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George Swetnam: Chronicler of All Things Pittsylvanian

Scanned photo of George Swetnam.
A job is what attracted me here. I figured I'd stick it out for 6 months or a year. After a year I became a little more tolerant of the things I didn't like about Pittsburgh--the weather and the cockiness--and finally became quite fond of it.
--George Swetnam

There is a sense in which some Pittsburghers can lay more legitimate claim to Pittsburgh than the so-called movers and shakers--the politicians, the industrialists, the academics.

In the same sense, Pittsburgh inspires a breed of local historian that is peculiar to this city and this region.

Such were the late Mary Jane Schmalstieg of the South Side and Walter Worthington of the Hill District. Such is Mary Wohleber of the old city of Allegheny (now Pittsburgh's North Side).

For all of these individuals, that defining quality that sets them apart and justifies their identities as real Pittsburghers is "heart"--heart combined with an encyclopedic memory and a wealth of often exotic information. The result is a profound understanding of their beloved neighborhoods and their beloved city and an ability to communicate that love.

Among this cadre of "rememberers," doubtless, the most colorful was the late George Swetnam. A reporter for The Pittsburgh Press for 30 years and then a free-lance author for almost as many more, Swetnam departed his beloved "Pittsylvania" on April 3, 1999, at the age of 95. Yet, he remains a living presence: the shelves of bookstores and libraries, the microfilm cabinets housing reels and reels of 30 years of met deadlines: all this attests to a dogged journalistic legacy and a lifetime of loving "the Pittsburgh district."

Swetnam was a regular feature at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh's Pennsylvania Department in Oakland where he felt comfortable doing much of his research.

In 1994 he agreed to let me interview him and, on June 21 of that year, we sat down and had a talk at the Library. A transcription of this interview appears below.

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Not a native Pittsburgher, Swetnam was born, the youngest of 4 children, at Hicks Station near Cincinnati. His father, William Wylie Swetnam, was a mountain Kentucky school teacher and principal. His mother, Flora May Stafford Swetnam, was a well-known author at the turn of the century. Some time after his birth, the family returned to Kentucky and went on to live successively in North Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama and Mississippi.

He attended the University of South Carolina, the University of Alabama and graduated as an English major from the University of Mississippi. Swetnam went on to attend Columbia Theological Seminary in Columbia, South Carolina, where he received a Bachelor of Divinity degree. He studied archaeology, Hebrew and other Semitic languages. At Auburn Theological Seminary (now Union Theological), he received his Masters of Theology. From the Hartford Seminary Association, in 1930, he received a Ph.D. in Assyriology!

George Swetnam was an ordained Presbyterian minister and served as a pastor in Alabama and Mississippi.

In his careers, Swetnam did it all.
He began free-lance writing while he was still in high school. At the University of Alabama he taught English and German. For a while he operated a photo studio. He was a barker at the Chicago World's Fair--for Sally Rand! Serving as a staff cameraman for the University of Alabama football team, he covered the 1935 Rose Bowl.

For 3 years he was a hobo!
He earned a living as an itinerant fruit picker.
He excavated ancient Native American sites.
He did public relations work.
He edited and ran a weekly newspaper in Tennessee.
Edging his way closer to Pittsburgh, he served as staff writer and managing editor for the Uniontown (PA) Evening Standard.
Finally, he became a feature writer and eventually an editorial staff member of The Pittsburgh Press. Joining the Press in 1943, he "retired" in 1973.

Meanwhile, between 1959 and 1965 he was editor of the Keystone Folklore Quarterly. He also founded the Institute of Pennsylvania Rural Life and Culture.

In 1954 Swetnam was presented the Lawrence S. Mayers National Peace Award by Vice President Richard Nixon at the White House. He wrote and produced 3 historical dramas, authored a Light Rail Transit historic survey and a variety of industrial, medical, religious and music histories.

