Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — John Young


John Young Memorial, photo by Jack Pierce. (CC BY-SA 2.0) via Flickr

Did you know that Youngstown gets its name from the first European-American to settle on and acquire the land?  Youngstown is literally “Young’s Town.” Sure, you knew that! That’s Youngstown history 101. What was interesting to me was to find out a bit more history about Young. Along the way, I discovered that his presence, on and off for under six years, was sufficient to shape the early contours of the city, still evident to this day, and to attract one of the key early settlers who helped found the city. I also discovered that there is some controversy about whether Young really is Youngstown’s first settler.

According to biographical information provided by Charles Young, a son of John Young to the Mahoning Valley Historical Society in 1875, John Young was born in 1763 in Petersborough, New Hampshire and moved to Whitestown, New York, about 1780. He married Mary Stone White in 1792. He moved to the Ohio lands in 1796, building a log cabin on the northeast bank of the Mahoning River near Spring Common. In 1797, he began the settlement of Youngstown, purchasing a township of 15,560 acres from the Connecticut Land Company for $16,085.16, with the establishment of the city being recorded in 1802. In 1799, his family moved to Youngstown and were there until 1803, when health concerns for Mary led them to return to New York. During his time in Youngstown he laid out the first plats of the city including Federal Street, Central Square, North, (now Wood) Street and South (now Front) Street, town lots and larger farm-size plats. After returning to Whitestown, he was involved in various public works in upstate New York until his death in 1825.

On Young’s first trip into the area, he and his surveyor Alfred Wolcott were reputed to have met up with Colonel James Hillman, who sighted smoke from a fire the Young party had set as he was canoeing up the Mahoning from Beaver, Pennsylvania. Young persuaded Hillman to join him for a “frolic” that evening (with an exchange of skins for whiskey). That supposedly led to Hillman deciding to settle in Youngstown. Hillman became Youngstown’s first constable, and later, during the war of 1812 led a militia that defended the area against Indian attacks. He later served as a representative in the state legislature, and is probably worthy of a post to more fully tell his story!

No one will dispute that John Young did not permanently reside in the town that bears his name. But did he actually settle there? Howard C. Aley, in A Heritage to Share, introduces a letter from a descendent of Daniel Shehy, one of the first to buy land from Young (1000 acres for $2000) and settle in Youngstown. He contends that it is Daniel Shehy, and not John Young, that built that first log cabin along the Mahoning and that Young did no more than travel back and forth between New York and Youngstown. There is evidence of a dispute between the two men over the land purchase, which in the end meant that Shehy only acquired 400 rather than 1000 acres. Might that help account for the conflicting narratives?

Whether Shehy played a larger role than most of the histories narrate will probably remain disputed. Sheehy was definitely one of the first to purchase land from Young. What is beyond question is that Young was involved in the surveys that gave shape to Youngstown, it was Young who purchased the land and sold it to Shehy and others and for this alone deserves a singular place in Youngstown history as that man who gave the city its name and had the vision of a thriving city on the banks of the Mahoning. 

[After writing this post, I heard from two Shehy descendents. In researching the article, I came across two spellings of the name, Sheehy and Shehy. I used the wrong one and have now corrected it. It is “Shehy.”]


Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Inspiring Teachers


Scanned photo of Norman Erickson. Source, 1972 Lariat (photographer unknown)

Believe it or not, kids in many communities will be starting back to school in the next few weeks. In elementary school, we would always stand around outside on the first day of school, waiting for the bell to ring, and asking each other who we were going to have for a teacher and wondering what he or she was like. Some kids would always have the “down low” and could tell you who was interesting, fun, or mean. Then the bell rang, and there was the moment of truth. You took your seat, the teacher took the role and you started figuring out just what kind of year it was going to be.

I’ve been thinking about inspiring teachers recently because of a book I’m reading that talks about the beauty of math. It brought back memories of Mr. Erickson, who taught algebra, geometry, and computer science at Chaney. I didn’t always enjoy math, but I enjoyed his classes because he enjoyed math. He’d come up with great illustrations, sometimes corny, as when he used the imaginary friend “Harvey” to talk about imaginary numbers.

