Hollers to Doughnuts: Cycling the Beaver Valley Six-Pack

Beaver Greens Park and Ohio River on a sunny fall day

Picture perfect. View of Beaver Greens Park, Bridgewater Crossing, and the Ohio River from River Road, Beaver

[Breathes deeply, sighs wistfully.]

If only it was October all year long. This…err, last month’s magic powers are almost too numerous to name. Golden, low-angle sunshine fans through dappled multicolor leaves. Crisp morning air yields to warm, t-shirt weather afternoons. Decorative gourd fantasias tell us the aroma of pumpkin spice and mulled apple cider is wafting somewhere nearby as the whimsical array of dismembered body parts, sadistic clowns, and sprays of blood spatter signal the most wonderful of holiday seasons is fully upon us.

elaborate Halloween decorations on house and yard in Monaca, PA

The most wonderful holiday season, Monaca

Give this blogger a day off and a blue sky and you’ll inevitably find him on a bicycle, worldly cares dismissed for the afternoon. This particular October day (it was Saturday, two weeks ago) was just such an occasion. Maps were consulted, timetables checked, and the S.S. Orbit charted a course downriver.

The goal for this particular journey was to construct our own custom bicycle-based tour through a series of nearly-contiguous river towns. We’re calling the route The Beaver Valley Six-Pack. If you get the chance and you’re so-inclined–there is still time–we can’t think of a better way to enjoy a gorgeous autumn day.

Below is the path we took along with some highlights. That said, as long as you get the interchanges right, it’s pretty much choose-your-own-adventure on this one. Stay off the busy roads–that turns out to be pretty easy–and you really can’t go wrong.

rooftop decoration of Santa with 10 reindeer made from toilet bowls, Monaca, PA

Santa and 10 tiny reindeer-toilets, Monaca

Monaca

We started in Monaca and went north. There’s a good argument to go the other direction, but we’ll get into that later. In any case, one can safely park a car on anywhere around 9th Street and the vehicle should remain unmolested as long as you like.

Don’t be too quick to get across the river! An easy trundle through the longer residential streets  (Washington, Indiana, and Atlantic Aves.) is well worth the poke-see, as are the dramatic river views from Monaca’s pair of waterfront parklets.

View of the Ohio River and train bridge from Monaca, PA

View of the Ohio River from the Monaca riverfront

Right now, the city is well represented in holiday decoration with an ample supply of front yard witches, skeletons, and gravestones. You’ll also not want to miss the Christmas-all-year display of Santa and his ten tiny reindeer toilets (photo above) on the roof of a garage behind the Japanese steakhouse.

ghost sign reading "Monaca Business Block," Monaca, PA

Ghost sign, Monaca

Whenever you’re ready, the giant bridge over the Ohio River awaits. It comes straight off 9th Street and there’s a protected bicycle/pedestrian gangway on the north-bound side. Newish signage states this will part of a future, more formalized Beaver County bicycle trail–but we can’t wait for that.

We saw no other non-vehicles on our crossing and while the views up and down the Ohio River are spectacular, we didn’t manage to get a photo worth sharing. Maybe you can do better.

large elevated sign for DeAngelis Donuts, Rochester, PA

DeAngelis Delightfully Different Donuts, Rochester

Rochester to Bridgewater

Arriving on the north bank of the Ohio, you’d swear the municipality was named DeAngelis for the size and placement of the enormous welcome sign. It’s not. No, Rochester just happens to begin (or end) at DeAngelis “Delightfully Different” Donuts which somehow commandeers the enviable location where the little city’s downtown intersects with the bridge and Routes 51/65 highway through-traffic.

A dirty secret: The Orbit has been to Rochester a dozen times on various field trips and never stopped for a DeAngelis donut (sic.). We’ll rectify that one of these days.

Rochester has a cool–but, sadly, vacant–old downtown just downhill from where you are now. There’s also a riverfront bowling alley whose exterior you’ll recognize from Kingpin the next you see it. This is all well worth exploring–but we didn’t do it this trip. Instead, it was through the roundabout, arriving at six o’clock and getting out at 11, down Brighton to Madison and crossing the Rochester-Bridgewater Bridge.

