Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Independence Day

man with fireworks

Photo by Rakicevic Nenad on Pexels.com

Independence Day

Day begins early–holiday Vindy to deliver

Flag-lined streets

We’re all patriots

Dad cooks bacon and egg breakfast

Sousa marches on the radio

“We hold these truths to be self-evident…”

Picnic preparations

Neighborhood alive with firecrackers

A wonder any of us has ten fingers

Drive through Mill Creek to grandparents

Through the smoke of a dozen barbecues

Meat on the grill

Guys standing around with a brew

Women shuttling between kitchen and back yard

Dishes cover the picnic table

Hotdogs with all the fixins’

Burgers grilled to perfection

Grandma’s potato salad

The best baked beans

Jello salad

Strawberry shortcake

Peach pies

Stuffed

Leisurely conversation

Horseshoes

Hide ‘n seek

Popsicle break

Dusk

Lighting sparklers

Citronella candles

Pile into the car

Idora fireworks

The perfect Fourth

And two more months of summer!

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — The Honorable Nathaniel R. Jones

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Nathaniel R. Jones, by Jay Godwin for the LBJ Library / Public domain

He grew up in Smoky Hollow. His father worked in the mills and later did janitorial work. His mother took in laundry. As a high school youth, he wrote for a local newspaper and organized a boycott of a segregated roller skating rink. He rose from working class beginnings to become a judge in the second highest court in the land as a justice on the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth District. The new Federal Building and Courthouse in downtown Youngstown bears his name. Nathaniel R. Jones.

Nathaniel Raphael Jones was born in Youngstown on May 13, 1926 to Nathaniel Bacon Jones and Lillian Isabelle (Brown) Jones. After his father was laid off from his work in the mills during the depression, he washed windows and did janitorial work in local theaters, often taking Nathaniel along. His mother eventually became the subscription manager of The Buckeye Review, the local black newspaper. Publisher and lawyer J. Maynard Dickerson took young Nathaniel under his wing, allowing him to write a sports column in the paper.

As a high school student, he was active in the NAACP youth council, organizing a successful boycott of a roller skating link that allowed blacks to skate only on Monday nights. After serving in the Army Air Force, he went to a restaurant by the name of DuRell’s in the Youngstown area that refused to serve him. He filed suit against them, winning a judgment that did little more than pay his attorney’s fees. But he made a point. So began a career of pursuing civil rights for blacks.

He went to Youngstown College, and then received a law degree from Youngstown University, graduating in 1956 with his law degree. He set up a private practice, until named by Attorney General Robert Kennedy as Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Ohio in Cleveland in 1961. He was the first black to serve in the district in this position. In 1967 he was named Assistant General Counsel to the President on President Johnson’s Kerner Commission on Civil Disorders.

After briefly returning to private practice, in 1969 he agreed to serve as general counsel for the national NAACP. At a recognition banquet hosted by the Youngstown NAACP the following year, he described the situation of blacks in the U.S. in these terms: “We still live in the basement of the great society. We must keep plodding until we get what we are striving for.” In his role as general counsel he strove to change that situation, directing all litigation for the NAACP. He argued cases challenging school segregation in the North and against racial bias in the military. He persuaded Governor George Wallace to pardon Clarence Norris, the one surviving member of the Scottsboro Boys, wrongly accused of the rape of a white woman in 1951.

His fight against racial injustice was fought not only in the courts of the United States. In the 1980’s, he was arrested in South Africa for protesting the nation’s apartheid policies. Later, he helped in the drafting of a new South African constitution, ending apartheid. He also consulted with other African countries on setting up their judicial systems.

On August 28, 1979 President Jimmy Carter nominated Nathaniel R. Jones to the to the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. He assumed senior status in 1995 and retired on March 30, 2002. During his term on the bench, he taught at the University of Cincinnati law school and at Harvard Law School. On May 6, 2003, the second federal courthouse established in Youngstown was named in his honor.

After retirement from the court, he became Senior Counsel for Blank Rome LLP and co-chairman of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati. He wrote a memoir, published in 2016: ”Answering the Call: An Autobiography of the Modern Struggle to End Racial Discrimination in America.” That same year, he received the NAACP’s Spingarn Award, their highest award, recognizing outstanding achievement by an African-American.