That set me to thinking about all the inspiring teachers I’d had during my years of school. It all begins with Mrs. Smith, who taught first grade at Washington Elementary. She taught me how to read, opening up worlds of wonder I continue to explore to this day. Mrs. Vidis was tough and strict as my fifth grade teacher. I could be lazy at times and she pushed me to do my best when I was willing to settle for “OK.” I had terrible handwriting. It is marginally better today because of Mrs. Vidis. In sixth grade, Mrs. Welch opened my eyes to the world. I still remember a mock United Nations unit we did, and having to learn about so many countries. She made world affairs and geography come to life.

Miss Stephenson taught music at West Junior High, and I think it was here that I realized how much I liked choral singing. I’m only sorry that I was too busy being “macho” to admit it until much later in life. Mr. Crann taught English and I remember how hard he worked to help us express ourselves clearly and to inspire us with great ideas. It was in his class that I first encountered William Ernest Henley’s “Invictus” with its closing verse:

It matters not how strait the gate, 
      How charged with punishments the scroll, 
I am the master of my fate, 
      I am the captain of my soul. 
When Mr. Crann read it, he made it sound like the anthem of his life. Perhaps it was.

I’ve already written about Mr. Erickson, my high school math teacher. I also remember science teachers like Mr. Tanoff  in Chemistry and Mr. O’Connor in physics. Mrs. Stamler was a young English teacher who introduced us to the classics and helped us relate what we were reading to our own lives. Miss Foster taught an innovative Art of the Motion Picture class that taught us to really watch rather than passively enjoy a film. Mrs. Bisciglia and Miss Kemp both taught me about writing, mostly through a lot of red ink!

I went on to Youngstown State for college. Dr. Mark Masaki in psychology (my major) was always the toughest but whether we were talking about the uses and abuses of statistics, behaviorism, or neurophysiology, he pushed you, made you think, and brought his “A game” to every class. Dr. Leslie Domonkos made history interesting for the first time in my life and it has been ever since. Dr. James Houck in English did the same thing. I only took his class in the Romantic period of English lit because my girlfriend (now my wife) was and I still love the works of Coleridge, Wordsworth, and T. S. Eliot because of him. He also led a discussion group over Lent one year on the works of C. S. Lewis who I was just then discovering.

Our parents sent us to school because they wanted us to have a better life than they did. It will be an interesting question on the other side of eternity as to who really has had the “better” life. What I do know is that I was inspired and enriched by a number of teachers along the way who taught me not only how to do things, but also helped me understand the world I live in and delight in it. They helped me ask big questions and aspire to high standards. As I remember them there are two words that summarize my feelings toward all these men and women who passed along to me their passion for what they loved:

Thank you.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Chevy Vega


1971 Vega Hatchback Coupe, Public Domain via Wikipedia

Youngstown and the Chevy Vega were inextricably connected. Over 2 million Vegas were manufactured between 1971 and 1977, most of them at the Lordstown Assembly plant. It was one of the early subcompacts and a more stylish rival to the Ford Pinto, which had its own problems with gas tank fires and explosions during rear end collisions.

The Vega was named 1971 “Car of the Year” by Motor Trend and “best economy sedan” in 1971, 1972, and 1973 by Car and Driver magazine. By the standards of the day, it handled nimbly, got great gas mileage, and was more comfortable than imports and inexpensive, selling for a base price of $2090 in 1971.

Very quickly though, problems emerged. The biggest had to do with its aluminum engine block, which combined with a poor cooling system and leaking valve seals, tended to self-destruct unless meticulously cared for. The other major problem was a body that suffered from rust proofing and body design deficiencies. The road salt of northeast Ohio winters ate Vegas up. If you had a Vega for more than a few years, you had a rusty Vega.

I really only had one encounter with a Chevy Vega. It was a lime-olive green “kammback” (they made hatchbacks, notchbacks, and panel express wagons as well). A friend who was flying to Fort Lauderdale lent it to four of us to drive down and back to Lauderdale during spring break. It was cramped, particularly with all our luggage. It was really hard to get comfortable enough to sleep on the way, unless you were driving through rural Georgia in the middle of the night. That’s when I started drinking my coffee black and strong. We did have to stop frequently to check the coolant and oil and add some–which meant waiting for the radiator to cool because there wasn’t an overflow tank in the early models. But it was fun to drive and it got us there in back without breakdowns and in one piece.

