Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Lucius B. McKelvey

Lucius B McKelvey

Lucius B. McKelvey, photo courtesy of The Vindicator, July 24, 1944

If you have followed my posts, you may know that my father worked at McKelvey’s and I worked there during high school and college. During the time I worked there, William B. McKelvey was president of the store, which had already merged with the Higbee Company. Lucius B. McKelvey, who was William’s father was a name we heard from time to time, mostly in connection with the Lucius B. McKelvey Society, of which I know little, except that its membership was composed of long time employees of the company.

In the course of the writing of this blog, I’ve come to discover that Lucius B. McKelvey presided over the store during some of its greatest years. More than that, he was deeply involved in civic and business affairs in the city, and in charitable efforts.

Lucius B. McKelvey was the son of G.M. McKelvey, the founder of McKelvey’s. Born in Hubbard on October 5, 1879, he attended Youngstown city schools, playing on the first Rayen High School football team of 1894. He went on to study mining engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He engaged in mining for several years in Idaho but returned to Youngstown in 1903 when his father’s health was failing. His father died two years later, but he did not assume the leadership of McKelvey’s until 1917, continuing as president until his death.

Due to his business acumen, he was tapped for several roles. In 1920, he became president of the Youngstown Club, a position in which he served for over a decade. In 1922 he became a director of the Mahoning Water Company, and later its president. This included administering the reservoir on the east side that later bore his name, McKelvey Lake. In 1933 he became the president of the Youngstown Chamber of Commerce.

His popularity in the Valley may well have helped Herbert Hoover win the 19th district’s votes for president. He was friends with his rival Isaac Strouss, and served as one of his pall-bearers when Strouss died in 1925. He was an approachable presence in the store, know as L.B., and rarely called “Mr. McKelvey.” He made an effort to get to know new employees. On Christmas Eve, he would be the last to leave the store. He was an active member of Esther Hamilton’s Alias Santa Claus Shows, winning an award on at least one occasion as the best “candy butcher.” He not only raised money for Christmas baskets but personally delivered some of them. This was only one of a number of charitable efforts including raising money for polio victims, and for the Community Chest. He received an award in 1941 for efforts in China relief.

He was in poor health for several months before his death but thought to be improving when he suffered a stroke on the morning of July 24, 1944, dying a few hours later. At the time of his death, the Red Cross has been trying to arrange a furlough for his son William, who was serving in Italy in the war effort at the time.

Lucius B. McKelvey was far more than the approachable, hard-working president of the G.M. McKelvey Company for twenty-seven years. He was a leader in Youngstown’s business community in giving back to the city and seeking its development. He unsuccessfully labored to bring airplane manufacturing to the city and believed diversification of its industry vital to its future. He was comfortable relating to the man on the street, the customer in his store, the indigent, and the powerful.  I wish I had known him…


Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — The President from the Mahoning Valley


President William McKinley — Photo Public Domain

Ohio is the birthplace of seven U.S presidents. One of these was born in and grew up in the Mahoning Valley. He was the 25th president of the United States. Probably the most significant event during his presidency was the Spanish-American war, at the end of which the United States acquired Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines, which later gained their independence. The other major event of his presidency was its end, six months into his second term. He was in Buffalo to attend the Pan-American Exposition, when an anarchist by the name of Leon Czolgosz came up to him in a receiving line and fired two shots into his abdomen. He died eight days later from his wounds on September 14, 1901, putting his Vice President, Theodore Roosevelt into the White House. The presidency would never be the same.

William McKinley was born in Niles, Ohio. If you’ve ever driven through Niles, you likely have seen and gone past the National McKinley Birthplace Memorial. The birthplace home and research center is located nearby on 40 South Main Street. His father, William McKinley, Sr. settled in Lisbon as a boy where he met and married Nancy Allison. Both families made their living in iron-making and McKinley Senior had foundaries in Lisbon, Niles, Poland, and later Canton.

