Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Mill Layoffs

Ohio Works Reunion video with footage of U. S. Steel Ohio Works

Long before Black Monday, a reality steel workers dealt with were periodic layoffs. During economic slowdowns, demand for steel dropped. Sometimes, in preparations for strikes, companies would build stockpiles. Layoffs could follow.

That’s what happened in the summer of 1971. The companies and unions averted a strike. Six days after the new contract had been approved, layoffs occurred all over the country. In Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania, 47,000 workers were laid off. In Gary, Indiana, 34,000 workers were idled. And in Youngstown, 2,700 workers at U.S. Steel’s Ohio Works were laid off on July 17.

One big difference between strikes and layoffs is that the latter were eligible for unemployment benefits. In 1971, the average hourly wage was $4.57 an hour (the contract increased that by about $1 an hour) or about $183 for a 40 hour week. Unemployment benefits came to an average of $110 a week plus supplemental benefits. Many workers, at least at the beginning, thought of this as an extended vacation. It was a good time to take on remodeling projects–at least as long as the unemployment benefits lasted.

It was 50 years ago on February 4, 1972 that the announcement was made that workers were being called back to the Ohio Works. It was a good thing. Their unemployment benefits, set to expire in January, were extended by thirteen weeks. Five open hearths were being readied, with production to begin by February 14. One blast furnace would be started up on February 18 and rolling mills would begin on February 16.

The one hitch was that not all 2700 would be called back at once and the article in the Youngstown Vindicator does not indicate the initial number being recalled nor whether all eventually would be. That was the uncertainty that the fathers of many of my friends lived with, as they wondered if they would be back to work before unemployment ran out. What began as a vacation and a chance to work on home projects became a time of belt-tightening, of looking for side jobs, and checking in with the union local (in this case, local 1330) about any news about their jobs.

Working in the mills was hard and dangerous work. But the wages allowed the children of immigrants to own homes and begin to climb the economic ladder. But it was precarious in many ways besides working conditions, in this case a nearly seven month layoff. There really wasn’t anything you or the unions could do. Perhaps, though, it was a warning of what would come later in the decade of the 1970’s.

To read other posts in the Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown series, just click “On Youngstown.” Enjoy!

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — William B Pollock and His Company

wm b pollock

William B. Pollock

During my student days in the 1970’s, a student group I was part of met regularly at the Pollock House, often in the living room just inside the front door. At that time, the ROTC program had offices and classrooms upstairs. Years later, when the building had been converted to the Wick-Pollock Inn, we celebrated my parents fiftieth wedding anniversary there. Now, of course, it serves as the president’s residence for Jim and Ellen Tressel.

The house was built in 1897 as the home of Margaret Wick, the widow of Paul Wick and her daughter Mary. When Mary married Porter Pollock, the son of William B. Pollock whose company bore his name, they moved into and expanded the residence. In 1950, the Wick family donated the house to what was then Youngstown College.

But who was William Browning Pollock and what did he contribute to Youngstown history? It might be said that the iron and steel industry was in his blood, and that much of the machinery of iron and steel production was made by him. He was born in Pittsburgh in 1832, the son of a well-known machinist and engineer. At an early age, he began operating blast furnaces in the Shenango and Mahoning Valleys. Before long, he was building blast furnaces, first in northeast Ohio and western Pennsylvania and as far away as Chicago and St. Louis.


Cyclopedia of Modern Shop Practice.  Chicago:  American Technical Society, 1907.

In 1863, Pollock recognized that the iron industry of Youngstown needed a plant to fabricate the boilers, furnaces, ovens and other equipment needed for iron production. The company was initially called the Mahoning Boiler Works but quickly adopted the name William B. Pollock Company. A publication of the company on its 75th anniversary in 1939, The William B. Pollock Company presents the seventy-five year history of its contribution to the advancement of the art of iron and steel makingstates that the company had been involved in the manufacture of more than 75 new blast furnaces, and rebuilt 447 blast furnaces, accounting for most of the blast furnaces in the United States at that time. Pollock created ingenious methods of increasing the capacity of blast furnaces, resulting in higher productivity.

Eventually, the company expanded into other products involved in iron and steel making including ladles and the cinder (for slag) and hot metal cars that transported molten iron from one part of a plant to another, allowing processing into steel without re-smelting.

