Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Fellows Riverside Gardens


Lake Glacier from Fellows Riverside Gardens (c) Robert C Trube, 2014

The two overlooks at Fellows Riverside Gardens provide views of the two faces of Youngstown. The north overlook provides a vista of the Mahoning Valley. One can see the sites of former steel mills, and further off, two significant Youngstown institutions, St Elizabeth Health Center and Youngstown State. In the foreground to the right is the former Isaly facility, and further off the downtown. The other overlook, to the south, reveals the north end of Mill Creek Metro Park, with a grand view of Lake Glacier. On one side the changing economy of the city, on the other, its emerald jewel.

In 1958, Elizabeth Fellows bequeathed this property and funds to establish the gardens that bear her name and are now visited by over 400,000 each year. Plantings began in 1963 and it seemed like my life has woven through this site ever since. My dad and I went for walks in the park often and we walked there soon after the first plantings began, mostly roses if I recall.  We went to the garden center and looked at plans for the future expansion.

As the years passed, more garden beds, shady alcoves, fountains and paths were laid out. It was a great place in spring and summer to go for walks with your sweetheart. We have photos of a summer afternoon at the Gardens, each of us against the backdrop of the south overlook with Lake Glacier in the distance. We have wedding photos of the two of us sitting by the fountain, and of us gazing lovingly at each other with Lake Glacier in the background once again. That photo is just across the room from me as I write. Oh, we were young, thin(!), and in love. I can say that at least the “in love” part is truer than ever after nearly 38 years.


Victorian Gazebo at Fellows Riverside Gardens  by Aamir515 at en.wikipedia [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (, from Wikimedia Commons

After we moved away, the Gazebo was built, yet another great site for weddings. We would take our parents to the Gardens on visits back and it seemed to just grow in beauty, even in the midst of Youngstown’s struggles. In later years, the D.D. and Velma Davis Education and Visitor Center was built. My dad knew D.D. Davis and thought highly of him. You cannot imagine how thrilled he and my mom were when we celebrated their sixtieth anniversary there in the summer of 2001, with a catered dinner in the gallery, and a family picture on the overlook to Lake Glacier on the center’s terrace. For a few years after my parents continued to enjoy good health, and even as they grew more frail, one or the other of us would take them to the Gardens from time to time.

About five years ago was our last visit. It was for the wedding of a college friend’s daughter. Our son and she grew up going to the Canfield Fair every year before her mom passed. They knew each other well enough to not be interested in other–just good friends. One of our memories from that day was getting pictures of my son and his wife at the same spot where we had posed for our wedding. There was also a moment that day that caught at our hearts, as we found a brick remembering my wife’s dad and his brothers, all of whom had passed.

The seasons and generations of plantings at Fellows mirror the seasons and generations of the families whose stories have woven through this place. The spring of young love gives way to the summers of families with children and parents enjoying the gardens together. Diamond Anniversaries symbolize the autumn years as does sitting peacefully with Dad on a bench, too frail to walk much, but drinking in the beauty and the memories. And there is winter, when we have names and memories of those who have passed…and the hope of Spring’s New Life.



Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Polkas

““Original Polka, The””. Photograph. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Web. 16 May. 2015.

I wrote this past week about one of Youngstown’s distinctive wedding traditions, the cookie table. It was fun to hear from so many who read this blog who confirmed that this is a tradition that goes back at least to the beginning of the twentieth century, and may have been brought here by immigrants. And in the last few decades, this has become an “all-Youngstown” tradition.

One tradition that is perhaps less distinctive to Youngstown but was also a big deal at weddings was polkas. Polkas originated in Central Europe.  Almost all polkas are in 2/4 time and involve a very simple dance step that you often see parents teaching children at weddings (2 half steps with a hop on each foot in turn beginning on your right–you can watch a dance instruction video here.). Polkas are usually accompanied by accordion, string bass, banjos, drums, and perhaps an electric keyboard.

Here is an example by one of the giants of polka music, Frankie Yankovic from nearby Cleveland:

This is fun music (“I hear a polka and my troubles are through”) and the perfect thing for those receptions in the union halls of Youngstown. It was so fun to watch surprisingly light-footed, burly steelworkers and their wives twirling around the floor as well as young kids and teenagers. And at most weddings as the liquor flowed freely during the evening, the dancing got more exuberant.

All the “chicken dance”, “hokie-pokie” and line dancing that seems to be a feature at every wedding these days came later. There were slow dances to be sure but polkas kept things lively. Then there was the tarantella, which makes the line dances at today’s weddings look pathetic–we remember a tarantella at a wedding reception at Powers Auditorium while we were in college, where the tarantella snaked up and down the staircases in the foyer!

My dad loved to listen to polkas on the radio every Saturday afternoon (while mom was in the background muttering, “I wish he’d turn those d**n polkas down!). The two that I always remember are “the Beer Barrel Polka” (“Roll out the Barrel”) and “Who Stole the Kischka, an excerpt of which was in the dance instruction video linked to in this post (a kischka is a kind of sausage, but the polka is rich in double entendre). I understand that the Beer Barrel Polka is played during the seventh inning stretch at Milwaukee Brewers games. There are a number of Youtube videos of both online as well as a number of other polka videos, particularly of Frankie Yankovic.

I’m wondering if there are places around Youngstown where polkas are still a big part of weddings. I suspect part of the problem is that there might not be as many people playing this kind of music, or even playing the accordion, these days. This is a tradition that I hope is not lost. It just seemed to be perfect — a simple dance, lively music, fun lyrics — for celebrating a couple launching out on life.

What are your polka memories? Have you been to a wedding where there were polkas lately?

[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.]