Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Benjamin F. Wirt


Benjamin F. Wirt, from The Biographical Annals of Ohio (1902). Public Domain

I have two memories of Wirt Street growing up. One was that I dated a girl for a while in Liberty and often, the quickest (though a bit scary) way home was down Wirt Street from Belmont to the West River Crossing Freeway to the West side. The other was as the site of a driving mishap. I was in college and went to visit a friend at Allegheny College. Driving home the morning after a snow storm, I had edged my way down Wirt Street to where it bent to the right, just before the freeway entrance, and I hit a patch of ice, banging into the curb. It “only” resulted in a bent tire rim and a badly knocked out of line front end. It was dad’s car so I paid. Not the happiest of memories of Wirt Street (now Wirt Boulevard).

The Wirt family, of which Benjamin F. Wirt was the most famous, is one of Youngstown’s early families, and I cannot be certain after whom Wirt Street was named, or if it simply represents one of Youngstown’s early families as does Wick Avenue. Peter Wirt was born in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and moved to Youngstown after the War of 1812. He had a farm in the Brier Hill district and so the street name may possibly be attributed to him. His son William was born in Youngstown in 1826. He worked as a builder and contracter. He married Eliza Sankey in 1849 and Benjamin was born during the family’s brief stay in West Middlesex, Pennsylvania, in Mercer County, in 1852.

Benjamin was a graduate of The Rayen School in 1869 and went on to read law with W. D. Woodworth, was admitted to the bar in 1873 and joined his teacher in a firm now called Woodworth & Wirt. They remained partners until 1880. In 1881 he married Mary M. McGeehen of New Bedford, Pennsylvania and they took up residence at 31 West Rayen Avenue. From 1880 to 1896, he practiced law on his own, handling many important court cases. He entered into partnership with M. A. Norris in 1896, then was elected to the state senate for two terms from 1899-1903 (This is based on his listing in the Biographical Annals of Ohio: A Handbook of the Government and Institutions of the State of Ohio published in 1902). Other articles list him from 1889-1893, but based on the listing, I believe these in error. His terms began just after those of William R. Stewart in the state house of representatives (incidentally Stewart read law in the firm of Woodworth & Wirt!).

Wirt ended his partnership with Norris in 1901, practiced alone until 1911 and then formed the firm of Wirt and Gunlefinger. He served as president of the Equity Savings and Loan Company, changed in 1920 to Federal Savings and Loan Company, one of Youngstowns major lending institutions of the time. He also served as president of the Sons of the American Revolution.

The lasting legacy of Benjamin F. Wirt stems from his and his wife Mary’s collection of rare books, documents, coins, artifacts, and art works.  He had a library of over 4,000 books, one of the largest private libraries at the time in northeast Ohio. Many were rare or first editions. He was a fan of Ohio author William Dean Howells and the collection included correspondence with Howells sister-in-law Eliza, as well as proof sheets and autographed letters. Upon his death in 1930, his estate was placed in trust and it was hoped that the trustees would establish a museum to properly display his collection. The collection remained in storage until the 1960’s. In 1962 Judge John Ford appointed five trustees to carry out Wirt’s last wishes. There was not enough in the trust to build the museum. However, an agreement was reached in 1965 that the Mahoning Valley Historical Society would house and exhibit the collection within the Arm Family Museum, where it is housed to this day.

Wirt followed the path of many of Youngstown’s distinguished citizens. He came from one of the early families. He made his mark in the practice of law, represented Youngstown in state government, led one of the city’s important financial institutions, and left a lasting legacy to the city, enriching its cultural life, and providing resources to researchers to the present day.


Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Wilford P. and Olive Freeman Arms


“Greystones,” The Home of the Arms Family Museum of the Mahoning Valley Historical Society, Photo courtesy of the Mahoning Valley Historical Society

When I was a student at Youngstown State, we regular walked by the Arms Museum, but I don’t think we ever visited. I did not realize that the name of the museum referred to the family who had at one time lived in the home. We thought it was a collection of “arms” or weapons, and in the anti-war times of the early 1970’s, that didn’t hold much appeal. If we had paid closer attention, we would have realized that it was the home of the Mahoning Valley Historical Society (MVHS)–a home with a history of its own.

Before the house at 648 Wick Avenue was taken over by MVHS, it was the residence of Wilford P. and Olive Freeman Arms, who were distant cousins. Wilford’s grandfather, Daniel Arms, was Olive’s great-grandfather, making them half first cousins, once removed. They also are related to various Youngstown “royalty”–the Wicks, Baldwins, Booths, and Bonnells among them.

