Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — St. Patrick’s Day


By Rabbid007 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

On Thursday, I was in Oxford, Ohio just in time to stumble across a Miami University student tradition — Green Beer Day. Friday was the last day of classes before spring break, and so it was the traditional day for them to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day at the uptown bars. I discovered that the green is just food coloring and the best way to do it is to add blue which balances the yellowish brown hue of beer. Remember yellow + blue = green? Personally, that just seems a good way to spoil a good glass of beer. Just give me a pint of Guinness. But it also set me to thinking about other things we did on St. Patrick’s Day.

So, you know it is St. Patrick’s Day when…

  1. Mom lays out green clothes for you to wear even if you don’t like green, even if you didn’t think you owned green. But in the end, you thanked her because everyone else at school was wearing it as well.
  2. You heard the story of shamrocks, which is really just a fancy name for clover. It is thought that St. Patrick used the shamrock as an image of the Trinity. There is a connection between shamrocks and green beer in that the Irish would add shamrocks to their beer (and stronger drinks) in what they called “drowning the shamrock.” Seems it was in this connection that I also heard of four leaf clovers and the luck of the Irish. Looked for a four leaf clover but never found one. I guess I just wasn’t patient or lucky enough–they occur roughly in 1 out of 5,000 clover leaves.
  3. Read aloud time was Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham. Worse was when someone tried to make green eggs and ham.
  4. People talked about leprechauns. I’m not sure we talked very much about them in Youngstown. Seriously, can you imagine one of these little creatures any where near a steel mill?
  5. Mom made corned beef and cabbage for dinner. It’s thought that Irish Americans in New York City may have started this as a cheaper substitute to Irish bacon.
  6. Chicago dyes its river green. Youngstown never had to–the Mahoning was always kind of green. Not any more.
  7. St. Patrick’s Day Parades. This is a custom in many cities with Irish populations. In Youngstown, the parade actually started after we moved away, and is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. For more info, here is the official website.

Seven is a lucky number and so this seems a good place to stop. I will be celebrating the day. My great-grandmother’s maiden name was Corrigan, which makes me 1/8th Irish. Again, it’s probably about the only time of the year I think about it. But on St. Patrick’s Day, it is a good day to be Irish, no matter your genealogy. Erin go Bragh!

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Rev. Lonnie K. A. Simon

Reverend Lonnie A. Simon

Reverend Lonnie K. A. Simon in his office. Source unknown, accessed from Delta Heritage Project at YSU Digital Archives

As I look over the posts in this series, one of the things I’ve realized is that it is a pretty White account of working class Youngstown. The truth is, that is where I grew up. The West Side was among the least integrated parts of the city. As I’ve worked on these posts, one thing I’ve become aware of is how much Blacks contributed to the working class history of Youngstown. In the Great Migration of Blacks from the South to the North, Youngstown was one of the destinations, particularly in the war years of the 1940’s as they filled jobs in the steel industry.

The purpose of these posts has not been to argue about things like politics, race, unions, sports, or religion, but to explore something of Youngstown’s distinctive history through the lens (in many cases) of my own early years in the city. My own thought is that to remember who we were helps us understand better who we are and what we bring as we move into the future.

One of the figures I remember who played a significant role in the Black community in Youngstown during the years I was growing up was the Reverend Lonnie K. A. Simon. Rev. Simon was born in East Mulga, Alabama March 23, 1925. His family moved to southwest Pennsylvania where his father worked in the coal mines. His father also pastored a church. In 1946, after serving in the Navy during the war, he moved to Youngstown to work at U. S. Steel while working his way through Youngstown College, majoring in Philosophy and Religion. It was during this time, in 1951 that he heard a call to the ministry. He began working for the Post Office (where federal laws better protected minorities) in 1955. In 1954, he accepted a call to Elizabeth Baptist Church in Youngstown., where he served for five years followed by two year at a church in Canton before returning, in 1962 to accept a call to New Bethel Baptist Church, where he served until retirement in 1995. He resigned from his position with the Post Office in 1965 to devote his full time to the ministry of this growing church. The church moved into larger facilities on Hillman, purchasing their building from Highway Tabernacle which eventually re-located to Austintown.