The assembly line processes introduced at Lordstown to manufacture the Vega contributed greatly to the plant’s reputation for labor problems. Using automation and teams with an extra man (allowing for rest) the plan was to manufacture 100 Vegas an hour. Workers needed to complete tasks that once took a minute in 36 seconds. Then management transferred from Chevrolet and Fisher Body to General Motors Assembly Division, which cut the fourth man and laid off workers. The result was a wildcat strike lasting a month in 1972, and frequent grievances.

Studs Terkel, in his book Working, interviewed Gary Bryner, President of Local 1112 of the United Auto Workers. Recently, NPR featured his recordings in a story, ” ‘Working’ Then and Now: ‘I Didn’t Plan to Be a Union Guy’ ” Bryner talks about the “Unimate,” the preying mantis-like robots used on the line that never got tired or sweat or had a bad day. Here is what he said it was like for the guys who worked under this regime:

“That’s right. You know, they use the stopwatches, and they say, look; we know from experience that it takes so many seconds to walk from here to there. We know that it takes so many seconds to shoot that screw. We know the gun turns so fast and screw’s so long and the hole’s so deep. We know how long it takes, and that’s what that guy’s going to do.

And our argument has always been, you know, that’s mechanical. That’s not human. Look; we tire. We sweat. We have hangovers. We have upset stomachs. We have feelings, emotions, and we’re not about to be placed in a category of a machine.”

Popular Mechanics ran a story in 2010 about “How the Vega Nearly Destroyed GM” which points to problems in how the car was designed and the hostile divisions within GM’s corporate headquarters as the real issue behind the car’s problems. I think that makes good sense. I’ve had several friends who worked at Lordstown, and all of them cared about what they did and simply wanted to do good work, make good money, and provide for their families. The fact that they built nearly 2 million Vegas, and a number of other good vehicles since (and all they could do is build what the designers and engineers came up with) speaks to the accomplishments and capabilities of the working class in the Mahoning Valley, whatever may be the future of manufacturing.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Joseph G. Butler, Jr.


Joseph G. Butler, Jr., Author Unknown. Source: The Youngstown Telegram. Public Domain-US, via Wikipedia

I visited the Columbus Museum of Art on Friday. One of the reasons was to see the actual painting of “Morning Drive” by Christopher Leeper, about which I wrote in an earlier post, “The View From Home.” Leeper’s painting is the view of downtown and the Valley from the corner of Mahoning Avenue and North Portland, where I lived. It is in an exhibit of the Ohio Watercolor Society until September 10, and captures the view that is in my mind’s eye when I think of looking down Mahoning Avenue toward town on a cold and clear winter morning.

The visit to this museum, which has been expanded in recent years, reminded me what a treasure Youngstown has at the Butler Institute of American Art, which easily goes toe to toe with the Columbus, in a far bigger city. For one thing, from its establishment, admission to the Butler has always been free, in comparison to what we paid for admission (even with AAA discount) plus the add-on fee for a special show plus parking. It reminded me of the gift Joseph G. Butler, Jr. gave to the city, and the wider art world in establishing this museum and generously funding it upon his death. And so it made me wonder a bit more about the man behind the museum.

I discovered he was a multi-faceted individual:

He was a pioneer steel-maker. Butler’s father and grandfather were iron manufacturers and blast furnace experts and Butler brought this to Youngstown and facilitated the transition to steel manufacturing. He joined Henry Wick in organizing the Ohio Steel Company, building two Bessemer plants along the Mahoning River, which later became the Ohio Works of Carnegie Steel, later U.S. Steel. His industrial leadership formed the core of his wealth and led to directorships on numerous boards including that of Youngstown Sheet and Tube and the Youngstown and Suburban Railway Company.

He was a dedicated civic leader. He led the fund-raising drive that established St. Elizabeth’s Hospital and worked with the Niles Board of Trade to establish the McKinley Memorial for William McKinley, a classmate of his during his youth in Niles and friend. He also donated monies for libraries and a number of other community institutions.

He was a collector of American art. Butler realized that the works of American artists were overshadowed by those from Europe. He assembled a significant collection in his Wick Avenue home, much of which was lost in a 1917 fire. Plans had already been laid for the Butler, a museum to house his collection, which opened in 1919. When he died in 1927, most of his $1.5 million estate was bequeathed to the Butler.

I found two other interesting aspects to Butler as well.

He was a political insider. His prominence and wealth as a national leader in industry gave him access to most of the presidents of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. He was a staunch Republican, and his support was considered indispensable in any national campaign.