The Arms family goes back to early American New England stock. William Arms settled in the colonies in 1677. Wilford Paddock Arms was born in Jersey City, New Jersey in 1861 to Mr. and Mrs. Lawson Arms, who after ten years returned to their native Sodus, New York. He went to the Sodus Academy, then worked on his parents farm until 1881, when he went to work for Powers, Brown, and Company, a Youngstown coal company that operated a mine in Reynoldsville, Pennsylvania. After a few years there, he worked with a company quarrying marble near Knoxville, Tennessee until moving to Youngstown in 1888. Apart from two years in Pittsburgh working with the Pittsburgh Coal Company, he lived in Youngstown the rest of his life.

Wilford P. Arms

Photo source: Find-A-Grave

He worked with several different Youngstown area firms: The Brier Hill Iron and Coal Co., The Falcon Iron and Nail Co. in Niles, The Warren Rolling Mill in Warren, and the Trumbull Iron Co. of Girard. During the latter part of his work he worked with the Realty Trust Company and was chairman of the board of Palace Realty Co. in Youngstown and McCaskey Register Co. in Alliance. He was also a director of the Central Store Co. in Youngstown.

He held a federal appointment, a position of trust, as central fuel administrator for Mahoning County during World War I. Joseph G. Butler paid this tribute in describing his work as “a position entailing a vast amount of work and responsibility, and [he] discharged his duties in a manner that earned him the commendation of all who knew of his work in that relation.”

Olive Freeman Arms

Olive Freeman Arms. Photo courtesy of the Mahoning Valley Historical Society

Wilford P. Arms married Olive Freeman Arms in 1899. Olive was born to Charles Dayton and Hannah Wick Arms in 1865. A biographical entry for her appears in Artists in Ohio, 1787-1900: A Biographical Dictionary and she is described as a watercolorist and designer. She had studied at the Bradford and Peebles schools in New York as well as spending time in art studies in Europe. In 1904, a building permit was issued to built a home at 648 Wick Avenue, next to Olive’s parent’s home. The construction was completed in 1905 and the home, which Olive helped design, was named “Greystones,” after the stone exterior of this Arts and Crafts style English residence.

Mr. Arms could regularly be seen walking to and from his office in the Realty Building on Central Square until the year before his death, when he suffered a fall in his home from which he never fully recovered. At the time of his death, he and Olive had begun to develop a property on Logan Avenue Extension, that later became a residential development.

Wilford P. Arms was described in a Vindicator article on April 28, 1947 as follows:

“Mr. Arms was a gentleman of the old school, the soul of courtesy and consideration for others. In this day of free and easy manners there was something refreshing and uplifting in his lifelong predilection for formality and the proprieties. It was good to have him remind us that careful attention to the graces and amenities of life adds much to one’s own and others’ enjoyment of it.”

Olive Arms continued to reside in Greystones the rest of her life. She was the source of a wealth of information about Youngstown’s early history and families, particularly given her connections to so many of them. She worked closely with then-president of the Mahoning Valley Historical Society, James L. Wick, Jr. at a time that the Society had no home for its archives, many of which Wick stored at his own residence. On Mrs. Arms death in 1960 at 95, she left Greystones and its furnishings to the Society along with an endowment for its maintenance, augmented by Wick’s fundraising efforts. She specified that the facility be named after her parents, hence the name The Arms Museum (now The Arms Family Museum, a name change perhaps motivated by the confusion of many like me as to the nature of the museum!).

The Arms Family Museum is now one of two facilities operated by the Mahoning Valley Historical Society, the other being the Tyler History Center. Wilford P. Arms and Olive Freeman Arms not only contributed to the commerce and arts of Youngstown but to the preservation of our history. It only makes sense that their family name should adorn the home of the organization preserving that history!

Article Sources:

“The Arms Family History,” Mahoning Valley History.

“The Arms Family Museum — Celebrating 50 Years!” Mahoning Valley History

“Olive Freeman Arms Arms,” Find-A-Grave

“Wilford Paddock Arms,” Find-A-Grave

Howard C. Aley, A Heritage to Share: The Bicentennial History of Youngstown and Mahoning County, Ohio.

Joseph Green Butler, History of  Youngstown and Mahoning Valley, “Wilford P. Arms,” p. 2. Accessed on Google Books.

