Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Papa’s Garage


The garage my father-in-law designed and built (photo courtesy of my wife!).

Some time back I wrote a post here on “Mama’s Kitchen” recognizing the 1948 kitchen that was being opened at the Mahoning Valley Historical Society’s Tyler History Center that reflects the kitchens of many of our youths. It occurred to me recently that maybe we need a “Papa’s Garage” to go along with this.

Garages were not a given when many of our parents bought their homes and most of them, if they existed were not attached in the older neighborhoods where houses may have been built before cars were in every driveway. That was the case when my wife’s parents bought their home. Her father designed and built, with the help of his brothers, the garage at his home, and then the brothers used that design and built garages at their homes as well. A friend of mine, who has done some construction work saw that garage forty years later and said that he thought it was built better than most houses! My wife and her parents lived on a busy street and so her dad designed the garage with a porch off one side, extending the roof over the extended slab of concrete laid for the garage floor.

With my parents, there was a garage but it was at the bottom of a hill, following the lay of the land for our part of the West side. My dad and my grandfather literally jacked up the garage, built a foundation underneath and added fill to raise it four to five feet. I can only imagine how hard they worked on that, which is before I was on the scene. But I heard about it.

What I do remember from when I was a kid was that my job was to open the garage doors (two opposing doors with hinges on the side) for my dad 10 minutes before he got home at night. In later years, those doors became my nemesis when we would play baseball in the backyard and they would get in the way of a stray fly ball, sometimes resulting in a broken window. At a certain point, my dad looked at me and said, “you’re old enough to break it and so you’re old enough to fix it.” I’d have to take my allowance money, go to the hardware store with the measurements for the window and have them cut me one, and then clean out the old putty, put in the glass and put in new putty. It was not too long after that that we moved the games somewhere else!

Garages served a number of functions beyond just a place to protect the car from the elements. Some guys had workshops in the garage. They ran power to the garage, had workbenches, and often well organized pegboards of tools as well as their power equipment. Those garages often had the smell of sawdust.

Then there were the garages that were primarily for storing all the lawn furniture and garden tools. There was this mix of earthy smell and gas from the lawn mower. Some were also well organized, and some were more helter-skelter.

My one grandfather specialized in the garage as museum with mementos of all his travels. There were maps, placards, matchbooks, flyers, even unopen soap bars from motels! It smelled a bit musty and dusty. It was fun to look around but you had to be careful not to brush up against his beloved 1961 Chevy Impala!

Then there were the garages that were auto repair garages. These smelled of oil and gas and exhaust fumes and solvents–kind of like the repair garage down the street. It wasn’t unusual to have a car up on jack stands or sitting there with the hood open while the dad was tinkering with the carburetor (remember carburetors?), the choke, changing the plugs, and adjusting the timing.

I do remember one other use for garages. They were the place where a group of guys who had learned three chords and had a drum set could try to put together the next great rock band. Hence the term “garage bands.” Most lasted a week or two but a few succeeded.

Of course some garages were all of these things and some were none of these but rather the overflow storage from the house. These were the ones were no car was parked. It sat in the drive or on the street. I still see this and kind of scratch my head–but to each his or her own!

What I think garages represented in working class neighborhoods was a place where do-it-yourself-er dads did their thing. For many this was by necessity. For some, it was probably a bit of a refuge. In some cases, garages were just a place to store the stuff you needed to care for the outside of the house and the yard and to shelter the car. In most cases they represented in some way or another the “work” in working class.

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