Hardworking, Small-town American Exceptionalism

Hardworking, Small-town American Exceptionalism

By Salena Zito - December 14, 2014

BEDFORD, Pa. - Michael Corle's exhausting work ethic, coupled with devotion to family and heritage, unites the edgy energy of the young with the values and traditions of rural ancestors.

He's a throwback to our entrepreneurial past, with a vision that exists in the moment.

Corle is a designer, father, teacher and proprietor of Locality, a gallery with a distinctive mix of contemporary art and more primitive pieces that he intentionally does not refinish or repurpose. “I want to preserve their authenticity, so the drawer that is worn because of years of being open and shut by constant use, retains that part of its history,” he said, explaining his genuine passion to retain the remnants of a past life.

Corle loves flaws: “(The) telltale signs of use, the natural aging of things, that kind of providence and hand-of-time is really unique.”

A descendant of German and Scots-Irish farmers who settled here in the late 1750s, he is married to Jade, a Pittsburgh native of black, Italian and Polish background; partners in life, work and family, they met while attending the Art Institute of Pittsburgh in 1999.

In 2007 they left the city life they loved in Pittsburgh and moved into the century-old home where Corle's father was born — literally in the living room — to create a destination where emerging or established artists from Central and Western Pennsylvania could showcase their craft.

On a brilliant Sunday afternoon their storefront window is a mix of kitschy old-time Christmas decorations that look like they came straight from Ozzie and Harriet's attic, all draped over a stunning primitive cabinet.

Inside, their children — Matthias, 5; Halina, 4; Eden, 2 — are dressed in their Christmas best, sitting on the planked hardwood floor and drawing pictures as customers from Washington, D.C., Pittsburgh and the Bedford area barter over artworks.

They often hold workshops at the gallery and at local schools. “What we wanted to do was to bring in all that we loved about Pittsburgh, its feel and vibe. ... We look at the concept of the community of an urban village,” Corle said.

Bedford has a lazy buzz to it that is hard to describe and even harder to resist. You just sort of want to be here to see what happens next, except that it is moving at a snail's pace; it is as uniquely American as going to New York City, just with the opposite velocity.

Small locally owned stores line the main thoroughfare of the town of 2,000. An alpaca-wool shop, two homemade-candy shops, an antiques arcade converted from an old five-and-dime, a free-trade shop, several taverns and a theater crowd the streets where George Washington once headquartered to plot his next move against the Western Pennsylvania farmers rising against the federal government at the height of the Whiskey Rebellion.

There is even the required commemorative plaque announcing that Washington slept here.

Washington, D.C., politics never has been far from the little town surrounded by the Allegheny Mountains. James Buchanan, the Democrat who is always on the top of someone's list of worst-ever U.S. presidents, set up his summer White House at nearby Bedford Springs — the same place where Ronald Reagan plotted and fundraised for his first run for president in the 1970s.

Certainly there are days when any one of Bedford's shop owners (who are almost always the people waiting on you) makes less than the federal minimum wage; sometimes they make nothing at all. That's part of the gamble of owning your own business.

The Corles and families like them, in big cities and small towns across America, are remarkable for their intuition in finding a way to continue the tradition of American exceptionalism: They follow the beat of the same odd little drummer who has been embodied in every generation of this country, using and embracing our geography, history and work ethic, and turning those into things of value.

Sometimes American politics isn't about the drama of Washington but about the American people — individuals who work hard to succeed, with an eye on how that impacts the collective, the future and, ultimately, the well-being of the nation.

Salena Zito is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review editorial page columnist. E-mail her at
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