Nathaniel R. Jones died of congestive heart failure at age 93 on January 26, 2020. He was one of the most distinquished figures to rise from working class beginnings in Youngstown. His comments to the Cincinnati Enquirer may give us a clue to his distinction. He said, “The key to prevailing as a minority in a segregated, oppressive society is to not let the prevailing stereotypes define who you are.”

He prevailed.

[Special thanks to Nick Manolukas for suggesting this article]

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Frank Sinkwich

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Frank Sinkwich, Unknown author / Public domain

I was the second generation to grow up on the West side of Youngstown. My parents grew up on the same street where I live and went to high school together at Chaney in the late 1930’s. I remember dad talking from time to time about the great Frank Sinkwich, who played under one of Chaney’s legendary coaches, Chet McPhee. Sinkwich won the Heisman Trophy in his senior year with the Georgia Bulldogs. He went on to a brief pro career.

Sinkwich was born in the town of Starjak in Croatia October 10, 1920 (the same year my parents were born). The family moved to Youngstown two years later, where his father Ignac operated a grocery store. When they first came to Youngstown, they spelled their name Sinkovic’. By 1940, the Sinkwich’s owned a family restaurant. The Wikipedia article on Sinkwich attributes his competitive drive to growing up playing football on the streets of the West side, “I learned early in neighborhood pickup games that I had the desire to compete. When people ask why I succeeded in athletics, I always tell them that I didn’t want to get beat”

Sinkwich was one of the great players to come out of Chaney but was nearly overlooked by the college scouts. Georgia Bulldog assistant coach Bill Hartman had visited Youngstown to recruit another top pick who committed instead to Ohio State. Hartman supposedly was refilling his car at a local service station when an attendant told him about a good player who lived down the street. He met Sinkwich’s dad on the front porch and persuaded Sinkwich to visit Georgia. The rest was history.

As a freshman, he led a team known as the “point-a-minute” Bullpups to an undefeated season. Sinkwich plead with Head Coach Wally Butts to be a fullback but Butts wanted him to play halfback, a position where he would both run and pass. Butts said of him, “He acquired, through hard work and endless practice, the ability to pick the open receiver better than anybody I ever saw.” In 1940, his first year on the varsity squad, UPI named him to the All-Southern First Team. In 1941, his junior year, he set an SEC record with 1103 rushing yards, in addition to 713 passing yards. From the third game of the season on, he did this with his jaw wired shut when it was broken in a previous game. He had a specially designed helmet. He led Georgia to a 40-26 victory over TCU in the Orange Bowl with 139 rushing yards and 243 passing yards and three touchdowns. He was a potent double threat.

The big year was the 1942. He had 795 rushing yards and 1392 passing yards (an SEC record at the time) for a total of 2187 yards. That year, he led the Bulldogs to a 9-0 victory over UCLA in the Rose Bowl, scoring the winning touchdown with two sprained ankles. He was a unanimous All-America choice and was awarded the Heisman Trophy. In three years, he rushed for 2,271 yards, passed for 2,331, and accounted for 60 touchdowns—30 rushing and 30 passing. He was the very first pick in the first round of the NFL draft, being picked by the Detroit Lions.

His first two years looked like the beginning of a stellar career. In both 1943 and 1944 he was named All-Pro, and MVP in 1944. Then he went into the service, and while playing for an Air Force service team, he suffered a serious knee injury that basically ended his career. He tried to return to the pros in 1946 and 1947, but was never the same and retired. He briefly tried coaching, with positions at Furman and at the University of Tampa, and a semi-professional team in Erie, PA in 1949.

After this, he returned to Athens, Georgia where he operated a successful beer and wine distributorship. Apparently, he never contemplated returning to Youngstown after his years in the South. He was reported to have said, “I’m from Ohio, but if I’d known when I was 2 what it was like down South, I would have crawled here on my hands and knees.” He died October 22, 1990 in Athens after an extended battle with cancer. Vince Dooley, then athletic director at Georgia said of him, “We’ve lost one of the great legends in football history. He was not only a great player but a wonderful person and citizen of Athens”

In addition to the Heisman, his greatness was acknowledged both in life and after his death. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1954 and the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame in 1967. He was inducted into the University of Georgia Circle of Honor in 1996 and his jersey was retired, one of only four Bulldog players to receive th8s honor.