When McKinley was nine, his family moved to Poland, Ohio, where McKinley was enrolled in Poland Academy (later Seminary). Poland Seminary was a private institution, and as such, its finances later failed with the property being sold to the Poland City with the stipulation that the high school retain the name Poland Seminary, which it does to this day. One other famous connection to Poland Seminary was Ida Tarbell, who taught there before going on to a career in journalism where she gained notoriety as one of the “muckrakers,” particularly for her investigative reporting on John D. Rockefeller of nearby Cleveland, and his Standard Oil monopoly.

McKinley went on the Allegheny College, but had to return home to Poland after a year, in 1860, where he worked as a postal clerk and school teacher. He served under, among other officers, fellow Ohioan Rutherford B. Hayes, who became a mentor and friend and preceded him as Ohio’s governor and later U.S. President. McKinley began the war as a private but rose to the rank of major. He was decorated for his bravery on the battlefield. During Antietam, when he was serving as Quartermaster, his regiment was pinned down in the thick of fighting for hours without food, and McKinley made it through enemy lines and fire to bring them rations.

After the war, he returned for a time for Poland, decided on a career in law and read law with a local attorney before moving to Albany law school to complete his legal training. After this, he moved to Canton where he established his legal practice and began his rise in politics, first as country party chair, then serving several terms in the U.S. House of Representatives and then from 1892-1896 as Ohio’s governor.

McKinley was friends with at least two prominent Youngstown figures who I’ve written about in previous posts. Colonel Lemuel Talcott Foster (of Fosterville fame) was a boyhood and lifelong friend of McKinley. Joseph Butler was a political supporter and adviser of McKinley and wrote a biography of McKinley. Butler worked with the Niles Board of Trade to establish the McKinley Birthplace Memorial.

McKinley was not a dynamic leader like either of the Roosevelts. He was well enough regarded at the time to win a second term in an era with a string of one term presidents. Anyone who has taken a Hawaiian vacation can thank him, because he acquired Hawaii for the U.S. along with other territorial acquisitions. Hawaii would become a key base for projecting U.S. power in the Pacific. On balance, along with the many other people the Mahoning Valley has produced, we can be proud that we raised a civil war hero, lawyer, representative, governor and president who served honorably in all these roles.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown–McKelvey’s

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West Federal Street, early 1960s with McKelvey’s on the right (photo source unknown)

McKelvey’s. It was one of the two fine department stores in downtown Youngstown. I know it best because I worked there for several years in high school and college. Actually, by the time I worked there, it was already owned by the now-defunct Higbee Company that owned a chain of department stores in Cleveland. During the time I worked there, Higbee’s replaced the McKelvey name with its own. It was a sad day to see the old vertical McKelvey’s sign (light green with red neon lettering) come down.

I got the job through my father, who worked for the store until it closed in  1982. He started out working in men’s furnishings, and then became the cosmetics buyer. I went on one of his buying trips with him to Washington, DC. One of the people he bought from sent my mom a perfume gift every year, even after both he and my dad were retired. Later dad moved up from the first floor to the fifth floor where he managed the TV and appliance department as well as the once fabled Hall of Music, where children from all over the city could take music lessons. They also sold pianos.

His last position was as the manager of the McKelvey’s Grille on the first floor. It always impressed me that with no restaurant experience, he was able to come in and turn around a struggling operation into one that provided good service and good food, especially for the downtown lunch crowd. One of the side benefits was that he picked up a recipe for Reuben sandwiches which he used to love to make for the family. I wish he had passed it along, because it is rare that I have had Reubens so good!


