the way we were
Donna Kae “Kate” Simmonds’s eyes grow glossy when she remembers her Nana. “She was the kind of grandmother everyone should have,” Simmonds says. “She had asbestos hands—she could pull and twist hot taffy without getting burned. She also made ginger ale and donuts, and chicken every Sunday. She could cook everything, and never, ever needed a recipe.”
Kate Simmonds’ Nana, Kate Algeo, also was the owner, with her husband, Park, of the building that held Mt. Lebanon’s first general store, first post office, first apartments and first Bell Telephone switchboard. The building stood at the southwest corner of Washington and Bower Hill roads, across from where St. Bernard Church now stands (though the parish of St. Bernard wasn’t founded until 20 years after the store).
The general store opened in 1876, 22 years before Simmonds’s grandparents bought the business in 1898, 28 years before the streetcar tunnel through Mt. Washington opened in 1904, and 36 years before Mt. Lebanon became a township in 1912. Today, the lot is empty, awaiting the construction of the 400 Washington condominiums.
Simmonds was pleased to tell her family story to mtl and Charles Succop, oral historian for the Historical Society of Mount Lebanon. A sharp, personable woman in her 80s with bright white hair and piercing blue eyes, Simmons has dear—and clear— memories of her grandparents and the important role they played in Mt. Lebanon’s early history.
Simmonds recalls that Park Algeo went bankrupt in the Panic of 1893, a serious economic depression that lasted through 1897 and affected every sector of the economy. “He paid everyone back, but, she recalls, “as a result was not allowed to own property again.” So, the land the Algeos owned in the area was in Simmonds’s grandmother’s name. Simmonds remembers the general store well. “There was a stable in the back, and a field beyond that where horses grazed.”
Simmonds was born in 1930, which, as she says, makes her roughly the same age as “sliced bread (1928), the electric toaster (1929), Hoover Dam (1931) and George Steinbrenner.” Park Algeo died just before Simmonds was born, so she never knew him, but Kate Algeo lived until Simmonds was 12: “She wanted to wear out, not rust out,” Simmonds says.
Simmonds’s mother, Katherine, was born in one of the apartments above the general store, and Simmonds herself moved into the building with her mother and her father, John Simmonds, in 1944.
“I remember my mother sitting on the front porch with binoculars, watching the brides at St. Bernard Church,” she says.
Simmonds had two siblings—an older brother, Jack, and a younger brother, Charles. The family lived in several places in Mt. Lebanon as the children grew up, including Kenmont Avenue and Westover Road.
Simmonds remembers ice skating on Cedar Lake and has a special fondness for the Denis Theatre.
“I saw Wuthering Heights again and again there. I went every night with a box of Kleenex.” Simmonds raised her own five children—Christine, Tamara, David, Aimee and Peter Vincelette—in Mt. Lebanon, and she still lives here with her husband, Rollie Thomas, at the end of Navahoe Drive on a portion of a much larger tract of property that once belonged to her family.
Simmonds’s brother Charles was voted best looking at Mt. Lebanon High School. “He was also known for playing hockey in his bedroom,” Kate says with a twinkle, “and took out the window there at least twice with his puck.” He became a dentist. An older brother, Jack, worked for the State Department. Simmonds worked for many years as a teacher at South Hills and later Bethel Park high schools.
Algeo’s, as the general store was known, served as a nexus for the growing community, and the building held other businesses.
Simmonds remembers meeting Gene Autry at Algeo’s when she was 12. At the time, Bing Crosby was a co-owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates, and Autry owned part of one of the Pirates’ farm teams. They were in town for an event, and Autry agreed to speak to the South Hills newspaper delivery boys at the newspaper distribution center, which just happened to be in the basement of the store. Simmonds shook Autry’s hand but remembers not being too impressed: “I liked Roy Rogers better.”
A few years later, Simmonds would meet Bing Crosby, too, on a train, as she traveled west to visit her Aunt Pearl, Park’s sister, in Southern California.
“Crosby came into the club car with a man and woman. I was sort of an artist then, so I grabbed my sketch pad and began to draw. When they finished their drinks, Crosby came over to me and said, ‘Were you drawing me?’ I said, ‘Yes,’ and he asked to see the sketch.”
The funniest part was when I was leaving to catch the train, my mother said, ‘If you run into Bing Crosby in Hollywood, tell him I love him.’ So I did!”
Simmonds’s grandparents retired from running the business in 1922 but retained ownership of the land for 60 more years. And Simmonds’s grandparents were not the only merchants in the family. Park Algeo’s brother, Tom, owned Algeo’s Pharmacy, which was located on Washington Road and then at the corner of Cochran Road and Altoona Place for many decades.
Simmonds’s family’s holdings included not only the land at Bower Hill and Washington roads but another large parcel at the intersection of what is now Connor and Washington roads. That parcel eventually housed the Lebanon Lodge, a restaurant and teen dance club, another of her grandparents’ businesses.
Lebanon Lodge was built in 1929 by Trilli and Dunbar when Connor Road was a narrow street. Simmonds remembers roller skating down Washington Road, from where the AMC Mt. Lebanon Lanes are now located to Lebanon Lodge.
Lebanon Lodge was witness to a tragic Mt. Lebanon event: On May 20, 1939, two cars crashed head-on about 100 yards from the restaurant. Two young men were killed instantly, another died of his injuries at the hospital, and six more were seriously hurt. The crash was so loud customers inside Lebanon Lodge heard it and ran outside, including Simmonds’s father, who oversaw the business there. All but one of the cars’ occupants were recent graduates of Mt. Lebanon High School. Simmonds’s father said it was the worst day of his life. He knew many of the kids from the Lodge.
Simmonds’s mother sold the land where Algeo’s had stood in 1983, but the land at Connor and Washington remained in the family until 2011, when they sold it to Primanti Bros. restaurant chain. The building had undergone a number of transformations after Lebanon Lodge closed in the ’60s, holding a smorgasbord, a Bimbo’s restaurant, and a Coldwell Banker real estate office. “Our parents taught us to hold onto real estate,” Simmonds says, “but Primanti Bros. asked us to name our price. We named a price we never expected them to accept—and they said ‘yes’!”
Today inside Primanti Bros. you’ll find pictures of Simmonds and her parents hanging over one of the booths. According to Simmonds, the man she negotiated with told her he got his first kiss in the space. Simmonds loves the change. “We feel like it’s ours now even more than when it belonged to us,” she says.
Simmonds’s family also once owned the land across Connor Road from where Lebanon Lodge stood. For many years, Roth Carpet was there. In 2013, a Fresh Market grocery store moved in and shares the space with Jos. A. Banks.
Simmonds is proud of being descended from of one of Mt. Lebanon’s founding families. But even more than pride, she feels love. When asked how a woman born Donna ended up as a Kate, Simmonds said, “I never liked the name Donna. So, I renamed myself after one of my favorite people—my Nana Kate.”