Frank Sinkwich was one of the great football players to come out of Youngstown, and out of Chaney High School. As he said, the streets of the West side gave him his competitive fire. But then Youngstown has always been a football town.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — White House Fruit Farm

It’s strawberry picking time! Remember going out as a kid to pick strawberries? If you were from Youngstown and surrounding areas, there is a good chance you went to White House Fruit Farm near Canfield to pick. Remember the old wooden strawberry containers? Remember eating as much as you picked? Then you got home and made strawberry shortcake.

This is the one crop you can pick at the farm. Their farm market features a number of fruits and vegetables grown on the farm and purchased from other area growers. They sell sour cherries in mid-summer, apples as they ripen, and cider. There is nothing like fresh picked apples for eating and pies! Up until 1968, you could buy your Thanksgiving turkey at White House farm.

Beside the fruit, one of the things they are most famous for are donuts, particularly blueberry iced donuts, which are far and away the consensus favorite. They make over 40 varieties of donuts, accepting orders large and small. The also sell other baked goods, deli meats and cheeses, fudge, specialty foods, as well as farm produce. There are also seasonal events including their Fall Festival and Winter Gift Barn.

During the spring and fall, they offer tours for school children that include an apple, cider, and a donut. Currently they are priced at $4 a child, $1 for adult chaperones, and free for teachers! They also welcome bus tours.

The 100 acre farm was purchased by Jerome Hull in 1924 from his uncle, Ensign Baird. At the time, Hull was superintendent of Mahoning County Schools. Jerome and his newly wed wife Doris started growing apples and peaches on the farm immediately (at one time Mahoning County was one of the leading apple producers in Ohio. Beginning in the Depression, they started raising and selling turkeys, up to 5,000 a year to area groceries and at the farm.

Jerome and Doris also grew children, nine in all. Son David and his wife took over the farm. They gave up the turkey business in 1968 to focus on fruit growing. In 1978 they cleaned out the bank barn built in 1881 to create a farm market. Now they are joined by a third generation with son Dave, daughters Debbie Pifer and Wendy Lynn operating the farm. They have built two lakes and a whole farm irrigation system, enhancing both the beauty and growing capabilities of the farm.

With COVID-19 and a cold spring, 2020 has been a challenging year for White House Fruit Farm. For a time they were closed to all but curbside pick up orders. Like other businesses they are open with special precautions and more limited hours. Strawberries are ripening later. If you are visiting (and you should!) you should check their website for when strawberries are in season, current hours and precautions, and the many other services and events they offer (including fruit baskets). It’s a good time to plan a visit to your childhood memories!

Other contact information:

9249 State Rt 62, Canfield, OH 44406

330-533-4161

Google Maps

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Brenner’s Jewelers

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My wedding ring, from Brenner Jewelry.

Wednesday was my 42nd wedding anniversary. The picture above (can you tell I’ve been washing my hands a lot?) shows my wedding ring. My wife’s engagement ring and wedding ring match and were purchased back in 1977-78 at Brenner’s Jewelers at the corner of Hazel Street and West Federal Street in downtown Youngstown. I probably knew Brenner’s best because it was just down the street from McKelvey’s where I worked during college. I also had a friend from high school who worked there for a while. I bought my wife’s rings on credit and paid them off by the wedding.

John Brenner started out in the jewelry business training with a Mr. Barkody for five years. He then incorporated his business in 1904 as the John Brenner Jewelry Company with capital stock of $20,000. At this time the store was located at 117 W. Federal in the Kress Building. In 1932 Brenner’s move down the street to its location at Hazel and Phelps in the complex of buildings connected with McKelvey’s. He established a business in diamonds, watches and all kinds of jewelry, enjoying a fine reputation in the business community. In researching this article I found a number of examples of watches and jewelry with the Brenner name. Interestingly, he was also president of the Youngstown Cattle Company, raising cattle and growing fruit on large holdings he owned in Cuba!

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The old John Brenner Jewelry Co. in the Kress Building at 117 W. Federal

It was a family business, with Conrad Brenner as Vice-President, and Carl Brenner as secretary and treasurer.  Carl Raymond Brenner, Jr. was born in 1931. After military service in the Air Force in Japan from 1953 to 1955, he returned to Youngstown and joined the family business and eventually became president of the business. In time, he expanded their business to three stores in Youngstown and Boardman. Eventually the downtown store closed before the demolition of the former McKelvey buildings in 1982.

