Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Reuben McMillan

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Reuben McMillan

When I was a young boy, my father took me to the Main Library each Saturday to take books out of the library–the Reuben McMillan Library. I didn’t give it a thought as a kid, but as I explore our shared history, I keep coming across the names of people who helped make the city of Youngstown what it was and still is. Reuben McMillan is one of these people.

McMillan was born October 7, 1820 in Canfield. He went to various schools until age thirteen and then took up the trade of harness making. Working during the day, he studied Latin, algebra and geometry and other advanced subjects in the evenings. By 1837 (at seventeen!) he started teaching in rural schools and used his earnings to continue to advance his own education from 1839 to 1843 at a private academy. By 1849, he was serving as superintendent of the Hanoverton schools in Columbiana County, then Lisbon and New Lisbon schools until he retired in 1853 due to health issues which dogged him throughout his life. Regaining his health, he became superintendent in Salem in 1855, then Youngstown in 1861.

He served as superintendent in Youngstown for six years until failing health necessitated his resignation in 1867. Were it not for this, he could have been superintendent of the Cleveland system. That was not to be, to Youngstown’s benefit. By 1872, restored health permitted him to return to his superintendent’s position in which he served until 1886. In Joseph G. Butler, Jr’s History of Youngstown and the Mahoning Valley, he describes why Reuben McMillan was so highly esteemed:

“It was not mere length of service, however, that endeared Youngstown school pupils and Youngstown men and women of mature years to Reuben McMillan. Blessed with great ability, he was also one of the kindliest of men, tender, considerate, devoted to his work and caring little for personal gain. The poorer children of the schools were the object of his
special solicitude. His beauty of countenance of itself stamped him as one of nature’s noblemen. He was a tutor by example as well as precept, living the God fearing life that he encouraged in the youth of Youngstown. In religion he was a Presbyterian, and for some years was an elder in the old First Church here.”

While libraries had been part of Youngstown schools since the 1840’s, McMillan, joined by two teachers and two physicians, formed the Youngstown Library Association on October 27, 1880. The library began with 168 volumes and the two teachers, Miss Pearson and Miss Hitchcock were the first librarians, working out of a building on West Federal Street. The library went through a reorganization and on March 5, 1898 was named the Reuben McMillan Free Library Association, which is still the official name of The Public Library of Youngstown and Mahoning County. This was a special honor since McMillan was still alive at this time, passing on June 23 of that year.

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Richard A. Brown home, an early location of the Youngstown Public Library

The other special honor bestowed on McMillan came later. From its original home on West Federal, the library moved to the Richard A. Brown home in 1891 (now the site of the Mahoning County Courthouse). In 1907, a $50,000 gift from Andrew Carnegie made possible construction of a library at the corner of Wick and Rayen Avenue. When the library opened on December 3, 1910, with a capacity of 225,000 volumes, it was named the Reuben McMillan Free Library. Usually, the library is named after the major donor and there are many Carnegie libraries around the country. This was a case of a leader whose contribution was more important than money — an idea — a free library open to all residents of the city.

A large portrait of Reuben McMillan was hung in the library with this tribute from John H. Clarke, another advocate for the library, who helped pass legislation to allow tax levies to support public libraries:

“A man who sought neither wealth nor honor save as these were to be found in the faithful doing of his duty. He spent a long life for meager salary in training the youth of the city to live the highest intellectual life. When his name was chosen for the library it was because his generation chose to honor and revere that type of manhood which finds its best expression in that high stern-featured beauty of steady devotedness to duty.”

Reuben McMillan never enriched himself as an educator, but left a rich legacy to Youngstown in establishing a library to enrich the lives of children and adults from every walk of life in the city–a mission it continues to carry out to this day.

4 thoughts on “Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Reuben McMillan

  1. Bob
    Thanks for the fine biography of a Youngstown leader, educator and advocate for libraries. I spent much at the library name for him studying while a YSU student.
    Best
    Michelle

  2. No grammar check or not enough caffeine this morning 😀. Sentence should read “I spent much time at the library named for him reading and studying while a YSU student.”
    MMW

  3. Thanks for the history on Reuben McMillan, Bob. Well researched and written as always.
    The Youngstown area was very fortunate to have a public servant such as Mr. McMillan so dedicated to children, the poor and to their education during the area’s early days.
    I was also struck by two otherwise minor details. The mental image of a Canfield, Ohio of 1820 when Mr. McMillan was born and the Brown home which later became the first main library. The former conjures thoughts of bucolic tranquility. With the splendor of the latter, one wonders what the rest of the neighborhood looked like before the courthouse.

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