Mon River Buffs Need Some Help

Valley Independent
3 August 2011
By Joe Grata

If it weren't for the strong commitment of Dr. J.K. Folmar and a handful of others, there would be no Monongahela River Buffs Association.

If it weren't for the generosity of the Span & Taylor Drugstore on Main Street, Monongahela, there would be no Mon River Museum on the second floor.

Incredible local river history and lore would be forever lost.

Who cares?

Obviously, too few people, although we owe our legacy to the 128-mile waterway that begins in Fairmont, W.Va., meanders north through the Mid-Mon Valley and merges with the Allegheny River to form the Ohio River at the world-famous confluence in Pittsburgh.

It supplies water to numerous communities and provides recreation from fishing to boating.

For well over a century, the Mon has also served as an economic lifeline and industrial catalyst, providing cheap transportation for coal, coke, glass and steel manufacturing businesses.

The river, in fact, is the reason today's Valley towns were created.

Did you realize?

• Boatyards around here built more than 3,000 steamboats between 1811 and 1888, including the "Enterprise," the first to journey to New Orleans.

• Pittsburgh Custom House records show 200,000 migrants boarded steamboats up to 300 feet long in Brownsville between 1844 and 1852, headed west in search of opportunity.

• The lock-and-dam system was established on the Mon in 1840 to increase the depth of the river for improved navigation. A private company owned the early ones, charging tolls.

• Steamboats had distinctive whistles by which they could be individually identified.

"It has been a struggle to survive," Folmar said at the River Buffs' most recent meeting at the museum, open these days only 1 to 3 p.m. on the second and fourth Saturday of each month, or by appointment, because of waning interest.

"We lack money and members," he said. "We're older and fewer."

There's less than $2,000 in the treasury.

Only 10 people showed up for the recent meeting, although it marked the 25th anniversary.

At age 68, Jay Mohney, of Charleroi, is the youngest officer.

Circulation of the monthly newsletter, "Voice of the Mon," is down to 65 copies.

As you can guess by now, Folmar's outlook for the future is not good.

"How do you appeal to the younger generation?" he asked rhetorically. "It ain't going to happen. It's a lost cause."

No similar group or museum of its kind exists elsewhere in western Pennsylvania.

Folmar, himself 79 and retired, is a professor emeritus of history at California University of Pennsylvania. He and first vice president George Hutchko, 85, of Monongahela, have, in effect, been the glue that keeps the boat afloat.

Folmar got hooked on river history by accident when he spotted steamboat photos in the window of an old schoolhouse in Greensboro, Greene County, during a Sunday afternoon drive in 1979.

Curiosity prompted him to stop and investigate. Two years later, he was chosen president of the Mon River Buffs Association.

When Greensboro officials began charging unaffordable rent, Monongahela businessman Charles Chattaway helped Folmar et. al. to relocate the association and its memorabilia to the current rent-free Span & Taylor Drugstore location.

The "grand opening" in the upstairs meeting room took place July 4, 1986, when old-timers and river veterans boosted membership into the hundreds.

There's still hope for Mon River Buffs and the museum with original steamboat bells, models of tow and steam boats, photos, records and other vestiges of river history.

If you want to help them survive, or participate, or receive their newsletter, or arrange a private museum tour, contact Folmar at (724) 938-7856, Hutchko at (724) 258-6231 or Bill Goettel at (724) 938-8808. You can also email Folmar at

If you want to learn more about the river that sustains us or find related links, visit

Neither the Heinz History Center nor the new Convocation Center at Cal U has shown interest in a "river room" despite the Mon's considerable impact on the region.

Officials from the Port of Pittsburgh, which represents wealthy river businesses, could be helping the Mon River Buffs, too.

Consider today's column the final S.O.S.