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  • J.A. Willoughby

The Beer Caves of Danville PA. Creating the Illustration for "The Last Time "

Fourth in this blog series about illustrations for my book, This Side of Center, is a photo I shot in 1985 in my hometown of Danville, Pennsylvania. I mated it with my short story, "The Last Time."

The "beer caves" as they were known to the locals, were located on Spring Street, the home of Hanover Brewery - one of a handful of local breweries located in the town during the 19th and 20th centuries. This particular property morphed into Voelcker's, which is still in business today. You can read more about its history here.

In the absence of commercial electric refrigeration, the man-made "caves" were used as cold storage for the beer which was brewed across the street. When the business relocated many years after its founding, the caves remained. They became a place of mystery, mythical horror stories, and fascination for the youth of the town over many decades. I was one such youth. I won't go into detail on the variety of "uses" by the kids in the neighborhood during their time of abandonment. Suffice it to say that our parents told us to stay out of them. And being kids, we didn't. Use your imagination (and possibly your own youthful misbehavings) to assume the worst.

I was shooting and developing my own film in the 1980's. Having moved five miles out of town in the 1970's, I would frequently climb on my bike and pedal my way back to my old neighborhood, my trusty Canon AE-1 in tow and loaded with Kodak Tri-X or Plus X film. Those shoots were about the nostalgia of the place and learning new things: developing an 'eye' for a photo's composition and a photographic image in a tray, both at the same time. Win-win. Add to that combination the fact that those caves do not exist anymore, and this becomes a very special photograph. Because of its historical nature, it was well-received on the public Facebook Page, "You know you live in Danville PA when..." after I posted it a while ago. The many positive comments I read played a major factor in my decision to use it as the illustration for the short story.

I can't go into detail about the story content, except it is very short (about 660 words), written in the First Person and the main character ends up in a place much like this. As with all my stories, there is a twist at the end, making it verboten to discuss it in detail. I will say that I first wrote it in 1995. I edited it, adding some narrative changes and minor details in 2013.

I no longer have the recorded exposure data on the image but I used Plus X Pan film. The negative was recently scanned at 3200 dpi, and that scan was given only a very small amount of detailing in Photoshop. That detailing concentrated on specific adjustments. I tweaked the overall black, white and neutral areas in very small increments, maybe 2-4% positive and negative, if that much. And only then because of digital and printed uses. NOTE: This image is displayed in a low resolution so as to facilitate the loading of the webpage. Prints are available on FineArtAmerica.

I rode down Steeb Street that day in June, 1985 and after catching a glimpse of the old cracker box house in which I grew up, I drifted down the alley and across the small creek on which the brewery was once located. I stopped the bike on the street in front of the pitch black opening in the side of hill. I pulled the SLR camera out of the bag strapped securely into the kid seat behind me, put it to my eye, focused and clicked off two frames in a matter of less than a minute. I never even got off the bike, as if I were still a kid in the neighborhood just passing through on my way to more important things.

There were no filters or set-up needed for the shot. The magic of the place held all that specialness then and, in my opinion, in this image, still does today. ~ JW


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