by Karen Fetter
When people hear about the town of Monessen they immediately begin to think about the famous people that once lived there. Its reputation, especially with sports, is one that is hard to miss. But what really made Monessen a booming town in the early 1900s was the steel industry.
Monessen is located along the Monongahela River in the southern part of Westmoreland County. Its location is prime for traveling into Pittsburgh, but yet it still has a small town feel. This town was once a flourishing area due to the steel industry. Along with the impact of steel, local historians admit Monessens reputation was once built around gambling and prostitution. Today, Monessen maintains a friendly small town culture with downtown shops, an active Chamber of Commerce, and a Historical Society.
The community name combines the first syllable of Monongahela with the name of Essen, an well known iron town in Germany. Its current population is between 8,500 and 9,000. Learning about Monessen’s history and its connection to its people is an interesting adventure. People may just have to visit Monessen to see exactly what the area is known for.
Lets begin by taking a look at Monessens overall history. A local historian and author Cassandra Vivian is one person that has studied Monessen and its history. According to Vivian, Monessen was founded in 1898 by industrialists who decided the area was perfect for business because of the nice bend in the river. Eastside Land Company bought the land and laid it out. Four mills started running immediately tin, steel, chain, and fence. These mills filled the work positions by importing immigrants from various European countries. After just two years there were 10,000 people living in Monessen. The city was divided into groups depending on the ethnic origin such as Italian, Slovak, African American, Ukranian, etc. All together there were 27 different nationalities. Each area had its own church, grocery store, and club. Here, immigrants enjoyed the highest per capital income anywhere in the United States.
Business continued to grow into the 1930s when the population peaked at about 23,000. Monessen was also known for gambling and prostitution, but those troubled days ended shortly after World War II. In addition, Monessen started to decline because the steel and other industries were leaving. For more information on the history of Monessen, read Cassandra Vivian’s book, Monessen: a Typical Steel Country Town. The book can be purchased online or at the Monessen Historical Society’s Heritage Museum.
Many famous people have hailed from Monessen in various walks of life. The list includes athletes Joe Heath, Michael Moorer, actress Frances McDormand, Major General Jessica Wright, and local celebrity Albert Lexie. Let take a look at each of these individuals to see how they made it to the top.
Joe Heath was a 1976 Monessen High School graduate. He was a tremendous athlete while in high school. Joe was a three-year starter in football and basketball and also starred in track and field. Because of his reputation he was a highly recruited football player. Heath went to the University of Pittsburgh, where he played from 1976-79. He played on Pitt’s 1976 national championship team and served as captain of the 1979 team, which went 11-1 and finished seventh in the nation.
From there Heath was drafted in the sixth round by the Cincinnati Bengals in 1980 and played one season there. In 1982, he played for the Toronto Argonauts in the Canadian Football League and twice played in the Grey Cup – the CFL’s version of the Super Bowl. Then in the 1982 championship contest, Heath received the Rothman’s Trophy, which is awarded to the best defensive player of the game. While playing in the CFL, Heath was one of the highest-paid defensive backs in the league. Heath’s pro football career included NFL playing time with the Philadelphia Eagles and New York Jets. He also played with British Columbia in the CFL, with Pittsburgh and Houston in the United States Football League and with Pittsburgh’s short-lived franchise in the Arena Football League. Heath served as an assistant football coach at Monessen in 1990.
Next on the list is boxer Michael Moorer. Moorer grew up in Monessen, but for most of his career he trained under Emanuel Steward in Detroit. Moorer has been a world champion in the light heavyweight and heavyweight divisions of boxing. He debuted on March 4, 1988, knocking out Adrian Riggs in the first round. He spent the year winning at a fast and steady pace with an ambitious schedule. Before the end of the year, he was undefeated all by early round knockouts and was getting ready to fight for the world Light-Heavyweight title for the first time. He won it with a five round knockout of Ramzi Hassan.
Then Moorer decided to move into the world Heavyweight championship in 1991. He did this within a years time and knocked out Bert Cooper, making Moorer only the second man to go directly from holding a world light heavyweight title to holding a heavyweight title. That night, he also became the first left-handed boxer in history to become a world heavyweight champion. Moorer had won by a knockout in each of his first 26 fights, making him appear in the exclusive list of boxers who have won at least 20 fights in a row by knockout. Others on this list include George Foreman, Wilfredo Gomez, John Mugabi, and Aaron Pryor.
