Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Butler Institute of American Art


Lorinda Dixon [CC BY-SA 4.0], from Wikimedia Commons

The Butler is 100 years old this year! In 1919, the Butler Institute of American Art was dedicated, named after industrialist, author and philanthropist Joseph G. Butler, Jr., who contributed the funds to establish the museum. The original museum building, designed by architects McKim, Mead, and White, is an architectural gem and on the National Register of Historic Places.

Butler always felt that American artists had been overshadowed by those from Europe. As an art lover, he assembled a significant collection at his Wick Avenue home, that he intended would form the beginning of the collection of the museum he envisioned. Much of this was lost in a fire in 1917, but by then, plans for the museum were already underway. In 1919, Butler helped dedicate the first museum in the country devoted to American art.

One of the conditions that Butler set when he established the museum is that it would operate on a pro bono basis, on which it has operated to this day. This sets it apart from many museums (the Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Toledo museums are also free, except for special shows). The Columbus Museum of Art, where I live is free only for members and young children. Adults under 60 pay $14, students and seniors $8 (Sundays are free for all, however). When Butler died in 1927, most of his estate of $1.5 million was bequeathed to the museum, and fittingly, his memorial service was held at the museum.

I first visited the museum as a child, enjoying the collection of Remington works depicting Native Americans and western life. Later, as a college student at adjacent Youngstown State, I loved going over to the museum on class breaks. I discovered that there was such a thing as a “Hudson River School” due to the museum’s collection of these paintings. I’d seen prints of “Snap the Whip” by Winslow Homer on the walls of Washington Elementary. At the Butler, I could sit and study the original. But my favorite, then and now, is Robert Vonnoh “In Flanders Field-Where Soldiers Sleep and Poppies Grow.” I grew up in the Vietnam war era, and the painting symbolized to me both the futility of war and the longing that peace and flourishing would prevail.


Robert Vonnoh, “In Flanders Field-Where Soldiers Sleep and Poppies Grow” [Public Domain] via Wikimedia

We’ve visited the museum several times since and witnessed its growth including the new south wing, The Beecher Center. There is also a new Andrews Pavilion with a gift shop, cafe’, and sculpture atrium. In 2006, the museum also acquired the adjacent property formerly belonging to the First Christian Church, using it as an education and performing arts space. The museum collection now exceeds 20,000 works, which now include works in new digital and holographic media. One of the museum’s major acquisitions in 2007 was Norman Rockwell’s, Lincoln The Railsplitter, previously owned by Ross Perot. They also operate a satellite museum in Trumbull County with its own schedule of shows.

Concurrent with its one hundredth birthday, the Butler is hosting a show titled “100 Years of Printmaking II” that surveys printmaking in America over the last 100 years. The museum offers ongoing educational programs for parents with young children, youth and seniors. Dr. Louis Zona, executive director and chief curator of the museum, offers periodic Sunday afternoon lectures, the current schedule of which may be found on the museum website.

The Butler Institute of American Art is not only a Youngstown treasure. It is an American treasure, displaying the creativity of American artists from every period of our history. Happy one hundredth birthday, and may you see many more!

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — The Warner Brothers

Warner Brothers

The Warner Brothers: Harry, Sam, Albert, and Jack in 1919.

One of Youngstown’s claims to fame is as an early home of the Warner brothers, who established one of the most famous film and entertainment companies in Hollywood. It all began in the Youngstown area.

The Warner family emigrated from Krasnosieic, Poland to escape Cossack persecution of Jews. They changed their name from Wonsal or Wonskolaser upon arrival in the U.S. in 1888, living first in Baltimore. Only the oldest of the four brothers, Harry, was born in Poland, in 1881. Albert and Sam were born in Baltimore, after which the family moved to London, Ontario in the early 1890’s, where Jack was born in 1896. The family moved to Youngstown in 1896, living in Smoky Hollow. Harry opened a shoe repair shop in downtown Youngstown

It was a rough neighborhood, perhaps shaping the driving and competitive nature of Jack Warner, who said of his growing up years, “There was a murder or two almost every Saturday night in our neighborhood, and knives and brass knuckles were standard equipment for the young hotheads on the prowl” (Source: Wikipedia). Jack was briefly in a street gang based at Westlake Crossing.

