For those who remember reading the “In Our Neck of the Woods” columns each week in The Hamburg Item, there was always an air of surprise when readers got their next installment, as no one knew what Janet Barr was going to write about next.
Now, the memories of the bygone era of rustic and serene small town Hamburg, Pennsylvania can be revisited with the publication of Janet Barr’s book, “In Our Neck of the Woods,” a compendium ofThe Hamburg Item columns ranging from November 1998 to October 2005, published by the Hamburg Area Histrical Society.
“The overriding focus of the columns remains the people who toiled and triumphed, forming neighborhoods and building a community,” a press release states of Barr’s writing. “It may be nostalgic, but it also supports the inevitability of change in their lives.”
Those well-versed in Hamburg’s history are familiar with Barr’s long-running column, invoking the sounds of milk bottles clinking in the milkman’s carrier, wooden screen doors slapping against door frames, and electric trains chugging through Christmas yards: the sights and sounds of a close-knit community. But she also tells of its struggles with war, epidemics, air pollution and runaway trucks in downtown.
Her work on the book was no small feat. Barr spent several years going over the content, in addition to the work she had already put into writing the columns, starting in 1988 after she had worked for The Item for many years. She began working at the paper in 1972, first as circulation manager. She started writing the local obituaries, and then gradually went on to something else. It was her cousin’s idea to write articles about genealogy, but the column didn’t pan out in that manner.
“It was coming on to Christmas, and I was thinking of ideas around that. We were a real chatty office; people would come in and would start sharing stories,” Barr remembered. “Also, I’d get sidetracked while writing the ‘From the Early Files,’feature, using those archive books and card cataloges at the office, and I’d find ideas there.”
She said there was also a rich source of column ideas coming from local people, family and neighbors.
“For instance, I did an article on car dealers of long ago,and then someone called up about a mechanic, and that led me to the Crow family’s garage, and it kept going,” she said.
Barr’s drive to assemble her vignettes proved fruitful, and the columns soon gained popularity.
“I either went to interview people, or they’d come to visit the office, and I’d write my stories,” she said of how the column gained traction with her readers. “A lot of times it would start with a picture. People would come in and show me photos and talk and talk, and I’d get stories from them.”
Over the years, several local people also contributed columns about topics of interest to them.
Stewart Biehl, Hamburg’s premier historian, knew a lot about the area and its people, and Barr credits him with the idea for this book.
“We were both on the committee that was writing a history book for the Historical Society,” she recalls, “and he said, ‘You know , yours should be the next book.’ And many people seemed positive when asked about that idea.”
The planned book took about five years to complete, with Barr calling it a “part time project.” Luckily, she had kept a scrapbook of all the original articles. It came down to which ones to include and which would not make the cut.
“I handed them out to a few people to suggest which ones belonged in the book. I think over 90 percent of the columns made it into the book. Some of them needed to be updated though.”
While discussing the book’s possible content, she noticed that everyone remembered their favorite columns.
“We’re very pleased with it,” Barr says of the book. “Everyone is surprised by its size. We wanted the pages to be large, for the sake of the photographs and drawings.” The illustrations were done by her son, artist Tim Barr.
“It is gratifying to see that many people, after reading the book, come back and get additional copies for friends,” she noted.
The book is available from the Historical Society at 102 State Street, and is also for sale at several stores and at the Item office.