He was a historian. Amazingly, this busy man had the time to write a biography of McKinley, a memoir titled Presidents I Have Seen and Known, a history of steel-making, and a three volume History of Youngstown and the Mahoning Valley, which has been digitized and may be downloaded here. His other works are also in digital form and came up on this search result.

Thriving cities do so, I’m convinced, because they enjoy dedicated, competent, and honest leadership from three sectors: civic, political, and business. Butler represented all three and a number of the bright spots in the city from its hospitals to its libraries to the Butler are a consequence of his influence. His foresight in recognizing the dearth of talented American artists works being represented in museums led to establishing what is arguably the foremost museum of American art in the country. His careful historical writing provides a bedrock of historical information about his times, and our hometown. The impact of his philanthropy continues to make its mark in the Mahoning Valley nearly 100 years later.

While times have changed, communities will continue to need men and women who use the benefits of wealth, access, education, and leadership skills for the benefit of their communities. People like Joseph G. Butler, Jr. and Volney Rogers are worth the study of contemporary community leaders in Youngstown. Both invested nearly 50 years of their lives in Youngstown, around the same time. One gave us a world class museum. The other, a jewel along Mill Creek. Whose investment in the Valley will make a difference in the next century?


Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Grandpa’s Garage


Memories of other times, Photo by Bob Trube (c) 2017.

There were several summers where my dad was commuting between Youngstown and Baltimore, and it was a help to my mom for me to spend part of the summer with my grandpa and grandma Trube. Recently, we were at an antique mall and saw the scene in the photo, and it brought memories flooding back of one of my favorite things at my grandparents.

My grandpa’s garage was not only the place where he sheltered one of his Chevys, but it was also a fascinating museum of odds and ends. Yes there were oil cans and tobacco cans like the picture. There garden and lawn tools, a workbench, and that faint smell of gas and oil and grease.  And pinned or hanging on the walls were all sorts of memorabilia from all the places he and my grandmother had traveled to. Soap from a motel. A placemat from a restaurant, a matchbook from another. A tourist brochure from Knott’s Berry Farm. A program from a baseball game. A fold-out map from a gas station. There were old license plates from different vehicles he’d owned. Sometimes, I’d just go in there and ask him about one object after another, fascinated with the interesting life he’d led.

When he got tired of answering my questions, he’d find a tennis ball, and we throw the ball back and forth in the driveway. I had coke bottle glasses and not the greatest eye-hand coordination and over those times, I got better, even while I imagined myself as my pitching hero, Sandy Koufax.

At other times, he would back up his Chevy Impala out of the garage, and we would wash the car together. Mostly, he let me wash the wheels and scrub the white wall tires and scrub the chrome while he washed and polished the body. Then we’d stand back together and he would say something like, “looks like new.” He loved his cars and loved to drive. I went on my first real trips with him, to Pittsburgh to see the Pirates at Forbes Field, and, one summer, to Gettysburg.

Usually when we were done, we were thirsty. I think my grandpa probably had a beer while my grandmother served up some of her ice cold homemade lemonade. Whatever we had sure hit the spot.

Those were wonderful summers, too few to be sure before first my grandmother, then my grandfather passed. It’s funny how memory works, how a display of old stuff in an antique store brings memories of over fifty years ago flooding back. My grandfather’s garage was a window into his life, and a place of companionship where I got to know my father’s father. In one sense, it was nothing special, yet it meant the world. Grandpa’s garage.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — City Parks

Ipes Field Ruins 5

“Ipes Field Ruins 5” courtesy Mark Hackett. Used with permission.

I used to basically live at Borts Field during my early teen years, and I was there nearly all year round. Once I and my buddies had gotten too big for the playground at the old Washington School, we’d go up to Borts and play pick up games of baseball in the spring and summer. Occasionally, if there was no room at Borts, we’d go over to Kochis Park which was nearby at Florence and North Lakeview.  When it was hot we’d spend afternoons, and sometimes mornings at the free swims at Borts Pool. In the evenings, we’d hang out watching baseball games and run over to Zitello’s for a pop between innings.

Later on, I played in a fast-pitch softball league of churches in the Youngstown area. We played at a number of the city parks including Ipes Field, Pemberton, and I believe Gibson and Homestead Parks, as well as many games at Rocky Ridge.