Sam was the first of the brothers to get into film, working as a projectionist at Idora Park. He then purchased a film projector for $1000, Jack contributing $150. Sam and Albert bought a copy of The Great Train Robbery and showed it at various locations around the area. By 1905, Harry joined them, setting up in nearby New Castle,PA, where they eventually opened two movie houses, the Bijou and the Cascade. Meanwhile, Jack was pursuing a career in vaudeville in the Youngstown area. The other three brothers set up a film distribution company in Pittsburgh, The Duquesne Amusement Company. In 1909, Jack joined the enterprise to set up a second distribution exchange in Norfolk, Virginia. Threatened by the exorbitant fees charged by the Edison Trust (eventually ended in 1915), they sold the business in 1910 for $52,000 and decided to launch their own film production company. Harry and Albert set up offices in New York while Sam went to Los Angeles and Jack to San Francisco.

Their first major film followed their purchase of the rights to My Four Years in Germany on war-time atrocities in Germany. Profits from the film allowed them to set up a studio in Hollywood and they formally incorporated as Warner Brothers Pictures in 1923. During this period of silent film their biggest star was a dog, Rin Tin Tin, hero of a series of movies. In 1925, Sam urged the licensing of Western Electric’s Vitaphone technology, to provide synchronized sound. Sadly, just before the release in 1927 of The Jazz Singer, the first major “talkie,” Sam died of pneumonia.

The profits fueled the success and growth of the Warner Brothers over the next three decades releasing scores of blockbuster films with actors and actresses like James Cagney, Errol Flynn, Humphrey Bogart, Bette Davis and Joan Blondell. Ronald Reagan got his start as an actor with Warner Brothers. As World War 2 approached they released films critical of the rising Nazi threat.

The company also continued to acquire and build theatres and perhaps made their most significant mark on Youngstown with the construction of the Warner Theatre in 1931. The theatre was built in memory of the deceased brother Sam, in a lavish art deco style. After it closed in 1968, it was renovated and re-opened as Powers Auditorium, the home of the Youngstown Symphony. It is now part of the DeYor Performing Arts Center.

Sadly, in later life, the three brothers had a falling out over control of the studios. They agreed to sell the company in 1956, only for Jack to put together a syndicate that secured a controlling interest, appointing himself president. Harry and Jack were estranged and Jack did not attend Harry’s funeral when he died in 1958. Albert, likewise, never spoke to his brother again, dying in 1967. Jack outlived them all, passing in 1978. By this time, the company had expanded into television and the recording industry. In more recent years, they’ve continued to expand into various entertainment media while maintaining a strong position in the film position, including producing the Harry Potter films.

The Warner name and empire traces back to these four brothers who got their start in entertainment and film in Youngstown and gave our city a fabulous performance space that enriches Youngstown cultural life to this day.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — The Top Ten of 2018

Salt springs

Salt Springs, from a painting by Joseph N. Higley, from a photograph taken in 1903, just prior to the springs being covered by railroad fill.

I always find it interesting what other people find interesting. For those who follow my Youngstown posts, three of the top four posts in terms of views were about places and place names around Youngstown and the Mahoning Valley. Two were about catastrophic weather events in Youngstown history and three about people. While I thought a number of you would be interested in some of these posts, the top post, in terms of number of views was a total surprise to me. Rather than keep you in suspense, the top ten Youngstown posts of this year were:

  1. Salt Springs. Most of us think of the road running from the West side up to just south of Warren. But these are real springs that played an important part in the early history of the area.
  2. Brownlee Woods. I trace the history of this neighborhood, where my wife grew up and the farmer and livestock owner after whom it is named.
  3. Great Flood of 1913. Four days of rain left much of downtown and the mills flooded. I describe the damage, and the changes to which this led.
  4. Brier Hill. Before it was a pizza, it was a place, rich in steel-making and ethnic history.
  5. Sandra Lee Scheuer. I remember the young woman from Boardman who was walking to class at Kent State when a National Guardsman’s bullet ended a promising life.
  6. Boots Bell. The iconic voice of rock ‘n roll in the Mahoning Valley died twenty-five years ago but his memory lives on. This was posted just a week ago and probably would have placed higher were it earlier in the year.
  7. Forty Years Ago. You joined my wife and me in celebrating our fortieth anniversary this past June.
  8. N. H. Chaney. My high school bears his name. He was the superintendent of Youngstown schools during booming enrollments and laid the plans for the expansion of the city’s school system.
  9. Where We Came From. This was another “personal” post in which I shared some of the things our family has been learning about how we ended up in Youngstown.
  10. The Great Thanksgiving Snowstorm of 1950. We’re talking about 29 inches of snow! Learn about the storm, and the impact it had in Youngstown and all over the region.

