Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — John D. “Bonesetter” Reese

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John D. “Bonesetter” Reese. Public Domain

When I wrote about the Welsh in Youngstown last week and the Welsh Congregational Church, someone asked me about “Bonesetter” Reese. I had to tell the truth that I had never heard of him. It turns out that he may win the award of the most famous Welshman to have a Youngstown connection. More remarkable, he treated everyone from mill workers to athletes to a British Prime Minister yet he dropped out of medical school after only three weeks. He was known as the nation’s “baseball doctor.” He would never be able to do what he did today. And there is evidence that the medical profession at the time wasn’t too happy about him.

He was born in 1855 in Rhymney, Wales, losing his father in infancy and his mother ten years later. He went to work in the ironworks and was befriended by a fellow worker, Tom Jones who was known as a “bonesetter.” The term had to do with manipulating bones and muscles to alleviate various strains of muscles and tendons, and maybe some dislocations, but not actual broken bones. His work sounds akin to a contemporary chiropractor.

He moved to the United States in 1887, working first for Jones & Laughlin Steel. Later, he moved to Youngstown, working for Brown-Bonnell and then for the Mahoning Valley Iron Company as a roller, a skilled position. His other skills soon became evident as he treated fellow-workers suffering various strains and sprains. James Anson Campbell, at that time an administrator, and later Chairman of Youngstown Sheet and Tube, encouraged him to go to medical school.

By 1894, he had so many “patients,” he had to quit his work at the mill. This attracted the notice of local doctors who accused him of practicing medicine without a license. As a result, he did not charge a set fee for his services, which would violate law. He told factory workers “pay me when you get it.” To address the criticism, he went to the medical school at Case in 1897–for three weeks before dropping out. It didn’t hinder his practice and eventually, the tensions were alleviated, both because of influential friends, and strict boundaries of what he would treat, referring acute illnesses to physicians. Eventually the Ohio Legislature, by extraordinary action, licensed his practice.

His initial connection with Major League Baseball came through treating Jimmy McAleer, a fellow Youngstowner who played for the Cleveland Spiders. Eventually, McAleer managed the St. Louis Browns and sent players to Reese. In 1903, the Pirates tried to hire him as team doctor but he refused to leave Youngstown and his practice with the mill workers who were always his first priority.

He became skilled in treating players and many came to him including some of the most famous of the time including Cy Young, Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby, Walter Johnson, and John McGraw. He dealt with sore elbows, often the affliction of fastball pitchers, and sore shoulders, the affliction of curve ball pitchers. He also treated boxers and football players. Other famous people sought his services including Will Rogers, Teddy Roosevelt, Charles Evans Hughes and fellow Welshman David Lloyd George, who eventually served as Great Britain’s Prime Minister.

His obituary in The New York Times tells this story of some of the wonders he worked:

“One of Mr. Reese’s most remarkable cures was worked on the throwing arm of Glenn Wright, Brooklyn shortstop. The limb was injured in a basketball game in the off-season and in the middle of the 1929 National League campaign Wright quit the game, apparently ‘through.’ Reese worked on the arm that Autumn, and in the Spring of 1930 the brilliant infielder came back with a wing that cut down baserunners with rifle-like throws from all angles of the short field.”

In 1926, the American branch of the Welsh Gorsedd selected Reese for its highest honor, the Druidic degree, recognizing his service to humanity. The degree was awarded during an Eisteddfod at Wick Park.

He died of heart disease on November 29, 1931 in Youngstown. His funeral service was held at the Welsh Congregational Church. His minister summed up his life in these terms:

“He began to serve early in his life and kept on. He was faithful to the end. The only life worth living is the life of service”

Reese called Youngstown home for forty years and chose to stay and serve local residents as well as the illustrious who sought his treatment. His remains rest to this day, along with those of his wife, Sarah, at Oak Hill Cemetery.

Sources:

Howard C. Aley, A Heritage to Share: The Bicentennial History of Youngstown and Mahoning County (Youngstown: The Bicentennial Commission of Youngstown and Mahoning County, Ohio, 1975), pp. 236-237.

David W. Anderson, “Bonesetter Reese” Society for American Baseball Research.

John D. Reese,” Wikipedia.