Jeffrey Weidman, Artists in Ohio, 1797-1900: A Biographical Dictionary, “Arms, Olive Freeman,” pp. 23-24. Accessed on Google Books.


Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — James L. Wick, Jr.

James L Wick Jr grave

Headstone for James L. Wick, Jr. family plot, Oak Hill Cemetery, Photo by Linda Bunch, all rights reserved, via Find A Grave

Rocky Ridge was a favorite area growing up, whether it was playing on the playground as a child, sledding down the hill below the play area in the winter, playing baseball on one of the diamonds, touch football, or tennis on the tennis courts. As a teen, I was at the skating rink every weekend during the winter and I have memories of going to open air concerts. The one that stands out featured jazz great Lionel Hampton–something I didn’t appreciate at the time!


Formally, the name of this place is the James L. Wick, Jr. Recreation Area.  We never called it that, and I have to say I was oblivious to who this gentleman was. In researching him, I found out that I walked by his home on 384 S. Belle Vista (I believe on the corner of S. Belle Vista and Chaney Circle) every day when I went to and from Chaney. The home itself has some history to it, being the original home of Samuel Price, a prominent West Side resident (think Price Road, which is practically across the street from this home). Wick and his wife Clare purchased the home in 1919.

Wick was born into the Wick family, Youngstown royalty of sorts. His father, James Lippincott Wick was a business partner of Freeman Arms (James, Sr. married Julia Arms) and was also associated with G. M. McKelvey’s. James L. Wick, Jr. was born January 28, 1883. He graduated from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, financed by an uncle. He went to work as a general master mechanic at Youngstown Sheet and Tube, then in 1918 took a position as secretary and assistant general manager of Falcon Bronze Company, a bronze foundry. By 1926 he was president, but only separated by a door from the plant where he helped pour a melt and sometimes operated a crane. Wick and Louis M. Nesselbush patented a cooling plate for inwalls and mantles in 1938. He sold the firm to American Brake Shoe Company in 1953.

He played an important role in three Youngstown institutions. He was the chairman of the board of trustees of Youngstown College, later University from 1921 to 1955, overseeing its growth from a night school of the YMCA to a nationally accredited university. Jones Hall, the main building of the university was built under his tenure.

Any of us who write about Youngstown history are indebted to the Mahoning Valley Historical Society. He was one of the incorporators of the Society in 1909 and served two terms as president. His most significant contribution was to help provide a permanent home for the Society and its growing archives. As its president, he persuaded Mrs. Wilford P. Arms to leave her home at 648 Wick Avenue to the society in 1961, and then sold lifetime memberships of $1,000 or more to endow the facility. He remained active with the Society until his death and had a passion for passing along the history of the Valley to its youth, and it was reported he was a lively storyteller.

His other major passion was Mill Creek Park. He knew Volney Rogers, served on the Mill Creek Park board for 21 years until he retired in 1958, could identify trees and shrubs throughout the park, and fought to preserve the park when it was threatened by developers. After his retirement, Rocky Ridge was renamed in his honor, one he could easily visit just a short drive down S. Belle Vista from his home.

He seems kind of a renaissance man. He was a gifted amateur painter, naturalist, inventor, and historian. He was a member of engineering societies, the Youngstown Country Club, a trustee of the Butler, and member of the board of First Presbyterian Church.

I wish I had met him. He passed away on March 16, 1972, my senior year at Chaney. In the words of songwriter Joni Mitchell, “don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til its gone.” I never knew this man, who contributed so much to Youngstown, and did so much that we might know its history, lived along my way to school. I’m glad I know a bit of him now. And perhaps by telling his story, and the story of our city, I can do my small bit to honor his legacy.

Growing Up In Working Class Youngstown — Mama’s Kitchen

mamas kitchen gang

Part of the Recipes of Youngstown Committee. From left to right: John Heasley, Bobbi Ennett Allen, Keith Evans, Ernie DiRenzo, JoAnn Donahue, Patty Gahagan Ruby, and Bobbie Snyder Chalky. Photo courtesy Cheryl Staib-Lewis.

One of the most wonderful memories of growing up was to walk into the house at dinner time and to smell those wonderful smells emerging from the kitchen. It could be the herbs and special ingredients in mom’s spaghetti sauce, or the fried onions and garlic in the dish with sausage and peppers, or the delicious smell of that roast that has been simmering for hours and is so tender it melts in your mouth. For many of us in working class Youngstown, the kitchen was our favorite room of the house.