It’s hard to believe we have been having this conversation for over four years and approximately 225 posts on nearly every aspect of Youngstown life. While these were the top ten posts written in the past year, a number of the top posts in terms of views on the blog were actually Youngstown posts from prior years (by the way, the all time top post was an early one on “Cookie Tables“–no surprise!). Thanks for stopping by each week, and adding your own memories and insights. I have loved learning not only through my own research, but through all you share.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Boots Bell

Boots Bell in studio

Boots Bell at WNIO studio. Photo by and courtesy of Leslie Bell Redman

“Yes, indeed, doody-daddy. 

Have yourself a happy!”

Probably everyone who grew up in Youngstown in the ’60’s, ’70’s and ’80’s instantly recognizes these words as the trademark phrase of radio personality Boots Bell. You would hear that rich, buoyant baritone voice and you could feel your spirits rising as you looked forward to him playing your favorite tunes or counting down the top 40.

Boots Bell uniform

Boots Bell in the army. Photo courtesy of Leslie Bell Redman

Boots Bell was born in Cleveland as Ralph R. Bellito on January 22, 1933. He was a Korean War veteran. According to a tribute given by Jim Traficant in the U.S. House of Representatives on October 7, 1993, Boots was wounded several times during that war receiving five bronze stars and a Purple Heart. Boots’ trademark cane came from his service, when he suffered a bayonet wound to the knee.

Boots Bell broke into radio in Fredonia, New York at WBUZ, under the same ownership as WHOT. He came to WHOT in 1959 and became part of a group of disc jockeys known as “The Good Guys” during some of the Golden Years of rock ‘n roll. In fact he was so popular throughout the region that he introduced the Beatles at their concert in Pittsburgh in 1964, broadcast live on WHOT. I remember him on the radio during the afternoons, welcoming us to the “Booter Scooter,” as he called the show. But his on-air persona was only a small part of the memories many of us had of Boots Bell.

Record hop

Boots Bell at a record hop. Photo courtesy of Leslie Bell Redman

If you were at one of the many record hops, or WHOT Days at Idora Park, or one of the fundraisers he emcee’d, you will remember his goatee, his pipe, his cane, big grin, booming voice, and above all, his flashy suits. Leslie Bell Redman, who, with her brother Chris, hosts a Facebook page full of old photographs of Boots Bell, shared this memory about those days:

“My Dad was not only a radio deejay; he was hosting record hops at Idora Park, local high schools or benefit events many nights a week. In those days, he carried two 45 RPM record boxes with him to all of these events, which contained all of the current Top 40 hits of the day. Of course, since the list of songs changed weekly, he had to stay on top of this so he had all of the songs the kids might request. After making a trip to Record Rendezvous each week, he sat at our kitchen table and updated his records in the box against the weekly Tunedex that WHOT circulated. In order to quickly identify the right side of the record, he would use a black Magic Marker and put his initials “BB” on the label. As records were discarded from the box, I would be standing by, hoping to get a couple of new 45’s for my collection. So every time I smell one of those black markers with the stripes on the shaft, it takes me right back to those simpler times. Thanks for those memories, Dad”

Boots Bell was also a communications instructor at Youngstown State, beginning in 1968. Many of us saw him walking around campus, always nattily attired. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, he was also on TV, hosting Dance Party on WYTV, and in the 1970’s a show called What Generation Gap? He continued to work on the air until his death, working at WNIO, WCFT, WNRB, and CD106.  He died on July 15, 1993 of a heart attack.

Many in Youngstown believe Boots Bell ought to be in the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame. For a period, there was a petition drive (now closed) with over 1300 signatures. So far, the folks in Cleveland haven’t seen fit to induct him. Cleveland may be the heart of Rock ‘n Roll, but Boots Bell was its voice, at least in the Mahoning Valley, and I would suggest, one of the most distinctive voices anywhere. Ed O’Neill paid tribute to Bell on the February 8, 2012 episode of Modern Family where he talked of a DJ, “Booker Bell,” who he listened to on drives between Youngstown and Sugarcreek. He even uses one of Boots catchphrases,  “I just rang your bell.”

By the way, you might be curious about the origins of the nickname “Boots.” I asked Leslie Bell Redman who wrote back: “We believe it was from him wearing copper-toed boots as a kid during the depression. It kind of stuck.”

