Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Milk and Egg Delivery

I remember when we used to get milk in glass bottles, and when you finished a bottle, you would wash it out and place it in an insulated metal box you kept outside your front door. Usually, about once a week, a milk truck would stop at your home, pick up the empties, and leave whatever your family had ordered. Often you would leave the money for your order in the box (it was a simpler, more honest time before “porch pirates”). When we were home during the summer, mom would always tell us to keep an eye out for the milkman from Dawson’s (not to be confused with Lawson’s, which came later) so we could get the milk in the house before it got warm. I also remember seeing the Isaly trucks in our neighborhood.

Isaly's milk delivery box

Isaly milk delivery box

Various caps were used to seal the milk. I remember the ones that were made of cardboard, usually with a message on top that said something like “wash bottle before returning.” They had a little tab in the middle that you would pull up to open the bottle. I have vivid memories of this. For a while, Dawson’s had a series that featured each of the fifty states. I believe they gave you a card to use as you collected these. Eventually, I got all fifty. I wish I still had it–it would probably be a collector’s item today.

We also had an egg man, an older local farmer, who delivered our eggs. His name may have been Bill. He delivered eggs in his car as I recall, and when it was in season, we would also buy fresh corn from him. Occasionally we bought brown-shelled eggs which tasted better. You paid him each week at the time of delivery.

Milk has been delivered in the United States since 1785 when farmers started delivering raw milk in Vermont. This continued for many years, often brought in galvanized pails, but there are limits to the distances it can be transported. Eventually milk pasteurization was introduced, mandated in 1910 in New York City. In pasteurization, milk is heated to around the boiling point, which kills much, but not all, of the bacteria (there is also a double pasteurization process that kills more). Pasteurization extends the shelf life of milk to up to three weeks. The milk we received was both pasteurized and homogenized, the latter being a process by which the fat molecules in milk are broken down, instead of rising to the top as cream.

Many companies, like Isaly’s delivered a number of other dairy products like heavy cream, sour cream, cottage cheese, and buttermilk, and sometimes other grocery items like orange juice and eggs. Part of the attraction, it seems of having these items delivered, was that they were the things you tended to use up most quickly, and it wasn’t always convenient to go to the grocery store just for them.

Two things may have changed this, at least for milk. One was the opening of convenience stores like the Lawson’s just up the street from our house, and the other was the introduction of plastic jugs, which were lighter, less slippery, and easy to carry. I suspect that prices were often better. Yet I remember the fresh taste of the eggs we got from the egg man and the just picked corn. I can’t remember if the milk was better, but I do have to say, I always liked milk as a kid, much less so today, so there might have been something to this.

It is interesting how things have come full circle. I do remember, even into the 1980’s or so, some small grocers in Youngstown delivered, especially to their elderly customers. They are all but gone now and for a while none of the larger chains delivered and people didn’t seem to want that.

Even before the current virus pandemic, that has been changing. Everyone from Amazon and its Whole Foods subsidiary to our local groceries and drug store will deliver. The Community Supported Agriculture movement of local farmers also delivers fresh produce to its subscribers each week. There is even a growing movement in Ohio allowing for raw milk deliveries.

As many of us would say in Youngstown, “everything that goes around comes around.”

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown – Isaly Dairy Plant

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Former Isaly Dairy Plant, June 2019. Photo © Bob Trube, all rights reserved

Fifty years ago, the September 12, 1969 Vindicator announced that Isaly’s would no longer make ice cream at its Mahoning Avenue plant on the West Side. This meant a loss of twenty of the 120 jobs at the plant. At the time H. William Isaly, the president of Isaly’s at the time, explained that they were consolidating ice cream production in the Pittsburgh plant. They would continue the processing of milk, cottage cheese, fruit juices, and other staples, as well as its home delivery and distribution operations.

At the time he said, further cutdowns were “unlikely.” He was asked about a rumor that the plant would be turned into a warehouse. Ominously, he said that was always “a possibility” but not something they planned to do “at this time.”

