Ketchup with Fry's
It was sixty-seven years ago so, honestly, nobody can be blamed for not remembering exactly how or why it all came about. But here’s what we do know. On May 18, 1953, Helen Beck was living near Liberty and working at Fry Brothers’ Turkey Ranch, the popular (then and now) eatery perched on Route 15 at the top of Steam Valley. She wrote in her diary that it was “cloudy” and “cool” that day. She had the 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. shift, and it was “rather busy.” And then there were, as she described, “Big Moments!!”
“Photographer from “Look” [magazine] (for Heinz products) came to take pictures! Fry’s was selected as one of restaurants in Pa. ... quite a thrill! Supposed to be in August issue of “Look”!”
And Helen had her picture taken.
“I think the only reason I was in that picture was because I was the only waitress there that day,” she says with a grin.
Clearly her fifteen minutes of fame did not go to her head.
Sue Kreger, who has worked at the restaurant for thirty-six years, and who characterizes Helen as “amazing,” says she thinks the Heinz/Look selection of the Turkey Ranch for an advertising photo was mostly random, but surmises it could have had something to do with the amount of Heinz ketchup they used. She says there weren’t a lot of restaurants that served that brand in those days, and the Turkey Ranch “bought it by the case.”
Helen, who worked fifty-nine years at the Turkey Ranch, is ninety-one now. She likes talking about her time there—more than half of her life, when you think about it—but she has a lot more to say and many more stories to tell.
Helen and her sister, Pat, share cozy digs at Leighton Place, an assisted living facility overlooking Williamsport. There were four girls in the family—one sister passed away some years ago, the other still lives independently. They grew up on a farm near Liberty, where the family raised potatoes.
“We had a contract with the Wise potato company,” Helen says. When harvest time came, she remembers that there were those who could gather as much as 100 bushels of spuds a day. Some of those tubers found their way into the Beck’s potato cellar for storage. It had a “nice cement floor” that was “perfect for roller skating.”
“Nobody had any money,” Helen says matter-of-factly. “You had to make your own fun.”
The family later moved to property on Milk Plant Road, not very far, relatively speaking, from their childhood homestead.
“We had a lot of nice neighbors,” Helen recalls. The Beck girls graduated from Liberty High School; Helen remembers that her class “went to Washington (D.C.) on our senior trip.” She’s always liked music, she continues, but didn’t really want to go to college to study it. However, that was her father’s dream for her, so she was prepared to do it to please him. But, right about that time, thousands of soldiers were returning home from World War II, and those GIs had dibs on classroom space—hers included. She didn’t go to college. She went to the Turkey Ranch instead, where she waited on tables, worked in the kitchen, but didn’t give up on music.“I saved my tips until I had $800,” Helen says. “Then I went to Robert Sides [Robert M. Sides music store in Williamsport] with my tips all wrapped.” She bought a piano with the money, took lessons, but says she could also play by ear. She recalls that a more famous musician lived for a time in Buttonwood, just down the road from the Turkey Ranch. That was Mr. Rollo Maitland, a classical and theater organist who also helped develop specifications for the Curtis Organ, known as the “organists’ organ” and one of the largest pipe organs in the world.
For Helen in those days, it wasn’t all work and piano playing. She enjoyed life. The family had dairy cattle, and she admits she “used to like to milk cows.” It was fun, she says, “when they tapped the trees to make syrup.”
“I used to love to knit,” she recalls. “Turning a heel on a sock is a real trick.” Writing letters was another favorite pastime. It’s evident from the pages of her diary and her neat, daily accounting of tips that penmanship was also important to her.
“They used to stress penmanship in school, but they don’t anymore,” she says with a bit of a sigh. “I loved spelling and spelling bees, too.”
She didn’t get her driver’s license until she was forty, but perhaps the wait was worth it, as then she “had a little Mustang car that I really liked.”
And, she says, “I’ve always liked people.” Especially boys.
“I had lots of boyfriends,” she says with a twinkle in her eye. Indeed she must have. The May 18 diary entry includes not only the “Big Moments” of the Heinz photograph episode, but an entire paragraph in which she mentions several fellows who had stopped in—ostensibly for coffee or a meal but maybe just to chat. A couple came to visit after she got home. There was one boy she almost married, she acknowledges, but that didn’t happen. She doesn’t go into the details about why—sister Pat just kind of shakes her head when the subject comes up. She never married, either.
“I stayed home on the farm until I was thirty-three,” says Pat, who will be ninety this year. Then she went to work at Pennsylvania Wire and Rope in Williamsport.
It’s only been over the past couple of years that broken bones and other health concerns led to the sisters’ decision to sell the property they still owned on Milk Plant Road and take up residence together at Leighton Place. And even after a few hours of reflection on the old days, days that will never come again, the two are smiling and upbeat. Helen shares one last memory—this about the Pony Man. He was the Depression-era traveling salesman, coming around their Liberty neighborhood with his pony and cart “with treats to sell.” Nothing was very pricey, which was good because “back then everybody was poor.”
Still, Helen says, “I’m glad we grew up in those times.”