During my May 13 road trip to Butler County, Pa., I spent a few hours with Martians and zombies. What more can you ask for than that?
Two of the small towns I visited were Mars (population 1,700) and Evans City (1,800), quaint small places in the southwest portion of the county.
In Mars, I walked around downtown, went past Mars Area High School -- whose sports teams are nicknamed the Planets -- visited the Mars History and Landmarks Society grounds and even saw a flying saucer!
In Evans City, I visited the Living Dead Museum and walked around the local cemetery high above the town. Evans City is where the classic horror film "Night of the Living Dead" was filmed in 1968.
SOME MARS INFO
How the town was named is a mystery. Two theories are that founder Samuel Parks' wife enjoyed astronomy and came up with the name, and that it was shortened from Samuel Marshall, who helped Parks establish the local post office in the latter's home.
Parks constructed his home and a grist mill in 1873, and the Pittsburgh, New Castle & Lake Erie Railroad came through the town in 1877. The town was then known as Overbrook, but the name was changed in 1882.
On a "green space" lot in the downtown area is an object which resembles a metalic flying saucer. It is about 12 feet in diameter, and sets across the street from the Mars National Bank, which has existed since 1900.
The Buffalo and Pittsburgh Railroad, a short line road, operates on the old PNC&LE line, which passes the Mars Area History and Landmark Society grounds.
The town's old train depot, built in 1897, was moved in six pieces just down the tracks to the society's present location, and it has been spectacularly restored. The line later was acquired by the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad.
If you look at an onsite photo of the dilapidated depot before it was moved, you'd never believe such a masterful restoration could have been done.
There are many neat items to see in the building and on the grounds. There's a small trolley station from the old Pittsburgh and Butler Street Railway Co., which operated from 1904 to 1931, and a 1928 Plymouth gasoline switch engine.
There are a full-size B&O caboose, operating hand car, 40-foot high historic windmill with an 8-foot diameter wheel, displays focusing on the old Mars Theater, a model oil well, old business signs, a dog-powered butter churn, railroad tools, high school yearbooks dating to 1916, old photos and a Pennsylvania road sign that says "Star of Mars.
Also, milk bottles from eight local farm dairies, old movie projectors, soda fountain milkshake machines, a chandelier that hung in the party car Marsonian, old street lights, crossing and signals and gates, fare counters, union buttons, old typewriters, telegraph keys, a wood-burning stove and three model short line electric cars.
And then there's the Mars Shortline Railroad, a miniature train pulled by a gas-powered locomotive, which circles the grounds and can be ridden by adults and children. A 20-by-40-foot pavilion with picnic tables serves as the mini-railroad's wait station.
Painted panels depicting storefronts make it seem like the short line is passing through a town. There's the Lost Martian Mine portal with its old mining car, and a railroad-themed Steelers Steamer (Mars is in Pittsburgh Steelers country, about 20 miles north of the city).
The USS Mars ship was named after the borough. It operated in the Pacific Fleet from 1963 to 1998, and was sunk in 2006 as a target vessel.
The borough also has been a location for films and television commercials, such as the 1988 comedy-drama "The Prince of Pennsylvania" and 1996 comedy "Kingpin."
EVANS CITY INFO
Pittsburgh filmmaker George A. Romero directed "The Night of the Living Dead." Many scenes were filmed at a now demolished farmhouse outside of town and the cemetery.
Starring Duane Jones and Judith O'Dea, it was completed with a $114,000 budget, but became a financial success, grossing $12 million domestically and $18 million internationally. Many local residents played zombies in the film.
Hudson Hub-Times reporter Tim Troglen, who works with me, is one of the many fans of the movie, which has become a cult classic. He says he watches it every Halloween season.
The Living Dead Museum is on Main Street and displays photos taken during the making of the film, "Night of the Living Dead" and other related horror film posters and some zombie mannequins.
The story follows characters Ben, Barbra and five others trapped in a rural farmhouse in western Pennsylvania, who are attacked by a large and growing group of unnamed "living dead" monsters.
While walking around the cemetery, I ran into a guy and his wife who take care of the cemetery. They told me all kinds of tidbits about the film and locations in Evans City. They showed me the cemetery chapel, which can be seen in the background of a scene, and a gravestone that O'Dea clung to in an early scene.
The film led to five subsequent films between 1978 and 2010, including "Dawn of the Dead" and "Day of the Dead." Romero also directed "Season of the Witch," "The Crazies" (also filmed in Evans City), "Martin," "Creepshow" and "The Dark Half." Among his initial work was filming shorts for "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood."
"The Crazies," released in 1973, was about the effects of the accidental release of a military biological weapon upon the inhabitants of a small American town.
Living Dead Weekend takes place annually in Evans City. This year's event will be Oct. 13-15, with movie screenings, celebrity appearances, film location tours and vendors.
A small plot of ground beside the Evans City police station contains a large plaque proclaiming "Evans City: Home to Night of the Living Dead," along with some panels focusing on the film and filming locations.
The Evans City Area Historical Society Museum contains artifacts and memorabilia relating to the area's oil boom and railroads, and houses records about local families, education, cultural events and natural disasters.
Outside of town is Providence Plantation, which includes the Frontier History Center, where visitors can experience all five periods of the region's 18th century history via character interpreters.
Phone: 330-541-9400 ext. 4188