Bell Family

Boots Bell with his children, Chris and Leslie. Photo courtesy of Leslie Bell Redman

Boots Bell really was one of the “Good Guys”–Purple Heart veteran, legendary radio personality, instructor, an inspiration to young people all over the Valley, and a supporter of many charitable causes. Perhaps the greatest measure of someone’s life is how he is remembered by his children. This story from Leslie Bell Redman, apropos of the holiday, says it all.

“My parents split when I was 13, so after that Dad was only in our house through the radio waves. However, he made sure Christmas was special, even if he wasn’t physically there to enjoy it with us.  When my brother and I got up on Christmas morning, we went to the back door and opened it, to find a cassette tape that had Dad’s handwriting on the label. When we popped it into the cassette player, there he was, that booming voice larger than life. He went on to tell us where the first clue was for our annual scavenger hunt. The clues were then spread all over the neighborhood, strung together like holiday lights…. maybe in the crook of a tree or on the neighbor’s fence. Finally, the last clue would take us back to the house, where our big gift was always awaiting us. I still have a little vanity chair that was my big gift one year, and I use it each and every day. The coolest part about this story is that no matter whether it had snowed the night before or not, Dad NEVER left any evidence of footsteps as he spread the string from clue to clue. It is still a mystery to this day how he did that.”

As I wrote this post, I listened to this YouTube clip of Boots on the air on January 1, 1973. It is amazing how something like this can take you back 45 years in a flash. We lost Boots Bell 25 years ago, but to tell his story is to keep the memory alive of one of the most distinctive personalities of the Mahoning Valley. Perhaps it is best to “sign off” as he would.

“Yes, indeed, doody-daddy. 

Have yourself a happy!”


Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Great Flood of 1913


Flooding of Republic Steel Mills along the Mahoning River, Photo from Mahoning Valley Historical Society Archive

The Great Flood of 1913 is an event probably no one reading this remembers. But my grandparents, and those of their generation, talked about it. It rained for four days and nights between March 23 and March 26, 1913. Similar to the Thanksgiving snowstorm of 1950, three different weather systems came together and stalled over the Ohio Valley, blocked by a high pressure system to the east. Flooding occurred throughout Ohio with some of the worst flooding in southwest Ohio and in Columbus. But Youngstown suffered severely as well.

Estimates range between 4.26 inches and 7 to 9 inches of rainfall over the four day period in the Mahoning Valley. Back then there were no reservoirs or flood control measures and so all the water from the tributaries to the Mahoning River caused it to crest at 26.5 feet, 10 feet above the flood stage of 16.5 feet, and 7 feet higher than any previous storm. The peak discharge of the Mahoning River was estimated at 44,400 cubic feet per second.


Youngstown Daily Vindicator map of flooded areas, March 27, 1913

Youngstown is a hilly city, through which the Mahoning River runs. Therefore many areas of the city were spared flooding, but not the low lying areas along the Mahoning River and Crab Creek. Unfortunately, Youngstown’s steel mills were built in the flood plain as well as the railroads that served them. Parts of downtown adjacent to the river were also flooded, including The Vindicator. Flooding destroyed the West Avenue and Division Street bridges, took out the water pumping station and the power station on North Avenue. Ironically, Youngstown was without drinking water in the middle of a flood!


Flooding at the B & O Station, Photo from Mahoning Valley Historical Society Archive

Damage estimates at the time were estimated at $2.5 million in the Youngstown area and over $100 million statewide. Governor Cox mobilized National Guard troops to provide disaster assistance and prevent looting. Youngstown Fire Department personnel played a key role in helping pump water out of the North Avenue power station, enabling power to be restored, and out of the press pit of The Vindicator, allowing the newspaper to resume regular publication. All told, about 25,000 people were temporarily out of work.

Flooding had been a regular occurrence along the Mahoning River. Joseph G. Butler, in his history of Youngstown describes floods as a yearly event, though none as bad as this. Sarah Gartland, of the Mahoning Valley Planning Commission states that there were six major floods between 1880 and 1913. This flood led to major changes. The flooding of the water pumping station ultimately led to moving Youngstown’s water supply to Meander Reservoir. Bridges were designed with higher spans so debris wouldn’t build up and then sweep the bridge away.

Most important was the development of flood control measures along the tributaries to the Mahoning River. In 1973, a flood protection project was completed on Crab Creek. Eventually five dams were built creating reservoirs that helped control the flow of water into the Mahoning–the Milton Dam in 1917, Berlin Reservoir (1941-43), Mosquito Reservoir (1943-1944), Shenango Reservoir (1963-1967), and West Branch (Kirwan) Reservoir (1963-1966). A map showing the locations of these reservoirs can be found in an article by Stan Boney, showing how Youngstown is better prepared to withstand rainfall totals like those experienced in the 1913 flood. The Milton and Berlin Reservoirs work together and reduce flooding on the Mahoning River 3-5 feet.

