Last year, the Historical Society of Mount Lebanon proved They Could Do It! They totally expanded and restored the society’s headquarters in a historic Spanish style building at 794 Washington Road, creating a functional exhibit space. This year, their hard work has come to fruition—the Mt. Lebanon History Center is hosting a prestigious Senator John Heinz History Center exhibit aptly called We Can Do It! WWII now through January 29.
“We are the first South Hills site to get this exhibition,” says Jim Wojcik, president of the Historical Society of Mount Lebanon. “So we reached out to other South Hills [historical] societies, and they came forward with some really great stuff. This exhibit is really theirs, too.”
“We Can Do It! WWII” was on display at the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh’s Strip District from spring 2015 to January 2016 before heading on tour to various locations in Western Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia. It is part of the Heinz History Center Affiliates program, which includes more than 125 regional historical societies, providing resources and opportunities that help affiliated groups achieve their goals.
The exhibition is about Pittsburgh’s contributions to the war effort—from Rosie the Riveter’s local origins, to Pennsylvania becoming the “Arsenal of America,” to Uniontown’s General George C. Marshall and his post-war plan to rebuild Western Europe. But even if you saw the exhibit in the Strip District back in 2015, it changes as it travels to feature local artifacts from each town and municipality it visits. Right now, it has a hyper-local South Hills flavor to help residents get an idea of how their neighborhood felt during wartime.
“All the people you will learn about here are heroes—not just the ones who died, like the 59 Mt. Lebanon boys we lost—but all of them. And what they did is being lost. It’s important that we tell their stories and preserve these artifacts,” says Wojcik.
Among the local items included are an impeccably preserved U.S. Navy uniform from the Baldwin Historical Society, a ration book and holder from the Green Tree Historical Society, a mess kit from The Historical Society of Carnegie and a Civil Defense Helmet from the Dormont Historical Society. The Bethel Park Historical Society also contributed an army mess kit, but what makes it special is the fact that its owner, Louis J. Feldmeier (1920-2015), engraved each place he was stationed on his mess kit cup. These items are displayed on the main floor.
Mt. Lebanon items are also featured throughout the exhibit—mainly on the main floor and in the second floor library. The “Why We Don’t Want War” leaflet, produced by the Mt. Lebanon United Presbyterian Young Peoples’ Forum offers interesting insights into the political climate in America before Pearl Harbor, when many Americans favored an isolationist policy. Visitors should also stop in the 2nd floor library to read a small clipping from the Mellon Junior High School Mellonaire, published in April 1942, which features students’ answers to the question, “What would you do if you were invited to Hitler’s birthday party?” Responses range from, “I’d take him an explosive alarm clock,” to “I’d sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to him in Russian.”
Fast forward to today, where local students continue to imagine life in WWII-era America by participating in The Heinz History Center’s and California University of Pennsylvania’s Digital Storytelling Project. Students worked with historical societies all over the South Hills to find primary source material to help piece together some of the forgotten WWII hometown stories. Their findings will be presented Friday, December 7, at 6 p.m. in Southminster Presbyterian Church’s Fellowship Hall. Although the historical society is not usually open Fridays, it will be open that day from 4:30 to 5:45 p.m., so people can visit the “We Can Do It! WWII” exhibit before the start of the premiere.
“What we have here is too valuable to limit access,” says Wojcik. He encourages schools and municipalities to reach out about scheduling special visits, if the regular hours are not suitable for them. Whitehall Borough, in fact, is planning a special day for its constituents in January.
“We have really enjoyed working with Mt. Lebanon,” says Heinz History Affiliates Program Coordinator Robert Stakeley. “Not only do they work well with other historical societies, they have a great team of volunteers. In fact, many of them also volunteer with us in the Strip District. They have great leadership, a strong collection and they have also collected well through the years … Mt. Lebanon is very lucky to have this team running their historical society.”