by Tim Gilmore, 8/30/2020
1. Community and Compost
The Rosenberger House stands still, but its varied lives have circuited great distances. When you love old houses, it’s this fact you cherish. An old house is a way station, a collector of lives and their stories.
In its previous shopfront incarnation around the corner on Edgewood Avenue, Community Loaves became my favorite place to meet friends for coffee, support local farmers and buy quiche and avocado toast and rosemary bread. In its new home, the two story pistachio green brick house at Edgewood and Trask, Community Loaves reminds me of the promise of compost.
When I was a little boy, I stood beside the compost pile by my father’s garden and felt the heat radiate from the ever condensing mountain of lawn clippings, banana peels, coffee grounds, egg shells and peanut hulls. I helped my father rake that magical natural breakdown of dead things commingled into pure nutrition into the garden rows.
This morning, I’m sipping my caffè Americano by the fireplace in a house built because people died in a tragic trolley accident in Pittsburgh a century ago. I’m buying my loaf of sourdough because Community Loaves has renovated this former boarding house. Both things are true because a garden composted well nourishes the dead back to life, always.
2. The Rosenbergers, Part One: Accidental Jacksonville
Albert and Johanna Rose Mengen Schwenning brought their three month old daughter Christina from Germany to Kittaning, Pennsylvania in the early 1880s. They were part of the vast German immigration mistakenly called “Pennsylvania Dutch.” The “Dutch” were really Deutsch, since Germany is Deutschland.
Christina married a Jewish German soldier born in Stuttgart, Karl Rosenberger, on July 12, 1900 in Pittsburgh. In their wedding photograph, he almost smiles; she doesn’t. Something seems inverted to the gendering of the time. He sits passively in a chair, its arms and seat drip tassels, and Christina stands erect and tall behind him, tiara in long train, arms by her sides. Karl looks secure in being taking care of. Christina stares straight-lipped forward, eyes dire, like a soldier accepting his duty.
First Karl had married Louise Beshone, a Frenchwoman who died giving birth to their third child Paul. Paul died soon after his mother and Karl raised Louise and Elfreda while working in the Pennsylvania coal mines.
When Karl died from pneumonia in 1913, his lungs combustible and black, full of the earth he’d riven from the earth, he left his widow Christina pregnant, to raise by herself their six children and her two stepdaughters from Karl’s first marriage. Christina became the matriarch those who grew up knowing her felt she’d always been.
The German soldier, become miner and brewer, had died an American. Christina, even as she annealed, became Tina. She shouldered a widow’s responsibility. Elfreda became Freda and found work, whether sewing or washing, with her sister Louise outside the home. The boys found jobs in butchering and steel, moved on, paid parts of their wages back. Christina paid allowances forward for streetcar transport and food. The Rosenbergers functioned as a miniature city-state.
Now events blur. Time shakes itself into a haze, then fades. Buddy’s lungs were bad. He was the youngest. Moving the family to Charleston, South Carolina for warmth and better circulation, Tina could find no work and no housing and brought the family back up to Pittsburgh.
If Charleston had worked, it would’ve averted the Rosenbergers’ part in the tragedy. Without the tragedy, the family would never have built the big house in Jacksonville. What almost destroyed the family in Pittsburgh planted them firmly and successfully in Northeast Florida.
In 1934, the five Rosenberger brothers stood smiling, healthy, in dress shirts and short ties, threading cigarettes through their fingers, in front of the house their mother built—Albert (“Al”), Carl Edward (“Kelly”), Henry Oscar (“Pitts”), Ernest Joseph (“Ernie”) and Frances Leo (“Bud”). Kelly had raised his sister Freda from the dead. Bud’s bad lungs had steered his family south to keep him alive.
3. Geographies of Woofing and Baking
Meredith Corey-Disch planted her eyes on this place, the Rosenberger House, when it was a boarding house for men habituating the taverns down Edgewood Avenue. She’d loved the image, the metaphor, the promise of a bakery in an old house.
Her trajectory had sent her downstate, up into the Piedmont mountains, then to Murray Hill, this old working class Jacksonville neighborhood, by way of a farm in Southwest England just under the Bristol Channel. Life grows its own way. If you’ve the luxury of letting it, maybe you come to your truest self.