Hot metal train - Pollock

A “hot metal” train exhibit at the Youngstown Steel Heritage Museum; part of President Rick Rowlands’ and other Youngstown Steel Heritage Foundation members’ collection of heavy equipment salvaged during the drastic downturn in Youngstown, Ohio’s steel industry and economy. Photograph in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Porter Pollock work alongside his father for many years in leading the company until his father passed away in 1914. Porter’s diary reflected the work ethic held by him and his father.

“Honest work, honestly represented, honestly sold are the rules followed and tend to a high standard as well as a high rate of efficiency.”

When Porter Pollock passed away in 1931, his son William B. Pollock II took over. The expertise in metal plating allowed them to expand business into manufacturing oil tanker rail cars and even metal caissons for a New York skyscraper.

Over time, they moved from Basin Street to South Market Street to their final location on off Andrews Ave. An article in 1963 celebrated its 100th anniversary as a company, concluding with these words:

“On the strength of its first century’s achievements. you feel that its next 100 years really will be ‘a breeze.’ ”

In 1963, no one saw the demise of the major steel companies in Youngstown. The closure of these plants was followed by the closure of the William B. Pollock Company in 1983. Two specialty steel companies acquired parts of the facility in 1986, operating for a time until it went vacant. In 2011 Brilex Industries acquired the plant, bringing machining, fabricating, and assembly to this site once again.

The William B. Pollock Company didn’t make steel. They made the machinery that made the whole enterprise possible. For 120 years. In Youngstown.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — 1916 Steel Strike and East Youngstown Riots


William Gropper, “Youngstown Strike” 1937, Butler Institute of American Art

This past week was significant in Youngstown working class history. On January 7, 1916, a steel strike against Youngstown Sheet and Tube descended into tragic violence. A crowd of strikers and their wives had gathered on Wilson Avenue by bridge at the north entrance to the plant to prevent “scabs” from entering. Stories vary as to how the tragedy unfolded. Either rocks were thrown or a shot was fired from the crowd toward the security forces protecting the entrance to the plant. Then guards fired into the crowds. When the shooting was done 3 were dead and at least 27 injured.

This was only the beginning. Workers broke into company headquarters, burning records, looking for “blacklists” of union organizers target for violence. The enraged workers then turned their anger on local businesses, looting and destroying nearly 100 business blocks and residences in East Youngstown (present day Campbell) with losses in excess of $1 million dollars. Two thousand National Guard troops were called in to restore order.

Hundreds of rioters were arrested and many drew prison sentences. Workers were blamed but records do not show where those arrested worked. There were rumors of foreign agents and union instigators, none proven. A fascinating detail was that the grand jury that returned indictments against the rioters also indicted heads of the major steel companies (the strike involved not just Youngstown Sheet and Tube, but U.S. Steel, Brier Hill, and Republic Steel).

What led to this outbreak? The strike, which began on December 27, 1915 was over wages. Despite a thriving economy with wartime manufacturing, wages had been cut 9 percent the previous year and unskilled labor earned just 19.5 cents per hour. Growth of the industry had led to crowded housing, and these costs and the cost of living left most families earning less than it cost to live. The workers had asked for a wage of 25 cents an hour, time and a half overtime, and double overtime for Sundays.

The irony? Hours before, company leaders had announced a wage increase to 22 cents an hour, which went into effect after the riots. But other changes followed. Youngstown Sheet and Tube helped rebuild East Youngstown and built better worker housing that included electricity and indoor plumbing when outdoor facilities were the norm. The village was eventually renamed Campbell after James A. Campbell, chairman of Youngstown Sheet and Tube.

Not all was sweetness and light. Wages rose and fell with the economy but did not progress over the next twenty years. Another violent confrontation occurred twenty-one years later in the “Little Steel Strike” of 1936-37. Artist William Gropper visited Youngstown during the strike and published sketches and an article in The Nation. He painted Youngstown Strike during this time, but what it depicted was the events of 1916. The painting is part of the collection at the Butler.

To write of these strikes is to write of events from another time before my own. Strikes during my growing up years did not have the violence of these early confrontations. Mostly, it was an unexpected vacation at first, and increasing belt tightening when unions and management couldn’t reach settlements. Guys made ends meet by painting houses and other handyman work. Until Black Monday.

