LOCAL HISTORY: How One Man Wrote a Unique Chapter in History

Seen at age 90, Bill retained his vitality and storytelling prowess long after retirement

When historical events are weighed, the scale is often tipped heavily toward notable deeds of famous individuals, or an epic date from yesteryear. These recognized people, with their moments of glory or tragedy, influenced human societies throughout history.

But well-known historical events are only a fraction of meaningful occurrences that shape our past, present, and future. History is personal; it belongs to everyone. Each life possesses a unique fingerprint. These distinctive stories formulate before first breaths are taken, and continue onward after the final one fades.

This is the story of William ‘Bill’ Helfrick. He was a talented and dedicated man who assumed many roles during his 93-year lifetime. Bill wore traditional hats most men wear: son, brother, husband, father, friend, and grandfather. To rise above ordinary, he also fashioned other hats that enriched his life, and added joy to many others who crossed Bill’s path. During nine decades, world events influenced the route, but Bill mostly navigated his own historical trail. These self-propelled exploits are what made his life so memorable; a chapter in local history.

Like most Americans, Bill Helfrick’s ancestors came from foreign land. His paternal lineage remained a mystery throughout Bill’s life. His grandfather, Alexander, came to America as a child, sometime around 1860. During that trip, or soon after arrival, he was orphaned. Alex was put up for adoption in Chambersburg, and his new family were Helfrick’s. Records attesting to this legal process, and the identity of Alex’s birth parents, were kept in the Franklin County Courthouse.

The Civil War paid a horrible visit to Chambersburg in July, 1864. Confederates held the community hostage, demanding $500,000 ransom. When Chambersburg couldn’t raise the money in time, Rebel soldiers torched the town. Over 500 buildings were destroyed, including the courthouse. The record archive stored inside it, which detailed aspects of so many lives, including Alex’s true heritage, was incinerated.

Alexander Helfrick grew up under a new family’s roof, and he prospered. As an adult, he and his wife Emma had a son named John Edward, born in 1882. ‘Ed’ grew up in Chambersburg, enlisted young in the military, and served in the 44th Company Infantry during the Spanish-American War. A dashing portrait of Ed, dressed in military uniform, is a precious family heirloom.

By 1921, Ed and his wife Madelyn brought four children into the world, and as they entered their forties, their child-bearing years were seemingly behind them. Then, at the start of the Great Depression, William Harvey Helfrick made a surprise entry into their family on November 23, 1930.

Bill made a surprise entrance into the Helfrick family in 1930

Bill Helfrick was a born storyteller. Along with an acute memory, he retold many childhood experiences. One of Bill’s first recollections was his grandfather Alex’s funeral, held in the parlor at his Waynesboro home. A short time later, another sad farewell was held for Bill’s namesake- his favorite Uncle William- who died suddenly at 38.

At age 7, Bill was hoisted on his dad’s shoulders at a 75th commemoration of the Battle of Gettysburg. In attendance on that July 1938 afternoon, to dedicate the new Eternal Light Peace Memorial, were President Franklin Roosevelt, and Civil War veterans from both Union and Confederate forces. Bill was thrilled seeing those real-life soldiers, most aged past ninety.

Gettysburg’s Eternal Light Peace Memorial was dedicated in 1938. Bill saw Civil War veterans at the event.

Bill witnessed the sad end of a Waynesboro industrial era two years later when Geiser’s manufacturing plant burned to the ground, one of Waynesboro’s most spectacular fires. Bill would co-write a book on that company’s fascinating history many decades in the future.

The following year, on December 7, 1941, Bill played on the family’s front porch when his father appeared outside, shaken. The Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor, and many Americans had been killed. Ed Helfrick recognized the serious consequences of that awful aggression. “We’re going into another world war”, he told his eleven-year-old son.

With admiration for his father’s military service, and memories of World War II fresh in his patriotic mind, Bill joined the Air Force in 1948. His aviator dreams were dashed by poor eyesight. Utilizing innate mechanical aptitude, Bill serviced modern jet aircraft that replaced old-world prop planes.

Inspired by his father’s service and love for country, Bill joined the Air Force in 1948

The Korean conflict erupted in 1950. Bill remained in the U.S., working out of Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas. Still, danger loomed for the servicemen stationed there. Bill recalled flying along on air searches to find missing aircraft, downed while training in the Nevada desert. On another occasion, a plane crash-landed on the base’s runway, and its fiery engine hurtled inside the occupied Mess Hall.