BONESETTER REESE DIES AT AGE OF 76,” The New York Times, November 30, 1931, p. 17.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — The Welsh in Youngstown

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Welsh Congregational Church building. Photo by Nyttend. Public Domain via Wikimedia

When I was a student at Youngstown State, I would often finish classes in the afternoon and walk down to McKelvey’s, either to work on Monday and Thursday evenings when they were open, or to catch a ride home on other days, with my father, who also worked there. My route would take me past the magnificent St. Columba’s, but also past a much plainer church building on the other side of Elm St., the Welsh Congregational Church. The church had wood siding painted white, similar to many churches one sees in rural towns, but with a cruciform shape with the two arms toward the front of the building. Dormer windows had crosses above them, and a steeple topped the entry facade.

I knew Youngstown was a mix of many ethnic communities, but I knew absolutely nothing about the Welsh community in Youngstown. In writing about Youngstown over the last several years, I discovered that the Welsh played an important role in the development of the coal, iron, and steel industry in the city. David Tod, who opened one of the first coal mines in Brier Hill, employed John Davis to run his mining operation. Davis played a crucial role in recruiting a number of other Welsh immigrants to come to the Mahoning Valley. Welshman William Philpot built the Eagle Furnace in Brier Hill and William Richards, another Welshman managed the operation. By the 1840’s, there was a sizable community living in Brier Hill and elsewhere. 

The Welsh are known for their singing.  Music festivals known as eisteddfods were major occasions with various choirs competing for top honors. Given the robust Welsh community in Youngstown, it was the home for the first eisteddfod in Ohio in 1860, and the first annual state competition in 1885. St. David is the patron saint of Wales, and Saint David’s Day, March 1, is another time when the Welsh gathered for food and song. The St. David’s Society was formed in 1891 in Youngstown, hosting banquets complete with music and storytelling down to this day. At one time, in the early 1900’s, up to 15,000 Welsh from Youngstown and surrounding areas gathered for annual picnics at Idora Park.

In 1845, a group of Welsh formed a Congregational Church in Brier Hill. The name reflected their history as churches independent of the Church of England in England and Wales. Thomas Evans was their first pastor.  In 1861, Thomas W. Davis became the church’s pastor and they built the church I walked past 110 or so years later. It quickly became a center of Welsh community activities. In 1887, the building underwent major reconstruction, essentially in the form it survives in to this day.

The church worshiped at this site for over 100 years. In 1976, the building was sold to the Messiah Holiness Church of God in Christ, who worshiped there until 1997, when a fire resulted in the building being permanently closed. This would spell the end of most buildings, but in 1986, the building was registered in the National Register of Historic Places because of its architecture and community history. It is the oldest church building in Youngstown.

The Youngstown Catholic Diocese now owns the property, wants to preserve the building while re-purposing the space, and has asked Youngstown CityScape, a non-profit involved in beautification and redevelopment efforts in the greater downtown, to move the building. Youngstown CityScape has funds to move the building, which has been deemed architecturally sound for such a move, and are seeking funds to renovate the building, at an estimated cost of $700,000. The problem has been finding a suitable site nearby. Originally, there were plans to move the church building to Wick Park, where CityScape has been engaged in a number of improvement projects. That move has been nixed, and other sites have been proposed from land in the Youngstown Land Bank, to the “Wedge” greenspace near the Steel Museum, to the site of St. Anthony’s on the River on Oak Hill. A major issue for any location is that the city not be saddled with ongoing costs.

It is not clear at this time what the solution is. One clearly needs to be found soon to avoid further deterioration of the building, necessitating razing the structure. It is a significant part of Youngstown history, representing a community that contributed significantly to the building of the city, and the oldest house of worship in the city. Perhaps it is time for an appeal to St. David…

Sources for this article:

Howard C. Aley, A Heritage to Share: The Bicentennial History of Youngstown and Mahoning County (Youngstown: The Bicentennial Commission of Youngstown and Mahoning County, Ohio, 1975), pp. 45-46.

Welsh Congregational Church,” Wikipedia

William Osborn, Music in Ohio (Kent: Kent State University Press, 2004), p. 363.

Linda Linonis, “St. David’s Society Preserves Welsh Heritage,” The Vindicator, February 19, 2014.

The Old Welsh Congregational Church,” Y-Town is My Town, Monday April 10, 2006.

CityScape shares plans to move Welsh church to Wick Park,” The Vindicator, July 20, 2018.

Graig Graziosi, “Welsh Congregational Church may stay put for the moment,” The Vindicator, September 16, 2018.

Wick Park no longer site for relocating Youngstown’s oldest church,”  WKBN.com,  September 27, 2018.

Preserve Wick Park,” Facebook.

Jordyn Grzelewski, “Oak Hill Collaborative announces sale of former Anthony’s On the River,” The Vindicator, November 29, 2018.