“At this time” only lasted a year. In 1970, the iconic art deco plant was closed and remained empty until occupied by U-Haul in 1987. U-Haul still operates the site, which has not seen significant improvements other than re-facing part of the building and painting it to advertise its storage facilities.

The closure of the Isaly plant would be followed in two years by sale of the company. The company had been declining throughout the 1960’s, and the job reductions and plant closure in Youngstown were just part of a bigger problem. The decline of home deliveries and their loose corporate structure (many stores were independently owned) made them less competitive in an environment of more centralized and standardized businesses. In the 1980’s, the Isaly name began a comeback, based in Pittsburgh selling meats (“chip chopped ham”!) and sauces as well as ice cream, but not Klondikes, which are owned by Unilever.

Isaly’s got its start in Mansfield, Ohio in 1902, then acquired a plant in Marion, Ohio in 1914. In 1918, Isaly’s came to Youngstown, purchasing the Farmers’ Dairy plant at the Mahoning Avenue location. Chester Isaly moved to Youngstown to manage the plant with an initial investment of $100,000 in improvements. In the 1930’s, they redesigned the exterior with an art deco look with a central, five story tower that some say resembled a milk bottle. Charles F. Owsley was the architect and they spent $400,000 on this project. At its peak, this was one of eleven plants Isaly’s operated across Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania and had over 400 stores.

I remember going to the plant, which had an ice cream counter, to get skyscraper cones when I was a kid. Isaly’s used a special scoop to serve the cone, about four inches of ice cream atop the cone, reminiscent of a skyscraper. Compared to the Dairy Cream, which served soft serve vanilla and chocolate, this was ice cream heaven with dozens of flavors of creamy, rich ice cream.

The picture above was taken during a recent visit to Youngstown. The building could probably use some sprucing up, but stands as a monument to a once-great company, preserving the art deco architecture of the 1930’s that swept Youngstown at that time. For many of us, it preserves memories of wonderful ice cream in a distinctive cone.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Chipped Chopped Ham

Isaly's Ad from 1950s

Isaly’s ad from the 1950’s

You know you are from Youngstown if you know what “chipped chopped ham” is and think it is the best way to eat ham in a sandwich. There is a taste to chipped chopped ham that is so much better than sliced ham of whatever variety. It had a kind of sweetness and lightness, and lacked that “slimy” feel of sliced ham. Piled up on a good hamburger bun, maybe with a piece of swiss cheese and a good deli mustard, and you had heaven on a bun.

I first learned about chipped chopped ham when I was staying at my grandparents home on the south side. My grandma sent me up to the Isaly’s near the house to get a pound of chipped chopped ham. I said “what’s that grandma?” She just said, tell the man at the meat counter what you want and he’ll know what to do. I came home with the package and grandma made me one of the tastiest sandwiches I’d ever eaten!

Isaly’s, the home of the skyscraper ice cream cone was the place most associated with chipped chopped ham. They made it by taking chunks of ham, ham trimmings with lots of fat, and seasonings and grinding it up and forming it into a loaf. Then at the deli counter, it was “chipped.” The meat slicer was set at its finest setting so that the slices came out very thin, almost translucent. Like cookie tables, there is a rivalry with Pittsburgh on this one. There, they call it slicing it “Pittsburgh style.”

Reading up on it, I learned that in Pittsburgh, it is also popular to put some of the ham in a slow cooker with barbecue sauce, and make barbecued chipped chop ham. It was also fried and called “frizzle-fried” ham sandwiches. I have to admit I don’t remember any of that in Youngstown, but others might.

All I know is that eventually, any self-respecting deli counter in Youngstown would sell some version of chipped chopped ham. Sometimes, when I was back in town, I’d pick up some groceries for my parents at the old Sparkle Market on Mahoning Avenue and get some chipped chopped ham there.

The Isaly brand is still alive and you can still buy Isaly’s chipped chopped ham and other Isaly products in the grocery store. Their corporate website offers a video of their history and information about where you can buy their products. Anywhere that has Giant Eagle stores sells chipped chopped ham, as well as many Walmart Supercenters in Ohio, including in my current home town of Columbus. In Youngstown, in addition to these stores, Isaly’s lists Golden Dawn, IGA, Santisi, and Sparkle Markets as places where you can buy their products. The website also offers recipes including one for “chipped chopped ham nacho rolls” that uses lasagna noodles!

