Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown – Plakie Toy and the Hoover Family

The Hoover Family: Frank, Dorothy, and Dean as a child, photographed with a Plakie toy for a 1940 catalog

Fifty years ago tomorrow, one of Youngstown’s most famous newswoman, Esther Hamilton, wrote about one of the leading businesswomen in Youngstown, Mrs. Frank (Dorothy) M. Hoover, president of Plakie Toy. She and her son Dean, who was vice president, led a company of 175 employees with $1 million in sales. At peak, this grew to over $4 million in sales. Hamilton notes that many of her employees were women as well.

Dorothy Hoover is portrayed as a religious woman with a Bible on her desk, the host of a non-sectarian devotional service at 7:45 am, and a traveler to the Holy Land and committed church member. Her religious values translated into a strong emphasis on the manufacturing of safe toys tested in the homes of her employees before they hit the market.

Her husband Frank sold insurance before working in sales at Truscon working with the automotive industry in Detroit. This led to launching a business selling custom gear shift knobs until the automatic transmission made them obsolete around 1935. The idea for a new business, initially Frank M. Hoover, Inc. came from observing his son Dean play with plastic sample chips. His first toy was a set of multi-colored disks strung on a silver chain. He patented the toy, and by 1943 changed the name of his company to Plakie (a form of “play key”). The business grew rapidly from an initial investment of $1400.

During World War 2, he converted to making wood toys, including a work bench with pegs and a mallet, pull toys, and toy trains. As plastic once again became available, the company began manufacturing plastic toys including rattles and ducklings. The emphasis of the company was “Play Safe.” Hoover believed a good toy combined color, sound, and motion.

For a time in the 1950’s, Plakie teamed up with local inventor John Garver to produce the Christmas Tree Twinkler. After receiving a box of them from friends who knew our Youngstown connection, I wrote about them here. All Frank Hoover’s expertise in plastics went into this one!

A Twinkler set. Photo by Bob Trube © 2019

The enterprise was a family business from the start, with Dorothy as a working director. In 1952, the company built a building at 4105 Simon Rd. for $200,000. It was designed for expansion. The Hoover’s foresight, and involvement together meant a seamless transition and continued growth when Frank died in 1960. Over time, Dorothy transitioned the company to manufacturing more nursery decorations and cloth toys including wall hangings, crib sheets, bumpers, dust ruffles and canopies as well as soft toys, musical toys, and crib gyms. One of the most popular soft toys was the Humpty Dumpty, examples of which can be found for sale on the internet. In 1976, the company name was changed to Plakie, Inc. to reflect that they were about more than toys.

Increased competition in a global market and production costs led to the company ceasing operations in 1992. But the safe and durable toys this company manufactured have lasted. For over fifty years the Hoover family gave Youngstown its own “toy story.”

Sources:

Discover the History of Youngstown’s Plakie Toys.” The Daily Buzz, Youngstown Business Journal, 11-04-20.

Esther Hamilton, “Mrs Hoover Keeps Staff of 175 Busy Putting Out Safe Plakie ToysThe Vindicator, June 27, 1971.

Ted Heineman, “The Hoover FamilyRiverside Cemetery Journal.

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

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Charles P. Henderson

I grew up hearing that he was one of the best mayors Youngstown ever had up to that point. He was the grandson of William Henderson, an iron worker at Brown-Bonnell Iron Works. Charles P. Henderson was born March 3, 1911. He graduated from Princeton in the class of ’32. He went on to receive his law degree from the University of Michigan and returned to practice law. He was elected a municipal court judge in 1941. His political career was interrupted by World War 2. He served four years in the army then returned to Youngstown.

He found a city rife with crime and racketeering and decided to run for Mayor on an anti-corruption platform. In 1947, he defeated incumbent Ralph O’Neill by 3671 votes. Some think he won because voters were fed up with three City Council members who stayed away from meetings to block appointment of a councilman for the third ward. One of his first acts was to appoint FBI trained J. Edward Allen as police chief with a mission to clear out organized vice and crime. He appointed a new, ten man vice squad. Operators of the “bug,” and bookies were arrested. Much of the action shifted over the county line centered on the Jungle Inn, in Liberty Township.

