Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Reuben McMillan


Reuben McMillan

When I was a young boy, my father took me to the Main Library each Saturday to take books out of the library–the Reuben McMillan Library. I didn’t give it a thought as a kid, but as I explore our shared history, I keep coming across the names of people who helped make the city of Youngstown what it was and still is. Reuben McMillan is one of these people.

McMillan was born October 7, 1820 in Canfield. He went to various schools until age thirteen and then took up the trade of harness making. Working during the day, he studied Latin, algebra and geometry and other advanced subjects in the evenings. By 1837 (at seventeen!) he started teaching in rural schools and used his earnings to continue to advance his own education from 1839 to 1843 at a private academy. By 1849, he was serving as superintendent of the Hanoverton schools in Columbiana County, then Lisbon and New Lisbon schools until he retired in 1853 due to health issues which dogged him throughout his life. Regaining his health, he became superintendent in Salem in 1855, then Youngstown in 1861.

He served as superintendent in Youngstown for six years until failing health necessitated his resignation in 1867. Were it not for this, he could have been superintendent of the Cleveland system. That was not to be, to Youngstown’s benefit. By 1872, restored health permitted him to return to his superintendent’s position in which he served until 1886. In Joseph G. Butler, Jr’s History of Youngstown and the Mahoning Valley, he describes why Reuben McMillan was so highly esteemed:

“It was not mere length of service, however, that endeared Youngstown school pupils and Youngstown men and women of mature years to Reuben McMillan. Blessed with great ability, he was also one of the kindliest of men, tender, considerate, devoted to his work and caring little for personal gain. The poorer children of the schools were the object of his
special solicitude. His beauty of countenance of itself stamped him as one of nature’s noblemen. He was a tutor by example as well as precept, living the God fearing life that he encouraged in the youth of Youngstown. In religion he was a Presbyterian, and for some years was an elder in the old First Church here.”

While libraries had been part of Youngstown schools since the 1840’s, McMillan, joined by two teachers and two physicians, formed the Youngstown Library Association on October 27, 1880. The library began with 168 volumes and the two teachers, Miss Pearson and Miss Hitchcock were the first librarians, working out of a building on West Federal Street. The library went through a reorganization and on March 5, 1898 was named the Reuben McMillan Free Library Association, which is still the official name of The Public Library of Youngstown and Mahoning County. This was a special honor since McMillan was still alive at this time, passing on June 23 of that year.


Richard A. Brown home, an early location of the Youngstown Public Library

The other special honor bestowed on McMillan came later. From its original home on West Federal, the library moved to the Richard A. Brown home in 1891 (now the site of the Mahoning County Courthouse). In 1907, a $50,000 gift from Andrew Carnegie made possible construction of a library at the corner of Wick and Rayen Avenue. When the library opened on December 3, 1910, with a capacity of 225,000 volumes, it was named the Reuben McMillan Free Library. Usually, the library is named after the major donor and there are many Carnegie libraries around the country. This was a case of a leader whose contribution was more important than money — an idea — a free library open to all residents of the city.

A large portrait of Reuben McMillan was hung in the library with this tribute from John H. Clarke, another advocate for the library, who helped pass legislation to allow tax levies to support public libraries:

“A man who sought neither wealth nor honor save as these were to be found in the faithful doing of his duty. He spent a long life for meager salary in training the youth of the city to live the highest intellectual life. When his name was chosen for the library it was because his generation chose to honor and revere that type of manhood which finds its best expression in that high stern-featured beauty of steady devotedness to duty.”

Reuben McMillan never enriched himself as an educator, but left a rich legacy to Youngstown in establishing a library to enrich the lives of children and adults from every walk of life in the city–a mission it continues to carry out to this day.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Libraries

Do you remember your first trip to the library? Were you, like me, utterly amazed at the shelves and shelves of books? Were you a little intimidated by the librarians who would “shush” you if you talked in the library? (I don’t think they do this as much any more in our day of kinder and gentler libraries.) Those are some of the early memories I have of going to the library as a boy growing up in Youngstown.