“Ray” Brenner was active in the Youngstown community. He served on the boards of the Community Chest/United Appeal, Better Business Bureau, Downtown Board of Trade, Planned Parenthood and the Youngstown Symphony Society. He served as president of the Boardman Youth Center and led the funding drive to build a new Youth Center. He was He was a member The Youngstown Club, the Youngstown Country Club, Elks Club, and the Boardman Swim Club.

He led the business for fifty years, which would be into the 2000’s. His obituary from 2012 mentions how much he loved working with a young man buying an engagement ring. I did not have the fortune to meet him but friends who knew him spoke highly of him. I don’t ever remember TV ads for the store. The phrase that comes to my mind for the store downtown was “understated refinement.” Both young men like me and the wealthy of the city were equally welcomed and well-served by a business that endured over 100 years. Many of my generation will always remember the Brenner name. I carry that memory on my ring finger.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Erie Terminal

I wrote recently about student safety patrols.  One of the fun “perks” of being a patrol boy was the annual trip to Cleveland to see an Indians game. We took the Erie-Lackawanna Railroad out of the Erie Terminal in downtown Youngstown, located at 112 Commerce Street, where Phelps intersects with it. After those trips as a boy, I never gave the building a thought, even though its six stories were a dominant feature in the Youngstown skyline seen from Youngstown State. I’m sure I passed by it when I was working at McKelvey’s. Passenger rail service continued until January 14, 1977, though it had been dwindling to a few passengers a day for some time.

At one point, it was a very different story. The Erie Railroad had passenger service between New York and Chicago.  Youngstown was exploding, growing from 133,000 in 1920 to just over 170,000 in 1930. Until after World War 2, the quickest way one traveled between these cities was rail. Four major railroad trunk lines converged in Youngstown. So in 1922, the Erie Railroad commissioned Youngstown architect Paul Boucherle as architect for a six story building that would serve as terminal for the Erie Railroad’s passenger traffic and offices for the railroad. After completing this rectangular Classical Revival building in 1923, Boucherle moved his own architectural offices into the building.

The building sat vacant after rail traffic ended and the Erie Lackawana consolidated into Conrail. In 1986, it was listed in the National Register of Historic Places as part of the Downtown Youngstown Multiple Resource Area. There are a number of historical buildings that are included in this listing for downtown Youngstown and the significance of listing is to deem the building worth historic preservation, which may qualify those preserving the building for tax breaks.

In the early 2010’s Dominic Marchionda, a native Youngstowner joined with a New York property group to form NYO Property Group. The renovation of the Erie Terminal (now Erie Terminal Place) was one of his first projects, which also include the Wick Tower and the conversion of the Stambaugh Building to a DoubleTree Hotel. In 2012 the renovated building was opened with a cookie shop, brew pub and art gallery on the ground floor and 40 modern apartments on the upper floors. The original wood doors were refurbished, windows were replaced to match the originals, and masonry cleaned and re-pointed. The picture above was taken before work began, and the before and after are stunning.

The property is a popular off-campus alternative for Youngstown State students, located near the Business College and just down the hill from campus. In 2017, the university actually leased five rooms to provide residences for seventeen international students. The building is managed by LY Property Management, which handles rentals. You can get a great glimpse of the apartments and other amenities at the website.

There are questions about the future of the property. In July of 2019 it, along with The Flats at Wick, by YSU, were listed for sale with Platz Realty. The university is in negotiation for The Flats at Wick. No buyer is mentioned for Erie Terminal Place, which is listed at $6.35 million. There are financial issues with the Flats, which is in foreclosure proceedings for default on a $5.5 million loan. Also, Dominic Marchionda, along with former Mayor Sammarone, and Finance Director Bozanich are facing 101 corruption charges for which they were scheduled to go on trial in June of 2020. All three had entered not guilty pleas to the charges. Recently, Judge Maureen Sweeney ruled to separate Dominic Marchionda’s trial from the others and subsequently former Mayor Sammarone plead guilty to two charges. Due to the pandemic, trial dates have not been set.