I think I got to see the store in the last years of its glory. The men’s department on the first floor still had tailors on site where you could be measured for a custom suit. A good friend of mine worked in the camera department on the first floor for awhile. Second floor was women’s fashions, including furs, “foundations” (what a quaint euphemism!), and millinery, back when women wore hats more than most do today. There was also a hair salon. Third floor included a bridal registry located right by the china department, as well as a department for cloth and clothing patterns. I worked at the back of the third floor in layaway and customer service, where you dealt with complaints, opened credit accounts, and took payments, all of which I did at one time or another. Fourth floor was furniture as well as Abbey Studios, where I had my graduation pictures from high school taken. Fifth floor included toys, sporting goods, records (where I spent a good part of my pay!), and TVs and appliances as well as the Hall of Music. The sixth floor was executive offices, the employee cafeteria, and employee lounges for men and women. I occasionally had to go up to one of the executive offices and always hoped I wouldn’t run into Mr. McKelvey!

What most people didn’t see was the rabbit warren of stock rooms from the receiving department in the basement to a variety of rooms off the sales floors of most floors. There was one set of stock rooms where we kept some layaway items that had to be reached via this old hand-activated elevator. You released a lever, and pulled up or down on the cable to make the elevator ascend or descend and then flipped the lever again in time to catch a “stop” on the cable at the floor you wanted.

Christmas was a wonderful time when the display department unleashed all its talents to turn the store into a Christmas wonderland from the display windows on Federal Street to Santa Land on the fifth floor. I liked it because I could get lots of extra hours working just in time to pay for all those Christmas presents.

G. M. McKelvey

G. M. McKelvey (from History of Youngstown and Mahoning Valley, Ohio by Joseph Green Butler), 1921, American Historical Society)

Just a little history. George M. McKelvey first opened a general mercantile business at the corner of Oak Hill and Mahoning Avenue in 1869. Later on he operated the Red Hot Cash Store on West Federal and for awhile the Hubbard Store Company in Hubbard before moving back to Youngstown in 1882 and purchasing in partnership the E.M. McGillen Company, which became G. M. McKelvey & Co. and was later incorporated as The G. M. McKelvey Company in 1901. G. M. McKelvey died in 1905 and his son Lucius took over the presidency of the company in 1917.

The William McKelvey I knew was his son and was president of the company until Higbee’s purchased it, after which he continued to hold an executive position. Unlike Strouss’, McKelvey’s did not expand to the suburban shopping centers and malls, except for several Loft stores operated for a period of time from the late 60’s to the late 70’s. These were clothing stores appealing to young men and women. There was a Loft within the downtown store, and at least at Southern Park and Eastwood Malls. As mentioned above, Higbee’s closed the downtown store in 1982 after which the buildings were razed to make way for government offices.

What are your memories of McKelvey’s?


Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Christmas Clubs and Layaway

Christmas clubRemember Christmas Clubs, and layaway programs at department stores? Local banks and credit unions offered Christmas Club savings programs where you could put in a set amount each week, one dollar, five dollars, ten dollars, and withdraw it before Christmas to do your Christmas shopping. [I found out that 72 percent of credit unions still offer these Christmas clubs.]

Then there was layaway. You could buy your gifts early, maybe getting a good sale price, where you put down a deposit, paid a small fee, and could make payments on your purchase until you had paid off the total amount. There was no interest, just the layaway fee. [I also learned that a number of discount department stores like Walmart and K-Mart and Toys R Us still have layaway programs.]

layaway-signI knew about layaway. My first real job with an hourly wage was as a stock clerk in the layaway department at McKelvey’s. We kept layaway items in a separate stockroom near the customer service area. Once to several times a day, a floor stock boy would circulate through the store and pick up layaway items. My job was to sort these into numbered bins after putting the customer’s last name and the last two digits of their layaway receipt on the box. It was also my job to find layaway items and bring them out to the customer when they paid off their items.

Christmas could be especially crazy. It seemed that just as soon as you sorted one batch of packages, the floor stock boys would bring more. The weekend after Thanksgiving was the worst. The bins would be really full, to the point that we sometimes had to use an extra room for storage. But it could also be fun, particularly when you were bringing kids toys out that you realized were going to go under a Christmas tree, or a new dress or coat that a husband was buying for his wife.