It was during this time that the Civil Rights movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr rose to prominence. Reverend Simon marched as one of the chant leaders in the March on Montgomery with Dr. King in 1965. In 1968, rioting occurred in Youngstown after the assassination of Dr. King. The causes of the riots have long been disputed (something we won’t do here) but Reverend Simon was firmly committed to Dr. King’s principles of peaceful advocacy and helped restore peace in the community while advocating for civil rights. He paid heavily for his advocacy, facing personal threats, and in October 1972, in typical Youngstown fashion, had a car bomb explode in front of his home.

In an interview for Youngstown State University’s Oral History Program, conducted by Michael Beverly, Reverend Simon described his “conversion” to advocacy work:

A lot of us pastors went to Montgomery and we participated in the Montgomery March. But it wasn’t until 1967 when I went to Chicago and was given a grant by the Ford Foundation to attend the Urban Training Center; we had to deal with urban problems and social problems in depth. This is what I have come to call a new conversion experience, where I felt that my role as a pastor was not just behind the pulpit, it wasn’t all preaching. Prior to that time the traditional pastor was always taught to tell your people to be patient, and wait on the Lord and pray, and things would turn out all right. But I discovered while I was going through urban training that unless you got up off your knees and started doing something, challenging the institution nothing would happen.

He served on the Youngstown Board of Education from 1972 to 1975 and attended my Chaney High School commencement. He was appointed to the Governor’s Commission on Socially Disadvantaged Black Males of Ohio, and received the National Leadership Award in Denver in 1991. He served in a number of church leadership roles and made several mission trips to Africa, including one to the All-Africa Council of Churches where he met Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

He retired from the pastorate in 1995, becoming Pastor Emeritus. His son, Kenneth, continues to lead the church. His office in the church has been preserved as a memorial and an archive, and the church hosts an annual dinner that honors and raises funds to continue to extend its legacy.

Reverend Lonnie K. A. Simon was both a spiritual and a community leader who gave crucial leadership in Youngstown at a racially volatile period of our history. Like many in Youngstown, his father worked in coal mines and he worked in steel mills before his call to ministry. The character of his leadership is evident in the enduring presence of the church he pastored and a son who is carrying on that work. He pursued peace, but not at the expense of justice nor without personal risk. He is among the many through Youngstown’s history whose presence and leadership made a difference.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Car Repairs


Image by Jorge Royan, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia

Yesterday, I had my car into our local car repair shop for some minor repairs (minor means it only cost $130). I’m fortunate to have a shop in walking distance of our home that we’ve dealt with for 25 years, with mechanics who have been there ten years or longer who we trust to do what needs to be done, and fix it right the first time.

That got me thinking about how we repaired cars growing up in working class Youngstown. For starters, many were do-it-your-selfers. The repair garage was your own garage or driveway. People did their own oil and filter changes, tune ups, complete with a gap tool. Often parts stores would re-surface brake drums so you paid a few bucks for that and installed your own brakes. In Youngstown’s winter climate, auto bodies got eaten alive by road salt. Bondo was your friend–you filled holes, sanded, buffed, primed and painted, and hoped you could match the rest of the car.

Some of us left the major jobs to the professionals–valve jobs and engine work, dropping a transmission or a differential. But there were those intrepid souls who weren’t daunted by tearing anything apart. You’d spot an old engine block in the back of the garage and see them swapping out another engine. The hot rod enthusiasts were known for this stuff.

Many of us just took our cars to a local shop with a good mechanic. This was before the big chains and dealerships came to dominate the car repair market. Dad used to take his car to the mechanic at the corner of Portland and Mahoning Avenue. There was an older fellow who I think was named Harry Milliken who worked on his cars for years. One time, I hit a patch of ice, banged into a curb and knocked our front end badly out of line. Total repair bill: $32. In later years Harry turned the business over to one of his other mechanics, Mike, who I believe still runs a repair shop at that location and maintained my dad’s car until he stopped driving. When it came time to sell dad’s last car, a 1994 Buick, in 2010, the car ran like a Swiss watch. We sold it to a friend, and from what I understand, it is still going!