Beaver River between Rochester and Bridgewater, PA

Rochester (right), Bridgewater (left), and a whole lot of blue. View from the Rochester-Bridgewater Bridge.

Bridgewater and Beaver Borough

You’ll pass quickly through Bridgewater–so quickly, you might not even realize it was its own place. That said, if you’re looking for lunch, there are a handful of establishments right there at the base of the bridge that all look welcoming and convivial.

A quick left on Market Street, following the road around to Wolf Lane, will lead you directly to a bike/ped trail up under some railroad tracks by the old train depot and into Beaver Borough.

Now, Beaver gets all the name recognition out here and that’s in no small part because it cornered the market on the three W’s: wealthy white WASPs. If you’ve never been there, Beaver is totally out of place among the rest of the area. With its wide streets, well-kept fancy homes, and main street full of boutiques and frivolity, Beaver feels like a tony commuter suburb was plucked out of Connecticut and dropped in among the old mill towns of Beaver County. Don’t let that stop you from checking out the good stuff.

Halloween decorations at home in Beaver, PA

Halloween at Thunberg Acres, Beaver

The bicycle ride around River Road is just terrific. A wide street with no traffic and long views down to Beaver Greens Park, the Ohio River, and back across to Monaca on the other shore. (See photo, top.) River Road also includes numerous park benches, historical markers, and assorted other points of interest along the way.

At the far end, you’ll come up close to Thunberg Acres (our name). Orbit fans know this as the 3rd Street home of Gary Thunberg and his always-in-rotation holiday displays. [See photo above; we’ve reported on Gary’s homemade Halloween and Independence Day displays in years past.] Whatever the time of year, see what Thunberg Acres has in the queue of full-yard displays and please sign Gary’s guest book in the front box–he’s got a collection that goes back 20 years and would love for you to add to it.

fall day in Beaver Cemetery, Beaver, PA

Dappled sunlight, fall colors, Cyrillic picture graves at Beaver Cemetery

It is hard to overstate this how devastatingly beautiful Beaver Cemetery is–especially this time of year. The cemetery sits directly across 3rd Street from the Thunberg house and basically forms the western end of the town’s business district–you won’t miss it. We’ve reported on the off-its-rocker Leaf Mausoleum already, but there is so much to see here–and it colors so beautifully in the fall–that you don’t even need that.

As an unrepentant taphophile, I can tell you that Beaver Cemetery’s collection of mid-century photo gravestones is the largest we’ve seen in these parts. We first got the bug with the amazing weathered grave markers at Loretto Cemetery, but the town of Beaver bought into the little photos-turned-ceramic insets big time. At some point, we’ll go back for a big story there. For now, you’ll have to go find them yourself.

World War I memorial featuring doughboy statue painted gold in Townsend Park, New Brighton, PA

The golden doughboy, Townsend Park, New Brighton

New Brighton

Fun fact: Beaver Falls (we’ll get there in a minute) was originally called Brighton, which makes the name of the borough right across the river more sensible and explains the prominence of Pittsburgh’s north-west-heading Brighton Road. Once the name change to Beaver Falls, you’d think New Brighton might consider becoming Regular-Old Brighton, but that obviously didn’t happen.

Bicycling to New Brighton is the trickiest of the lot. From Beaver, you’ll make your way across town, down Leopard Lane, back into Bridgewater, and north up either Market or Riverside. There’s a quick little run on the sidewalk and then across the bike/ped lane of the Veterans Memorial Bridge. From here, you want to go straight across Rt. 65 to 3rd Avenue, which will skirt the through traffic almost all the way to New Brighton.

dark beer in glass on rough wooden table

Ein dunkel, Petrucci Brothers Brewing, New Brighton

The pairing of cycling and a malty quaff go together like…well, basically like anything else where one of the two things is drinking beer. That’s certainly true on the Six-Pack and Petrucci Brothers Brewing served up a rich dunkel that was qualified to satisfy the thirsty rider. In addition to the requisite combined brew/drink space, mismatched seating, and thrown-together bar, the Petruccis are big on games with shuffleboard, ping pong, air hockey, pool, and a big stack of board games all available to play for free.