Returns were never fun. Maybe it was an impulse buy (and we had some customers who seemed to have more than their share of these). Maybe it was an unexpected emergency and the money was needed elsewhere. We gave full refunds except for the layaway fee. The sales people in the department never liked to see you because returns were charged against their sales. This was just a case of “don’t shoot the messenger.”

I think layaway and Christmas clubs were popular back then because people weren’t nearly as comfortable with credit. Some were working people who remembered the Depression when banks called mortgages and they lost everything. They remembered the tight times during layoffs or a work injury. Maybe they were just saner in wanting to avoid debt or just leery of the small print that often came with credit agreements. I know there were some people who thought that it was nobody else’s business to know about their finances, which you had to disclose on a credit application. They had a point. Later on I worked in customer service and had to call local credit bureaus and look at credit reports. There were some who probably wouldn’t have qualified for credit.

Christmas clubs and layaway allowed you to keep life on a cash basis, saving as you go or paying as you go. Maybe the Christmas wasn’t as big as you would want, but either way, on Christmas Day, you knew it was all paid for, and that was worth some Christmas cheer.

Do you have stories of how you or your parents used layaway and Christmas club programs to buy on a cash basis?

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Santa Comes To Town

free_personalized_santa_claus_video_for_kidsSanta Claus has been making a grand entrance into Youngstown going back nearly a century, at least. I came across this item in A Heritage to Share: The Bicentennial History of Mahoning County and Youngstown, Ohio, from 1921:


    Evidence that the characters in the Santa Claus scene have undergone change over the years is found in the fact that on December 12th, a number of Santa’s surrogates arrived via the Erie Railroad to prepare the way for the later arrival of the jolly old gentleman himself. Chris Claus, brother of Santa, and “Toofy”, his companion, whose job it was to look after Santa Claus’s mail during the rush hours, came in via railroad because ‘they ran out of snow about 200 miles north of here and were compelled to forsake the reindeer and dog teams.’ Some 200 children met the pair at the railroad station and escorted them to the George L. Fordyce Store where Santa maintained local headquarters until Christmas. There were so many adults in the crowd, pushing and shoving to get their children’s letters into the hands of Santa Claus that the reception committee was lost in the crowd and the ropes that were intended to hold back the crowd proved utterly ineffective. In regard to the effect of the Santa Claus traditon upon children, Superintendent of Schools O. L. Reid said it should be encouraged. ‘Whatever tends to develop or prolong imagination is well worth while’, he told members of the Sunday School Institute at Central Christian Church” (p. 241).

With air travel and the opening of the Youngstown Municipal Airport, I’ve read a number of accounts of Santa arriving from the air in the 1940’s. Until the 1980’s, Santa’s arrival was heralded in the Strouss’ Thanksgiving Day parade in downtown Youngstown. Santa also made a big arrival at Hills Department Store, landing in a helicopter. Many of the stores (Hills, Strouss and McKelvey’s) had some version of Christmas land with the chance for children to sit on Santa’s lap, have their pictures taken with him, and tell him all the things they wanted for Christmas.

I don’t remember ever going to the airport or the parade or visiting a department store Santa. I do remember a Christmas party held for families of lodge members at my dad’s lodge where we got to sit with Santa and went home with a stocking full of goodies.

The tradition continues. Santa will be visiting Mill Creek MetroParks this weekend. Today (November 28, 2015) children can give Santa their wish list from 11 AM to 5 PM at the Old Fashioned Christmas at Lanterman’s Mill. Tomorrow (November 29, 2015), Santa will make his appearance from 11 AM to 2 PM with some unusual animal friends like camels, yaks and reindeer at Santa’s Winter Barn at the Metroparks Farm. Since the barn is not heated, dress for the weather!

Then on Friday December 4, Santa will be part of the Youngstown Holiday Parade and Tree Lighting in downtown Youngstown. Festivities begin at 4:30, the parade starts at 5:30 and the tree-lighting is at 6:30. This year’s Grand Marshal for the parade is Sister Jerome Corcoran, who is nearly 100 years old.  According to the article Santa’s arrival will coincide with the tree-lighting and kids can get their pictures with Santa afterwards.