Sports is not the only area in which Monessen natives thrive. Actress Frances McDormand has won an Academy Award and has had several other nominations. McDormand was born in Chicago in 1957. However, she was adopted by Vernan and Noreen McDormand, who raised her in Monessen. She graduated from Bethany College in 1979 with a B.A. in Theater. She then went on to Yale where she earned her MFA in 1982. McDormand’s success and natural talent have made her recognized by many in her field. She has been nominated for an Academy award four times – for Mississippi Burning (1988), Fargo (1996) (for which she won the Best Actress award), Almost Famous (2000), and North Country (2005)
Major General Jessica L. Wright
We should take our hats off and salute Major General Jessica L. Wright. Wright was named the 50th Adjutant General and commander of the Pennsylvania National Guard Feb. 3, 2004 and sworn in by Governor Edward G. Rendell March 5, 2004. She is responsible for command, control, and supervision of all Air and Army National Guard units allocated to the state of Pennsylvania, six state-owned veterans’ homes, Scotland School for Veterans’ Children and programs for Pennsylvania’s 1.3 million veterans. Wright has worked hard for this achievement and continues to work hard for her country.
Monessen’s own Albert Lexie is a local shoe shiner who has donated over $100,000 to Children’s Hospital Free Care Fund. The Free Care fund allows children to receive medical care regardless of their familys ability to pay. Albert’s story is amazing and inspiring to all of us. His work and generosity have changed the lives of many families at Children’s Hospital. From someone who only makes about $10,000 a year, his work is a true inspiration.
Albert has been shining shoes at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh since 1982. Every Tuesday and Thursday each week, Albert gets on a bus and leaves his home at 5:50 a.m. to arrive at Children’s at 7:25 a.m. to begin shining shoes. His equipment is a shoeshine box that he made when he was 15 in a high school shop class. His business is steady and his tips are generous. He charges only $3, but it seems to be enough for him. Through the years, he has given all of his tips to the Free Care Fund. Now to many of us we would think that would come to enough money for vacation or for that special home improvement project. But Lexie had enough willpower to continue to save his tips that have accumulated to over $100,000!
Albert has appeared on a television talk show and an anonymous donor pledged the money to put him over his goal of $100,000. As a result he was honored by the hospitals administration, staff, and friends, receiving a commemorative plaque.
In 2001, Albert received an Association of Fundraising Professionals Outstanding Philanthropist Award from the organization’s Western Pennsylvania Chapter. In 1997, he received a Jefferson Medal for Outstanding Citizen. What a true inspiration to us all!
Greater Monessen Historical Society
The Greater Monessen Historical Society was founded in 1995 to protect and preserve the strong ethnic diversity and rich industrial heritage. Membership is open to all. Visit the Historical Society and its Heritage Museum on Donner Avenue in Monessen for the latest exhibits on the history and heritage of the area.
Monessen Chamber of Commerce
A driving force in Monessen is the active Chamber of Commerce led by Charles (Chuck) Assenat. The Monessen Chamber of Commerce is a partnership among downtown businesses, political, and community leaders, and area merchants and downtown property owners who care about the future of Monessen and want to insure the future vitality of the downtown area.
The Monessen Chamber of Commerce offers a wide array of events and services that will help the development of the community. Some of the activities include: the Cultural Heritage Festival, Salute to the Military dinner, Founders Day, and the Christmas Parade.
Monessen has a variety of events for the public to participate in throughout the year. Work is still being done on the Chamber of Commerce’s website, but people can still look up events and add to the community calendar by visiting www.monessenpa.org.
Below are activities and events for September through December. For specific dates as the events draw nearer, visit www.monessenpa.org or call the Chamber of Commerce at (724) 684-3200.
Cultural Heritage Festival September
Founders Day September
Haunted Pumpkin Patch – October
Salute to the Military Dinner November
Christmas Parade the first Saturday after Thanksgiving
Featured photo credit Monessen Historical Society