Before leaving New Brighton, take a gander at the terrific collection of churches in town. There are too many to either discuss or include photos of here, but suffice to say for a small town it ended up with an amazing array of holy architecture.

First Baptist Church, New Brighton, PA

First Baptist Church, one of several beautiful churches in New Brighton

Beaver Falls

You’ll be tempted to ride with the traffic across the 7th Street Bridge because that’s the most direct way to where you’re headed. This stay-off-the-busy-streets cyclist didn’t feel that safe with the handful of speeding cars greasing my hip, so the recommendation is to get across the road and take the safer–if underused–walkway on the south/downriver side of the bridge.

This drops you on 7th Avenue, Beaver Falls‘ Main Street. Like a lot of its fellow old mill towns, Beaver Falls has seen better days and will demonstrate that to you with a certain level of vacancy, empty lots, and underused storefronts up and down.

river, trees in fall colors, and train bridge in Western PA

The Beaver River and train bridge between New Brighton and Beaver Falls

That said, there’s plenty to do, see, eat, and drink in town–even if you’re just passing through on two wheels.

The Beaver River’s eponymous falls do indeed break alongside Old Brighton’s eastern shore and there is the shortest of bicycle paths, connecting 2nd Ave. to 6th Ave., to see them from. Don’t get your hopes up: it’s a little tricky to actually get a decent viewing spot, and when you do…well, maybe they should have called the town Beaver Rapids. The gorgeous giant waterfalls of Ithaca or the Columbia River Gorge, these ain’t.

map with bicycling route between six different towns in Beaver County, PA

One suggested route for The Beaver Valley Six-Pack

Yeah, that’s a lot to take in. For anyone who’d actually like to recreate the Beaver Valley Six-Pack, we created a Map My Ride route that should get you through.

One final note: it was mentioned above that departing from Monaca may be the wrong way to do the trip. The argument for the opposite (start/end in Beaver Falls) is that you could bag (literally!) Oram’s Donuts at the start of the journey, do the rest of the ride in reverse, and then be back for the late opening time of Beaver Brewing Company. But then you’re probably getting to DeAngelis too late–what a dilemma!

Whatever you do, an exploration of Beaver Valley’s river towns is well worth the effort–even if you don’t do it on a bicycle. We’ll be back again, for sure, and maybe we’ll see you on the Six-Pack.

exterior of Oram's Old-Fashioned Donuts, Beaver Falls, PA

Oram’s Old-Fashioned Donuts, Beaver Falls


Getting there: To get anywhere in Beaver Valley will take you around 40 minutes drive west from downtown Pittsburgh.

October Surprise! Halloween at Thunberg Acres

large wooden bat hanging from a tree

Hangin’ around for Halloween: one of Gary Thunberg’s wooden bats.

[Cue: creepy pipe organ soundtrack, thunder clap, and dramatic lightning strike.]

Ghosts–with their eyes closed, tongues derisively throwing a Bronx cheer–lurk in the bushes. Black bats hang from branches and clothes lines. Spiders as big dinner plates creep up beside you. Gravestones fill the vegetable garden and a doghouse-sized haunted mansion rests on the front lawn. Dozens–it feel like hundreds–of jack-o-lanterns decorate walkways and yard passage, shrubs and tree limbs.

Halloween is alive and well at the Thunberg household, just like it’s been for the last forty-five years.

wooden Halloween decorations of ghosts and jack-o-lanterns

Ghosts! Pumpkin shrubs!

It’s just a fact: Autumn, in all its leaf-crunching, cider-drinking, sweater-wearing, gourd-decorating, hay-riding, apple-bobbing, technicolor fantasia, is the best season.

Summer’s unending parade of tortures–is over. Yes, the infernal heat and sunshine, insects and poison ivy, frolicking youths and unfulfilled expectations, are all safely in the rearview mirror. It is only then, in the melancholy gloom of turning leaves, crisp air, frequent drizzle, and solid cloud cover–that the world feels at one again.

wooden Jack-o-lantern ornaments hanging from bare tree limbs

Tiny jack-o-lantern tree ornaments.

