Remembering history one memorial at a time

Published 11:49 pm Tuesday, June 28, 2016

I became angry when I saw the neglected World War II memorial.

The stone tribute sits on a triangular piece of property at the junction of Brownsville and Piney Fork roads in South Park, PA (a suburb of Pittsburgh, PA). On Memorial Day 2015, it was surrounded by clumps of dead, brown grass and overgrown weeds.

It was a disgrace.

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After making some calls, I learned that Allegheny County was responsible for maintaining it – that the county cut the grass “now and then” but not with the attentiveness the old memorial deserved.

So I took ownership of it. I began maintaining the grounds with my lawn equipment. I weeded the flower bed. I pressure-washed the dead, clumpy grass that had been matted to the pavement.

Then, after doing some research, I discovered that the memorial had a remarkable history.

It dates back to 1912, when Primo Bastianini immigrated to America from Italy.

Primo worked in the mines in West Virginia. He saved his money and sent for his parents and younger siblings (three brothers and three sisters).

The family members settled in Snowden, now South Park, and continued to work in the mines.

They got a couple of cows, which they grazed in a pasture below their homes.

To provide fresh water for the cows, they dammed the stream, Piney Fork Creek, that ran through the pasture – unaware that the dam would change their fortunes.

You see, the dam created a watering hole. People from downtown Pittsburgh 12 miles south began coming to it on weekends to swim, picnic and escape the city heat.

In the early 1920s, the family members combined their resources and took out a loan. They purchased the 22-acre pasture. They hired farmers and striking miners and built a concrete pool 100 feet wide by 200 feet long.

Piney Fork Beach opened in 1927 and was an instant hit.

Over the years, the family added pony rides, miniature golf, a bar/restaurant, several cottages and a dance hall. Business boomed.

In 1941, as America was drawn into World War II, the Bastianinis wanted to show their gratitude to neighbors serving in the armed forces – to show their gratitude for being given the chance to live the American dream.

They hired a stonemason friend to erect their monument. It has three sides, like the triangular ground where it sits, and, at first, it proudly displayed the names of all service members from Snowden.

Bruno Bastianini, who lived in the family’s multi-generation home across the street from the memorial, would maintain the memorial grounds for the rest of his life – until he became ill and died in 1976.

By 1977, the fortunes of Piney Fork Beach had reversed. High insurance costs caused the family to close the pool. In 1982, vandals burned several structures to the ground.

The family members sold what was left and moved on, leaving the county to care for the memorial, maintaining it “now and then” ever since.

That changed when I started caring for the memorial more than a year ago.

I give it a fresh trim and surround the grounds with flags every Memorial Day, Veterans Day and July Fourth.

Better yet, the county maintenance crew – not wanting to be outdone by a citizen and his lawn mower – is now maintaining the grounds regularly with greater care. The old memorial is flourishing once again.

So if you come across a neglected war memorial in your community, grab your lawn equipment and go to work. It’s a small sacrifice we can make to honor those who have served and show our gratitude to wonderful people like the Bastianinis, whose historic war memorial continues to inspire.

Tom Purcell is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review humor columnist.