Then there are all those special occasions–holiday baking or the week-long frenzy that goes into the perfect cookie table. There are all those big family gatherings–the perfect turkey, or ham or New Year’s Eve calamari. Some of us have inherited those favorite recipes and others of us wish we had.

There is a chance to bring back all those memories, and all those delicious smells and tastes. Bobbi Ennett Allen and her Recipes of Youngstown crew are hosting “Memories of Mama’s Kitchen” on May 7 from noon to 4 pm at the Tyler History Center, in conjunction with Mother’s Day weekend. Bobbi and her team will wear old-fashioned aprons, offering tastings of 30 recipes from Recipes of Youngstown. You will have a chance to see the 1948 Youngstown Kitchen exhibit at the Tyler. There will be a basket raffle, a 50/50 drawing and a grand prize raffle. All this is being done with the hope of reaching the $50,000 goal for the Recipes of Youngstown Kitchen that will be dedicated at 2 pm. Cookbook sales, previous tastings, and pierogi and Brier Hill pizza sales have them oh-so close.

Of course both the first and second Recipes of Youngstown  will be available for sale. We have both and have bought a number for friends and family from Youngstown. They make great gifts. Your Youngstown friends will love you!

So, if you are anywhere near Youngstown on May 7, make sure to take in this event, the culmination of efforts that began when a group of friends created a Facebook group and began sharing recipes. And if not, you can always buy  Recipes 2 here and support the Mahoning Valley Historical Society’s Recipes of Youngstown kitchen..



Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — The Cookie Table

(c) Mahoning Valley Historical Society

(c) Mahoning Valley Historical Society Used with permission

It is wedding season again. And if you are from Youngstown, this also means that it is cookie table season again! The cookie table is one of the distinctive wedding traditions of Youngstown. There is an ongoing dispute with Pittsburgh as to which was the city of origin of this dispute. A friend of mine from Pittsburgh and I settled this at a wedding (in Youngstown, with a fantastic cookie table) by arm-wrestling for the cookie table title. Youngstown was victorious–which for us Youngstowners was simply confirming the truth of what we already knew!

Everything I’ve read about cookie tables proposes that the idea of cookie tables was born in depression-era working class families where it was just plain too expensive to buy a wedding cake. The tradition involves families and friends of the bride and groom going into a baking frenzy in the weeks prior to the wedding making every imaginable cookie from clothes pins, to kolachi, to pizzelles, to peanut butter blossoms with Hershey kisses to Ohio’s favorite, the buckeye (peanut butter balls with butter, vanilla, and confectioners sugar mixed together and coated with chocolate on the sides preserving a peanut butter top–hence buckeye).

The result are tables and tables of cookies available throughout the wedding reception. A considerate couple will provide snack bags so you can take home a stash (and with a good cookie table there is always plenty left over) that guests can nibble on over the next several days while having fond thoughts of the bride and groom.

There is something I’ve been a bit curious about. My wife and I both grew up in Youngstown until moving away in the mid 1970s. And as we’ve talked and compared notes, we don’t remember cookie tables at weddings growing up, or at least cookie tables being the big deal they are at Youngstown wedding receptions now. I do remember lots of great food including the great ethnic dishes we are famous for. There was a cake, and maybe there were some cookies. But we both went to a number of weddings and we can’t honestly say that we remember this tradition from our growing up years.

Perhaps we led sheltered lives and just missed the weddings where this was a big deal. I’d love for my friends from Youngstown who follow this blog to set me straight on this one, particularly if you have pictures from the 70s or earlier of cookie tables, or even some family memories. And I’d also be curious if there are others who are like us and can’t remember cookie tables until more recently.

My hunch is that there were parts of the community that were doing this probably from at least the Depression. But I also wonder if there has been an embrace of this tradition over the last twenty to thirty years where it has truly become an all-Youngstown tradition and a point of pride for us. That this is true is clearly the case. I discovered that in the part of town where I grew up the Rocky Ridge Neighbors have a monthly cookie table. The Mahoning Valley Historical Society has an annual Cookie Table and Cocktails night with a cookie contest. There is even a new book of essays on Youngstown history coming out titled Car Bombs to Cookie Tables.  All the Recipes of Youngstown Cookbooks have a number of cookie recipes good for cookie tables and other occasions. No Youngstown wedding these days is complete without a cookie table, and no wedding anywhere else quite measures up without one!