Elongated to four or five weeks, Halloween is no mere one-evening oddity, but rather autumn’s peak and a legitimate season of the witch. By late September, tombstones and skeletons are popping up in suburban front yards. Little row house porchlets are decked-out in cobwebs and purple light. Preposterously fake stray body parts dangle from windows; creepy mannequins glower in side yards. In Allegheny Cemetery, family members are lovingly decorating real graves.

wooden Jack-o-lantern ornaments hanging from tree limbs

Lighted shrub pumpkins.

Gary Thunberg is truly a man for all seasons. When last we visited Beaver’s house of holidays, it was on the eve of Independence Day, 2017. Gary and his mother Doris could not have been more excited about showing off the red, white, and blue handmade eagles, stars, and fireworks blasts around the house, along with the volumes of guest books signed by visitors from around the world. After that encounter, we vowed to return and experience more Thunberg holiday displays in future.

handmade wooden Halloween decoration in back yard, Beaver, PA

Doris Thunberg and friend.

It will take a bunch of trips out Rt. 65 to see them all. The Thunberg home, on Third Street in Beaver, is in a perpetual state of rolling seasonal displays. The year’s lawn decoration starts with Valentine’s Day, which bleeds into St. Patrick’s, Easter, spring awakening, etc.

By late September, Gary Thunberg is all-in on Halloween season. The orange and black has taken over all surfaces of lawn, porch, bushes, and trees. Glowing orange lights are strung through the pumpkins in the shrubs and the handful of big, store-bought inflatables are plugged-in and stumble to life.

collage of homemade wooden lawn art for Halloween

Peanuts! Ghost house! Curious George!

two wooden spider ornaments hanging in a tree

Crawled up beside her: tree spiders.

Alas, Gary Thunberg’s work schedule doesn’t always line up with The Orbit‘s reporting availability, so we missed him on this trip out. But we got to see the house and grounds fully decked-out, the spirit of Halloween vividly present anywhere you look.

We learned from Doris that Gary is getting close to retirement which means our chances of getting a personal tour again will go way up. It also means Gary will finally have the opportunity to take this part-time hobby and put it into high gear. We can only hope.

Happy Halloween, y’all!

collage of four wooden Jack-o-lanterns

Pumpkin patch: some of the many wooden jack-o-lanterns created by Gary Thunberg.

James P. Leaf Mausoleum, Beaver Cemetery

James P. Leaf mausoleum in Beaver Cemetery, Beaver, PA

James P. Leaf mausoleum, 1949. Beaver Cemetery.

This blogger has spent a lot of time in the boneyard. So much time, we dare say, that we’ve hung out more than some cemeteries’ (newer) full-time residents. To visit one is a whole enchilada experience: you get to be outside in the introvert’s version of Kennywood–usually alone, in near silence, on beautifully-cared-for grounds that feel like a wild city park. Often there are the deer and crows and opossums to back it up. But it’s a park alive (ironically) with stories and history, carved images and statuary. Any cemetery has way too much to take in for just a single visit.

James P. Leaf mausoleum in Beaver Cemetery, Beaver, PA

Have you seen the back? Large boulders embedded in the Leaf mausoleum.

What these hallowed grounds don’t tend to feature so often is the touch of the human hand. Typically, gravestones are professionally-cut, perfectly-engraved, production line affairs. They’re marvels of precision stone-cutting and restrained grace, symmetry and classical iconography.

Rarely, however, does one encounter a grave marker that was hand made by the grieving family. [An obvious exception to this is the “DIY gravestones of Highwood Cemetery” (Pittsburgh Orbit, Oct. 30 and Nov. 1, 2015).] It is especially rare to see a stone or tomb that looks like his or her bats-in-the-belfry aunt or brown bottle flu uncle would have built it.

large stone blocking entry to mausoleum entry, Beaver Cemetery, Beaver, PA

Leaf mausoleum, entry (detail)

That, however, is exactly what Beaver Cemetery’s James P. Leaf mausoleum looks like. At approximately the size of a one-car alley garage, it’s definitely the right scale for your typical double-crypt couple’s tomb–but it sure doesn’t look like one. There are none of the straight lines, white stone, or classical features we normally see. Mr. Leaf didn’t even receive the customary stained glass rear windows like we peeked in on in Allegheny Cemetery.