There were a number of garages like that in the neighborhood. Just down the street from Mike’s was Paul Golec’s shop (also still in business, I believe). There used to be a Sohio on Steel Street that we would hang out at as paperboys while we waited for our papers to be delivered. A block down on Steel Street was a transmission shop.  What was great about these places was that there was a guy who knew your car, had worked on it for years (and chances are, a number of others like it). You could walk home while your car was being worked on. It wasn’t like going to one of these national chains where you have a different person servicing your car each time and you don’t know how much he actually knows. Nor was it a dealership that would charge you an arm and a leg.

While most cars still have internal combustion engines, spark plugs, and brakes, they have a lot of other equipment our old mechanics never had to deal with. These days, a mechanic needs to be part computer scientist, part auto mechanic to service a car. For many problems, expensive diagnostic equipment is needed, pricing some of the small shops out of business. Some problems can only be fixed by dealers with equipment for a particular make and model.

Cars are more fuel-efficient, and run much more cleanly. Safety features like airbags make them much safer but also require recalls that can only be repaired at a dealer. It used to be that people traded in vehicles every few years. Our last car lasted 17 years and our current one is 10 years old. Cars we bought in the 1970’s didn’t last 10 years. But most of us no longer do anything but the most basic repairs. Some of the newest cars have headlights that take special tools and cost a fortune. I used to go to the auto parts store and buy a headlight for under $10 and replace it myself.

The neighborhood garage, like the doctor who makes house calls, is becoming a thing of the past. The Tuffy I go to is a franchise but still has some of that feel–good mechanics, reliable service at a decent price, and a short walk away. I count myself fortunate. No doubt part of the attraction is it reminds me of the neighborhood garages I hung around as a kid when dad took the car to be worked on. In Youngstown.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Judge William Rayen

Judge William Rayen

Judge William Rayen

The name Rayen is one I encountered often in Youngstown. There was Rayen Avenue. Chaney would play Rayen in City Series sports. When we attended Youngstown State, home games were still played at Rayen Stadium. The university has a Rayen School of Engineering, which at one time used classrooms in the original Rayen School building. We used to walk down Wick Avenue from Youngstown State to downtown past the original Rayen School, which serves as the home of the Youngstown Board of Education.

So who was Judge William Rayen? Born in Kent County, Maryland October 1, 1776, he and his wife, Margaret Caree Rayen operated a mercantile in Westmoreland, Pennsylvania from 1796-1799.  They moved to Youngstown by 1802 or earlier, and so qualify as early settlers. The first Youngstown township meeting to elect township officials was held in Rayen’s home on April 5, 1802. He operated a tavern and mercantile at Spring Common, near where the B & O Railroad station was eventually located.

He fought in the War of 1812 as a colonel in the First Regiment, Third Brigade of the Western Reserve. Returning to Youngstown, he filled various township positions including township clerk, postmaster (running the post office out of his store), and eventually an associate judge on the Trumbull County bench (before Mahoning County was a separate county). In 1840, the state legislature appointed him as president of the board of public works for the state. He was a director of the Pennsylvania and Ohio Canal Company, a stockholder in the Cleveland and Mahoning Railroad Company, the first in the valley, and first president of the Mahoning County Bank, the first bank in Youngstown. He owned extensive lands with stables, orchards, and livestock, including merino sheep.

Both of William and Margaret’s children died in infancy, and Margaret died in 1826. In later life, he was often seen sitting on a bench under a large tree in front of his home, hands folded on top of a gold-headed cane. He would talk to whoever came by and one account says he was often surrounded by young people who felt free to discuss their problems with him.

