The Picker Sisters, Lancaster Cork, and Fossils of an Industrial Past

As we dropped down out of southern Pennsylvania’s Laurel Highlands, into the slopes of the City of Johsntown, we dropped further into a place that reminded me much of Pittsburgh — cut up and confused by rivers, abandoned behemoth brick structures dominating the circuitous paths through town, long stretches of rusted rails.

I wanted to pull over, to have a closer look. At the vacant mills, like rectangle red mountains, and the deep cement-walled ravines guiding the rivers, precautions from the 19th century flood that destroyed the place. But we were on a schedule, had just come from Punxsutawney and still had to get to Lancaster, three and a half hours east. But when we did get to Lancaster, as I tried to sleep even, I was still thinking of Johnstown.

We were at the Cork Factory Hotel. Built in 1865 as Lancaster Cork Works, it’s served other purposes since, a glass factory, for example, but a hotel, now, too. “Upscale” and “boutique” are the words used to advertise it, and it was, but it — its exterior and exposed interior walls — were the same brick we’d left behind in Johnstown. Just polished up by Urban Place LLC in 2005, because they saw the beauty in the old mill, the red smoke stack that stands above the entrance. And knew their customers would too.

Thinking about terms like “ruin porn,” designed to leave an aftertaste of guilt any time aesthetic value is found in places like Johnstown, the Cork Factory holds the key for me.

Whether it be a mill, a market, anything it seems, what’s made today are steel warehouses, pole buildings, aluminum shells, just larger versions of Dollar Stores. Utilitarian structures with eyes, with no room to budge, on the bottom line. And as I tried to sleep in an old cork warehouse, I had to wonder, in 150 years who’s going to want to fix up a Dollar Store, who’s going to want to stay the night in one of those?

Live fast; die young; leave a pretty corpse. And industry did, and a lot of them. But the real trick is making that beauty obvious. Making it as valuable as a steel warehouse is cheap. Taking these old, abandoned resources and making something of them.

It’s called bricolage, taking what’s on hand and making something new from it, something I first learned at Carnegie Mellon from Professor Scott Sandage in a brilliant course titled “The Roots of Rock and Roll.” It’s all rock and roll is, he explained, as he showed us the Carter Family, Woody Guthrie, Son House, Robert Johnson, Lead Belly, Nirvana, all the pieces from which they built their music, and the pieces of their music that were used to make what came after. My term paper, to illustrate, was on the bricolage of Bob Dylan — when he went electric at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, making his music new by using something on hand, the electric guitar.

Bricolage was at work in not only the structure of the Cork Factory Hotel, but also what we saw on TV — the Picker Sisters, who took old silos and broken motorcycles and make custom tables and chairs — and also in its restaurant, the Cork and Cap. There we found maybe expected dish names — Lancaster County Barbecue Chicken and a beef stroganoff, more specifically Petite Filet Stroganoff — but elevated with what was on hand, culinary techniques and upscale ingredients. Our appetizer, for example, was stuffed peppers, but instead of run of the mill beef, they were filled with veal. (And maybe its vice versa, the idea or tradition of the dishes being what was on hand, like the Lancaster County Barbecue Chicken with a cucumber coleslaw and German potato salad that came to me as something that wouldn’t be confused with something found on a paper plate.)

So I guess the point is, beyond the inherent aesthetic value of these abandoned monuments to an industrialized age long gone, that these broken antiques can be and should be used to build the future. They should be considered natural resources as much as the oil and gas that were left under the soil from another age. As each rust belt town works to move from its industrialized past into some post-industrial success, it’s important to take stock of what came before, what’s left over from it, and how that can be used. Not every town is going to have a Cork Factory Hotel or Heinz Lofts. And there may only be broken windows and poisoned ground left over.

But I look to my town, Greenville. There is a railroad museum and an Erie Extension Canal museum, a historical society, and now each July to draw attention to them and the town’s heritage as a whole, there is Heritage Day. To be sure such an event won’t have the same effect as if a steel car plant opened its doors again, or Chicago Bridge & Iron, but it is, at least, a step in the right direction.

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One Response

  1. Hey Caleb, I always talk about “our” rust belt. Cool stories! We have been able to experience the rust belt first hand.

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