One summer, I met some girls from school, one who I was pretty interested in, who played tennis on the Borts Field tennis courts (one concrete and one clay). So I took up tennis, an interest which lasted longer than our interest in each other. Speaking of girls, Borts Field, on the hill overlooking the pool, was the site of my first kiss (a different girl, not the tennis player). That relationship didn’t last long either.

When the weather turned cool it was time for touch football, when the field was marked for football. That was probably the hardest time on my clothes–I’d often come home muddy. Then we moved on to basketball. I was never very good at this–not a good dribbler for one thing. Mostly, I’d pass the ball to someone who was a good shot.

Winter found me on the tennis courts again. The parks cover them with water so they would freeze over and we could ice skate. That’s where, after many falls, I learned to ice skate.

There were parks all over the city of Youngstown, in addition to Mill Creek Park. Crandall and Wick Parks on the North Side are perhaps the most scenic. Pemberton on the South side was a great place as well, with a tree-surrounded pool as I remember. My wife grew up across the street from Ipes Field, which also had a baseball field and stands (now crumbling as grown over as the above picture attests). In later years they installed tennis courts and my wife and I would play sometimes when we came back to visit her mother.

We both remember summer programs for kids at the parks. There were crafts, games, and even plays they would put on at the end of the program for the parents. I never actually participated but heard about it from other kids.

Much has changed over the years. Some places are crumbling. Mark Hackett, who allowed me to use the picture of Ipes Field, has albums of photos at the “Cool Stuff Long-Gone Near Youngstown, Ohio” Facebook page, including similar photos at Oakland, Stambaugh, Tod, and Gibson Fields. I suspect many of these had been built as WPA projects during the Depression. At the same time, the city continues to maintain a number of facilities throughout the city, according to this list on their website.

I would love to hear about the city parks you grew up playing at and your favorite memories.  If you are like me, you probably have lots of them!

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Summer Storms


Photo by Boboshow, CC0 Public Domain

You remember the feel of the air. Sultry. Stifling humidity. Calm. Kind of a funny color to the sky. Rumbles in the distance. An onrush of dark clouds from the west. Sometimes it almost seems like night is descending. There is a sudden freshening of the wind, sometimes from complete calm to almost gale force. Then a brilliant flash, sometimes with almost a hot, hissing sound followed by a tremendous crash of thunder that makes you leap out of your skin. Then you remember, if you heard the thunder, the lightening didn’t hit you. Driving rain, where roads turn into rivers, almost blinding on the windshield, or to someone like me wearing glasses out of doors.

Summer storms. They could be terrifying when you were a kid. I remember one night when I was out with my dad and we arrived home amid a crashing storm. Our garage was detached, about thirty feet from our house. I didn’t want to budge for fear. My dad said “I’ll take care of you.” and sheltered me under his arm as we ran for the house. Only later in life did I realize he couldn’t really protect either of us if lightning had struck. But in the moment I felt safe–and obviously we did make it.

We lived on Portland Avenue, off of Mahoning, about halfway down the hill that runs from Belle Vista to Steel Street, that looks eastward toward downtown and the north and east sides. So storms from the west came from over the hill so we didn’t so much see them coming as heard the rumbles of thunder, and saw the darkening skies. Late in life, my parents lived at Park Vista Retirement Community with windows facing west looking across the valley. We could watch the storms come across the valley toward the north side, an even more awesome sight.

When the storms were coming and you were at home, there was always the mad dash to close the windows, except maybe on the east side of the house so the rain wouldn’t come in. Mom would be very unhappy if rain stained the curtains, and she always worried the lightning could travel along a draft in the house (actually the greatest danger inside the house is talking on a landline phone during a storm–something that may soon be a thing of the past).

When a front was moving through, the storms brought relief from the heat and humidity, and it was refreshing to come outside and find the sky a clear blue as the haze and pollution had been washed from the air. At other times, the storms were of the “pop up” variety when heat and humidity made for unstable air. Usually, if anything, it was worse afterwards when the sun came out and you felt like you were in a steam bath.

We always worried a bit during storms about the big silver maple next door, that it would come crashing into our house during a wind storm. I would stare at it sometimes, trying to figure out if it would fall toward our house. All I know is that it never did, although there were often branches to clean up. Eventually it was cut down. The worst thing that happened was when part of the cherry tree next door fell into our driveway–but there were some ripe cherries on it!

