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Why Pa. 'pilgrims' flock to this old Pepsi machine

Plus, a grocery store robot makes a run for it.

Welcome to PA Local, a free weekly newsletter about the great people, amazing places, and delicious food of Pennsylvania.

February 10, 2023
Inside this edition: The Birds, love language, Weird Paul, Lisa Frank Lloyd Wright, Marty Dufresne, and like moths to a world-famous Pepsi machine.
A Pennsylvania-centric trivia question.
The week started off with an jolt in Buffalo, NY, as a 3.8-magnitude earthquake delivered the region's strongest tremor in decades. 

It was felt, albeit lightly, as far away as Erie. 

Do you know when Pennsylvania's largest-ever earthquake was recorded? Bonus points for the county where it originated.

(Keep scrolling for the answer, but don't miss all the good stuff in between. Like what you read? Forward this email to a friend.)
Our five favorite Pennsylvania stories of the week.

» One thing worth sharing: The Eagles are in the Super Bowl on Sunday. In preparation, you can play The Inquirer's Eagles-themed Wordle spinoff, Birdle, here. Or learn how to mute an entire city here.

» One thing worth trying: Next Tuesday is Valentine's Day <nudge>. How about a romantic evening at the killer's home from The Silence of the Lambs? Or 500 words on the honeymoon ruins of the Poconos?

» One thing worth reading: Lo-fi Pittsburgh musician Weird Paul's wedding story got a "mini-vows" writeup in The New York Times and it's a testament to the unique power that CDs had in the 1990s.

» One thing worth seeing: Give me Fallingwater, only in the Trapper Keeper-ready style of Lisa Frank Lloyd Wright

» One more thing worth seeing: GIANT's in-store grocery robot Marty made a run for it this week before being corralled by employees.

🏆 TEST YOURSELF: Another big week of Pennsylvania news is in the bag. Test your grip on the latest headlines from Harrisburg and around the state with this week's installment of The Great PA News Quiz.
» COVID-19 UPDATE: Your guide to finding resources on cases, vaccines, and tests

» Dems take Pa. House majority with Tuesday wins
» Big budget question looms after school funding ruling
» Tracking Josh Shapiro's biggest campaign promises
» Pa. Senate GOP's 2020 election review isn't over yet
» Pennsylvanians want less partisan gridlock
» 5 takeaways on Pa.'s fragmented local governments
A Pepsi machine on a city street.
(Colin Deppen / Spotlight PA)

Y2K panic was cresting when Pennsylvania’s most famous Pepsi machine arrived on the scene in 1999. Bill Clinton was president. Napster was nascent. And Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace was about to become the biggest movie in the world.

That film ended a 16-year drought for fans of the franchise. It’s also the only reason we’re talking about the Pepsi machine now. 

Located outside a fire station in Pittsburgh’s Mount Washington neighborhood, this particular soda/pop machine has become an unlikely destination amid the likeliest of tourist draws — it’s a few blocks from one of the city’s famed funiculars and overlooks.

What makes this machine so rare, and the reason people keep coming from places like Florida to see it, is the Phantom Menace tie-in — pictured above — that hasn’t changed since the last millennium. 

It is frozen in time. A relic. An anachronism. A Pepsi portal to the past that predates the first iPhone by nearly a decade. 

Interest has grown over the years, which have seen more selfies posted to social media, more media outlets picking up the story, and what I can only assume is the highly unusual promotion of a vending machine by local tourism officials.

“My Partners and I Made A Holy Pilgrimage Tonight,” Redditor Jordon Knisely posted in 2022 alongside a photo of him kneeling before the machine and its neon nighttime glow. 

The actual drinks inside may vary. The firemen of Engine 27 next door, who took the machine over after Pepsi stopped servicing it, have for years filled it with Faygo, the bargain-bin libation of choice for another intensely devoted subculture.

That changed in 2022 when Pepsi delivered a year’s supply of its official nectars in conjunction with Star Wars Day on the fourth of May. Pepsi did not respond to emails asking if it planned to do the same this year. And on two occasions this week, the machine was sold out completely. 

No Pepsi or Faygo to speak of. I took my money to a store a few doors down and bought a soda there. It wasn’t the same, though, and I drank it by the curb while frowning and bundling up against the wind. 

But the soda isn’t the point, is it?   

“They don’t even buy pop. They sit in front of it and pose,” one firefighter told the Post-Gazette last year with a laugh. “It gets a lot of Star Wars fans.” 

No one knows exactly how many. 

VisitPittsburgh, the city’s tourism office, wouldn’t wager a guess, but President and CEO Jerad Bachar counts “even this very unique Pepsi machine” among the city’s attractions now. 

Maybe it’s the science of nostalgia. Most likely, it’s the power of Star Wars and Reddit karma.

For the record, there are identical machines out there. 

They’ve turned up in Ohio, Iowa, Canada, and even Chambersburg, three hours to the east of Pittsburgh, where the local mall’s general manager, Robert Woodring, confirmed to PA Local this week that “Yes, it’s still here, but I don’t know about people posing for photos [with it].”  

Some already have, and it’s safe to assume more will follow.

Colin Deppen, PA Local editor 

"She has the kind of sadness in her eyes you only see in people from Pennsylvania."

—The caption on a photo of Berks County native Taylor Swift in a viral tweet by @normalmadeline; for what it's worth, they may be onto something

Our favorite photo of the week submitted by a PA Local reader.

A walk on Main Street in Exton with @mar_sees_lifeSend us your photos, use #PAGems on Instagram, or tag us @spotlightpennsylvania.

The corner of a red metal roof on a building.
The answer to this week's Pennsylvania-centric trivia question.
Pennsylvania's largest-ever earthquake was a 5.2 on the Richter scale and had an epicenter near Jamestown in Mercer County. 

It was recorded in 1998, caused minor damage near the point of origin, and was felt as far away as Michigan. According to a Post-Gazette story written a year later, it "slid wares off the shelves of the Golden Dawn Supermarket, caused numerous wells to go dry and left any number of cracked walls, windows and knick-knacks in its wake."

While we're on the subject, find ways to help the victims of this week's catastrophic earthquake in Turkey and Syria here.

Thanks for reading PA Local! We'll see you back here next week. But first ... send us your feedback. What did you like? What didn't you like? 
Spotlight PA is an independent, non-partisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with PennLive/The Patriot-News, TribLIVE/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and WITF Public Media.

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