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For motorists, Breezewood is the missing link I-70, Pa. Turnpike are separated by this commercial colossus


BREEZEWOOD, Pa. -- Millions of people have been through this place, this Breezewood, whatever it is. For Marylanders who have been motoring to Pennsylvania, Ohio, Chicago and other points north and west for holiday feasts, the place is as familiar as the wobble in the cranberry sauce and the waddle to the living room couch.

This Breezewood, this is where, by all that is right and just for the American highway traveler, Interstate 70 should connect to the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

It does not.

Instead, stuck in the nowhere of the Pennsylvania foothills is this nowhere of Breezewood, where only motels, gas stations, motels, fast-food restaurants, motels, truck stops and motels are found. People cruise the place, curse the place, fill gas tanks, empty bladders, catch a few winks and then drive off.

And they wonder: What sadistic highway planner is responsible for this permanent detour to the Town of Motels? Why does I-70, rather than merging smoothly with the turnpike, end so abruptly that motorists must be warned with a series of bone-rattling rumble strips and a stop sign that is not quite as large as a baseball field?

Why are 2 million cars and trucks a year forced to pass through this Breezewood, whatever it is?

"I couldn't really tell you," says Lowman Henry, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission. "Breezewood has just kind of emerged and has really become a center of travel commerce, with the hotel industry and food and gas and anything connected to travel."

Breezewood, though, does not exist solely by accident. It exists and thrives through a combination of money, oil, politics and llamas.

Ruminant mammals aside, motorists are most stricken by the oddity of Breezewood when they approach it at night. Drivers tool along I-70 intending to ease gently onto the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Suddenly, though, from the darkness of the hills, an eerie, sickly colored glow appears.

No exits can be found on this part of the highway; there is no escaping the light.

And then, there it is: a mile-square patch of raw commercialism, where neon everywhere shouts "Subs" or "Gas" or "Vacancy" or "No."

Breezewood glows from so much tangled neon -- pink, blue, orange , yellow, green and red.

"To some people," concedes Nyle Mellott, a retired oilman who owns nearly half the 47 businesses here, "Breezewood may seem a bit tacky and kind of an annoyance."

Kind of.

But it has helped make Mellott and his wife, Joan, a well-off couple, Bedford a well-off county and Breezewood, well, Breezewood.

With so many travelers coming through this mutant spawn of America's love affair with the automobile, as it has been called, Breezewood has not only become a center of commerce but a temporary repository of souls of all kinds.

Ask Bruce Maxwell, a chaplain whose ministry on the second floor of one of two truck stops here has helped hundreds of stranded travelers. Recently, he helped a stranded Floridian.

"He was a professional clown," Maxwell explains, "but he has Tourette's syndrome, so he's frightening to some people. He had come to Pennsylvania to participate in a carnival with this balloon clown thing he does, and his Tourette's is kicking up and he gets beaten up and he gets $200 taken from him. Now he's lost in Breezewood."

Born in 1900

Breezewood was born about 1900, when residents named their strip of land so they could establish a post office. They milked cows on what is now the Breezewood strip, U.S. 30, the stretch of pavement that drivers must lurch across to get from I-70 to the turnpike.

When the turnpike was built with its Breezewood exit in 1940, a few of the local residents saw green and invested there. When I-70 was built here in the 1960s, they fought plans to build a bypass.

"Over the years, we've employed the old and tried method of saying, 'We're just not going to do it,' " says David Atkinson, a spokesman for state Sen. Robert Jubelirer, who represents the area. "We've been like the old Russian negotiators. We just say, 'Nyet, nyet, nyet.' "

That's partly because of people such as the Mellotts, who started buying Breezewood property after the turnpike was built and had significant money sunk into the place when I-70 came along. At that time, a link between the highways would have blown Breezewood off the map.

Instead, without the link, the place boomed.

Says Mellott, grinning like a man who has made a lot of money from some once-cheap land: "Oh, sure, you could say it's been kind of political over the years. That's all I'm going to say about it. Wouldn't be right to say much more."

'Like a province'

In a sense, the influence that Breezewood has carried has been impressive. Breezewood is not a city or a town. It has no police department, no mayor, no council, nobody making decisions except about services such as sewers, and those decisions are made by the township.

"I'm sure you wouldn't call it a city. It's maybe a village, but more like a province," says Mike McGill, who operates the wastewater-treatment center. "You know, I'm not sure what you'd call it."

But the business people and the county politicians have managed to stave off a bypass, mainly because they're not raising fools in Pennsylvania.

Truckers and other motorists have pumped millions of gallons of gasoline over the years. They have rented thousands of motel rooms and have sucked down thousands more meals, all of which means big tax bucks for Pennsylvania and Bedford County, which rakes in the revenue from Breezewood.

Last year, Breezewood helped raise more than $1.1 million for Bedford County in tourism-tax dollars. The place employs more than 500 people, including Ryan Swope, 17, who lives in nearby Everett and works at the Dairy Queen.

"Anybody who's going to travel the turnpike has to stop here," he says, "so the food doesn't really have to be that good."

(Note to Ryan's bosses: He very quickly, and very nervously, promised he was just kidding.)

As if to prove how just about anything, not only bad burgers, can sell here, the Mellotts, after setting up businesses on the strip, run a llama farm away from the glow of the fast-food restaurants. They have made a small fortune breeding the animals and selling them to people who have found themselves between the two highways.

"When you're in Breezewood ," begins Nyle Mellott.

" There's just not much else to do," finishes his wife, explaining the traffic that makes its way to the llama farm.

"Why not buy a llama?"

Pub Date: 12/26/98

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