Instead, the monument has clearly been constructed by hand, from an oddball collection of irregular stones. These range from the size of a cantaloupe to huge boulders that would crush a house in their falling path. One of these massive rocks has been set to entirely block the front entrance to the tomb, leaving only an oxidized copper Leaf nameplate visible awkwardly above. Water-smoothed river pebbles have been used to create decorative features within the mortar walls and vertically-places stones sit on top to resemble crude castle battlements.

There is a maybe too-good-to-be-true story that the mausoleum was built with stones pulled from each of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties that appears in several sources, all unsubstantiated.

mosaic detail made from pebbles, James P. Leaf mausoleum in Beaver Cemetery, Beaver, PA

Detail: pebble mosaic

James Pinney Leaf (1866-1949) seems an unlikely soul to spend eternity in such a ramshackle final resting place. The son of an engineer, Leaf followed in his father’s footsteps, earning a degree in engineering, serving in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers during World War I, and working on projects and surveys in Rochester, PA, the Ohio canals, Pymatuning Reservoir, on Lake Erie, and along the Ohio River.[1]

So how did a lifelong builder and engineer end up in a cattywumpus backyard barbeque of a crypt like this one? There’s got to be a great explanation here.

view into crypt interior, James P. Leaf mausoleum in Beaver Cemetery, Beaver, PA

View into crypt interior

Spoiler Alert: We don’t know! The Orbit sat on this story for an entire year, dug into the books with the crew at the Carnegie Library’s Pennsylvania Room, consulted professional archivists, talked to Beaver Cemetery staff, and … Zilch. Goose egg. Bubkes. “Nothing burger”.

Who James P. Leaf was is well documented–Hillman Library has a huge collection of family papers–but it’s a total mystery how such an esteemed veteran, builder, and prominent community member ended up with this pile-of-rocks mausoleum.

James P. Leaf mausoleum in Beaver Cemetery, Beaver, PA

One of these memorials is not like the rest. Leaf mausoleum, Beaver Cemetery.

It was a rough week–emotionally and physically. Nobody wants to hear about all that, but you’ll no doubt respect the need to just move on and let a mystery be its own mysterious self. Maybe by having this story out there someone who actually knows what’s up with the Leaf tomb can enlighten us and we can finally set the record straight.

Currently, we’re in the apex of leaf-changing glory. If you’re looking for a destination to get your fall colors on, you could do a lot worse than the fun drive out Route 65, past Punks Ice Cream and the murals of the Sewickley Speakeasy, to lovely little Beaver Cemetery. See what you can find out for ol’ Orbit, will you?


[1] University of Pittsburgh Library System, Leaf family papers.

Pain’t That America: The Front Yard Patriotism of Gary Thunberg

brick house with many handmade wood cut Independence Day lawn decorations, Beaver, PA

Little America: Thunberg house, 3rd Street, Beaver, PA

It’s a cliché, sure, but you can’t miss it.

No, the sweet, pre-war two-story brick home would look a lot like many others found in Pittsburgh’s down-river boroughs but for the wealth–some might say overload–of red, white, and blue homemade patriotic holiday displays that fill every inch of its front, side, and rear yard space. Together, they lift this house from small town charmer to an explosion of full-on Yankee Doodle Dandydom.

handmade wood cut American flag lawn decorations, Beaver, PA

American flag

Beaver, PA. A picture-perfect embodiment of quaint. The town’s wide streets, stately manors, well-groomed lawns, and fancy boutiques look more country posh than the (ex-)industry brownfields and empty storefronts of almost all its Ohio Valley neighbors[1]. But it’s a pleasant, accessible, middle-class midwestern posh, rather than its harder-to-take New England old money cousin.

There was long bit about taking a bike from Monaca to Rochester and then here to Beaver, but our editor told us to cut the crap. Suffice to say, there are a bunch of interesting things in town and River Road is both aptly-named and bicycle-perfect. If you take it almost all the way around and then back to the main drag, your ride-around will conclude up on 3rd Street with the great homemade holiday decorations of Gary Thunberg.