He regretted that he had not had more opportunities for education in his youth and was concerned about educational opportunities being available to the poorest youth. When he passed in 1854 it was learned that he had left a bequest that came to $31,390 to establish a public high school in Youngstown, the first in the city. In his will, he wrote:

“As this school is designed for the benefit of all youth of the township, without regard to religious denominations or differences, and none may be excluded for such or the like reasons or grounds, I hereby prohibit the teachings therein of the peculiars religions, tenets, or doctrine, of any denomination or sect whatever; at the same time I enjoin that no others be employed as teachers than persons of good moral character and habit who by precept and example will instill into the minds of those under their charge the importance of industry, morality, and integrity in all the relations of life.”

In an era where schools were sectarian, and excluded those who did not subscribe to a particular faith, Rayen was forward-looking in making educational opportunity open to all without distinction. Dying childless, he made the children of Youngstown his heirs.

Rayen School

The Rayen School as it appeared shortly after it opened.

In 1866, the vision behind his bequest was realized when The Rayen School opened at Wick and Wood Street. Over time, the building was added to but still stands today as a tribute to the vision of Judge William Rayen. The words “Industry, Morality, Integrity became the motto of Rayen High School. In 1923, the high school moved to Cora and Benita until it closed in 2007. The stadium lives on and has been renovated, with the field being named the Jack Antonucci Field, in honor of a Rayen alumnus. The name “Rayen” lives on throughout the city, reminding us of this city father and his vision for public education.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Dr. James B. Birch

James B Birch

Photo from The Vindicator, December 25, 1978, accessed from Google Newspaper Archives

A few weeks ago, I wrote about times when we were sick as children. Among the Facebook comments I received, several mentioned doctors who made house calls when they were sick and several mentioned the doctor who was my pediatrician, Dr. James B. Birch. When I was writing the post, I was trying to remember if he made house calls. When some others mentioned him coming to the house with his black physician’s bag, it all came back–laying on the living room sofa while he examined me, giving me a shot or some medicine from his bag and writing out a prescription for more. How different medical care was just 50 years ago!

My other memories of Dr. Birch had to do with visits to his office, located on the North side at the corner of Wick and Illinois. It wasn’t one of these sterile medical suites you visit today. It was a house. I remember a waiting area with these wood toys, children’s size chairs, a receptionist, and a dog. His exam room was in the back. I remember a table you would climb up on, some diagrams of the human body on the walls, and this gentle man who treated you like the most important person in the world. I never feared going to the doctor’s office, and there was even a time early in my life when I wanted to be a doctor. I think Dr. Birch had a good deal to do with that.

I wondered what became of him, and what more I could learn about his background. It was hard to find much but I did locate a Vindicator article from December 25, 1978 on Google’s newspaper archives, on his retirement when he was nearly 77 years old and had practiced medicine for 50 years. From it I learned that he was born in 1902 in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. He moved to Springfield, Ohio, where his father was a college philosophy professor at Wittenberg College. He graduated from Wittenberg and studied medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. He had a sister living in Warren and interned at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital. This was followed by residencies in pediatrics in Philadelphia and at the University of Cincinnati before returning to Youngstown for good.

His first office was on Lincoln Avenue and later he was in the old Butler house on Wick Avenue before moving to the Wick and Illinois house that would serve as his office for the last thirty years of his career. The article mentions the wood toys, which came from the Swartz Toy Shop in New York City, and were still in use as he ended his practice. There was a coat rack made by a customer with wooden dogs at the base, mobiles, a facsimile of Snow White and pictures of ducks. At his retirement, he had a cockapoo. All I remember was the toys and the dogs.

The article speaks of the advances in medicine during his years of practice. In the early years, he saw many polio cases. I would have received my first polio vaccination from him. Similarly, he saw vaccines introduced for all the other childhood diseases except chicken pox (for which there is now a vaccine as well). Unfortunately, that was after my time–I had measles, mumps, rubella, and chicken pox.