Swetnam authored an infinite number of feature articles during his years at the Press. Many of these were under pseudonyms such as "Francine Avery," "Duke Barton," "B. Duke," "Frank Mantews," and "Acker Petit."

George Swetnam: commercial professional photographer, college professor, salesman, free-lance writer, businessman, preacher, hobo, newspaperman, dramatist, folklorist, historian.

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How did you come to have so many different jobs?
That's a hard question. More or less I drifted with the current. I left photography for the hobo life out of sheer boredom. I left the Evening Standard because of a change in management and I didn't get along with them. My education seemed to enable me to see things in a situation that I might not have been aware of otherwise.

Can someone today still have a career as varied as you've had?
Oh it's quite possible! It takes getting the most back out of each job or situation and it also takes the courage to cut off from anything you don't like.

What was it like being a hobo?
Romantic and hard--both.
Romantic because it enabled me to go to a lot of places I'd always wanted to go but was either lacking the money or courage or the opportunity to go. Hard because I was often without food and sleep. (Sleep was the one thing I missed most.) Jumping on and off freights was hard too. I could jump off at up to about 35 mph.
You saw a lot of things from a freight car you wouldn't see from a passenger car--looking down into deep moonlit canyons.
Hate to be a hobo today. Freight cars have changed. No place to hang on to a freight car or top of a hot car. Much easier to get killed and harder to get a ride. Rode more often on the top than on the inside. Lock arm around the catwalk.
Sleep for a hundred miles, even though it was slanted.
Empty refrigerator cars--a good place. An empty ice box even in miserable weather is reasonably comfortable.
The type of people who formerly would have fed you at the back door wouldn't do that now--more likely to call the police.
I traveled all around over the U.S.--North, South, East and West; up and down the Pacific Coast; Florida, New York and above. I earned money begging and worked as a fruit tramp for awhile.
In a Kodak store in Miami I got an in with Victor Kepler, #2 photographer in America, who was in town on an assignment staying at a famous hotel and looking for an assistant to carry cameras. The job paid decently. Afterwards Kepler wrote me a letter of recommendation in which he said I was a good man either in the darkroom or behind the camera.
When I was hoboing, often a job was just to load a piece of machinery onto a truck, wash dishes in a restaurant. At least you got your meals with that.
I lived the hobo life for 3 years, never carried identification. I kept a pocket diary.

You are an historian. What is "history" about?
People! What they do and what's done to them.

Does history have a direction?
I once thought that history had a good forward direction. Now I sometimes doubt that. History right now seems to be moving in more or less a backwards direction towards something like the Dark Ages and nobody at this stage can tell how far back it's gonna go--and it's not just the possibility of the atom bomb that's tending us towards these Dark Ages, it's lack of purpose in the times. It's forgetting what real human nature is. It's being more interested in profit than...justice. Most of the Dark Ages have come more or less that way. On top of this, the possibility of atomic war offers a new and more grave danger.
Modern life--every minute is a blessing as long as we can keep going, but for a lot of people--the starving, the homeless--it's a curse.

How do you decide on a topic for a book or an article?
The likelihood of getting it published.

How do you set about your research?
I decide on a subject, study it, go along with it till I find what I don't know. Every time I stumble I try to find out something new.
I worked for the Press during the War. I was in charge of casualty lists, which were often incomplete--only a name, like "Jim Smith, Pittsburgh." I would try to trace these names and family, and I developed my own methods whereby I could trace practically anybody.

Reading and writing have been important to you.
Reading was a family tradition. We read everything we could get our hands on. Writing came naturally. My mother was a writer and my father did some writing. It just seemed the natural thing for a kid growing up to do.

What was (and is) the character of Western Pennsylvanians?
Cockiness, and it hasn't changed.
A job is what attracted me here. I figured I'd stick it out for 6 months or a year. After a year I became a little more tolerant of the things I didn't like about Pittsburgh--the weather and the cockiness--and finally became quite fond of it.

