Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — George L. Oles

New York Tribune, January 8, 1922, p. 54.

It began as a joke. Then it turned serious, and one of the more unusual political stories unfolded in Youngstown’s colorful political history. George L. Oles grew up in Riceville, Pennsylvania and after setting up fruit, grocery, and meat markets in a number of different towns came to Youngstown in 1907. He took over the building of the former Youngstown Opera House on the southwest corner of Central Square and opened his Fulton Fruit and Meat Market. His ads appeared every Thursday in The Vindicator. He touted the superiority of the food in his market, his prices, and commented on the matters of the day. He wrote all the copy himself. A New York Times article compared his ads to Billy Sunday, a contemporary evangelist, for their “slam-bang statements.” His ads were one of the first things to which people turned. Here’s one example from June 23, 1921:

The campaign that began as a joke started in the summer of 1921 after Mayor Fred Warnock won his party’s nomination for another term in office. Some of his ads had expressed dissatisfaction with what he saw as the “machine politics” of both parties in the city and that he thought he could do as well. He first declared his intent to run on August 4, 1921 declaring that women should vote for Mayor Warnock or Mr. Doeright in the primary taking place the following Tuesday, so they can vote for him as an independent on November 8 to defeat them. He calls himself “The Next Mayor of Youngstown.”

He made his declaration the following week. This necessitated him moving into the Tod Hotel to establish residency in Youngstown in time to register as a candidate. He explains all this in this ad from August 11, 1921:

He announced he will work forgo his salary (which he was not able to do because that could be construed as a bribe) and announced his commitment to clean up vice and dirty politics and bootlegging (this was prohibition). He focused his appeal on women voters (who had just recently won the right to vote) and held meetings with women’s groups all over the city, introduced by his wife.

When November 8 came, the amazing happened. This “Potato Peddler” running as an Independent on a Reform platform won by 459 votes over the incumbent Fred Warnock. (He was the only Independent elected as Mayor in Youngstown until Jay Williams ran as an Independent for his first term in 2005. He ran as a Democrat his second term.) He left for Florida with his wife immediately to avoid office-seekers, returning shortly before he took office on January 3, 1922. On his first day of office he informed city workers he expected them to work eight hours or leave and set strict rules forbidding police from drinking and accepting favors.

Like many other reformers, he found that he was up against entrenched interests in the city. His life was threatened. City council resisted his efforts. By the end of June, he was fed up and tendered his resignation, effective at 12:00 am Saturday July 1, 1922. That evening a rally of citizens on Central Square, and later at his home asked him to reconsider. He did and asked for his resignation to be returned at 9:00 am Saturday. Council refused, arguing his resignation had already taken effect. Council president William G. Reese was sworn in as Mayor. In 1923, he lost by a landslide to the Klan endorsed candidate, Charles Scheible, during the heyday of Klan activity in the Valley.

Oles went back to his profitable market, It suffered a fire in 1934, but he rebuilt and continued to serve the Valley. In 1945, having purchased a shipment of potatoes at a favorable price, he donated $500 immediately when he received a request for assistance from the Infantile Paralysis (Polio) Drive. By the 1940’s the market was called Oles’ and in 1948, George L. Oles celebrated 50 years as a grocer with this ad:

Surveying the newspapers for ads for Oles’, I noticed the rise of chains and other grocers that may explain this somewhat cryptic ad that appeared on September 9, 1948. As far as I can determine, this was the last ad to appear in The Vindicator.

I cannot find out anything else about George L. Oles after this date. I would love to know how his story ended. He pulled off an amazing outsider victory for mayor in 1921. He had a passion for good government that seemed to reflect his passion for good business. His market and the ads he wrote each week were a Youngstown institution. It sounds like he was an amazingly generous man. Reading between the lines, I suspect that as Youngstown grew and people moved further from downtown and competitors arose including grocery chains, it became harder to sustain his business. I wish I knew the rest of the story….

Addendum: Tips from a couple readers added to this story. Oles lived on Youngstown Poland Road in Poland. His estate later became the site of Byzantine Catholic Central with his house becoming the home for the Sisters. It is likely that Oles’ health was declining around the time of this last ad. He leased out the deparments to employees. He died on July 15, 1952 and was buried at Tod Homestead Cemetery.

To read other posts in the Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown series, just click “On Youngstown.” Enjoy!

4 thoughts on “Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — George L. Oles

  1. In this piece you mentioned a mayor that was elected after Mayor Oles, as being supported By the Klan. I would love to see a follow up Klan activity in the Valley. I was never taught that they were active in the area.
    All of your articles and reviews are thought provoking. Thanks!

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