Before my daughter Rachel moved out, we used to go for walks around town and I’d tell her little stories and anecdotes about the locations we came across. It was one of my favorite things to do together. I’m in the mood to take one of those walks by way of Google Street View, and I’ve decided to drag you along.
Grab your coat. It’s still chilly out this time of year.
I’ll admit this is not a brilliant town. My attachment to Butler is 100% nostalgic. If I’d grown up somewhere else, I wouldn’t give this place a second look.
There’s not much here that’s special. The only famous things to come out of Butler are the Jeep and Barbara FeldonYou might know her as Agent 99.
. It’s one of those obnoxious towns that “steals” the highway. You know how it is: You’re minding your own business driving from one town to the next when all of a sudden the highway you’re on transforms into Main Street. Now you’re tangled up in downtown traffic and staring at the chorus line of traffic lights stretching off into the distance, wondering where it all went wrong.
It’s actually even worse than that, but I’ll explain when we get to the south end of Main Street. Let’s start on the north side and walk south.
The Armstrong Cable building. It’s where the internet comes from. Or fails to, as is sometimes the case.
I really wanted a job here in the early 90’s. I think it was some other company at the time, but I wasn’t really interested in who they were so much as where they were. I liked the modern-looking building. It made me think it was a modern company, which would in turn suggest that they would have modern computer systems. This is opposed to a lot of businesses of the day, which still had clanking mainframes that ran on COBOL and whale oil. Having accrued an additional quarter century of life experience since then, I know enough now to realize that the assumption of modern building = modern infrastructure does not hold up.
I guess it’s just as well they never responded to my resume.
In ~1982, a 7-11 convenience store opened here. This was the first time I’d ever heard of a “chain” like this. Before now, all the gas stations and small shops I’d ever seen were strictly local.
Around that time, someone showed me that holding a magnet up to a TV screen would make the screen warp into psychedelic color bands. Unfortunately, that same guy never bothered to explain that this could potentially be harmful to the device. I carried a strong magnet with me and liked to show people this trick when the opportunity appeared. I tried it on the Ms. Pac-Man machine in this 7-11 one day. Except… When I pulled the magnet away, the color bands remained. I stared at the deformed spot in terror, waiting for the distortion to un-kink itself.
“Why did you mess up the machine?” one of the older kids demanded in a loud voice.
I shook my head. The anomaly would go away. It had to. I mean, it always had before.
All the kids were looking at me now, but this wasn’t the kind of attention I’d been looking for. I booked it and avoided the place for years after that, assuming I was a wanted criminal for vandalizing the Ms. Pac-Man with badly understood science.
The green awning is a nondescript office now, but back in the 80’s it was a notorious head shop. They sold the usual accouterments of the lifestyle: Tie-dye clothing, incense, lava lamps, candles, and such. They also sold pipes, and if you were stupid enough to refer to a pipe as a “bong” they would throw you out. They made it very clear that they sold tobacco pipes, and not pipes for any illegal drugs.
This was a really straight-laced town, and they did not like having this unseemly business (right on Main Street no less!) in their supposedly upstanding community. Undercover police would come in and try to buy weed. The place would often get shut down for various bureaucratic excuses. I think it spent as much time closed as it spent open.
See, it was (and still is) illegal to sell weed around here. But it’s also illegal to sell weed “paraphernalia” such as pipes. But to get arrested for selling a weed pipe the prosecutor has to be able to prove that, deep down in your heart of hearts, you know or intend that this pipe is for weed and not tobacco. That sounds tough to prove, but remember that cases are often decided by juries and juries are made up of locals that don’t like having your kind in their town.
I visited the place in 1992 or so when my then-girlfriend Heather took me there to buy a tie-dye shirt. Based on its reputation I expected a dangerous, seedy place filled with sketchy dudes. Instead they were enormously polite and friendly. I imagine that whenever the whole town is out to get you, you’re glad for anyone that comes through the door and isn’t looking to cause you trouble.