I’m glad this long tradition is continuing. I’m with that former Superintendent in thinking that “whatever tends to develop or prolong imagination is well worth while.”

What are your memories of Santa’s arrival?


Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Holiday Shopping

West Federal Street Thanksgiving Storm

West Federal Street during the 1950 Thanksgiving weekend storm (c) The Vindicator, scanned from “A Heritage to Share: The Bicentennial History of Youngstown and Mahoning County, Ohio”.

Christmas shopping season started the day after Thanksgiving when I was growing up in Youngstown. Stores gave their employees Thanksgiving off to rest up for the onslaught of the next month. Beginning with Thanksgiving though, The Vindicator provided a countdown of shopping days until Christmas.

In comments on previous posts people have shared about the arrival of Santa Claus at the Vienna airport, about the Christmas displays at McKelvey’s and Strouss’ and other downtown stores as well as Hills’ toyland. I have to say that I don’t have much memory of this as a child other than driving through downtown Youngstown at night and looking at the lights and display windows and the big Christmas tree at Central Square. We really couldn’t afford to shop at the downtown stores and, as I recall, most Christmas gifts probably came via the Sears catalog or a discount store. My only memory of “sitting on Santa’s lap” was at a Christmas party at our church. What I remember more from that party was the stocking each of us received full of candies and small toys. That was fun!

I do remember that as a paper boy, newspapers were much heavier during Christmas season with all the ads. The Thanksgiving paper was full of them and especially every Wednesday and Sunday. I often had to use a wagon for delivering papers on those days because they were too bulky and heavy to fit into my newspaper sack. I often wondered how the city could possibly buy all the stuff advertised!

McKelvey's logo

McKelvey’s logo

Later on, I worked as a stock-boy and then as a customer service rep at McKelvey’s (later Higbee’s). This gave me a chance to see Christmas from the inside of a department store. I worked in Layaway and this was the time of the year we’d get inundated. On the Friday after Thanksgiving we’d get inundated with packages that I had to store on a honeycomb of shelves. People would pay for these “on time” with a small layaway fee (I think the highest it was while I worked there was $1.50). This was a good alternative to credit for many who were still suspicious of credit cards but wanted to make sure they could get the item. We’d have a second busy wave the week before Christmas as people would come in to pay off their items. What was least fun about this job was “returns”, the items people failed to claim or got refunds on because the didn’t want them. Department clerks always hated seeing me bringing packages back to them because it meant a loss against their sales.

Our area of the store was also where clerks would turn in sales receipts and figures at the end of each day. Our supervisor was charged with compiling these and we could often tell by the expression on his face as to whether it had been a good day–and every day counted. Later, I got to work “out front” in customer service, which was not particularly enjoyable as we dealt with complaints about deliveries or had to deal with people who were over their credit lines. Mostly, you let people vent, did what you could, kept smiling and didn’t take their guff personally! What was fun was that a number of women who worked in the department loved to bake and more or less had a bake-off with each other–you know all those good Youngstown Christmas cookies. We had our own stash!

What I did learn through all of this was how hard, and at relatively low wages everyone worked. I was amazed at the artistry of some of our display people (some were art students at YSU). There were all the people working in the stockrooms to ticket and put out merchandise. There were all those clerks who spent hours on their feet assisting customers. And there was our store Santa, who you could tell was pretty tuckered out at the end of the day listening to all those squirming kids and “ho-ho-hoing!” and posing with hundreds of those kids for that snapshot that would make Christmas memories.

What all this gave me was an abiding appreciation for those who work in stores, and especially for those who serve with cheerfulness. It is not easy work, especially at Christmas. I don’t want to be one of those customers who is memorable for all the wrong reasons that people talk about in the employee cafeteria or the break room!

What are your Christmas shopping memories? Did you have any seasonal jobs at Christmas, and if so, what was memorable from those?