We are unquestionably in a different time. Philosopher George Santayana famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The violence of 1916, inexcusable on all sides, reminds us of the consequences when there are tremendous disparities between wealth and poverty and hard working people cannot earn enough to live. It seems at least to some extent Youngstown Sheet and Tube learned that they had to make workers’ situations livable. Will today’s companies remember these lessons from the past? Or will they repeat them?


Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Black Monday


Photo by Stu Spivak [CC BY-SA 2.0] via Flickr

Most of the posts I’ve written about Youngstown are about good memories. This one isn’t, but September 19, 2017 marks forty years since Black Monday. Youngstown never has given up, but it never has been the same.

On Monday, September 19, 1977, Youngstown Sheet and Tube, no longer locally controlled, issued this statement:

“Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company, a subsidiary of Lykes Corporation, announced today that it is implementing steps immediately to concentrate a major portion of its steel production at the Indian Harbor Works near Chicago. . . .The company now employs 22,000 people. The production cut-back at the Campbell Works will require the lay-off or termination of approximately 5,000 employees in the Youngstown workers.” (cited in Robert Bruno, Steelworker Alley, p.9).

Five thousand people and their families faced the lost of a major income source, and work generations had counted on for a career. Between 1979 and 1980, U. S. Steel left Youngstown. By the mid-1980’s Republic Steel declared bankruptcy and ceased operations. Like a rock thrown into a pond, the big splash of Black Monday rippled throughout the Youngstown economy. It is estimated the area lost 40,000 manufacturing jobs and 400 satellite businesses.

There were probably multiple causes, including suburban malls and plazas, but McKelvey’s (Higbee’s) closed a couple years later, leaving my father without a job at age 59. Many younger workers left Youngstown to find work in other cities, many moving south and west. Older workers like my dad found whatever they could locally, to get by until retiring, usually at much lower wages. At the time, my wife and I were starting out our lives together and living in Toledo (a city that suffered similar catastrophic losses of automotive manufacturing jobs later on). When we heard the news, we realized that we would not be returning to the same Youngstown that we had grown up in when we visited parents. Gone was the glow of blast furnaces lighting up the valley at night.

I could go over all the history of attempts to re-start the mills, or lure manufacturers to Youngstown, or talk about all the reasons the mills failed. Others have hashed all that out. All I can say is I’ve never had much tolerance for those who blame workers or followers or circumstances for failure, particularly if the ones doing the blaming are management or leadership (I say that as one who has worked in management).

When someone dear to you dies, you grieve and face how life will be different after the loss. I remember the anniversaries of my parent’s deaths. As the years pass, I probably think less of the loss than of what we had. I also realize we can never go back to that life, or bring our parents back.

Perhaps that’s what the fortieth anniversary of Black Monday is like, as well. We grieve what the Valley lost, remember what was good, and maybe learn from the past so we don’t repeat it. We learn not to put all our eggs in one economic basket, and that we no longer can count on a particular type of job always being there for ourselves and our kids. We learn that ultimately the company won’t look out for us, nor can we count on the government to look out for us. And maybe we remember that our greatest resources are still our faith, our families and friends, and our own hard work, initiative, and a Youngstown “stick-to-it-ive-ness” that doesn’t give up, but keeps on getting up.

For those who will be in the Youngstown area on September 19, the Mahoning Valley Historical Society is hosting “Remembering Black Monday: 40 Years Later” at the Tyler History Center from 7:00 to 8:30 pm. A panel of historians and community leaders will discuss the impact and legacy event. This is a free event. More information is available at the Mahoning Valley Historical Society website.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Joseph G. Butler, Jr.


Joseph G. Butler, Jr., Author Unknown. Source: The Youngstown Telegram. Public Domain-US, via Wikipedia

I visited the Columbus Museum of Art on Friday. One of the reasons was to see the actual painting of “Morning Drive” by Christopher Leeper, about which I wrote in an earlier post, “The View From Home.” Leeper’s painting is the view of downtown and the Valley from the corner of Mahoning Avenue and North Portland, where I lived. It is in an exhibit of the Ohio Watercolor Society until September 10, and captures the view that is in my mind’s eye when I think of looking down Mahoning Avenue toward town on a cold and clear winter morning.