Henderson worked to reduce smoke and smog, eliminate dumps, and improve housing. His efforts won him national attention and in 1950 he won the American All-City award for progressive attention. He won his 1951 campaign by 7,000 votes. However, resistance to his anti-corruption measures was growing and he was defeated in 1953 in his attempt to win a fourth term by Frank X. Kryzan. Meanwhile, Henderson was appointed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower as a member of the Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, an effort to coordinate federal and state government efforts.

In 1965, he was appointed by Governor James Rhodes as a Probate Court judge. He participated in a number of organizations related to the practice of law: Mahoning County. and Ohio State Bar Associations, Ohio State Municipal League, the Association of Probate judges the Judicial Conference, and Judicial College. He also participated on the boards of the Public Library of Youngstown, and the county Boards of Mental Health and Elections. In the late 1960’s, after a series of failed school levies threatened to, Henderson headed up a citizens committee spearhead an effort for the levy passage. It failed but the seventh try finally passed.

Henderson retired in 1985 and passed after a sudden heart attack on September 15, 1990. He was survived by his wife, the former Margaret Arms. Henderson was probably one of the most trusted people in Youngstown. While the city didn’t always want its politicians to be good, Henderson was one of those people came to when the public trust was important. I’ll leave others to decide who was Youngstown’s best mayor. But it’s clear to me he was one of the good ones.

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

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Spec. 4 Patrick Michael Hagerty

Life magazine, on June 27, 1969, ran a feature story titled  “The Faces of the American Dead in Vietnam: One Week’s Toll.” The article ran ten pages and simply featured face after face, 242 in all, of Americans who died “in connection with the conflict in Vietnam” in one week. One of those faces was listed as “Patrick M. Hagerty, 19, Army, SP4, Youngstown, Ohio.” He was a field wireman and the picture in Life shows him on a pole, with safety belt and protective gloves, doing his work.

I came across the Life article searching for a story of one of those from Youngstown who died in Vietnam to remember on Memorial Day, the day this country sets aside to remember those who died in uniform in service to our country. According to the Virtual Wall, he is one of sixty-four from Youngstown who died in Vietnam.

Patrick Michael Hagerty was born on July 27, 1949 to Mr. and Mrs. Harold Hagerty who lived on N. Garland Avenue. He was a member of Immaculate Conception Church and attended East High School. He enlisted in the Army in September of 1966. He began his tour of duty in Vietnam on August 11, 1968 as a field wireman. He was attached to the 4th Infantry Division, 1st Battalion, 12th Infantry, B Company.

On May 31, 1969 his unit was about 10 kilometers south of Kontum City, located in the central highlands of what was then South Vietnam, not too far from the borders of Laos and Cambodia. During a hostile action, he suffered multiple fragmentation wounds (wounds resulting from the fragments of an explosive device) which he did not survive.

He was awarded the Purple Heart posthumously. The Purple Heart is awarded for “Being wounded or killed in any action against an enemy of the United States or as a result of an act of any such enemy or opposing armed forces” Sadly, Spec. 4 Patrick Michael Hagerty, qualified. His name is engraved on the Vietnam War Memorial Panel W23 Line 27. At the Virtual Wall entry for PVT Patrick Michael Hagerty, you can see a virtual rubbing of his name on the memorial.

[After posting this article Patrick’s nephew pointed me to this comment about Patrick which may be found at The Wall of Faces under his name, possibly written by his Platoon Sergeant]:

I’ve tried to track down all of our Platoon, Patrick, and to post some small note of Remembrance…

You’re one of the last for me, although I visited you once again down in DC last month, for Veterans Day. I remember that you were assigned to my Platoon from another outfit, and that you were VERY ‘short’, possibly within two weeks of going back to The World. I recall that I asked if you wanted to become an RTO for awhile, and perhaps ‘coast’ a little, until we could get you sent back to the Rear…

You wanted no part of that, Patrick, and you took your assignment as part of Bravo’s flank security during our movement… When the contact ensued, you were in the middle of it all…

Everyone who reads this should know what a brave young man you were, Patrick, and a damned fine soldier as well.