Sometimes the storms would come at night. First you would see the heat lightning but wouldn’t hear anything. Was it really going to storm, or was it just the heat. And sometimes it didn’t as storms went another direction. But sometimes heat lightning was followed by brighter flashes and thunder. You counted the time between the flash and the sound–One-Mississippi–Two Mississippi, etc. Every five seconds was about a mile. And that told you how far away it was. When it got down from five or less, it was definitely time to find shelter (actually we probably should have sooner–lightning can strike from up to 10 miles away and experts say that any time thunder follows lightning within 30 seconds, you should seek shelter).

Storms can be terrifying if you are not in a safe place. But they can also be things of wonder. Driving in a place with a view, and sometimes you can see the arc of lightning across the miles, lighting up the tumultuous clouds. Sometimes, snug in bed during a storm at night, it can be almost cozy, as one sees the flashes, hears the rumbles, and the sound of rain on one’s roof and against the windows.

It was a stormy day today where I live, and it recalled those stormy days of summers past when winds and rains swept across the valley with strikes and arcs of lightning overhead, and thunder echoing from one side of the valley to the other. In those moments, we remembered how small and vulnerable we really were.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Vanished Homes

The home I grew up in. (Photo taken by Carol E Campbell)

It has been four to five years since I last drove down my home street. At that time, it was clear that a number of houses, including the one I grew up in, were vacant. Siding had been stripped off part of our old house. I had the sinking feeling that I was watching the death of a loved one.

The other day, my sister-in-law wrote to me that the old house was no more, that there was simply a vacant lot where it once stood. Somehow, I knew that was coming. Yet just eleven years ago, in 2006, it was one of the best kept houses on the street. My parents put a lot of love and care into the house they lived in for 65 years in which they raised three children. They finally sold it when health reasons suggested that it was time to move into a retirement community. That it took less than eleven years to destroy that home reflects the tragedy of Youngstown — the depopulation that followed years of corrupt and self-serving political leadership and rapacious industry that took the labor of the city’s workers, took the profits, and left the city desolate. A city of just over 60,000 can’t sustain a housing stock built for 170,000. The truth is empty houses are targets of opportunity, and the natural elements combined with human elements will quickly destroy even the best kept home, once abandoned. At least the city is tearing these homes down.

Yes, I’m angry that this could happen to what was once a perfectly good home. Not that I want to go back — when we’ve moved we’ve given thanks for what the home has meant to us, prayed a blessing over it for those who would follow, and not looked back. We are not going to be knocking on the doors of owners of places we once lived to look around!

But it is sad that the place filled with so many memories is no more. These were some of mine, which I write down against the day I may not remember them or be around to do so!

  • There was the front porch that was the coolest place on many summer evenings–a place of family conversation, listening to Indians games, cold glasses of lemonade, the old metal porch swing.
  • The front door with the button lock in the door that would mean you’d need to use a kitchen knife to get the door open. My mom was really good at that.
  • The living room where we shared so many Christmas mornings around the tree Dad so exquisitely decorated, albeit with lots of cussing and muttering when the lights would tangle or he couldn’t get it to stand straight! My mom always sat in her yellow wing chair, that now sits in our family room, police radio on the table beside her.
  • The dining room, where we shared so many Thanksgiving dinners. Eventually the buffet and table of my grandparents filled the room. I also used to love to listen to the shortwave receiver that was part of the radio/record player console and hear stations from Europe, Canada, and elsewhere.
  • The kitchen, with the old stove and the table around which we shared so many meals, so many stories, political discussions, and sometimes arguments. There was usually a dog dish around, and a dog we’d sometimes slip things from the table.
  • Down the stairs was a basement. I remember the HO slot car layout along one wall that I would spend hours with my friends racing cars. In one corner was my dad’s desk, where he would bring home work, pay bills, and listen to his polkas when they bothered mom. In later years there was a pool table that my son and my father played many games together. We captured a picture of them at it, probably one of the last times they played.
  • Along another wall was an old workbench and table, and above them a pegboard with tools and shelves with baby food jars filled with nails, screws, nuts, bolt, etc. I used to love to tinker there with scrap pieces of wood, making rubber band guns. The furnace and water heater were in the middle of the basement. The washer on another wall with laundry tubs. They never bought a dryer, hanging clothes on the clothes lines strung back and forth from the basement rafters. In one corner where our front and side walls met was a coal cellar, from the days when the house was heated by a coal furnace. It was where summer stuff was stored in winter, along with Christmas decorations, and other odds and ends, including an old Western Flyer bike we rehabbed for me.
  • We had three bedrooms upstairs and I slept in one or the other at some time in my life. My parents was on one side of the front, and I had a small bed there in my early years. I moved to the back bedroom to make room for my sister. I used to love looking out the window where I could see downtown. I had a battery powered electricity kit, and later built contraptions with an Erector set. Finally, when my brother married, I moved to the other front bedroom that had more space. This was where I had the stereo I bought where I would listen to WDVE from Pittsburgh and would play rock music as loud as my parents would let me.
  • There was a light in the hallway we left on at night, under which the dog usually slept. Across from it was a bookcase filled with encyclopedia volumes where I could explore the world for hours on indoor days. That bookshelf, though not the encyclopedias, is just to my left as I write this post.
  • Outside was the garage, which my dad and his father-in-law put up on supports while they built a foundation, filled it in and raised it 4-5 feet. I can only imagine how hard they worked to do that. What I most remember about that garage was that one or the other of us was always breaking windows, until dad made me replace and repair them myself. Somehow, I didn’t break any more after that.