He sounds like he was progressive in many ways, favoring breast feeding even when it wasn’t fashionable, deploring junk food and sugary drinks, and opposing some of the rigid schedules for mothers and young children that were advocated at one time. He sounds like a paragon of common sense! He was on the Child Guidance Clinic board when it hired its first child psychologist, and the boards of the Speech and Hearing Center and the Crippled Children’s Center, later the Easter Seal Center.

He apparently stayed in the Youngstown area after retirement and passed away on November 1, 1988. He is buried in Tod Homestead Cemetery. Many of us, and probably in some cases our children, were patients of Dr. Birch, and some of us probably owe him our lives. His gentle manner and his child friendly office in a home removed the fear of going to the doctor. Until a few weeks ago I hadn’t thought of him in years. He was also a part of growing up in Youngstown for many of us and represents an era of medical practice that is past, but worth remembering.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Michael Kusalaba Library


Michael Kusalaba Library, Photo courtesy Public Library of Youngstown and Mahoning County. Used with permission.

Those of you who have followed this blog know that I grew up on Youngstown’s West side, and that I am a bookish sort of person. Some of this was due to a mom who was a reader and to inspiring teachers. A good part of this was also due to the hours I spent at the West Side Library as a kid. I wrote recently that when I think of going to a happy place in my mind, the most likely place I would go is a library.

One of the rites of passage in my life was getting my own library card. When I was growing up, the card was printed on cardboard, with your name typed on it by the librarian after completing a handwritten application. I felt a little more grown up when I received that card! It had to be renewed periodically, if you had no overdue books. Having overdue books felt like a sin. I wonder if my Catholic friends ever brought that up at confession!

It was a wonder, though, to walk up Mahoning Avenue the half mile or so from my home on N.Portland and go to my favorite sections, which tended to be sports, science and science fiction, and military history. It was the era of the space program and many of us were fascinated by rockets and space. I’d pick out as many books as you were allowed to check out (I think the number was six) and walk up to the check out desk, present my card, and the librarian would use this photo device and scan my library card and the book’s card, stamp the due date in the book, and I had an armload of books to read!

Later on, we learned how to use card catalogues, and how the Dewey Decimal system worked, and other reference resources so we could find information for reports and papers we needed to write for school. It was another rite of passage when you were allowed to use the “adult” part of the library.

So much for library memories. On trips back to Youngstown, we’d drive past the West Side Library, and apart from new signs, it looked the same from the outside. That is no longer the case. The old West Side Library served its last patrons on April 30, 2016 and was torn down to make way for a sparkling new, larger library on the same site.

A West side neighbor, Michael Kusalaba, and his family helped make that possible. Kusalaba grew up nearby on N. Maryland Avenue (I never knew him) and like me spent many hours at the library growing up, and throughout his life. He had a successful career with Ohio Edison and served as a trustee with the CASTLO Community Improvement Corporation. Before he passed in 2009, he established The Michael Kusalaba Fund with the Youngstown Foundation. On October 9, 2015, the Youngstown Foundation announced its largest gift to date, a $1.68 million gift for the construction of a new West Side library from The Michael Kusalaba Fund. Fittingly, it was decided that the new library would bear his name. The total project was budgeted at $3.775 million, the remainder coming from funding set aside for this purpose. The library operates debt-free.

The new library will open next week on February 14, a Valentine’s Day gift to the West side, and all of Youngstown. A formal dedication will follow on February 24. The new library is larger, at 11,514 square feet. It includes children’s, teen and adult areas, a casual Community Living Room area,  public meeting room, multimedia collections, a Technology Hub, with public access computers and other digital technology. There are self check-out and patron assistance kiosks. It also sounds like there will be an outdoor reading area and a courtyard for public events. A recent gift from the Slanina family sponsored the Community Foyer. Sponsorships of other areas of the library are still available.

The library will be open 10 am to 8 pm Monday through Thursday and 10 am to 6 pm on Friday and Saturday. It will also serve as the base for the library’s “Pop Up” mobile outreach throughout the county.

