of this "blue highway" and the people she met along it, many of them descendants of the area's 18th-century German and Swiss settlers. Unlike most of us who treat a drive through the countryside like a scenic movie, Gordon took the time to stop, ask questions and get to know the inhabitants and their ancestors. Unspoiled by billboards and used-car lots, the surrounding Penns and Buffalo valleys at first seemed frozen in time to Gordon, who, over five years, grew to understand the nuances of change in people and the landscape, now threatened by limestone mining.

For information about the Butler and Route 45 books (and a 20 percent discount), visit http://www.thelocalhistorycompany.com. They also can be purchased at Borders bookstores.

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