The visit to this museum, which has been expanded in recent years, reminded me what a treasure Youngstown has at the Butler Institute of American Art, which easily goes toe to toe with the Columbus, in a far bigger city. For one thing, from its establishment, admission to the Butler has always been free, in comparison to what we paid for admission (even with AAA discount) plus the add-on fee for a special show plus parking. It reminded me of the gift Joseph G. Butler, Jr. gave to the city, and the wider art world in establishing this museum and generously funding it upon his death. And so it made me wonder a bit more about the man behind the museum.

I discovered he was a multi-faceted individual:

He was a pioneer steel-maker. Butler’s father and grandfather were iron manufacturers and blast furnace experts and Butler brought this to Youngstown and facilitated the transition to steel manufacturing. He joined Henry Wick in organizing the Ohio Steel Company, building two Bessemer plants along the Mahoning River, which later became the Ohio Works of Carnegie Steel, later U.S. Steel. His industrial leadership formed the core of his wealth and led to directorships on numerous boards including that of Youngstown Sheet and Tube and the Youngstown and Suburban Railway Company.

He was a dedicated civic leader. He led the fund-raising drive that established St. Elizabeth’s Hospital and worked with the Niles Board of Trade to establish the McKinley Memorial for William McKinley, a classmate of his during his youth in Niles and friend. He also donated monies for libraries and a number of other community institutions.

He was a collector of American art. Butler realized that the works of American artists were overshadowed by those from Europe. He assembled a significant collection in his Wick Avenue home, much of which was lost in a 1917 fire. Plans had already been laid for the Butler, a museum to house his collection, which opened in 1919. When he died in 1927, most of his $1.5 million estate was bequeathed to the Butler.

I found two other interesting aspects to Butler as well.

He was a political insider. His prominence and wealth as a national leader in industry gave him access to most of the presidents of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. He was a staunch Republican, and his support was considered indispensable in any national campaign.

He was a historian. Amazingly, this busy man had the time to write a biography of McKinley, a memoir titled Presidents I Have Seen and Known, a history of steel-making, and a three volume History of Youngstown and the Mahoning Valley, which has been digitized and may be downloaded here. His other works are also in digital form and came up on this search result.

Thriving cities do so, I’m convinced, because they enjoy dedicated, competent, and honest leadership from three sectors: civic, political, and business. Butler represented all three and a number of the bright spots in the city from its hospitals to its libraries to the Butler are a consequence of his influence. His foresight in recognizing the dearth of talented American artists works being represented in museums led to establishing what is arguably the foremost museum of American art in the country. His careful historical writing provides a bedrock of historical information about his times, and our hometown. The impact of his philanthropy continues to make its mark in the Mahoning Valley nearly 100 years later.

While times have changed, communities will continue to need men and women who use the benefits of wealth, access, education, and leadership skills for the benefit of their communities. People like Joseph G. Butler, Jr. and Volney Rogers are worth the study of contemporary community leaders in Youngstown. Both invested nearly 50 years of their lives in Youngstown, around the same time. One gave us a world class museum. The other, a jewel along Mill Creek. Whose investment in the Valley will make a difference in the next century?


Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Black Snow


One of the beauties of winter is the pristine whiteness of a blanket of new-fallen snow covering streets, sidewalks, roofs, and tree limbs, and turning even the most prosaic landscapes into winter wonderlands.

Rarely do these last long before traffic and snow-removal equipment turns the virgin snowfall into mounds of snow and streets of slush. But in the Youngstown I grew up in, this landscape was changed, or strangely tinted in the phenomenon known to some of us as “black snow.”

In some parts of the city, the snow was black or gray as it fell, picking up the particulates of the steel mills. In most other parts of the city, the snow would soon be speckled with black particles, from the soot in the atmosphere that drifted downward and coated the snow.

It was the winter equivalent of “black rain” that especially afflicted communities in the shadow of the mills like Struthers, but could affect other parts of town depending on the wind patterns.

We didn’t think too much about the fact that the air that colored the snow was also the air we breathed. It was simply a sign of the prosperity Youngstown enjoyed when the mills were going full tilt. Whether it was dirty piles of snow or stains on siding or pitting on cars, at the time we simply regarded it as the color of jobs.