Michael Kusalaba was a leader in community development and a lover of the library. This facility, which bears his name, will hopefully inspire more new development on the West side. It will also be a place where a new generation of West side children might discover the joys of reading and discovery, and residents of all ages can gather for community events and pursue lifelong learning. I can’t wait to see it myself.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Sick Days From School


A vaporizer like the one we had when I was a kid.

I’m writing from the height of what most are saying is a pretty nasty flu season. Both my wife and I have been sick this past week–either a nasty cold or mild case of the flu (maybe that flu shot helped)–not sick enough to see the doc. And this brought back memories of childhood illnesses.

You remember how it begins. A sore throat. You just want to sleep. everything hurts. Mom looks at you and sees it in your flushed cheeks, and that “peaked” look in your eyes. A feel to the forehead tells her you are warm. The thermometer, an old glass mercury one, confirms it. You’re sick, and you hear those magic words, “you’re not going to school tomorrow.”

Not that you are enjoying it much the first day. Until your fever breaks, you mostly want to sleep. Mom makes you drink a lot. You think you are going to wear a path to the bathroom. She says, “you got to flush all those bugs out of you.” And flush. And flush.

This is one time soup is good. You stop shivering, it makes your throat feel better. Your not so congested. Chicken soup is not just good for the soul. Sometimes mom made chicken bouillon which was so-o-o good on the throat. Most of the time you didn’t feel like eating anything heavy. Maybe the thing that really made you feel better was all that tender loving care.

Night were the worst if your nose was stuffy or you had a cough. Remember Vick’s Vap-o rub? Mom or dad smeared it all over your chest. We used to have a big old glass vaporizer with a reservoir where you put more Vicks. Don’t know if it was the vapor, the Vicks, or the rhythmic sound of the gurgling, but it did help me sleep! (In later years vaporizers fell out of favor because the moist places inside it could harbor bacteria that could make you sicker.)

Usually, there was a day or so where you felt better, your fever was down, but it was too soon to go back to school. Mom said you had to get your ”resistance” back up, and you didn’t want to relapse. That’s when food started tasting good and you could watch all the TV you wanted.

Then that morning came and your parents said you were all better and could go back to school, bearing that written excuse that assured your teacher that you really had a good reason for missing that test and not turning in all that homework. And you found out when you’d take the make-up test, usually harder, and have to turn in all that homework.

Oh well, it was fun, while it lasted…sort of.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Women Workers During World War 2

rosie the riveter

J. Howard Miller, Public Domain

The woman who was the inspiration for the iconic “We Can Do It!” poster, often nicknamed as “Rosie the Riveter,” died this week at the age of 96. Naomi Parker Fraley was the subject of a photograph that inspired Westinghouse artist J. Howard Miller’s inspirational poster, originally designed to boost morale in Westinghouse plants during World War 2. There was actually some controversy about the identity of “Rosie” and this Time article summarizes how they figured out who the real “Rosie” was. The poster went viral, and has come to be an icon for the empowerment of women in the workplace.

Youngstown was one of the “arsenals of democracy” supporting the war effort during World War 2 and there were a number of “Rosies” who contributed to that effort. My mother-in-law was one of them. She often spoke of her work during the war as an inspector with one of the aircraft part suppliers in Youngstown. She wasn’t a riveter, but rather inspected the riveting work of other workers, many of them women. She talked of getting people angry when she’d send an assembly back because of improper rivets. Her attitude was that the boys “over there” depended on them getting it right.

From what I’ve been able to learn, two of the places where aircraft parts were manufactured were General Fireproofing and Steel Door. At Steel Door, they manufactured fuel tanks for the aircraft. I also found this Mashable site with a color photo spread of real life “Rosies” in aircraft manufacturing during World War 2. Unfortunately, there were none from Youngstown.

Women filled the spaces in the workforce opened up by men who went away to serve. The steel mills in Youngstown ran three shifts and prospered during this time and there were a number of positions filled by women. Women filled between 8 and 16 percent of the production positions, particularly in rolling mills, fabrication, finishing, and shop maintenance.