So when you boat on Milton or one of the other reservoirs, thank the Great Flood of 1913  and hope those engineers are taking good care of those dams. The flood of 1959 (I’ll write about that someday, perhaps) is a once in 43 year event, the flood of 1913 a once in 200 year event. Given some of the extreme weather of recent years, a major rain event is only a matter of time.

While there are no longer the same industries along the Mahoning there once were, anything close to the river, in its flood plain is at risk. Given that the 1913 flood was ten feet over flood stage, and the dams may halve that, it does appear flooding could still occur. The master plan for the Youngstown Riverfront Park and Amphitheater indicates that much of the site is within the 100- and 500-year flood plains of the Mahoning River (the Covelli Center is just outside the 500-year boundaries). Let’s hope planners are taking that into account.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — The Great Thanksgiving Snowstorm of 1950


My father-in-law after the Great Thanksgiving Snowstorm of 1950. 

The Great Thanksgiving Snowstorm of 1950 is one I don’t remember. I was not yet on the scene. The storm I remember was the Blizzard of 1978, probably because I was stranded in a dorm in Bowling Green for five days. I remember my parents talking about the 1950 storm and my wife shared this picture of her father in the aftermath of that snowfall.

The snowstorm was the biggest in Ohio history, and one of the most unusual weather events to ever occur in the United States. It snowed in the Youngstown area from late on Thanksgiving evening, November 23 through the 27th, dropping a total of 29 inches of snow on the Youngstown area. The 24 hour snowfall record in Youngstown of 20.7 inches was set over November 24-25 during that storm. Some areas got it worse. Steubenville received a total of 44 inches, the record snowfall for Ohio.


Snowfall totals through the Ohio Valley, National Centers for Environmental Information

Two low pressure systems, one from the Great Lakes and one from the south concentrated just west of the Appalachians over western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio, where the heaviest snowfalls occurred. For this reason it is also known as the Great Appalachian Storm of 1950. There were some weird occurrences. For example, at 2:30 pm on November 25, Pittsburgh had blizzard conditions and temperatures of 9º F while in Buffalo 150 miles north it was 54ºF with the hurricane force winds that prevailed over the east coast and New England. Perhaps weirdest was that this low pressure system slowly tracked west over the next several days before dissipating, blocked by an intense high pressure system over New England. That contributed to the massive accumulations.

According to Howard C. Aley, in A Heritage to Share, Thanksgiving afternoon and evening was almost spring-like. Weather forecasts for Friday were for “snow flurries.” Snow began overnight but wasn’t overly heavy Friday morning. It snowed steadily all day and by Saturday morning the Valley was buried in blizzard conditions. A state of emergency was declared in the city. The National Guard was called in and it was a priority to rescue those whose homes were facing roof collapses, and pregnant women due to deliver. All businesses were closed and estimated losses from lost wages, production, and snow removal totaled over $20 million. Regionally, over one million people lost power, 22 states were affected, and 353 people lost their lives.

Not everything ground to a halt. In Columbus, the annual rivalry between Ohio State and Michigan was played at Ohio Stadium in what became known as the “Blizzard Bowl.” I found this video clip of game highlights. Michigan won 9-3, gaining only 27 yards and not getting a single first down. Temperatures Saturday morning were 5ºF with 40 mile per hour winds. I don’t know how they played that game!

Bulldozers were used to clear the roads. Ohio’s governor declared Monday a legal holiday. Schools remained closed on Tuesday and many remained closed on Wednesday. The Vindicator did not publish for three days, getting a paper out on Tuesday. By Tuesday the 28th some of the main streets of Youngstown were dug out. As you can see from the picture above of my father-in-law, in residential neighborhoods often all they could do was clear a narrow path, just enough to allow emergency services in, or to get key personnel like doctors out.

All over Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, there are people who remember that storm. Youngstown was just about in the epicenter where the two lows merged. It was a Category Five storm on the Regional Snowfall Index, the highest category (the Blizzard of ’78 was also a Category Five, the only one with a higher max RSI, though less snow). I kind of hope these two storms remain exceptional, having lived through the latter and from all I’ve read of the former.

If you remember the Great Thanksgiving Snowstorm of 1950, I would love it if you could share your memories!


Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Delivering Holiday Newspapers


Newspapers B & W (4), by Jon S. [CC BY 2.0] via Flickr

The other day I spotted a bag of advertising circulars for Black Friday laying on the apron of my driveway. It brought back memories of delivering The Vindicator on Thanksgiving morning, as well as all the Sunday papers leading up to Christmas. Generally the Thanksgiving Vindicator was the biggest paper of the year with all the sales ads for Friday (it wasn’t called Black Friday back then). There were maybe twenty or thirty pages of news content, and the rest was advertising, either in the newspaper of the advertising inserts–in all there were often several hundred pages.

Stories that I found online said that these papers could weigh between three and five pounds apiece. I had seventy customers on my paper route, and so that adds up to 210 to 350 pounds of newspapers that I had to deliver. The newspapers were delivered in one bundle, the ads in another. For seventy papers, this often turned out to be four to six bundles for my route.

I picked up my papers at a drop on Steel Street and haul them four blocks uphill on Oakwood Avenue to my route. Most days, I could put all my papers in one canvas paper sack, or two on Wednesdays and on Sundays I used a wagon.  For this haul, I used a wagon one year and it about killed me. I enlisted dad after that, and he would stuff the ads into the papers for one side of the street while I loaded up my paper sack and delivered the other, and then he would meet up with me to deliver the other side, or go up to the other block that I delivered.

Newspapers obviously made a good deal of extra money on all this advertising, but paper carriers didn’t get any more money. But in a way we did in the form of Christmas tips. For a route my size, I could get a hundred dollars in tips at Christmas time. Some were Scrooges, some were generous, and most remembered. It made hauling those papers worth it. One lady made homemade hard candy and would always give me a bag. If you were thinking of quitting your route, you usually waited until after Christmas, despite all those heavy papers.

In most communities, kids don’t deliver newspapers any more. When I delivered papers, most every person on my route, which covered two city blocks, took the paper. These days, you are lucky if about one out of five homes take the paper, and the routes are much larger, and usually delivered by adults in a car. But there are generations of paper carriers with memories of hauling hundreds of pounds of ad-laden Vindicators on Thanksgiving morning. Maybe some of you will share your stories…

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Meander Reservoir

_meanderwaterdistribution8x11 copy jpg 2200×1700

Meander Reservoir and the communities (shaded) that it serves

Mom always used to say there was no drinking water as good as Youngstown’s drinking water. I was not quite as opinionated, but on a hot summer day, there was nothing as refreshing as a cool glass of water.

It wasn’t always that way. Until 1932, Youngstown got its water from the Mahoning River. Yes, the Mahoning River. The old water works on West Avenue, built in 1905, had the unenviable task of making that water fit for consumption. Even then, the Mahoning was the most polluted river in Ohio, with temperatures that sometimes reached 104 degrees. They managed to make it safe to drink, but taste was another matter altogether.

A petition effort began in 1920 to form what became the Mahoning Valley Sanitary District and find a new source of water for Youngstown and surrounding communities. The district was comprised of Youngstown and Niles, along with McDonald, with other smaller communities receiving water via these three. Youngstown and Niles approved the district in 1927, with a $2,450,000 bond issue approved the following year to purchase land around Meander Creek and build the Mineral Ridge Dam that would create the Meander Reservoir. The work was completed and the reservoir filled in 1932. At the time, the reservoir held 7.5 billion gallons of water and could supply the city’s needs for two years. In 1958, a nine-mile pipeline from the Berlin Pumping Station to Meander Reservoir created additional capacity and a backup during periods of extended drought.

Today, the reservoir district comprises 7,510 acres, of which 2,010 are water. The reservoir capacity is 11 billion gallons, with a 50 foot high dam that is 3550 long, with a 260 foot spillway. Approximately 21.6 million gallons of water are delivered to Youngstown and surrounding communities. Youngstown and the communities it distributes water to use about 74 percent of the water, Niles 24 percent, and McDonald, 2 percent.

Safe drinking water is critical to the life of a community, as Flint, Michigan illustrates. One of the most significant safeguards to the reservoir are the 4 million evergreen trees on a preserve of land surrounding the reservoir that serve as a buffer to contaminants. The Vickers Nature Preserve, just south of the Mahoning Valley Sanitary District land, also serves to protect the tributaries to Meander Creek. With rare exceptions, fishing and boating are prohibited. In recent years, upgrades were made to the water treatment plant.