Meredith wears her hair back in a bandana. She’s been baking since dawn. She speaks quickly. It’s hard for me to keep up my notes. She grew up in Atlantic Beach, says she was lucky to have progressive parents who encouraged her interest in nature and the outdoors. Sitting at the window bar in the new digs, the Rosenberger House, she charts the ways her environmentalism evolved. She transferred from New College in Sarasota to Warren Wilson, near Asheville, North Carolina, along the way working at Collegiate Peaks in Colorado, reading Michael Pollan’s Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation and thinking about how to make her degree in Environmental Ethics do work in the real world.
Then she started WWOOFing. That’s the acronym. “Woofing” means volunteering at homestays on farms across the United States, Australia, England, Guinea or any participating country around the world. The acronym stands for Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms, though when Sue Coppard started the network in England in 1971, the “WW” was “Working Weekends.”
Eventually Meredith arrived in Southwest England, in Somerset, not far from the ancient Roman city of Bath. She came to woof as apprentice to a sourdough baker who never showed up. She made the most of the opportunity.
4. A Stay Down the Street
Bradley was down in Florida, stopping through Jax, from frostbitten Toronto in January. He said he was lucky enough to get a reservation, commented on the lemon drop martini and the asiago gnocchi. He must have had the wrong place.
God help anyone whose alibi was The Alibi. The dive bar opened at eight a.m. Pabst Blue Ribbon in a can, Pittsburgh Steelers pennants, exhausted stamped tin ceiling sagging over a pool table. It sat in a line of such watering holes historically marking Murray Hill as the working class alternative, literally the other side of the tracks, to Riverside Avondale.
In its closing years, Leo Nau ran The Alibi and offered patrons, down on their luck, a stay down the street in the Rosenberger House. Greer Hill stayed in Leo’s rooming house half a dozen times the last few years, never for long, and propped up the bar at The Alibi most mornings and afternoons. Just ’til he screwed his courage back to the sticking-place.
Greer says Leo understood The Plight, which he won’t be tied down to define. “It wasn’t the best place,” he says, “but when your luck went down, Leo came up.” It’s important to understand, Greer says, he never took a handout. And Leo was upfront about not offering any. Because “Socialism is wrong,” Greer says. “The youth of America is socialist today because their parents gave them everything and they never had to work. Well,” he concludes, defensive about the irony, “that’s not me!”
But Leo and his rooming house did save Greer a time or two. He pauses and says, “Or four or five. God bless Mr. Leo.”
5. The Rosenbergers, Part Two: The Pittsburgh Streetcar Horror
When Christina and Elfreda, Tina and Freda, “didn’t arrive home on time,” says the family history in the upstairs office at Community Loaves, “& word of the wreck reached the neighborhood, Kelly, one of the older boys, walked down to see what happened. He found Elfreda on the wagon with the dead people, but she was still alive.” Elfreda, Christina’s stepdaughter from her deceased husband Karl’s first marriage, was 15.
It was Christmas Eve, a little after three in the afternoon, 1917. More than 120 travelers packed the Pittsburgh streetcar named for the neighborhood of Knoxville when it cut a steep grade through the Mount Washington Tunnel and jumped its track to West Carson Street. Three days after Christmas, the deaths were still climbing and Associated Press stories carried headlines like “21 Deaths in Pittsburgh’s Trolley Horror.” The death count soon rose to 24, dozens injured.
On Christmas Day, The Pittsburgh Daily Post quoted “Mrs. Harry Schultz,” who’d been headed downtown to buy Christmas presents for her four children. She heard screaming as the car neared “the opening of the tube” and then flipped. “I was stunned for a short time,” she said, “but when I came to, women and babies, covered with blood, were crawling and screaming.” A headline in The Butler Citizen wailed, “Happy Christmas Shoppers Ride to Death in Trolley Car.”
On the hundredth anniversary of the accident, Mary Jane Kuffner Hirt, writing for The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, described how “the trolley was demolished as it emerged from the tunnel. It crashed into a hydrant, then overturned against a metal telegraph pole, slid 50 feet and collided into an iron fence in front of the P&LE [Pittsburgh and Lake Erie] Terminal Annex. The rear end of the car was reduced to splinters and two thirds of the car’s roof was torn off. Witnesses reported the wreck sounded like a bomb that shook the street and created a cloud of dust.” Headlines tracked the streetcar crashing into a confectionery.