With college enrollments up in the air as is the nation’s economy, it’s hard to say what will happen next with this almost 100 year old building. It’s a survivor, and one hopes for many good years ahead as the university and downtown continue to grow together.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Daniel L. Coit and Coitsville

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US Census, Ruhrfisch, Map of Mahoning County with Municipal and Township Labels, licensed under (CC BY-SA 3.0) The file has been converted to .jpg form. Coitsville is in the northeast corner of the county.

Coitsville Township is a small township in the northeast corner of Mahoning County. The township website includes photographs of cornfields, sheep, wildlife preserves and woodlands. In 2010, the population of the township was 1,392 people. It’s most famous resident was educator William Holmes McGuffey and was also the home of long time Vindicator political reporter Clingan Jackson. The existing township is only about half of the original township, parts of it going to Youngstown, Struthers, and Campbell. Amos Loveland was the first to settle in Coitsville in 1798. The History of Trumbull and Mahoning Counties lists these residents by 1801: James Bradford, David Cooper, Andrew Fitch, John Gwin, Amos Loveland, James Muns, William Martin, Samuel McBride, Alexander McGreffey, John Potter, Rodger Shehy, James Shields, James Smith, John Thornton, William Wicks, James White, Francis White.

No one by the name of Coit. Similar to Boardman, Coitsville is named after the land investor from the Connecticut Land Company, Daniel Lathrop Coit. Coit, along with Moses Cleaveland (after whom Cleveland is named–they dropped the first “a”) and Joseph Perkins were among the earliest involved in the company. As was the case with many members of the company, including Elijah Boardman, Daniel Coit purchased lots 1 through 28 in township 2 in the First Range, giving the township his name, but never moved there.

So who was Daniel Lathrop Coit? His family traces Glamorganshire, Wales, and John Coit came to Salem, Massachusetts in 1638. Daniel was born in 1754 to Joseph and Lydia (Lathrop) Coit in New London, Connecticut. He moved to Norwich with his family in 1775 and apprenticed with his uncles Doctors Daniel and Joshua Lathrop, apprenticing in their mercantile and pharmacy business. In 1782, when Daniel had passed he and Joshua became partners in Lathrop and Coit in a growing business. He represented the business in dealings in England and traveled throughout Europe. While in France, he dined with Benjamin Franklin. When Joshua retired, he entered a partnership with Thomas Lathrop, and met a girl in Lathrop’s house, Elizabeth Bill, who in 1785 moved into his new home as his wife.

With increasing trade difficuties with England, he eventually sold out his mercantile business and joined the Connecticut Land Company in 1796. In addition to purchasing the land that became Coitsville and selling its lots after they were surveyed, he had, through inheritance, interests in the “Firelands,” a large tract of land west of the Western Reserve given to indemnify Connecticut residents for losses from fires started by Benedict Arnold and British General Tryon during the Revolutionary War. While never residing in Ohio, he visited five times, including a trip on horseback through Pittsburgh up to Cleveland, no doubt stopping at Coitsville. While he pursued other ventures, his land ventures in Ohio were the most profitable. His son Henry married and moved to Ohio where he also was successful with land ventures. Daniel Coit died in Norwich in 1833 at the age of 79.

In addition to his involvement with the Connecticut Land Company’s critical work of surveying and settling the Western Reserve, Coit’s family produced at least one famous descendent. His daughter, Eliza Coit married William Charles Gilman. One of their sons was Daniel Coit Gilman, the first president of Johns Hopkins University, the first university in the United States to combine teaching and research at the graduate level along the lines of European universities. He also established the hospital at Johns Hopkins, one of the premier medical facilities in the country.

And that’s the story of Daniel Lathrop Coit and his family, and how Coitsville got its name.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown – Student Safety Patrols

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USPS AAA Commemorative stamp, Charles R. Chickering, USPS Bureau of Engraving and Printing, Public Domain.

Were you a patrol boy or patrol girl when you went to elementary school in Youngstown. At Washington Elementary, where I went to school, you could be on the safety patrol if you were in fifth or sixth grade. When I was in school, the safety patrol was limited to boys. This was from 1964 to 1966. Girls were already participating elsewhere.