Good community traditions are important in defining a community as a good place to live. This is one of our good ones. Even if it is one that I just didn’t know about, notice or remember growing up, the plain fact of the matter is that this is one of the things that makes Youngstown special and it is so good to see all the ways Youngstown is sustaining that tradition.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown: Recipes of Youngstown (2)

Recipes of Youngstown 2The long awaited package of joy appeared in our mailbox on Thursday. Some months ago, we had learned that a new Recipes of Youngstown was in the works. Having been thoroughly delighted by the first volume, we didn’t hesitate for a moment to send in our pre-order. But we did find ourselves wondering whether after 500 recipes covering Youngstown staples from pierogies to pizzelles and chip-chopped ham to halushki, what was left?

Not to worry, the contributors to this cookbook dug up from attics and cookbooks from grandparents a delightful and diverse plethora of new recipes. First the diversity. The last cookbook had a number of those Italian and Eastern European recipes as well as things like Idora fries that we all grew up with. This cookbook reflects a wider diversity of Turkish, Greek, Danish, German, Portuguese and Mexican recipes and more!

Then there is the delightful part. I have always loved good Youngstown wedding soup and there are a couple of recipes, including one by the guiding force behind this enterprise, Bobbi Ennett Allen, with detailed instructions. I think even I could make a decent wedding soup with these! Patty’s Gazpacho looks to die for! I can almost taste “Uncle Tony’s Slow-Roasted Chipotle Pork Roast or Short Ribs”.

Of course one of the reasons for a second cookbook is that there were many good recipes for making those dishes we love, from kolachis to clothespin cookies and lasagna to linguini. And one cool feature of this cookbook was that it preserved some of the Facebook comments that offered tips and variations on these recipes. This cookbook was truly a community effort.

The cookbook is organized similarly to the previous edition with the following sections: In the Beginning (appetizers), Hot and Hearty (soups and stews), Sidelines (salads, sides, and veggies), Raised Right! (breads, rolls, and pizza), Gather ‘Round the Table (meats, casseroles, pasta, sauces, breakfast, and miscellaneous), Lunchbox (sandwiches), Something Old, Something New (cookies, candies and snacks), Youngstown Can! and Does! (canning and preserves), Youngstown Spirits Thrive! (Hooch), and a Sweet Ending (pastries, sweet breads, desserts, fillings and frostings). Is your mouth watering yet?

One of the new additions to this cookbook were the illustrations of David Schwartz and the characters of Aunt Bessie and Uncle Guido. “Aunt Bessie was the one who showed up to care for the family when mom was under the weather….” Uncle Guido…”was the guy who let you have a sip of his beer; the guy who dumped your veggies into the trash along with his…”[from overleaf between pages 118-119]. Schwartz is a 1972 Rayen grad who went on to a great career in animation with Darkwing Duck, the Simpsons, Rugrats, The Flintstones among his credits.

Similar to the last cookbook, the overleafs of the section dividers have fun features from “You Know You’re from Youngstown If” to tributes from principle contributors to their own “Aunt Bessie” to “A Message from Grandma” with all sorts of grandmotherly cooking advice like, “to keep potatoes from budding in the bag, put an apple in with them!”

The proceeds from this cookbook will support another great Youngstown institution, the Mahoning Valley Historical Society and its “Recipes of Youngstown” kitchen in the Tyler History Center in downtown Youngstown. The great ethnic food traditions of Youngstown and the archive of recipes in this cookbook (and its predecessor) are a significant aspect of Youngstown history and culture. The partnership between the contributors (who came together first on Facebook) and the Historical Society are a wonderful opportunity to preserve this important piece of Youngstown history. As we’ve talked about so many times on this blog, no place does food like Youngstown and through these efforts, Youngstown will continue to be a place to get great food.

Have you bought yours yet? If you want to order one, you can get one at the Mahoning Valley Historical Society website.

And if you are in Youngstown today (May 2, 2015) make your way to downtown Youngstown for Recipes of Youngstown: A Taste…and a Memory at the Tyler History Center on Federal Street from Noon to 4 pm. There will be a tasting event with over 30 dishes from Recipes of Youngstown with raffles with some incredible prizes including a Kitchenaid mixer and an HDTV. All proceeds go to the Mahoning Valley Historical Society.

Wish I could be there–but I have the cookbook! Happy eating, all!

This and other Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown posts can be found by clicking “On Youngstown” on the menu bar on any page of the blog.