Growing Up In Working Class Youngstown — Downtown

Growing up in the 50’s and early 60’s in Youngstown, going downtown was a big deal. You dressed up. I remember going downtown with my grandmother and having to get out of summer play clothes and dressing up in my Sunday clothes. My wife, who also grew up in Youngstown, remembers this as well–in her case, the girls even wore white gloves.  By the mid-1960s, things probably started loosening up, which is also about the time that the bustling downtown of my childhood began dying. More on this later.

Home Savings and Loan

Home Savings and Loan

We lived on the west side of the city, off of Mahoning Ave where there is a bit of a hill. I could look out the back window of my bedroom and see downtown, parts of the mills, and the north side of the city, where St. Elizabeth’s Hospital (now Medical Center) is located. What stood out on the skyline was the Home Savings and Loan bank tower, which was lit at night. It is so iconic that the bank still uses this in their logo.

Strouss' Logo from the 60s

Strouss’ Logo from the 60s

Shopping in downtown Youngstown seemed a bit of a magical experience, whether it was going to get a malted shake at Strouss’, one of the big department stores along West Federal Street, or looking out on all the shoppers from the Mezzanine level. I went through a phase where I collected stamps, and one of the best places in the 60s to get stamps in Youngstown was the Mezzanine level stamp counter, so it was kind of a “twofer” for me. Strouss’ eventually built satellite stores in the shopping strips and malls that sprang up in the late 60s. Later on, they were bought out by the May Company.

McKelvey's logo

McKelvey’s logo


The other big department store was G.M. McKelvey’s, which always had incredible Christmas displays, the “Hall of Music” where you could take your kids for music lessons, and a grille on the first floor that my father managed for a time. My first (and only) experience of punching in and out on a time clock came when I worked as a stock clerk through high school and college.  My wages (and some scholarships) paid my way through college, as it did for a number of friends I made there, most of us students at Youngstown State. Eventually, Higbee’s in Cleveland bought them out, and then closed down the store in 1979. The building, which was actually a maze of several building when you explored all the stock rooms in the place, was eventually torn down

Of course, there were a number of smaller businesses and several theatres there at the time. The first movie I ever saw (I think) was “Babes in Toyland” in the State Theatre. The Warner Theatre was eventually turned into Powers Auditorium, the home of the Youngstown Symphony. As rock ‘n roll took off, the Record Rendezvous was the place to get your latest hits. You shopped for shoes at Lustigs. There was a Woolworth’s and Kresges with soda fountains. Many doctors and lawyers had offices in Central Tower on the square. My orthodontist was there-not such a happy memory! Nor was registering for the draft in the Selective Service offices which I believe were in the main post office building.

St. Columba’s Cathedral still presides over downtown Youngstown from a hill just north of the downtown. The Cathedral burnt down in 1954 and was rebuilt on the same site. A number of other church buildings also were located in or near downtown including First Presbyterian Church, St John’s Episcopal, and my own church, then known as Tabernacle Presbyterian Church, at Wood and Walnut Streets. In the 1960s the church relocated to a west suburb.

And that tells the tale of what happened to downtown Youngstown as so many other downtowns. Suburban communities grew up around the city as the more affluent moved out. More retail shopping occurred in strip plazas and the two shopping malls eventually built in the area. As people moved from foot and bus transportation to the automobile, bus service to the downtown dwindled. And when the steel mills closed in 1978, the stores soon followed.

In more recent years, the city has torn down dilapidated buildings. Government offices occupy the old McKelvey building space. Restaurants have opened and cater to the crowds attending events at the Covelli Centre. A “business incubator” occupies the old Strouss’ building. Youngstown hangs on and is trying to reinvent itself.

In working class Youngstown, I think the downtown we grew up with represented the finer things in life one strove for in one’s work. It reminded you that there were times and places that were special–holiday displays and trees on the square, or going to the bank to get a loan to improve your house. You minded your manners, you dressed up, and you anticipated a trip downtown as something special. What was amazing was that things that special could be found not just in a few places like New York or Chicago, but even in working class Youngstown.