The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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August 31, 2013

In the Spotlight | The man who uncovers local history with a shovel

— Larry Mikula is someone who likes to dig up the past.

The 63-year-old Johnstown resident has had a fasciation with local history ever since he was a young boy, and it’s a passion that continues to this day.

“I’m a self-taught Johnstown historian and archaeologist. You learn as you go,” he said. “I like things from the 1800s to around 1910, anything that’s over 100 years or more.”

Mikula said that when he was in middle school, a teacher gave pupils a science project of collecting rocks and identifying them.

“That’s what got me interested, and it became my first love,” he said.

In high school he expanded his search and started looking for fossils. He eventually took to metal detecting and found a variety of coins scattered throughout the area.

But once Mikula got into digging, there was no going back.

“You have to do research so you know where to go and where to dig,” he said. “I look for the oldest sections and roads in Johnstown.”

Although he wouldn’t say exactly where he does most of his digging because he doesn’t want to give up the sites, he did say they’re in the Cambria City section of Johns­town.

Those sites have yielded quite a few treasures over the years.

One of most exciting finds gained the attention of the Johnstown Area Heritage Association and earned Mikula a special recognition.

In 2006, Mikula and a friend found several pieces of A.J. Haws & Son Co. ribbed ware crockery. A few pieces were even stamped.

Haws was a Johnstown potter in the 1850s. He opened a shop on Front Street, now Roosevelt Boulevard, and operated the business from 1852 to the late 1870s, making utilitarian pottery pieces for local individuals.

“This is very rare,” Mikula said. “Prior to this we had no examples of Haws ribbed ware pottery.”

In 2007 Mikula found a Cambria Iron Co. railroad metal paycheck that he believes dates between 1852 and 1898. He said workers had to show the tag in order to get paid.

“I cleaned it off and saw the letters start to appear and I jumped back,” he said. “I couldn’t believe what I had found.”

Visitors to Mikula’s home will see a variety of glass bottles of all shapes and sizes from long-gone Johnstown beer and soda companies.

His collection includes bottles from Cambria Brewing Co., Germania Brewing Co., Emmerling Brewing Co. and Rocks Bottling Co., to name a few.

On the wall in the living the room is a framed 1894 Somerset Street High School diploma with Ella J. Caddy listed as the graduate. It is signed by school administrators.

The school was part of the Johnstown public schools. It operated from 1892 to 1898 as a high school and then became a grade school.

“I got it at an antique shop in the mid ’80s and I paid $15 for it,” Mikula said.

He also has a menagerie of old photos and postcards, some predating the 1889 Johns­town Flood.

Even with his vast collection, Mikula said he’s not done adding to it and has his sights on some specific items.

“I’d like to find some things from the Johnstown canal days, which were between 1830 and 1862,” he said. “I’ve never found a solid piece of A.J. Haws crockery with the whole Haws name, just pieces, so that’s what I want to find.”

For anyone interested in following in Mikula’s footsteps, he said the best way to get started is reading and researching.

“You have to become a historian before you can become an archaeologist,” he said.

He recommended starting with “Johns­town: The Story of a Unique Valley,” a book that tells the story of the city from its beginning through the 1970s.

“I’ve read that about four or five times,” Mikula said.

What continues to motivate him is knowing that he is doing his part to keep the history of Johnstown alive.

“I’m not only preserving our local history but a lot of people’s history. It could be your great-grandfather or great-aunt’s,” Mikula said.

Kelly Urban is a general assignment reporter with The Tribune-Democrat. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/kellyurban25.

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