Still there are concerns. Algal blooms, like those that have occurred on Lake Erie and other Ohio lakes could render Meander water unusable. There have been discussions of routing water directly from Berlin Lake to the treatment plant, by-passing Meander, but this would involve rate increases, and these have to be weighed against the likelihood of a bloom or other contamination of the reservoir. Agricultural and lawn fertilizers are the principle causes of such blooms so area residents have a critical role to play in preventing runoffs of these chemicals that feed algal blooms.

The other significant threat is contamination from oil and gas wells, the closest less than a mile from the reservoir. All told, according to a Vindicator article, there are 182 gas and oil wells in the vicinity, eighteen miles of pipeline, as well as a 72 inch above-ground sewage line from Canfield to the Meander Creek Treatment Station. There are also risks from the bridges over the reservoir, and contingency plans are in place to handle hazardous material spills into the reservoir. MVSD publishes fracking lab results on its website, with test results in roughly three month intervals, as well as other water purity tests.

Meander Reservoir has provided safe drinking water to the Mahoning Valley on an uninterrupted basis since 1932. Government officials, businesses, and local residents all have a role to play in ensuring the continuing safety of the water. While algal blooms can occur fairly suddenly, contamination from gas and oil wells seem to be a serious threat that could render the reservoir unusable for a long period of time or permanently. The fact that the Mahoning River is only just beginning to come back to life after forty years should be a warning. At present, if an “incident” took place, the 220,000 people who depend on the reservoir might have to use bottled water for an extended period of time, not unlike Flint.

Meander Reservoir, photo courtesy of Tom Volinchak

I hope many more generations talk about the great taste of Youngstown water, have no fears of what comes out of the tap, and enjoy the beauty of the forest preserve and clear blue waters of Meander Reservoir. It is an irreplaceable treasure!

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Dr. Leslie S. Domonkos

Leslie Domonkos

Leslie Domonkos, Source unknown

I grew up disliking history. Up through high school, history had largely been presented to me as a series of events, dates to be memorized, and important people. All this, I had to remember for tests, and promptly forget afterward.

Today, I love history as the story of how different factors and forces contribute to events and how these help us understand how we got here, historically, at least. As you might tell from my posts about Youngstown, I love local history–how places get their names, who was such and such, and how they were important in Youngstown history and how the cultural institutions of the city developed?

I think I owe this love of history to Dr. Leslie Domonkos, now an emeritus professor of history at Youngstown State, and the professor who taught the Western Civilization course I took during my first quarter at Youngstown State, 46 years ago. What I remember about his class, is that I never took so many notes in my life–and it was a good thing. His exams were tough. They weren’t fill in the blanks, or a computer-read form. They were essay-based exams of three or four questions that we would answer in handwritten “Blue Books.” You needed to study your notes, do the readings, and take his exam prep suggestions seriously. His lectures were riveting as he opened up the events of European history and the cultural, social, economic, religious and political forces that led to them. He made us think about these forces, and argue which were most important. It was hard, and I loved it, and he awakened a love of history I never knew I had. Looking back, I sometimes wonder why I didn’t major in history. I also think of how much work it was for him to read all those hand-written Blue Book exams and grade them!

Both Dr. Domonkos and his wife Eva were born in Budapest, Hungary, he in 1938 and she in 1941. Her tribute in The Vindicator notes that she came to the U.S. as a World War II refugee in 1951. I do not know if this is true of Dr. Domonkos but he became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1959. For both of them, their arrival in this country was a gift. She worked for many years as a labor and delivery nurse, and later as a childbirth educator at St. Elizabeth’s, returning to Hungary to introduce modern childbirth techniques to that country.

Dr. Domonkos gift to this country was his scholarship and inspired teaching. He graduated from Youngstown University in 1959 with a Bachelors degree in history and completed Masters and Ph.D. degrees in medieval history at Notre Dame. He received a Fulbright Scholarship to study at the University of Vienna during 1963-1964.  He returned to teach as an instructor at Youngstown in 1964, then as an assistant professor in 1965, associate professor in 1969 and full professor in 1975. Twice he served as acting department chair. In 1971, he received an Outstanding Educator in America award. Over the years six Distinguished Professor Awards followed. He published numerous articles in medieval and Hungarian history in addition to co-editing three books. He was admitted to the Corporate Body of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in 2003. He retired from Youngstown State in 2002, receiving emeritus status.

In 2013 he was awarded the YSU Heritage Award, the university’s most prestigious award, recognizing faculty and administrative staff who have made a major contribution to the university during their career. At the date this was written, he is continuing to enjoy his retirement.