As Mrs. Schultz began to crawl through a hole in the streetcar’s roof, men shouted at her to stay back. “They were dragging women and babies from the car,” she said, “and I thought I saw legs and arms lying on the floor in the debris.” A century later, Kuffner Hirt writes, “Some bodies were torn to pieces and strewn for 100 yards along Carson Street; others were horribly crushed.”
Kelly Rosenberger must first have thought his sister was dead. Long before the Internet, before 24/7 news cycles, word traveled by person and neighborhood, sometimes with lightning quick efficiency. Freda lay with the corpses being rushed from the wreck, arms already turning cold draped across her own. How Kelly discovered his sister, how he reacted to find her yet breathing, is lost now to time and history. If he ever said, if anyone ever asked, those transcriptions and memories long ago vanished.
On July 13, 1919, The Pittsburgh Daily Post explained the difficulties of figuring whom accident victims might sue, how the Philadelphia Company owned the debts and obligations of the Pittsburgh Railway Company held in receivership. Of 15 suits then filed, Christina and Elfreda Rosenberger both sought $50,000, claims each worth more than a million dollars today.
That doesn’t mean they got that much. As so often, the dollar mattered more than the life. Writes Kuffner Hirt, “Pittsburgh Railways vigorously and unashamedly fought the claims, as the trial transcript in the case of Elfreda Rosenberger, a 15 year old who sustained facial and eye injuries, shows. The Pittsburgh Railways attorney argued that a comparison of photographs before and after the accident showed that Rosenberger wasn’t very pretty and that her injuries didn’t diminish her appearance. The jury awarded her $10,000.”
While the lawsuits tied themselves in knots, the Rosenbergers moved to Jacksonville. It gave them everything Charleston had refused them. The neighborhood where they rented a house on Edgewood Avenue in 1918 would soon be called Murray Hill. When the money came through, just ahead of the Great Depression, Tina had the staunch brick family home built. Prosperous suburbs like Avondale were sprouting the other side of old pine forests and former slave plantations. Edgewood was still the edge of the woods.
6. Community is to Family as Family is to Community
No wonder Meredith says she could’ve moved the bakery into a bigger building, but fell in love with this house instead. No wonder the Rosenberger House became available. After things happen, inevitability accrues in hindsight. What happens will later appear it was always to happen. The way things go always ends up making sense, even if it didn’t in the moment, even if you couldn’t have anticipated it, because we shape stories by looking backward. Thus what comes to be seems to have been predetermined.
In one 1920s photo, Ernie wears a flat cap and holds a puppy named King whose face peers up from his hands. And Bud, Buddy whose health first necessitated the family move south, hands to his face, shadowed under flat cap, early Ford model car just behind him, shouts out something instantly lost in the air, gone now for a century.
Prince, a Dalmatian mix, spotted but stouter than purebreds, appears in several family photos. In one, he’s perched on the Trask Street porch. Tommy shows up only once. Behind him is a brick column of this same house, some skeletal imprint of a tree. His face floats faded in a cloud of fur. Someone’s scrawled a caption calling Tommy “the best mouser in Murray Hill.”
I ask Meredith if she thinks the cultural and environmental gains of movements toward urban farming, farm-to-table dining and ecological awareness represented by Community Loaves and local urban farms like Tim Armstrong’s “Eat Your Yard, Jax” and Congaree and Penn mark a permanent change in our culture, both at large and in Jacksonville. She says she does.
I’m asking also as the son of a Great Depression farmer, himself an alien from a former world, born while Calvin Coolidge was president, 1924. He grew up with former slaves and their sons. Black men disappeared in the Georgia woods. My early family history loomed large as world wars but disappeared, undocumented, in the clay hills and roads and trees of the Georgia where my schizophrenic uncle, my father’s older brother, first saw phantom men watching him from the tops of longleaf pines.
But I’m ahead of myself and far afield, always desperately trying to catch up. I know I never will. But for a moment, the satisfaction of slicing into this buoyant rosemary sourdough loaf tells me everything’s okay, everything comes round, that all the lives having inhabited this house still circuit back into home.
I used to help my father, who died last year, rob bees and clip the hooves of his goats. When my daughters were little, he cupped his palms to show them those bluebird eggs. So wasn’t it natural that, for my 46th birthday, as I’m still four years younger than my father was when I was born, as I’m still four years younger than my mother was when she died, my daughters bought me that vanilla Swiss buttercream cake, topped with blueberries, mint and peaches, from Community Loaves? Surely that’s a narrative arc, a lovely one.