Back in the pre-internet days, this was what bored teens did on Friday nights. They parked in this parking lot, smoked cigarettes, played music, cruised up and down main, engaged in the familiar teenage mating rituals, and did a lot of shouting. (If the weather was cold, they went to the mall instead.) This was a town with a graduating class of over 700, and there was nothing for any of them to do, entertainment-wise.
Local businesses hated it because they took up all the parking but didn’t patronize any of the shops. The cops would come in and try to scare the kids away, but there wasn’t really a lot they could do. As long as you feed the meterDo you need to feed the meter at night? I forget., it’s not illegal to park here and do nothing all night.
I never concerned myself with any of this. Wasn’t my scene. Why would I sit in a parking lot all night? I had a computer!
This hasn’t been a problem in decades. Teens have cell phones and internet now. They can “hang out” without needing to congregate in large groups. As much as people groan about those dang millennials and their smartphones, I have to say they’re way less disruptive and annoying than my generation was. I love being able to make a quick run to pick up milk and eggs and not get tangled up in a twenty minute traffic jam of newbie drivers because I forgot it was Friday night.
Worsley’s. I don’t think I ever went into Worsley’s as a patronOutdoor furniture and dolls both fall WAY outside my areas of interest. but it’s been a fixure of Main St. for as long as I can remember. (And I can remember back pretty far!) My Dad lived in the apartments just above this shop. It’s where he was living during this period of my life.
It burned down about six months ago. Since then they’ve knocked down what was left. It still feels like a missing tooth when I see the empty lot.
Look at this gorgeous slice of classical architecture. It was a bank when I was young. Then for a long time it was nothing. And now it’s “The Workingman’s Store”. They sell bluejeans, steel-toed boots, work gloves, and such. This makes no sense to me. I mean, it’s a business and you’re allowed to sell hardhats out of any kind of building you please, but I just can’t reconcile walking into the Greek Parthenon and buying a flannel shirt. I’m not saying it should be illegal per se. I’m just saying if it was illegal that would be the sort of petty, small-minded tyranny I could get behind.
We’re almost done. One stop left…
Butler County Ford. One of the earliest Ford dealerships. Established in 1918, it will be 100 next year. Were these streets even paved at the time?
Well yes. With brick. There are still some brick streets left in town, too. I grew up on one of them. I can still remember the strange howling sound tires make when you drive over brick.
I’m not sure why the brick streets have endured into the 21st century. Or perhaps I should look at it the other way: If these streets are so old, why aren’t more streets made of brick, instead of asphalt that needs to be replaced every decade or so? I don’t know. I will note that all of the brick streets are steep hills, so maybe brick is somehow better in those cases.
Anyway, here we are at the end of Main.
Here Main St. curves off to turn back into Route 8 and the people trying to pass through the city can finally break free of the stoplights and resume their journey. But it didn’t used to be this easy.
Up until 15 years ago, there was a much different bridge here. It cut straight across this valley and joined that red brick hill you see in the distance. It joined there to form an oddball 5-way starfish intersection.
So if you were on Rt. 8 to go from (say) Pittsburgh to (say) one of the college towns to the north, then you would arrive here to find the city of Butler was suddenly in your way. You would get to the 5-way intersection, which had an interminable duty cycle. You then had to make a left-hand turn onto Main Street and pass through an additional ten traffic lights to make good your escape.
The problem is that Butler is at the bottom of a crater, which the locals adorably call a “valley”. The hills are steep and unruly, which means there isn’t a good way around the city that won’t take you many miles out of your way.
That’s it for the walk. I’m tired.
EDIT: It turns out I need to show you one more picture. This is pretty far off Main St, but here is the diner on Center Avenue:
And here is a photograph my wife sent me, taken about 5 hours after this post went up:
So… that happened.
 You might know her as Agent 99.
 Do you need to feed the meter at night? I forget.
 Outdoor furniture and dolls both fall WAY outside my areas of interest.
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