I also learned that if you are a Steeler fan or Pirates fan, Isaly’s has stands at Heinz and PNC Fields where you can buy a chipped chopped ham sandwich at the game. Beats a hot dog any time!

All this talk about chipped chopped ham is making me want to check out the local options to buy some. I’m not sure I can make a sandwich as good as grandma made, but it would still be a treat. By the way, thanks, Cindy, for the idea for this post!

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Ice Cream

250px-HandelsAs we enter the dog days of summer, there is nothing like a trip to a local ice cream stand to cool off and enjoy a sweet treat at the same time. Where we live in Columbus, we are blessed with living a five minute drive from a Handel’s stand (how did they know we were nearby?). So going out for ice cream always brings back Youngstown memories of Handel’s and other good places for ice cream.

Let’s begin with Handel’s. The company website says Alice Handel started serving homemade ice cream out of her husband’s gas station as far back as 1945, using old-fashioned recipes and fresh fruit. Wikipedia indicates the franchise was established in November 1969, the same time as Columbus-original, Wendy’s. All I know was that Handel’s was among the places to be on a hot summer evening and teens drove from all over town to get Mrs. Handel’s homemade ice cream, sitting on or in our cars to eat it, since it was a walk up stand off an alley near the intersection of Market and Midlothian. (My wife grew up just down the street on Midlothian–I had to come all the way from the west side!). Handel’s has made a number of “Ten Best” lists including a list in USA Today.

Isaly'sI don’t think I heard of Handel’s until high school. Until then, the place to go was Isaly’s. Both my wife and I have memories of our parents driving to the main Isaly dairy plant at the intersection of Mahoning Avenue and Glenwood to get their trademark skyscraper cones, scooped with a specially designed scoop. My wife remembers her folks always getting the sherbets, particularly orange sherbet. I was more a butter pecan and chocolate guy. It was all good.

Klondikes, Chipped Ham, & Skyscraper Cones: The Story of Isaly's by Brian Butko. For more information, contact Stackpole Books at (800) 732-3669 or sales@stackpolebooks.com

Photo by Brian Butko. Used by permission with inclusion of the following: Klondikes, Chipped Ham, & Skyscraper Cones: The Story of Isaly’s by Brian Butko. For more information, contact Stackpole Books at (800) 732-3669 or sales@stackpolebooks.com

Isaly’s actually didn’t get started in Youngstown but in Mansfield, Ohio, moving early to Marion, Ohio, from which it expanded to Columbus, Youngstown, and Pittsburgh. According to Wikipedia, Isaly’s launched a commercial building program in the 1930’s in an art deco/Art Moderne style of which the Youngstown dairy plant was a prime example. Sadly, the dairy operation closed in 1969 and the building was eventually sold to U-Haul, who still occupies it. In 1986 it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Truly, it is an iconic Youngstown building!

The local standby within walking distance of my home was Dairy Queen, on Mahoning Avenue between Maryland and Belle Vista. There was a time you could get a small vanilla or chocolate soft-serve cone for 5 cents, complete with the twirl on top. A 15 cent cone was huge. For a little extra, you could get chocolate or strawberry “dips”. Later, they added things like Dilly bars, but plain old ice cream cones were my favorite. The old Dairy Queen building is still standing according to Google Street View, now the site of Hunan Express.

My wife and I speculated that going out for ice cream was popular in part because back when we were growing up, our refrigerators had very small freezers, unless you had a separate freezer, which neither of our parents had. You had to use the freezer for those staple items, whether frozen juices, vegetables or meats, and just didn’t have room for a carton of ice cream. And it was cheap! Imagine getting ice cream for a family of four for as little as 50 cents, and certainly under a dollar. Now, it is $5 or more for my wife and I to go to our local Handel’s (but still worth it!).

I’d love to hear your ice cream memories and your stories of other good places to get ice cream around Youngstown!

[Want to read other “Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown” posts? Just click “On Youngstown” on the menu bar at the top of this page to read any or all in this series.]