See you soon,
Murph

He was 19 when he died. He enlisted and so chose to answer his country’s call. He represents both what is noble and tragic in war. His is only one of sixty-four Youngstown stories of those who died in Vietnam, and one of many more from Youngstown who died in America’s wars. Each one is worth remembering. I chose this Memorial Day weekend to remember Spec. 4 Patrick Michael Hagerty. Who do you remember?

We remember.

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

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Dr. William H. Hudnut, Sr.

First Presbyterian Church, Youngstown. Photo by Robert C. Trube, 2019. All rights reserved.

The church pictured above with its stately spire and Georgian architecture presiding over downtown Youngstown represents the oldest congregation in the Western Reserve, being founded on September 1, 1799. The original building was a log cabin built diagonally on the corner and the first pastor was Reverend William Wick. Several buildings followed. The Helen Chapel, a red brick, Italian renaissance building was built in 1889. The current sanctuary replaced a Gothic structure in 1959, under the pastoral leadership of Dr. W. Frederic Miller, reflecting a commitment to stay in the city. The buildings are connected by Hudnut Hall, a tribute to one of the illustrious pastors of this church.

William Herbert Hudnut, Sr. was born October 24, 1864 in Brooklyn, New York. He received is B.A. from the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) in 1886, Princeton Theological Seminary 1887-1889 and graduated from Union Theological Seminary in 1890. In 1890, he married Harriet Beecher. He subsequently received a Doctor of Divinity from the College of Wooster in 1906 and a Doctor of Laws in 1929.

After serving churches at Port Jervis and Brooklyn, New York, he accepted a call as assistant to a Dr. Evans at First Presbyterian Church in 1899. He came highly recommended and received a starting salary of $2500 a year (the average annual salary of a worker in 1900 was $675). The salary may not only reflect the esteem in which he was held but the fact that this was a congregation that was a “Who’s Who” of Youngstown in that era. A church cookbook compiled in 1905 by the women of First Presbyterian includes contributions from Mrs. Henry Wick and several other Wicks, Mrs. Reuben McMillan, Mrs. Joseph Butler, Mrs. William Bonnell, and Mrs. Myron Arms among others.

Hudnut arrived at a time when Youngstown was undergoing a startling transformation. By 1920, there would be 90,000 more people in the city than when he arrived. A number of the local iron firms started by men in the church would be bought up by the large steel corporations that controlled the Valley for the next eighty years. The growth of steelmaking led to a huge influx of immigrants and Blacks.

William Hudnut was concerned about their treatment. He visited a local steel plant with the plant superintendent. Howard C. Aley in A Heritage to Share records the discussion:

The minister raised a question concerning the welfare of the men who were toiling in the pit beneath him, to which the superintendent replied, “We work them out and get a new batch.” The superintendent had expressed what Dr. Hudnut called “a characteristic attitude toward labor. The ingot was reckoned of more worth than the individual. Those men in the pits were just numbers.”

The anti-Black and anti-immigrant feeling in Youngstown was stirred up by Ku Klux Klan leaders in Youngstown in the mid-1920’s. Most of those elected, including the mayor and school board received Klan endorsement. Many Protestant churches lent support to Klan activity. First Presbyterian and Dr. Hudnut were an exception, along with the Vindicator in denouncing Klan activity. It was not popular to oppose the Klan.

He was a respected denominational leader, serving as a trustee both at the College of Wooster (a Presbyterian school) and Western Seminary, now Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. In 1921, he visited Cameroun as a representative of the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions. He served First Presbyterian Church as its pastor for nearly 40 years, retiring in 1937.

After retirement, he eventually returned to the New York area, living on Long Island in Oceanside. He received an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree from Princeton the same year his grandson graduated from there, in 1961. In 1962, when he was going on 98, he became Princeton’s oldest living graduate. He passed away in August 1963, just short of 99.

One of the most remarkable achievements of William Hudnut’s life was his children and grandchildren. Many children of ministers want to get as far from the church and ministry as possible for some reason. Two of Hudnut’s sons were ministers and William H. Hudnut, Jr. was twice nominated for the office of moderator of what had become the United Presbyterian Church. His son, William H. Hudnut III also became a minister and then ran for office, serving a term in Congress from Indiana, and then, in 1976, running for Mayor of Indianapolis, an office he held for sixteen years, during which he led a major redevelopment of downtown Indianapolis attracting sports, business, and entertainment to the city.

