WILLIAMSPORT – Nearly every seat was filled with persons converging on Williamsport and the Community Arts Center (CAC) for the debut of “Surrender, the Sudden Death of Alvira, Pennsylvania.”
Prior to the September 30 showing, film makers Martha and Steve Huddy took the stage voicing appreciation for the turnout of more than 1600 persons with 900 tickets sold in advance. Huddy later said, “The record setting attendance was the largest ever to view a film at CAC.”
The film was set in the early 1940’s when the ruthless winds of war swept over the White Deer Valley. Representatives of the Baker, Jarrett and Fry families agreed to share their opinions and post war sagas.
Mary Ellen (Baker) Blyler was pictured in the film as the girl on the bicycle. At the showing, her entourage of eight included son Rick Blyler, daughter Dawn Hula, and grandchildren Ann and Matthew.
The film began with the camera leading the audience down familiar roads when both Mary Ellen and her daughter became teary-eyed. “Soon we calmed down and I learned a lot I didn’t know,” Blyler said. She added, “We had no access after the move, no information, the government lied to all of us.” The Blessing family lived across the street from Mary Ellen’s parents Arthur and Mildred (Ward) Baker. “Our family had been in Alvira only a couple of years. This was the first house my parents owned and thinking they were set for the rest of their lives, had made many improvements.
My dad was employed by Milton Manufacturing Company, and was a longtime getting over the move. I don’t know how we found a house in Mezeppa where I finished the last two weeks of school, I was age eleven then,” Blyler said.
When her future husband returned from the military in 1945-6, he had occasion to be on those federal grounds. He was inside several structures and recalled a house with beads hanging from a curved archway. The description fit the Baker home which wasn’t immediately demolished, but that fate was later sealed.
In 1955, Mary Ellen and her husband built a home along Route 405 between Montgomery and Dewart, settling just across the river from where the interruption in her life occurred more than seventy years earlier.
Michael Jarrett’s birth followed on the heels of the mass exodus. His father Carl was interviewed in the documentary. “My father had been born in a red brick farm house, the fifth generation on lands in the valley. He was away in the military at the time.
Forced to leave, my grandfather and uncle resettled near Linden on farmland there. Another uncle owned land near the Eagle Grange which was not taken. My dad purchased the farm where I am now, only about a mile from the border of what was known as the Pennsylvania Ordnance Works,” Jarrett said.
The retired agriculturist questions the contamination issue saying, “Prison workers from the old penitentiary farmed some of the so called contaminated land and even raised beef cattle on it. Of course the best acreage in the valley was taken, one of the government’s site requirements called for level land. I often wonder ‘what if’ this hadn’t happened,” Jarrett said.
Of the film he said, “It was well done, I’d heard the story all my life, the film made me see the event in a new light making me realize even more how tough life was then. I was surprised and also not surprised at the crowd size. As one looked around the theater, it was evident there were many instances of families with three generations in attendance. There remains a lot of interest on the subject for whenever the Montgomery Area Historical Society hosts events at the Stone Church, it’s always filled,” Jarrett said.
Loretta (Fry) Ryder’s opinion was similar. “The film was very good with accurate information. I recall it was expensive to relocate.” The daughter of Randolph and Mary (Murray) Fry said the family drove through many areas between Williamsport and Milton in an attempt to find homes with for-sale signs. “In the Alvira area, we lived on a small farm but my father was a truck driver. He did the light farm work and neighbors did the rest. My parents settled on a house in Muncy west of the hospital where I had a month to go to finish third grade.”
Ryder alluded that “Government orders were specific. We weren’t allowed to take light bulbs or fixtures installed, just a couple months earlier when electricity became available. We sold our stove but the buyer was unable to get it before we left on a Thursday, so for later pick up, it was put in the yard.
On Saturday, when we returned to see if the stove was gone, men were already tearing down the house discarding and smashing fixtures and bulbs. We’d brought along a shovel to remove a favorite rose bush and were told we couldn’t do that. When my father asked to remove just a start of it, he was again told ‘no’, and if they found out he’d done so, he’d be arrested and fined.”
A sudden mass exodus of an 8400 acre community meant friendships were severed, many forever. “On occasion I see Ann Waltman, Dorothy Reynolds and Janice Lupold Oden whose families share a similar past,” Ryder concluded.
All interviewees said they plan on attending the next showing of “Surrender,” scheduled for March 30, 2014, a Lewisburg venue to be announced by the Union County Historical Society. Advance orders for the DVD’s are being accepted by the Lycoming County Historical Society with deliveries by December 1. Outside distribution sites will be announced.