After two years of featuring places and events throughout the world, we are coming home.
Today’s column will be the last in the series of The Table. But we are not going away. Starting in September, the column will be titled At The Table With ..., sharing weekly interviews with locals and some not so local.
I am lucky as I consider myself to have two hometowns: Phoenixville where I grew up and Norristown where I have lived my adult life. Both towns are about the same size, yet different.
Phoenixville is located on the Schuylkill River where the French Creek joins. Across the river is the hamlet of Mont Clare. Mont Claren is in Montgomery County, and Phoenixville is in Chester County; they are connected by family ties and local interests.
In my early 20s, I wanted to “spread my wings” and moved the distance of 10 miles to Norristown. Why Norristown? Well, I worked there for a clothing manufacturer.
Norristown is located on the Schuylkill River east of Phoenixville with tributaries of Stony Creek and Saw Mill Run. In 1704, land was purchased by Isaac Norris from William Penn. Incorporated in 1812, it was, too, a mill town.
When Phoenixville first evolved around 1660, it was known as Manavon and was inhabited mostly by the Lenape people. It wasn’t until the early 1700s that the first European settlers arrived. In 1849, it was incorporated into a town and named Phoenixville, referring to new birth rising out of the old.
The power of the river led to development and growth, especially in the iron and steel industry. Along with the iron mill was a silk mill, boiler works, hosiery and underwear factories and a match factory, as well as makers of the highly colorful and collectible Etruscan Majolica ware. I am happy to tell you that I own several pieces of the Phoenixville’s Majolica pottery.
With the closing of the mills, the town declined. But the spirit of the town and its people hung on and prevailed.
Phoenix Steel closed its doors in 1976. Previously a large contributor to Phoenixville’s economy was the Valley Forge General (Army) Hospital closed in 1974.
In February 1943, The Valley Forge General Hospital opened its doors. The hospital was a city unto itself; it was the second largest military hospital facility east of the Mississippi River. In addition to the medical facilities, there were vast recreation and entertainment facilities. There was an 18-hole golf course, ball fields, tennis courts, a full-size gymnasium, a bowling alley and a pool. It had a United States Post Office, a newspaper, a radio station, a post chapel and a PX for shopping.
In the beginning, it was difficult for the town’s people to accept all the changes on the town that the hospital brought. The whole town became so intertwined with the hospital. Slowly and steadily, they learned to co-exist. The town’s folk found jobs at the facility, and many soldiers lived in private homes. Problems cropped up, and there were broken hearts. A combination of lonely soldier, far from home and town girls with boyfriends far away led to feelings mistaken for love. From a very young age, I remember hearing sad tales of broken wedding plans and engagements.
The facility became the center of Phoenixville. Because the hospital specialized in training the blind and reconstruction surgery, it was common to see soldiers with canes or soldiers with very few facial features or missing limbs walking on the streets of town. The hospital could treat 3,000 patients at a time. It also quartered approximately 1,200 personnel and employed many civilians living off base.
When originally built, the facility was to stay open for approximately 10 years. But it remained opened through World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War, finally closing in 1974.
For Norristown, the building of area malls, especially the one in King of Prussia, led to a downward spiral of the downtown. Over the years, the town has tried and tried to regain a resurgence in its growth. One of the drawbacks is the perception of Norristown being a bad place to work and/or live. Longtime residents, including me, believe that it is just a bad rap. Yes, Norristown has its problems — what city or town doesn’t? As the county seat, Norristown has attracted many with low incomes or in need of medical support — along with the State Hospital’s impact on the town. It has been on the threshold of coming back several times, yet something keeps holding it back.
Meanwhile, in Phoenixville, new growth is in the upswing in recent years. It has become a restaurant mecca both for locals and visitors. Almost weekly a festival can be found within the borough. Adding to the long-standing Dogwood Festival are the Blobfest, First Fridays, the Firebird Festival, assorted food and ethic festivals and the ever-popular farmers market. Some of these events bring thousands to the streets of Phoenixville.
The recipe I want to share with has been a longtime favorite. My mom first made when I was a little kid. Until this day, it remains at the top of my favorite dishes and I still make it.
PORK CHOP CASSEROLE
A meal all in one
6 medium boneless pork chops
6 medium white cooking potatoes
1 large white or yellow onion
2 (1 lb.) cans baked beans
6 slices of bacon
In a large skillet, parboil pork chops in ½ inch of water for approximately 12 to 15 minutes. Drain, brown pork chops. Clean and slice potatoes ¼ inch thick. Slice onion very thin. In a greased 9-by-13-inch baking dish or pan, layer half of the baked beans. Layer half of the potatoes and onion. Place the pork chops in the middle and repeat layering onion, potatoes and finish with baked beans. Place slices of bacon across the top. Add about ¼ cup water. Tightly cover with foil and bake at 350 degrees in the oven for 50 minutes. Raise oven to 375 degrees. Remove foil. Continue to bake for about 15 minutes until bacon is crisp.
CELEBRATE LIFE EVERY DAY!
Let me hear from you: firstname.lastname@example.org. Search YouTube for “Look Who’s Cooking with Bette Banjack,” as well phoenixvillenews.com (search bar: Banjack) for this column. Find Bette on Facebook by searching “Bette Banjack’s Downtown Kitchen.”