I feel like I’m just getting started. We were a real family in that house, with all sorts of ups and downs, many good memories, and some not so good, but all part of the fabric of my life. Yes, it saddens me that the structure is not there and that this is a story that has been repeated numerous times in many good places around the city. But that house and all the memories we made in it lives on in my mind, in the stories we tell our families about those days, and in the people each of us are. And perhaps the great, good places so many of our homes and neighborhoods were might offer hope to those homesteading in the city, and trying to rebuild parts of the city. May they make many new and good memories in those places!

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Summer Camps


Some campers at Camp Fitch. Ckondas [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Did you ever grow to summer camp when you were growing up in Youngstown? I have to admit that this was not a personal experience until my college years when I went to a month long program at a camp in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. But going away for a week or so, living in a cabin with other boys, camp fires, games, crafts, hiking, swimming, overnight tent camping, and the omnipresent camp counselor–those were only stories I heard from friends.

I used to bicycle past the Fresh Air Camp at Wilkinson Avenue and McCollum Road on the edge of Mill Creek Park just above the Lily Pond. I heard this was where “underprivileged” children, particularly from neighborhoods near the industrial heart of the city could come for a week or two of fresh air at this West Side camp upwind from the mills. All I know was that as I cycled past, it looked like the kids were having fun. On the other hand, the camp was surrounded by fences and I always wondered if the fences were for keeping others out, or keeping them in. Either way, I think I was glad to bike away.

The camp had a long history, being started in 1910. In 1919, a bequest from Henry Stambaugh provided significant funding for the camp. I found one recollection of the camp online at “Youngstown Memories” on the MahoningValley.Info Forums from “Mary_Krupa” who wrote,

“I went to Fresh Air Camp for one year in the sixties. I have great memories of the camp and absolutely loved going there. I remember their little library which had some old Nancy Drew books in it that I got to read.

It was a special place.”

I also learned that one of my former anthropology professors at Youngstown State, Dr. John White, served as a co-director of the camp for four seasons and was known as “Big John” (he was a big man) and was loved by the kids. He passed in 2009, and I learned this about him from the online tribute for him.

The camp is still in use, now named Camp Challenge. It is operated by Alta Head Start as a recreational camp for children with behavioral and social skill problems.

There were other camps around Youngstown that some of my friends went to in the summer time. The YMCA operated Camp Fitch over in Pennsylvania. Boy Scouts went to Camp Stambaugh. Church friends went to Camp Joseph Badger Meadows or Camp Lambec.

I’m not sure I would have been a great candidate for summer camp. I was (and am) probably much like Susan Cain, the author of Quiet, a book on the gift of being an introvert. In her TED talk, she recounts her own summer camp experience:

“When I was nine years old I went off to summer camp for the first time. And my mother packed me a suitcase full of books, which to me seemed like a perfectly natural thing to do. Because in my family, reading was the primary group activity. I had a vision of 10 girls sitting in a cabin cozily reading books in their matching nightgowns. Camp was more like a keg party without any alcohol. And on the very first day, our counselor gathered us all together and she taught us a cheer that she said we would be doing every day for the rest of the summer to instill camp spirit. And it went like this:”R-O-W-D-I-E, that’s the way we spell rowdie. Rowdie, rowdie, let’s get rowdie.”