Bill’s loyalty to Waynesboro never wavered while stationed far way. Determined to see his family one Christmas, he hitchhiked cross-country from Nevada. Bill told the story of that journey often, achieved in only four rides. He took the wheel of a tired stranger’s car on one treacherous segment and piloted it over the Rocky Mountains during a snowstorm.

Bill recalled in other stories how he’d met people in Texas and Mississippi who knew about Waynesboro, and this small-world familiarity always pleased Bill.

Bill Helfrick returned to his hometown in 1952. He married his Waynesboro sweetheart, Margaret Brezler, and set out to raise a family, which eventually numbered seven children. His first job seemed a perfect complement to his aviation background, working as an aircraft inspector for Fairchild. But Bill found that job monotonous, with too much idle time.

Bill Helfrick married his hometown sweetheart Peg and helped raise 7 children

Bill’s father Ed was a long-time employee at Waynesboro’s Frick Company. He worked a physically demanding job, coal-firing the plant’s power house. Ed often came home covered in soot, exhausted from long shifts. As a young boy, Bill delivered meals to his dad at Frick, Ed too busy to walk home for lunch.

Bill’s father worked at the Frick Company power house and taught him the value of hard work

That paternal work ethic set an indelible example and Bill incorporated that mindset into every aspect of his life. He found a new job at Landis Machine Company, another titan of Waynesboro’s industry, where he established a successful advertising career.

Landis Machine Company was a titan of local industry where Bill built his career over four decades

A busy job and responsibilities of a large family would be enough challenge for most people, but Bill Helfrick aspired to new goals. The first: building a home for his family. He honed his do-it-yourself skills by fixing up two existing houses, and then Bill set out to achieve his dream. The architectural plan he discovered in a magazine was unusual, designed first as a vacation home on Lake Tahoe’s shore.

When it was completed in Reservoir Heights in autumn 1973, the barn-shaped home Bill constructed was unlike any other in Waynesboro. Perched on a hill, the house’s large western windows and open floor plan offered panoramic views of the Cumberland Valley. Bill Helfrick lived his last fifty years at this unique home. But he couldn’t sit still; Bill had other unfulfilled dreams.

The Waynesboro home Bill constructed afforded this panoramic Cumberland Valley view where he lived his sunset years

Bill’s next challenge: designing a car. Supported by his bride Peg’s infinite patience, and with curious neighbors wondering what came next, he went to work. Bill bought an old VW bug, dismantled it down to the chassis, and somehow crammed this skeleton into his basement, next to the washer and dryer. Over several years, he tinkered with the design. With sheet-metal skills gleaned from Peg’s father and brother, Bill fashioned a vehicle body style best described as part dune buggy and part DeLorean.

When finished, the only way to remove the contraption from the basement was to take it apart, piece-by-piece, then re-assemble it outside. Peg was overjoyed when that car was finally roadworthy. Like the home he built, no other local vehicle compared to Bill’s creation.

Bill’s life never slowed down after retirement from Landis Machine Company- it gained speed. He became a tireless community activist, serving during elections, blood drives, and at a soup kitchen. Along with several industrious men, Bill helped restore the cupola from the old High School building (where Bill and Peg graduated in 1948), and the architectural landmark was placed in a park for all to enjoy.

Bill helped restore the cupola from a building where he and his wife graduated High School

Bill organized class reunions, partnering with old friends, but continued making new buddies around town. He also built a retractable model train layout, another basement project. His youthful schedule kept him healthy; he never endured a hospital stay until age 89.

In 2000, Bill was instrumental in the creation of Waynesboro’s Industrial Museum, where the community’s legendary manufacturing legacy is interpreted and celebrated. This proud achievement led to other heritage projects, which included the book Bill co-authored on Geiser Company. In the last years of his life, Bill devoted his energy to a new book on Landis Machine, yet unpublished.

Frick Company’s legacy, along with other manufacturing titans, is celebrated at Waynesboro’s Industrial Museum. But Bill Helfrick’s story is still being written

Bill Helfrick passed away on January 13, 2024. His life touched many others, far back into history. He wore multiple hats as a veteran, builder, leader, advertiser, volunteer, author, and craftsman. Through his unique accomplishments and charitable deeds, Bill’s significant influence will be missed in Waynesboro.

Many will also remember Bill as a storyteller. His repertoire of tales was repeated so often, their exact phrasings were known by heart. “Stop me if you’ve heard this one,” he’d say. This charming trait for telling stories was well known by seven of us who witnessed his remarkable life at close proximity, since we knew Bill Helfrick by another name. We called him Dad.

The well-crafted history book Bill Helfrick penned, the story of his life, is still unfinished. To those of us who loved him most, his adventurous spirit will inspire future chapters, created to honor his memory.

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