Janette Gruss Blough ballfield

Community leader Janette Gruss stands next to the backstop at the former Blough baseball field along Route 403 near Hooversville, Somerset County, on Monday, Aug. 31, 2020.

HOOVERSVILLE – The rectangular grass field near the center of the community of Blough has drawn people together for more than a century.

In the early 1940s, residents would cheer from their front porches when batters from the coal patch’s Blough Station baseball team stepped up to the plate.

On Sundays in the 1970s, neighborhood kids swarmed the field to play football before heading over to Gerri Zellam’s house for some of her mom’s homemade pizza, Zellam said.

And the field became a summertime picnic ground in the 1980s, where families gathered for bountiful “potluck” dinners and bonfires, she said.

Today, the village’s residents are gathering around the field once again – “to save it,” Zellam, 63, said.

Zellam, Janette Gruss and Linda Yoder are leading the drive to raise enough money to purchase the four-acre field, which was placed on the market in July by Berwind Natural Resources.

“It’s just a wide-open space,” she said. “But that field has been a huge part of Blough for as long as anyone can remember. We can’t imagine it gone.”

‘Way it’s always been’

Located in the center of a tiny coal community built for miners within the northern end of

Quemahoning Township, the field sat between the neighborhood’s school and its company store for decades, residents said.

“The story goes,” Gruss said, “the coal company had a handshake deal with one of the miners in town that (the plot) could remain in the community’s use for a 100 years, as long as the residents maintain it.”

She acknowledges that century mark probably passed years ago.

But residents – from generation to generation – have maintained and improved the site, Gruss said.

Even today, neighbors adjacent to the field still start up their lawnmowers every summer to trim their “length” of it, she said.

“As kids, we mowed it so we could go out and play there,” said Zellam, noting her parents cut the lot’s grass – and the same story for neighbors at nine other homes, she added.

“That’s the way it always has been,” Zellam said.

Blough to the big show

Over the years, residents added a picnic table on one side of the field and planted a tree as a reminder of the annual neighborhood picnics, Zellam said.

At one point, one corner of the field served as a baseball diamond and a fence lined the perimeter of the outfield back when “company” teams and church leagues still rounded the bases.

A rusting metal backstop still remains – as do tales about Zellam’s cousin, Frank Kostro, a hometown boy who played part of seven seasons in the Major Leagues.

Kostro had such a skill for the game that he played alongside coal miners as a 12-year-old before later starring in the AAABA as a teen, The Tribune-Democrat reported in 2004.

A sign in town near Route 403 still honors Kostro – now 83 and living in Denver.

Gruss grew up in Davidsville, but she and her husband, Jim, raised their three children in the neighborhood.

Many times, their days off started at the field, where they’d meet with friends to play ball or start a bike ride.

“If you were a child in this neighborhood, you grew up on that field,” she said.

Efforts underway

Today, the neighborhood adds up to a few streets of homes and fewer than 80 residents, Gruss estimated.

But it’s still home to generations of former residents.

And Gruss said the group is reminding people about the field’s nostalgia and history, reaching out to former residents and groups like the United Mine Workers Association for help raising support and money to cover the purchase price.

They have also launched the website: bloughfield.simplesite.com/

The lot is advertised at $30,000, residents said.

A message left with Windber-based Berwind Natural Resources staff for comment was not returned by company officials this week.

Residents are getting the field appraised to help them determine the right offer, saying they recognize the property is within a flood zone, Zellam said.

They’re discussing the idea of forming a nonprofit and, perhaps one day adding markers to memorialize the field’s history.

“But first we have to buy it,” Zellam said, noting that they still have work to do to raise the necessary funds. “If someone else ends up with the property, it won’t matter what we want to do.”

Yoder, who has lived across the street from the field since 1961, said she worries the property could end up becoming a scrap yard or become neglected and overgrown by an outside owner.

“For us, it’s a quality-of-life issue,” she said. “This field has been a community endeavor for years and years. We just want to keep it here for the next generation to enjoy.”

David Hurst is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at (814) 532-5053. Follow him on Twitter @TDDavidHurst and Instagram @TDDavidHurst.

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