The safety patrol were basically crossing guards at the crossings by our school. We had an assigned patrol schedule made out by the student captain. At our school, this covered morning, mid-day for kindergarten, and end of the day. Safety patrols had to wear a distinctive belt of an off-white webbing with a belt, shoulder strap, and badge that would be pinned to the shoulder strap on your chest. (Now the belts are electric green). Some call these Sam Browne belts. The old webbed belts would get dirty, and once every week or two, I would have to scrub my belt at the laundry tub with soap and a scrub brush.

When students were ready to cross, guards would look to see that no cars were rapidly approaching the intersection or in the crosswalk, then either hold flags saying “stop” on long poles, or they would walk out into the crosswalk, holding their arms out, as is pictured in the stamp image above. When it was not safe to cross, you stood on the curb and held your flag across the intersection to block students from crossing.

Obviously, you had to be on duty in all kinds of weather. Slushy snow was probably the worst because you would have soaked feet when it was all over. The best were those glorious days of fall or spring, especially when you got to leave class early for your duty. We also had periodic training meetings led by the captain or lieutenant, under the oversight of our advisor, a teacher.

One of the ways the safety patrol was recognized every year was that they had a Junior School Patrol Day at a Saturday afternoon game at Cleveland Stadium. We all congregated at the Erie-Lackawanna Terminal downtown to take the train to Cleveland. We’d watch the game, root for the Indians, fill our stomachs with hot dogs, walk back to the train station and arrive back home in the early evening. We’d also get a certificate from the American Automobile Association (AAA) at the end of the year recognizing our service at the school awards assembly. The AAA provided our belts, badges, and crossing flags as well.

The AAA started the School Safety Patrol program in the 1920’s (the 1902 date on the stamp is when the itself started). By that time, cars had become common and posed a danger to students walking to school. They developed safety manuals for training patrols. They even created a pledge:

“I pledge to report for duty on time, perform my duties faithfully, strive to prevent accidents, always setting a good example myself, obey my teachers and officers of the patrol, report dangerous student practices, strive to earn the respect of followers.”

Now, there is even online video training for safety patrols. Today there are more than 600,000 safety patrollers in 32,000 schools. Many places, however, have now replaced them with adult crossing guards. Youngstown no longer has student safety patrols.

There are some very famous safety patrollers. They include presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, Justices Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas,  former Chrysler exec Lee Iacocca, and baseball personality Joe Garagiola. There were many others of us, not famous, who learned responsibility and leadership, and learned how to look out for others on the safety patrol.

 

 

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Living on a Budget Youngstown-style

vintage youngstown postcardOur country has been hard hit by unemployment during the current pandemic. Growing up in working class Youngstown, many of us went through tight times. I remember a period when my dad was unemployed in the ’60’s, and under-employed for a period of time. Unemployment checks didn’t go very far, and there were no supplements. At other times, union workers were on strike and had to live on strike pay, as long as it lasted. Here are some of the ways we got by:

  1. We grew, caught, and shot our food when we could. We had gardens, canned, fished, and hunted. We went out and picked strawberries, apples, other fresh fruit from local fruit farms. Going picking took care of one meal as you picked and ate.
  2. Many of our favorite dishes came from inexpensive staples. Brier Hill pizza, haluski, pierogies, and what my mom called “slumgullion,” a cheap stew.
  3. We bought “day old” bread from the Wonder store that cost less than half a regular loaf. Fried baloney sandwiches were a great treat.
  4. Dad used to get “retreads” for his tires. As long as the sidewall was in good shape, this was a lot cheaper than a new set of tires.
  5. Cars were easier to work on and many guys did their own oil changes, brake jobs, tune ups and even engine repairs.
  6. Clothes were saved and mended for hand-me-downs. Somehow, mom always made us look presentable for school.
  7. We started doing odd jobs early–cutting lawns, baby-sitting, raking leaves, shoveling snow, delivering papers. Some men did house painting or other home repair work for hire; women took house cleaning jobs.
  8. I’m used to a lot of books around the home. Back then, we brought armloads of books home from the library. No videos. Just books.
  9. We went to matinees or double features. If we went to movies as a family, it was to the drive-in and brought our food.
  10. When we couldn’t pay to go to sports games, we played. Sometimes we got by with baseballs wrapped in electrical tape or basketballs worn smooth that you had to pump up before, and sometimes, during the game.

One big resource many of us had were extended families that lived nearby and helped out. Grandparents, aunts and uncles. I spent most of one summer during this time with grandparents. I suspect one less hungry mouth helped the rest of the family get by.