Gary Thumberg with his handmade wood cut Independence Day lawn decorations, Beaver, PA

Gary Thunberg by his alley cannon and flags

Some of the displays may be what you’re expecting. There are dozens of eagles, their wings spread in majestic mid-flight glory and bodies brightly marked like sports jerseys. A couple of them have been framed in lumpy ovals to appear as if in an official seal. Uncle Sam is here–the red, white, and blue literally oozing out of him–as are many, many American flags in different sizes and variants.

handmade wood cut Independence Day lawn decorations including flags, eagles, and star flowers, Beaver, PA

side of Thunberg’s house with flags, eagles, and star flowers

In The Orbit‘s annual Independence Day post, we mused about why it’s so difficult for homemade flag-painters to get the 50-star count right. On this matter, we need to eat some Corvus brachyrhynchos (that’s all-American crow).

With so many homemade flags created by the same two hands, it’s exciting to see the umpteen different expressions that Gary Thunberg has come up with. For sure: flags that are near the exact design you’ll see flying above the courthouse are featured in the yard. But so are seven-striped models of minimalism, gestural two-star tree-hangers, and reverse-color mind-benders.

handmade wood cut American flag lawn decorations, Beaver, PA

American flag

handmade wood cut American flag lawn decorations, Beaver, PA

American flag

In addition to these familiar forms, the lawn display also includes some other interesting takes on America’s favorite color scheme.

Thunberg attacks the most effervescent of holiday imagery in his captured-in-time fireworks explosions. These wooden cut-outs–complete with smoke trails and star blasts–are repeated several times with different paint jobs. The image is perhaps Thunberg’s most impressionistic form–a daring move to represent so much motion and light, sound and fury in two dimensions, staked in grass.

handmade wood cut fireworks lawn decorations, Beaver, PA

fireworks

The most unique of Thunberg’s choices has to be a large teddy bear form that appears multiple times around the property[2]. How these relate to the declaration of independence, we don’t know–and didn’t think to ask at the time–but we’ll go with it. The bears are standing up for America with no identifiable facial markings and just the vertical red/white/blue stripes of the season. A human-sized teddy bear is out front riding a (real, decommissioned) bicycle.

handmade wood cut teddy bear lawn decoration on bicycle, Beaver, PA

show me what democracy looks like: patriotic teddy bear on bicycle

handmade wood cut Independence Day lawn decorations including teddy bear, fireworks, and Uncle Sam, Beaver, PA

patriotic teddy bear, fireworks, Uncle Sam

You’d think the 4th would be enough, but Gary Thunberg is holiday crazy. Independence Day is just one of four annual occasions that prompt the sixty-something year-old Thunberg to shuffle the contents of his storage shed/workshop/garage–taking in the previous event’s decor and prepping for the next.

With a holiday every season [Halloween, Christmas, and Easter are the others] and the weeks of work it takes him to remove the old, bring out the new, patch, paint, and repair any trouble spots, and finally lay out and line up everything for display, the decorations are a (nearly) full-time side occupation.

handmade wood cut eagles lawn decorations in back yard, Beaver, PA

back yard eagles and flags

The family came to this house on 3rd Street over 40 years ago, and Gary’s passion for holiday decoration goes back almost as long. The painted plywood decorations are all cut out by Thunberg with a jigsaw using various paper patterns or templates. From here, they’re sanded, painted, and hammered into the ground. The majority of the display is saved, stored, and brought back out again each year, but Gary tries to add one or two new pieces each season. Neighbors have gotten into the act by donating lights, wood, paint, and brushes.

handmade wood cut Independence Day lawn decoration of red, white, and blue Snoopy, Beaver, PA

Snoopy

The Thunbergs–Gary lives with his lovely 87-year-old mother Doris–want you to stop by and see Gary’s work. A guest book out front encourages visitors to sign in and leave their thoughts. Doris has volumes of past years’ entries with signees coming from every state in the country and all over the world.

Catching this blogger photographing the side of his house, Gary came out to say hello and led me around, acting as tour guide to the full display, which extends into the back yard and out to the alley. Then I got invited into the house, phone numbers were exchanged, and we were invited back.

We will be back–for sure. We’ll see you guys at Halloween, if not sooner.

handmade wood cut American flag lawn decorations, Beaver, PA

American flag


[1] Yes, Sewickley is the other obvious exception.
[2] We weren’t sure what these shapes actually are, but Gary Thunberg confirmed them as teddy bears.