You've lived in the North and in the South. What's the difference between the regions?
The North is more tolerant of outsiders than the South. The South is sweeter. I was a semi-outsider down South, and I'm an outsider up North.
The Kentucky mountains never completely accepted me as the same as the others, yet never seriously rejected me either.

Who are your heroes?
Andrew Carnegie.
John Bowman who was Chancellor at Pitt.
H.J. Heinz in his fights for pure foods.
John Arbuckle, the coffee man, the courage with which he challenged the biggest and most powerful people in related businesses. He challenged the sugar trust when he wanted to sell sweetened coffee. Arbuckle would respect his opponent even if he hadn't won his battles.
If you want a military hero, then George Marshall for rehabilitating our enemies after World War II.

If the Pittsylvania Country could become its own state and you its leader, what would you do?
Run away like hell.
I've never had a desire to be a governor or a ruler of any kind.
My faith is in humanity. That's my principal faith, though it's often been shaken. But, in general, mankind has done a pretty fair job. Mankind has done a lot of important and worthwhile things and I'd hate to see it all ended.

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Selected Bibliography
of the Works of George Swetnam

All holdings in Pennsylvania Department unless otherwise noted.

Andrew Carnegie

Boston : Twayne Publishers, 1980
rHD9515.5 .C37 S83

The Bicentennial History of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County:

A Source Edition Recording the Early and Contemporary History of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, through the Medium of Extensive Research and the Life Histories of its Most Constructive Members--Chronicling the Backgrounds and Activities of its Prominent Families and Personages with Emphasis on their Accomplishments in Making Pittsburgh one of America's Greatest Cities
Hopkinsville, KY : Historical Record Association, [1955]
r974.886 S975

The Carnegie Nobody Knows

with Helene Smith
Greensburg, PA : McDonald/Sward Publishing Co., 1989
rHD9515.5 .C37 S83 1989x

Devils, Ghosts, and Witches:

Occult Folklore of the Upper Ohio Valley
Greensburg, PA : McDonald/Sward Publishing Co., 1988
rGR105 .D48 1988x

Early Western Pennsylvanian Hymns and Hymn-Tunes: 1816-1846

with Jacob A. Evanson
Coraopolis, PA : Yahres Publications, 1958
M 783.9 E94 (Music & Art Department)

The Governors of Pennsylvania 1790-1990

Greensburg, PA : McDonald/Sward Publishing Co., 1990
r F148 .S94 1990

A Guidebook to Historic Western Pennsylvania

with Helene Smith
Revised and Enlarged Edition
Pittsburgh : University of Pittsburgh Press, 1991
rF147.3 .S65 1991x

The McKees Rocks Story

[Pittsburgh : Pittsburgh National Bank, 1964]
r974.886 S975m

Pennsylvania Transportation

Gettysburg : The Pennsylvania Historical Association, 1964
rHE213 .P4 S95

"Picture Detective Work"

The Pittsburgh Press (Sunday), 6 January 1963, 26.
A wonderful example of George Swetnam's journalistic sleuthing.

Pittsburgh's First Unitarian Church

with John Lofton, et al.
Pittsburgh : The Boxwood Press, 1961
r288 S97

Pittsylvania Country

Greensburg, PA : McDonald/Sward Publishing Co., 1992
rF159 .P6 S85 1992x

So Stand throughout the Years:

A History of Shady Side Academy 1883-1958
[Pittsburgh? : s.n., 1958?]
rLD7501 .P6 S94 1958x

"Star in the West:

A Brief History of the New Pittsburgh Theological Seminary
and its Forbears, 1794-1963"
Pittsburgh Perspective (December 1963): 4-39.

Where Else but Pittsburgh!

Pittsburgh : Davis & Wade, Inc., 1958
rF159 .P6 S86

Barry Chad, Senior Librarian, Pennsylvania Department
Last Updated: 5 July 2000