Helena Auguston was one of the contributors to Youngstown State’s Oral History Program. During World War 2 she worked for a year at the Ravenna Arsenal making detonator caps for artillery shells. Then she worked for the remainder of the war at Republic and Copperweld, mostly as a crane operator. Here is a portion of her interview with William M. Kish of her experience:

OH1236 pdf

Screen capture from Helena Auguston interview with William M. Kish

Some, like Helena, returned to homemaking after the war. But many did not. They joined unions and advocated for women’s rights in the workplace. It clearly changed perceptions of what women were capable of doing and began to break down the divisions of work into “men’s work” and “women’s work.” This also began to change relations between husbands and wives as women no longer depended on a male wage earner, and how children were raised.

These women are some of the “unsung heroes” of World War 2. Youngstown played a huge role in the war effort, and women played a significant part in that effort, one that it seems appropriate to remember with the passing of the original “Rosie the Riveter.”

I’d love to hear some of your stories of women in your family who worked in Youngstown area factories during World War 2.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — James A. Campbell


James Anson Campbell. Public Domain

One of the facts I discovered when I wrote last week about the steel strike of 1916 and the East Youngstown riots was that East Youngstown was renamed Campbell in honor of Youngstown Sheet and Tube’s chairman, James A. Campbell. That made me curious about this man who played such a crucial role in Youngstown Sheet and Tube’s early corporate history and left his mark on the Mahoning Valley.

James Anson Campbell was born on September 11, 1854 in Ohltown, a village once located between Austintown and Meander Reservoir. [There is still an Ohltown Road running northwest from Route 46 just north of the center of Austintown out toward the reservoir.] He was expected to die from tuberculosis as a child, but recovered and excelled in baseball and boxing. He went on to study business at Hiram College, sold hardware and furniture and then first became associated with George Dennick Wick at Trumbull Iron Company. The two of them formed Mahoning Valley Iron Company in 1895 with Wick as president and Campbell as superintendent. When Republic Steel took over the firm in 1900, Wick and Campbell resigned, gathered a group of local investors and formed Youngstown Sheet and Tube in 1901 with Wick as the first president. Campbell served first as secretary, then vice president and finally president of the company, beginning in 1904, when Wick’s health failed. Wick later was one of those who died on the Titanic.

As noted above, Campbell was leading Youngstown Sheet and Tube at the time of the 1916 strike and riots that resulted in the destruction of much of East Youngstown. Campbell led the rebuilding efforts, including building worker housing that included indoor plumbing and electricity. In 1922, the village renamed itself Campbell in recognition of his efforts. In 1923, Youngstown Sheet and Tube acquired the Brier Hill Steel Company and the Steel and Tube Company of America near Chicago, making it the fifth largest steel company in the country, just 22 years after its founding.

Campbell set his sights on a merger with Bethlehem Steel in 1931, which would have created the second largest steel company in the country. It was not to be, as other steel makers, particularly Republic Steel, fought the merger. This was not the only adversity Campbell faced during this time. His only son, Louis J. Campbell, who worked as treasurer of the company, was suffering a progressive disease resulting from his service in World War I. Eventually, a leg was amputated and he died just two years after Campbell. Campbell, passed away suddenly from a stroke on September 20, 1933. Funeral services were held at his mansion, Elmcourt, in Liberty Township, and he is buried in Tod Homestead Cemetery.

According to a 2004 Vindicator article, the wealth Campbell acquired was rapidly dissipated, and nothing of it remains today. Campbell earned upwards of $250,000 a year, but was better at acquiring wealth than building and preserving it. Campbell spent significant amounts in legal bills in the fight for Bethlehem Steel, and lost money on his investment in the Youngstown City Club. Unlike multi-generational families who lived off of the earnings from principle that was preserved and built from generation to generation, the Campbell fortune of $407,272 at his death was rapidly burned through. Some was due to the death of Campbell, his wife and son within two years of each other. Heirs lived lavishly, but none was able to remain married. The Depression resulted in a sell off of assets, often at a fraction of their former value. Susan Lopez, a great granddaughter of Campbell observed that this axiom about wealthy families was true of hers: “It takes three generations to burn through a family fortune: One generation to make it, one to enjoy it and one to spend the last of it.”