Growing Up In Working Class Youngstown — Food

As it happens, there are a number of Youngstowners living in Columbus. And when we run into each other, almost invariably the conversation turns to food. Usually it is something like this –” have you found a place with good Italian” or “do you know any place that makes pizza like we had in Youngstown” or else, “nobody around here understands that you have to have a cookie table at a wedding” (more about that later).

recipes of Youngstown

All this and more came rushing back with the arrival of Recipes of Youngstown, a cookbook that came together out a Facebook group of Youngstown natives who pooled their recipes into a cookbook to raise funds for a Youngstown landmark, Lanterman’s Mill.

All the Youngtown favorites were there. Our friend, Lynne, who put us onto the book, had contributed a recipe for chicken paprikash. I haven’t eaten this in ages but was reminded that this was common in Youngstown. Of course, there is a recipe for “Brier Hill Pizza” which had a thick sauce and was topped with bell pepper slices and romano as opposed mozzarella cheese. Along with this, you can find recipes for haluski, goulash, wedding soup (no one knows how to make wedding soup like Youngstowners), stuffed cabbages and peppers and more. Of course, there are recipes for pierogies–seemed like every Catholic church in the area sold these on Friday nights, except during Lent when it was fried fish. And there are recipes for rum balls, and kolachi and other holiday pastries, including pizzelles (although we decided that the recipe we use from “Aunt Mary” is better than them all!).

Isaly's

The cookbook reminded me of Isaly’s (and other deli counters as well) where you could order “chip-chopped” ham. Isaly’s was also known for the “skyscraper” ice cream cones–which was truly this elongated cone of ice cream scooped with a special scoop (see picture). We always thought that the ones served at the main Isaly dairy plant on Mahoning Avenue were the best. Of course there was also Handel’s ice cream, just down the street from where my wife grew up. People drove from all over town to this walk up ice cream stand that served the absolutely best home made ice cream. No wonder Handel’s now has franchises in Columbus (as well as Belleria Pizza)!

Probably the reason for all this good home cooking is that in working class Youngstown, you generally didn’t eat out often, and if you did, it was often at a bar or mom and pop restaurant that had a great chef. If the food wasn’t good, and plenty, the laborers wouldn’t patronize the place for long. Women were expected to have a good dinner on the table when their husbands arrived home from a day at the mill or shop. (That wasn’t always a happy thing–by today’s standard very sexist and a source of resentment for many women).

cookies-2

(c) Mahoning Valley Historical Society http://www.mahoninghistory.org

Then there were wedding receptions! There were tons of all this good food. It seems that the blue collar motto was, “if you can see the table, there is not enough food on it.” Along with that, the booze flowed freely and you worked it all off with lots of dancing. And then there was the cookie table. Families of the bride and groom would go into flurries of baking for the week before the wedding, baking dozens of cookies of all shapes, colors, and sizes–more than you could possibly eat at the wedding and so you found ways to take a stash home. There are only two places that seem to know about the cookie table, apart from those of us who have moved elsewhere, and that is Youngstown and Pittsburgh and there is a running feud between the two towns about where it started. Of course, I side with Youngstown!

What’s the significance of all this good food? I think it was that for many working class folks, particularly those who were immigrants or children of immigrants, they knew how hard life could be. They often had huge gardens because things were so tight that they couldn’t buy the food. That probably helped explain the rich sauces, often canned from last summer’s tomato crop. The diet was pretty high cholesterol and carb laden with meats and pastas. Perhaps it was that for the first time, some of these people were making enough to buy roasts and other meats. And the work was physical and you burned a lot of calories. As in many cultures, food was a way to celebrate the good and wonderful moments of life, like holidays and weddings, or even to find a form of consolation and shared fellowship at the wake for a lost loved one.

Recipes of Youngstown not only reminded us of all these good foods–it reminded us of the shared communal experiences of those growing up years in family, church, and celebratory gatherings. Now to try some of those recipes….

Read all the posts in the “Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown” series by clicking the “On Youngstown” link at the top of this page or the “On Youngstown” category on my home page!