The funny thing was that we not only got by but had a rich life growing up.  War stories and baseball biographies were great for rainy days. My friends and I spent hours over the family Monopoly game, making and losing imaginary fortunes. The equipment wasn’t the greatest, but our games of baseball, football, or basketball were no less fun for it. The money we earned at those odd jobs gave a sense of pride and taught us how to work and be responsible.

None of this is to make light of the struggle people face today. The suddenness of how everything has changed has caught us off guard. Whole businesses have gone from profitable to closed in a day. The complication of a potentially dangerous illness is unique. But there was a “Youngstown tough” that we grew up with that we can remember and learn from. We can get through this.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Benjamin F. Wirt

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Benjamin F. Wirt, from The Biographical Annals of Ohio (1902). Public Domain

I have two memories of Wirt Street growing up. One was that I dated a girl for a while in Liberty and often, the quickest (though a bit scary) way home was down Wirt Street from Belmont to the West River Crossing Freeway to the West side. The other was as the site of a driving mishap. I was in college and went to visit a friend at Allegheny College. Driving home the morning after a snow storm, I had edged my way down Wirt Street to where it bent to the right, just before the freeway entrance, and I hit a patch of ice, banging into the curb. It “only” resulted in a bent tire rim and a badly knocked out of line front end. It was dad’s car so I paid. Not the happiest of memories of Wirt Street (now Wirt Boulevard).

The Wirt family, of which Benjamin F. Wirt was the most famous, is one of Youngstown’s early families, and I cannot be certain after whom Wirt Street was named, or if it simply represents one of Youngstown’s early families as does Wick Avenue. Peter Wirt was born in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and moved to Youngstown after the War of 1812. He had a farm in the Brier Hill district and so the street name may possibly be attributed to him. His son William was born in Youngstown in 1826. He worked as a builder and contracter. He married Eliza Sankey in 1849 and Benjamin was born during the family’s brief stay in West Middlesex, Pennsylvania, in Mercer County, in 1852.

Benjamin was a graduate of The Rayen School in 1869 and went on to read law with W. D. Woodworth, was admitted to the bar in 1873 and joined his teacher in a firm now called Woodworth & Wirt. They remained partners until 1880. In 1881 he married Mary M. McGeehen of New Bedford, Pennsylvania and they took up residence at 31 West Rayen Avenue. From 1880 to 1896, he practiced law on his own, handling many important court cases. He entered into partnership with M. A. Norris in 1896, then was elected to the state senate for two terms from 1899-1903 (This is based on his listing in the Biographical Annals of Ohio: A Handbook of the Government and Institutions of the State of Ohio published in 1902). Other articles list him from 1889-1893, but based on the listing, I believe these in error. His terms began just after those of William R. Stewart in the state house of representatives (incidentally Stewart read law in the firm of Woodworth & Wirt!).

Wirt ended his partnership with Norris in 1901, practiced alone until 1911 and then formed the firm of Wirt and Gunlefinger. He served as president of the Equity Savings and Loan Company, changed in 1920 to Federal Savings and Loan Company, one of Youngstowns major lending institutions of the time. He also served as president of the Sons of the American Revolution.

The lasting legacy of Benjamin F. Wirt stems from his and his wife Mary’s collection of rare books, documents, coins, artifacts, and art works.  He had a library of over 4,000 books, one of the largest private libraries at the time in northeast Ohio. Many were rare or first editions. He was a fan of Ohio author William Dean Howells and the collection included correspondence with Howells sister-in-law Eliza, as well as proof sheets and autographed letters. Upon his death in 1930, his estate was placed in trust and it was hoped that the trustees would establish a museum to properly display his collection. The collection remained in storage until the 1960’s. In 1962 Judge John Ford appointed five trustees to carry out Wirt’s last wishes. There was not enough in the trust to build the museum. However, an agreement was reached in 1965 that the Mahoning Valley Historical Society would house and exhibit the collection within the Arm Family Museum, where it is housed to this day.

Wirt followed the path of many of Youngstown’s distinguished citizens. He came from one of the early families. He made his mark in the practice of law, represented Youngstown in state government, led one of the city’s important financial institutions, and left a lasting legacy to the city, enriching its cultural life, and providing resources to researchers to the present day.