In some ways, Campbell’s personal fortune paralleled that of the company he built. Both lasted about two generations. It’s an interesting question to ask whether there is any connection, and not one I’ve had the chance to research in detail. Just as the family failed to preserve and grow the principal of its wealth, did the company fail to preserve and grow its “principal” in the business decisions that were made? How, if at all, did Campbell contribute to that? Interesting questions for a researcher.

Nevertheless, Campbell did something quite striking in leading a startup to become the fifth largest steel maker during his lifetime, and nearly making it the second. He left his name to a village and built some of the best worker housing in the country. It was his mills that lit much of the Mahoning Valley at night. Perhaps he is a reminder that even the greatest among us cannot do it all.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — 1916 Steel Strike and East Youngstown Riots


William Gropper, “Youngstown Strike” 1937, Butler Institute of American Art

This past week was significant in Youngstown working class history. On January 7, 1916, a steel strike against Youngstown Sheet and Tube descended into tragic violence. A crowd of strikers and their wives had gathered on Wilson Avenue by bridge at the north entrance to the plant to prevent “scabs” from entering. Stories vary as to how the tragedy unfolded. Either rocks were thrown or a shot was fired from the crowd toward the security forces protecting the entrance to the plant. Then guards fired into the crowds. When the shooting was done 3 were dead and at least 27 injured.

This was only the beginning. Workers broke into company headquarters, burning records, looking for “blacklists” of union organizers target for violence. The enraged workers then turned their anger on local businesses, looting and destroying nearly 100 business blocks and residences in East Youngstown (present day Campbell) with losses in excess of $1 million dollars. Two thousand National Guard troops were called in to restore order.

Hundreds of rioters were arrested and many drew prison sentences. Workers were blamed but records do not show where those arrested worked. There were rumors of foreign agents and union instigators, none proven. A fascinating detail was that the grand jury that returned indictments against the rioters also indicted heads of the major steel companies (the strike involved not just Youngstown Sheet and Tube, but U.S. Steel, Brier Hill, and Republic Steel).

What led to this outbreak? The strike, which began on December 27, 1915 was over wages. Despite a thriving economy with wartime manufacturing, wages had been cut 9 percent the previous year and unskilled labor earned just 19.5 cents per hour. Growth of the industry had led to crowded housing, and these costs and the cost of living left most families earning less than it cost to live. The workers had asked for a wage of 25 cents an hour, time and a half overtime, and double overtime for Sundays.

The irony? Hours before, company leaders had announced a wage increase to 22 cents an hour, which went into effect after the riots. But other changes followed. Youngstown Sheet and Tube helped rebuild East Youngstown and built better worker housing that included electricity and indoor plumbing when outdoor facilities were the norm. The village was eventually renamed Campbell after James A. Campbell, chairman of Youngstown Sheet and Tube.

Not all was sweetness and light. Wages rose and fell with the economy but did not progress over the next twenty years. Another violent confrontation occurred twenty-one years later in the “Little Steel Strike” of 1936-37. Artist William Gropper visited Youngstown during the strike and published sketches and an article in The Nation. He painted Youngstown Strike during this time, but what it depicted was the events of 1916. The painting is part of the collection at the Butler.

To write of these strikes is to write of events from another time before my own. Strikes during my growing up years did not have the violence of these early confrontations. Mostly, it was an unexpected vacation at first, and increasing belt tightening when unions and management couldn’t reach settlements. Guys made ends meet by painting houses and other handyman work. Until Black Monday.

We are unquestionably in a different time. Philosopher George Santayana famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The violence of 1916, inexcusable on all sides, reminds us of the consequences when there are tremendous disparities between wealth and poverty and hard working people cannot earn enough to live. It seems at least to some extent Youngstown Sheet and Tube learned that they had to make workers’ situations livable. Will today’s companies remember these lessons from the past? Or will they repeat them?