It is staggering to think of how many students lives were touched by Dr. Domonkos during his four decade career at Youngstown State. Some went on to academic careers in history. No doubt some were just glad to pass his course! But I can’t help but believe there were many of us who gained a much bigger vision of the world beyond the Mahoning valley through his teaching. For me, he inspired a lifelong love of history, manifested in a house full of history books, and a curiosity to know the story behind the facts. I know my life is richer for it. Thank you, Dr. Domonkos!



Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Brownlee Woods

Brownlee WoodsFor the first eighteen years of my life, I knew almost nothing about the Brownlee Woods, which was way over on the southeast side of Youngstown, almost into Struthers. Then I started dating the woman who became my wife, and Brownlee Woods became a regular destination. She lived in one of the Cape Cod bungalows built in the 1950’s. For the first year or so, she worked at the Brownlee Woods library. We went to one of the biggest wedding receptions we have ever attended, at Powers Auditorium, when one of the librarians was married. We used to go for walks on summer evenings along Sheridan Road and into some of the older neighborhoods of brick homes. Sometimes we would go over to Ipes Field and play tennis. Two of her uncles lived in Brownlee Woods, and the three brothers helped each other build garages on the same plan her father designed. Her mother lived there until 1996, and we made frequent trips back to see her, taking her to Nemenz to buy groceries and to her senior group at what was once the Bethlehem United Church of Christ. I never thought much about the history of the area.

Brownlee Woods forms a square with its north border along Midlothian Boulevard, its west border I-680, Youngstown-Poland Rd on the east, and Thalia Avenue on the South. It gets its name from the original landowners, James A. and Rebecca Brownlee, whose homestead was on Youngstown-Poland Road and consisted of approximately 235 acres. He was a successful farmer who at one time supplied most of the meat consumed in Youngstown. He died in 1918. An article from 1930 written by Esther Hamilton speaks of Miss Mary, James (the son), and John Brownlee living in the old homestead, now shrunk to six acres. All three were in their seventies at that time.

By 1915, 200 families lived in what was already being called Brownlee Woods. A Vindicator article from 1926 quotes a resident:

“Our business houses are of almost every kind. We have groceries, meat markets, confectionery stores, drug store, automobile repair shops, gasoline stations, barber shop, dairy, barbecue, Mourey’s potato chip, milk mush and noodle factory and we also have two real estate offices.”

On December 24, 1916, Brownlee Woods United Presbyterian Church held its first services, with a Sabbath school beginning on January 7, 1917 and the church being formally organized on February 11, 1917. In 1918, they built their first structure on the church’s present site. It was followed in the same year by the Third Reformed Church pastored by Rev. E. D. Wettoch, who met in a “bungalow chapel”! In 1923, Brownlee Woods was annexed by the city of Youngstown. By 1927, ground was being broken for a Brownlee Woods Branch Library.

Brownlee Woods Library

Brownlee Woods Library

There were two waves of home construction in Brownlee Woods. The first of these was in the late 1910’s and 1920’s. The second wave was in the 1950’s. The home my wife grew up in was built in 1954. The older homes were in a variety of styles: Colonial, Tudor, Victorian, and Craftsman style homes. The newer homes were Cape Cod bungalows and ranch style homes.

In the early 1960’s Paul C. Bunn Elementary School was opened to serve children in the community. The original building was razed in 2007 and a new building opened in 2008 and recently celebrated its tenth anniversary. There is also the Montessori School of the Mahoning Valley in the neighborhood on Lynn Avenue. Youngstown-Poland Road continues to serve as the business corridor of the community with Nemenz, various fast food restaurants, local bars, and the Holiday Bowl (that brings back memories).

In recent years, Brownlee Woods has also faced issues of blight and crime. An active Brownlee Woods Neighborhood Association meets monthly.  In a 2016 Business Journal article, association president Nancy Martin speaks of the approach they are trying to take.

“It’s been my theory that we can get a lot done through code enforcement or demolition. But I don’t want to see street after street after street of houses that are torn down,”

The association has worked on issues of safety, drug sales, and taking care of homes and other buildings in the area as well as working with the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation on a five year plan. Some of their efforts include new signage, planting trees, and benches in a local park.

It’s hard to believe the Brownlee Woods neighborhood is one hundred years old. It is good news that there is an active neighborhood association working to improve the community. Hopefully it can be one of a growing number of bright spots in Youngstown as the neighborhood moves into its next century of life.