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Imagining Centre County and the Nittany Valley of the 1920s
By Cori Agostinelli Kalupson
The giving and graceful nature of our community help make it such a special place. For 40 years now, these qualities have been on display through the locally-supported growth of the Centre County Women’s Resource Center, a source of help and hope for area women in need. The CCWRC is sustained in part through its Twilight Dinners program. Each Spring, an eclectic mix of local businesses and philanthropists host thoughtful, upscale events ranging from intimate dinners to a garden party for a crowd.
The themes are diverse and imaginative, restricted only by the hosts’ creativity. What they all have in common is a commitment to making the Valley “Happy” – and safe – for everyone. This month, two of the Twilight dinners will feature parties evoking nostalgia for the 1920’s, including a “Roaring 20’s” night reminiscent of the parties described by F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby. This evening is co-hosted by B Events and Juniper Village at Brookline and catered by Brown Dog Catering.
In the spirit of this event and in keeping with the theme of “looking back” established with last month’s Reminiscences of Dr. Pond, here are some snap shots of life in the Nittany Valley during the 1920’s…
Women at Penn State
In 1871, Penn State, then called the Agricultural College of Pennsylvania, became the Commonwealth’s first institution of higher learning to admit female students. Fifty years after this momentous decision, progress had been slow-moving, and the College remained a primarily male-dominated institution. Women comprised just 10% of the student body in 1924; the photo below shows the entire female undergraduate population from 1926. Nevertheless, the 1920’s saw several important developments that signaled the growing stake of women students in campus life.
For the first time, women were granted a weeknight curfew and permission to leave campus by themselves. While quaint by modern standards, these new “freedoms” represented a significant step forward at the time. In addition, several new clubs and organizations for women were established during the Twenties, marking previously unseen levels of influence and participation by female students. These included the women’s campus trial club, the Nita-Nee Club, Omicron Nu, an honorary home economics sorority, and “The Lion’s Tale,” the first publication by female students and alumnae at the College. In 1926, the Nu Gamma Chapter of Chi Omega became Penn State’s first national sorority. Perhaps the most lasting of the decade’s contributions came a year prior, when the Women’s Student Government Association contributed $30 to purchase four pairs of squirrels that are, most likely, direct ancestors of the many, many squirrels that populate campus today.
Change was also evident in new roles and opportunities for women working at the College. In 1920, M. Elizabeth Cates was hired as the school’s first director of physical education for women, an opening necessitated by the newly-established women’s athletic program (very different from what we know today). In recognition of the growing female student population, Penn State hired its first full-time dean of women – Charlotte Ray – in 1923. One year later, Julia Gregg Brill, a 1921 graduate, became the first female faculty member in the English department.
The decade closed out with another crucial turning point. In 1929, Mildred Settle Bunton became the first woman of color admitted to Penn State.
Still a very small agricultural community existing at the fringes of the modest, but growing Pennsylvania State College, the town experienced rapid population growth during the Twenties. According to Census figures, State College nearly doubled in size between 1920 and 1930, going from 2,405 residents to 4,450 in a decade (still smaller than a sell-out crowd at Rec Hall!).
The decade also saw local milestones in education and business. In 1921, an expansion was added to the Fairmount Avenue High School (current home of the Delta Program) followed by construction of the Nittany Avenue Grammar School, which today houses the school district’s central administration offices, in 1924. The forerunner of the CBICC, the State College Chamber of Commerce, was established in 1920, and several of the area’s most recognizable businesses got their start during the ensuing decade.
Students and locals could shop for clothes at Harper’s (originally Stark Bros. & Harper), have lunch at The Corner Room, and then stroll across Allen Street for a trim at Rinaldo’s Barber Shop – all three first opened their doors between 1925 and ’26. Other noteworthy local businesses that began in the 1920’s and still exist today include: Woodring’s Floral Gardens (1922), State College Floral Shoppe (1923), Balfurd Cleaners (1927), Alexander Construction (1928), and The Diner (1929).
The local scene was hardly the stuff of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, but neither did the Jazz Age pass by unremarked. Tyrone native and Penn State architectural engineering student Fred Waring would become an influential musician and entertainer of his day. His band, Waring’s Pennsylvanians, started on the road to fame during the Twenties, playing “collegiate-flavored” shows inspired by life in Happy Valley.
In 1920, residents might have tuned in to results of the Harding/Cox Presidential election via Pittsburgh’s KDKA, the nation’s first terrestrial radio station, and by 1923, they could hear special, one-time coverage of the Nittany Lion football team’s game against Navy at New Beaver Field via WPSC, one of America’s first college radio operations (Penn State won 21-3).
The Nittany Lions experienced an up-and-down decade on the gridiron, guided throughout by future College Football Hall of Fame coach Hugo Bezdek, who was also Penn State’s first full-time director of athletics. Playing schedules that ranged from nine to 11 games that featured frequent matchups with opponents like Gettysburg, Lehigh, Lebanon Valley, and Carnegie Tech, the Lions posted only one losing season (1928), and, in 1922, even made the program’s first-ever appearance in the Rose Bowl, falling to Southern California 14-3. No summary of Penn State football in the 1920’s would be complete, however, without mention of the dreadful record against our in-state rival. With an overall record of 0-8-2, Penn State opened up with two scoreless ties against Pitt (1920-21) then proceeded to lose the remaining eight matchups that decade. Fortunately for Bezdek, online message boards were still nearly 70 years away.