Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Snow Forts


Provincial Archives of Alberta [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons

Staring at the snow piles around my driveway after shoveling snow yesterday, I was reminded of the snow forts we used to build as kids in Youngstown during those winters when we would get all those snows off of Lake Erie.

The best snows for snow forts were the heavier ones because the snow would pack easier. Sometimes we would just mound up and pack the snow into walls. Or we would get a sturdy box–a wooden box was best–and make snow bricks by packing the snow in the box, then turning it over and adding it to our wall. This allowed us to make curves, or even igloos. Sometimes we would create tunnels to crawl through. If it didn’t snow more than a few inches, you’d end up using all the snow in your yard for your snow fort!

Of course, the reason for a snow fort was to have epic snow ball fights. When you had a snow fort, you didn’t have to make your snow balls one at a time during the fight. You could stockpile them, even let them get hard overnight. Then the unsuspecting neighbor kid who walked by would get clobbered.

Or you could do staged battles–a capture the fort sort of thing. I suspect forts got captured fairly often, unless you had more defenders than attackers. Snow balls really aren’t that good at stopping people!

The strangest thing is that we would often be out there for hours at a time. I don’t remember all the warnings about wind chill. I’m convinced that our nerve endings didn’t fully mature until we were adults. We’d be digging and building and battling in the snow and think nothing of the cold. Sure mom bundled us up in snow pants and coat, scarves, hats, gloves and boots (remember the boots you would pull on over your shoes?). Now, I’m out there snow shoveling for a half-hour, and I’m ready to come in for a hot shower and some coffee.

In my neighborhood, there weren’t many of us who went to ski resorts in the winter. But we found plenty of things to keep us busy–ice skating, sledding, or building snow forts and having snow battles. For a good snow fort, all you needed was snow, a shovel, a sturdy box, and your hands. What could be simpler or more fun?

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.