There were few people at the time who questioned whether this was good for us, even when it made so much dirty and ugly. In fact, often such folk were shouted down because more environmental regulations and anti-pollution measures would just take away jobs. The question was, was black snow and rain taking away something else?

It is probably difficult to measure the respiratory effects of this pollution on things such as incidence of cancer or COPD or asthma because of the prevalence of smoking and second hand smoke during this same era. But it probably didn’t do us any favors.

That day is now past, and while it was traumatic for Youngstown, and there is no way to go back to the old days, it has also opened the way for Youngstown to be a cleaner city, one without black rain or snow. One with a river that fish live in and people boat on. One that has the potential of being a healthier place to live. And perhaps one where a snowfall stays beautiful just a bit longer…

Do you remember black rain and black snow? Do you know those who were affected by the air quality of the city in years past?

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — The Mahoning River

One thing I’ve noticed in conversations about Youngstown is that, at least in my experience, we rarely talk about the Mahoning River. And yet the Mahoning is a defining feature of the city and surrounding area. The city literally grew up along the River and extended outward from it. The steel industry would not have existed without it. And it lent its name to the region around Youngstown, referred to as the Mahoning Valley, and indeed to the county of which Youngstown is county seat, Mahoning County.

“Beaverriverpamap” by Kmusser – Self-made, based on USGS data.. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

According to this website, the name is an Indian name meaning “salt licks’. The river arises near the Stark and Columbiana County border close to the town of Winona and follows a northeasterly course up to Warren, Ohio, and then flows southeast from Warren through the heart of Youngstown and then on into Pennsylvania where it joins the Shenango River to form the Beaver River which flows into the Ohio River northwest of Pittsburgh. It is approximately 113 miles in length, the first half of it in rural areas, the latter part flowing through industrial areas.

After floods in 1913 that inundated the parts of Youngstown along the river including the mills, a series of dams were built upstream creating Berlin Lake and Lake Milton, recreational lakes west of the city. Additional lowhead dams were built along the river as well to help control the flow of the river.

Much of the story of the Mahoning River we grew up with was connected with industry providing both water supply and waste disposal for the steel industry. My wife recounts going over the Mahoning on her bus to elementary school and watching greenish wastes pour directly into the river and watching the river bubbling. We used to joke that you wouldn’t dare wade in the river because you would dissolve. It was considered one of the hottest and most polluted rivers in the country and alternately ridiculed and held up as an example of industrial pollution as the environmental movement gained steam. The only thing it didn’t do was catch fire, as did the Cuyahoga in nearby Cleveland. We had a lot of sympathy for our Cleveland neighbors!

Mahoning River Mills c. 1910 (accessed from:

Mahoning River Mills c. 1910

Youngstowners resented much of this national attention and, until 1977, people in the city by and large stood with the steel companies in resisting EPA efforts to control wastes flowing into the river and to clean up the river. Such efforts meant increased costs and threatened jobs. That’s how the river had been used for generations and it was as if we collectively agreed to write off the lower half of the Mahoning River to industry. Anyone who thought otherwise was labelled an “environmental crazy” or worse.

My sense is that the thinking is changing. There is now a Mahoning River Fest to call attention to the beauty of the river, taking people for boat rides on the river. The river has begun to come to life, although still polluted with toxic wastes in the form of heavy metals in the riverbed, particularly concentrated behind the lowhead dams. Discussions have been under way with the Army Corp of Engineers about the best ways to remediate the pollution through some combination of removing the lowhead dams and dredging, both which will also aid the river flow and help it cleanse itself.  Regional planners have argued that the benefits of cleaning up the river far outweigh the costs but neither the funding nor a plan have been settled upon. And so it is the case that the Ohio Department of Health continues to advise no wading (maybe our jokes weren’t completely off base) and no eating of fish from the river. And no one would think of using it for drinking water (except that it does flow into rivers that do provide drinking water for people downstream).

The need for continued vigilance remains. In March of this year, the owner of a fracking company plead guilty to dumping toxic wastes into a tributary of the Mahoning River. The fracking industry has moved into eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania in a big way and without a clear determination to clean up and preserve a river healthy for wildlife and people, the Mahoning’s story could be repeated. My hope is that we will learn from our working class history and not let another big industry pollute this precious resource and leave another mess that yet a future generation will need to clean up.