Some of you may have noticed that when I’m not writing about Youngstown, I write a good bit about books–books I’ve read and about reading and literacy.  I have to say that I owe my love for books and this value of literacy, at least in part, to the libraries in Youngstown.

Main Library from Public Library of Youngstown website:

Main Library from Public Library of Youngstown website:

My first memory of the Youngstown Library was of my father taking me to the main library on Saturday mornings. As a child, you were only allowed to go to the children and youth section of the library in the lower level. How I longed to be old enough to explore the stacks upstairs!

Later on, I got a library card of my own. Back then, they had a system that I believe involved photographing the card along with the cards of the books you were withdrawing–long before the days of barcodes! Eventually, most of my trips to the library were to the West Side branch on Mahoning Avenue. I liked going during the summer to get an armful of books to read on hot summer days (when I wasn’t at the pool!). I had fun just exploring the different sections–science, sports, and war history were among my favorites. I’d usually check out the maximum and come back a week later.

West Side Library--Youngstown Ohio from Public Library of Youngstown website:

West Side Library from Public Library of Youngstown website:

In high school, I would visit the library for papers I would have to write. Our school librarians introduced us to the card catalogue, and the Dewey Decimal System, and The Readers Guide to Periodical Literature, these green covered journals where you could look for magazine articles by topic, listed in columns and columns of tiny print. (What is amazing is that I can now access all these things, and either read online or reserve materials and even drive through and pick them up!)

Of course as a college student, I spent a good deal of time in Maag Library at Youngstown State. During an honors seminar in my sophomore year when I wrote a long research paper, I discovered that reference librarians could be your friend in helping you find material not only at your own library but at others. They were great–and I think often under-appreciated!

Maag Library (c) Robert C Trube

Maag Library (c) Robert C Trube

It seems that libraries are a common thread in my family. My wife worked at the Brownlee Woods and Main Libraries during high school and part of college. My son’s first job during high school was shelving books at our local library in Columbus. And libraries in Youngstown have figured even in our adult life. We celebrated a 50th birthday of a good friend at the Austintown Library. We donated books from my parents home to the Poland Library book sale. I’ve even met colleagues from Pittsburgh at the Poland Library a couple times in conjunction with Youngstown visits and enjoyed lunch at the Kravitz Deli.

A bit of history about the Public Library of Youngstown (most of this I found in A Heritage to Share, a birthday gift from my son who found a copy in a used bookstore in Columbus). The Youngstown Library was founded in 1880 by Reuben McMillan, then superintendent of the Youngstown Public schools. Like many libraries around the country, it received major funding from Andrew Carnegie, but unlike many others, bore McMillan’s name, a tribute to his leadership in the formation of the library. I came across this set of facts from the Depression era that signified the importance of the libraries to working class Youngstown:

Poland Library (c) Robert C Trube

Poland Library (c) Robert C Trube

“The Reuben McMillan Library reflected the times when it reported a 20% increase in the circulation of fiction, and a 40% increase in non-fiction circulation. The greatest demand in non-fiction was for books and manuals concerning repairs of furniture and household appliances, automobiles, and other practical household procedures, and books concerning business and science. The library reported a total circulation in excess of 1 million books.”

Then as now, libraries offered the economically disadvantaged the resources to sustain themselves through do-it-yourself projects as well as the chance to self-educate to improve one’s opportunities. Libraries provided books for both educational and pleasure purposes for children at no cost to cash-strapped families.

I’m thankful for the educational and civic leadership that created the library system in Youngstown. It encourages me to see that libraries still are an important part of the Youngstown community. Children’s programs, access to the internet, and promotion of both literacy and technological knowledge are critical elements to educating the next generation of our children for the new economy in front of us.

What are your memories of trips to the library? How do you use libraries today?