But the first time that I took my book out of my suitcase,the coolest girl in the bunk came up to me and she asked me, “Why are you being so mellow?” –mellow, of course, being the exact opposite of R-O-W-D-I-E. And then the second time I tried it, the counselor came up to me with a concerned expression on her face and she repeated the point about camp spirit and said we should all work very hard to be outgoing.

And so I put my books away, back in their suitcase, and I put them under my bed, and there they stayed for the rest of the summer. And I felt kind of guilty about this. I felt as if the books needed me somehow, and they were calling out to me and I was forsaking them. But I did forsake them and I didn’t open that suitcase again until I was back home with my family at the end of the summer.”

Instead of summer camp, I spent summer days cutting lawns for neighbors, making trips to the library and reading on our front porch, the coolest place around our house. When not reading, some of my friends would come over for marathon Monopoly games, or trading baseball cards. Of course there were afternoons at Borts Pool, evening trips to the DQ, and sitting out on the front steps with my friend Jim, solving the world’s problems, or at least trying to figure out girls. Truthfully, I don’t think I ever missed camp, and looking back, I kind of wonder if I would have been a bit miserable.

This series is not just about my memories but the collective memory of those of us who grew up in Youngstown. Others probably have different memories about summer camps than I do. Did you go to camp? Where did you go? What were your best memories? Your worst?

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — “Social” Media

media-998990_1920A friend of mine recently sent an email around with this humorous look at Facebook:

Your morning smile!

For those of my generation who do not, and cannot, comprehend why Facebook exists: I am trying to make friends outside of Facebook while applying the same principles. 

Therefore, every day I walk down the street and tell passersby what I have eaten, how I feel at the moment, what I have done the night before, what I will do later and with whom. 

I give them pictures of my family, my dog, and of me gardening, taking things apart in the garage, watering the lawn, standing in front of landmarks, driving around town, having lunch, and doing what anybody and everybody does every day. 

I also listen to their conversations, give them the “thumbs up” and tell them I like them. 

And it works just like Facebook. 

I already have four people following me: two police officers, a private investigator and a psychiatrist.

–Source unknown

I do suspect that our parents and grandparents probably would have thought our involvement with sharing our statuses, posting our photos, and “liking” and sharing cute little emoticons with others a bit bizarre.

In the past probably the closest we got to social media was listening in on a party line. We didn’t use media to be social unless it was to subject our friends to utter boredom by showing the 400 slides from our last vacation. Often a slide would get stuck, turning the sleep-inducing travel narrative into a blue streak of cuss words. That woke us up!

Social was something we did most of the time face to face rather than through a phone or computer.

Summer evenings were a great time to be social–everyone sat out on their front porches and shared their “statuses” in the form of regular conversation with the neighbors walking by on a trip to the local DQ–the remodeling project in the house, the vacation plans, who was getting married, who was “expecting, or just how hot it was.

Social happened as we sat on the hoods of cars at Handels. It happened when we were hanging around at the pop machine at the local service station. It happened at the neighborhood bar as people talked sports, work, and sometimes about how hard things were in their lives.

Social happened at company and church picnics and family reunions. It happened on the midways of Idora Park and the Canfield Fair. Social happened as neighbors talked over the back fence while working in their gardens. It happened in the driveway as you changed the oil on your car or washed it up on Saturdays.

Social happened at the coffee shop, the mom and pop restaurant with the other “regulars”. It happened at the family grocery, where you knew the butcher, the produce guy, and the cashier. Often, they were all related.

We didn’t post pictures from our local sporting events. We went, we cheered for our team, we enjoyed sitting in the stands during a summer evening game. Better yet, we were on one of the teams, whether a local softball league, or an intramural basketball team or a pickup game of tag football.

We didn’t keep track of the number of “friends” we had. We just had friends. Instead of nearly running into each other staring at the rectangles we carry in our pockets, we waved, smiled, stopped and talked with people we met along the way.  We often had time for unhurried conversations, uninterrupted by buzzes and beeps and “dings.”

It’s funny though. At one time we all would have thought all this social media stuff a bit nutty. And here I am writing all this on a blog. And here you are reading it on a computer, on your phone, perhaps from seeing it on a Youngstown Facebook group. How did that happen?