Pottsville is a city of 15,000 in rural Pennsylvania, situated along the banks of the Schuylkill River which flows southeast to Philadelphia, 100 miles away. It’s known for exactly two things – coal and Yeungling beer. Since I was nearby on Saturday, attending the dedication of the new Geisinger St. Luke’s Hospital in Orwigsburg, I decided to stop-in for a tour of America’s oldest brewery.
Yeungling beer has a growing cult following. Several years ago I had an opportunity to meet the owner, Dick Yeungling, briefly during a cocktail party at ArtsQuest in Bethlehem. I remember shaking his hand with enthusiasm, telling him how much fun my friends and I have had drinking his beer. He grinned ear-to-ear and we shared a good laugh.
The Yeungling tour lasts about an hour, and our knowledgeable tour guide made our visit to this historic 1831 building fun and enjoyable. We learned how a batch of Yeungling is produced over a 28-day period, from brew to bottle, seeing the massive brew tanks, the high-tech bottling equipment and the cases of beer that will soon be on their way to thirsty fans across the East coast and beyond. We ended the tour with a visit to the tasting room where they give you free samples – “Hip, Hip, Hooray” for Yeungling – for making good beer and for staying in Pottsville.
During my visit, I also learned a little bit more about coal production and the history of this quintessential Pennsylvania small town whose residents want what we all want – a good job, friendly neighbors and a safe place to raise their children and grow old close to people they care about and people who care about them.
Unfortunately, king coal has fallen on hard times and evidence of that decline is on full display in cities like Pottsville, with their attractive main streets filled with architecturally significant buildings – many of which are neglected, in disrepair or abandoned.
It’s sad to see this decline, and even harder to see the expressions of defeat on the faces of so many people. Addiction has taken hold, especially among the young, who feel they will never enjoy the prosperity of those who proceeded them.
This economic decline is nothing new. Pottsville and Schuylkill County have been hemorrhaging jobs for 70 years. There are no quick fixes to this decline, and while some may blame the Democrats or the Republicans, the real culprit is a ruthlessly efficient economic system where jobs and capital flow without respect to borders – moving from country to country- seeking places where costs are low and profits can be maximized. This movement of capital and jobs is not personal; it’s not political; it’s business.
This area of Pennsylvania is now Trump country, and many hope he will lead Pottsville back to greatness, away from the perceived evils of big government, environmental regulation and worker safeguards that many feel have caused job loss. I feel differently, but respect their dreams for a better future.
I’ve heard it said that Pennsylvania is Pittsburgh in the west and Philadelphia in the east and Kentucky in between. As someone who grew up in West Virginia, but has spent most of his adult life in urban areas, I think Philadelphia needs to spend more time talking to Kentucky.
Can you imagine what good things might happen if we put aside our smug judgments and actually discussed the dreams that unite us rather than yelling at each other from our social media strongholds which continually reinforce the narratives that separate us into smaller and smaller factions. After all, what are these stories but self-justifying interpretations of experience? By design, are they not reflective of the perspectives and biases of the teller, filled with truths and half-truths designed to influence, convince and inflame?
At this juncture in our national dialogue, perhaps the most helpful thing we can all do is acknowledge the inconvenient fact that truth is almost always located in the middle of conflicting stories. If we can take this brave step, perhaps we can also acknowledge our county may not be as divided as it seems and accept an invitation to set aside our simple, one-sided narratives, stop the name calling and labeling and sit down together with an ice cold Yeungling and work things out.