What emerges is a picture of a family of high moral and spiritual character and integrity, spiritual and civic leaders in their communities who garnered respect. It began with a father and grandfather who refused to confine himself to the elite but visited factories and took unpopular stances, defending Youngstown’s newest residents who were doing the work of creating the Steel Valley.

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

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Simeon Booker

Cover of Shocking the Conscience by Simeon Booker with Carol McCabe Booker

Jet was a pocket-sized news magazine that could be found in barber shops, beauty salons, doctors’ and dentists’ offices in the Black community and in many black homes. In the early 1950’s, it chronicled the beginnings of the Civil Rights movement, culminating in an article in 1955 showing the brutally beaten and mutilated body of 14 year old Emmett Till, and a series of articles covering his open-casket funeral, his mother’s determination to awaken the nation’s conscience, and the subsequent trial and acquittal of his murderers in the Jim Crow South.

The reporter responsible for these articles, perhaps some of the most notable journalism of this era, was Simeon Booker. And Simeon Booker grew up in Youngstown. He was actually born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1918 and moved to Youngstown at age 5. His father helped establish the YMCA for blacks on West Federal Street and later served as a Baptist minister in the city. As an elementary student at Covington Elementary, he composed a poem that appeared in The Vindicator:

“Spring is coming, this I know, for the robin told me so. Flowers and grass are going to grow. Winter goes with ice and snow.”

That was the beginning of his writing career. There is some dispute of sources, one claiming him for The Rayen School, and the other as a graduate of South High School. Covington is on the North side. Later on, he lived on Myrtle, on the South side. In his memoir, he only mentions graduating from high school, so I’ve not been able to confirm which one! He enrolled at Youngstown College but was denied an activity card given to white students. He transferred to Virginia Union University, from which he graduated in 1942. He started writing for the Afro-American in Baltimore, a job obtained through family friends, and then moved back to Ohio in 1945 to write for the Call and Post in Cleveland. In 1950, he received a prestigious Nieman Fellowship at Harvard in 1950. The following year he became the first Black reporter for the Washington Post.

He was only assigned general news stories at the Post and decided to leave in 1954 to start the Washington bureau of Jet and Ebony magazines, heading up Johnson Publishing Company’s civil rights coverage. It was in the following year that he covered the Emmett Till story. He covered the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957. In 1961, he rode with the Freedom Riders through the deep South. When their bus was fire-bombed, he worked with Attorney General Robert Kennedy to arrange their evacuation. In 1964, his book, Black Man’s America, made the case for the ongoing civil rights movement. In the mid-1960’s, he interviewed General William Westmoreland on the Vietnam war.

He also covered Washington, including every president from Eisenhower through George W. Bush, developments in Congress, and strategies of civil rights leaders. He led the Washington Bureau until his retirement in 2007. In 2013, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame of the National Association of Black Journalists. Collaborating with his wife Carol McCabe Booker, he published his memoir Shocking the Conscience. That December, he spoke at Youngstown State’s commencement and was awarded an honorary doctorate. In 2016, the Simeon Booker Award for Courage was established as part of Ohio’s Non-Violence Week each October.

Simeon Booker died at age 99 on December 10, 2017 in Solomons, Maryland. On January 29, 2018, he was honored in a memorial service at the Washington National Cathedral. He was considered the dean of black journalists. His dedicated and courageous life in journalism is something all of us can be proud of, and his unrelenting pursuit of civil rights stands as a challenge to all of us.

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

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Pat Bilon

Did you know that when E. T. wanted to phone home, he wanted to call Youngstown? At least that was the case for the actor who played E.T.

He was able to play the part because he was 2 foot 10 inches tall and weighed 45 pounds. The E.T. suit, at 40 pounds weighed almost as much as he did. E.T. the Extraterrestrial (1982) was the second movie in which he appeared. The year before, in 1981, he had a part in Under the Rainbow, alongside Chevy Chase, Carrie Fisher, and Eve Arden.

Michael Patrick “Pat” Bilon was born August 29, 1947 and grew up on the West side of Youngstown. His parents were Michael and Esther Patrick Bilon and they lived on South Osborn, off of Mahoning Avenue. He graduated from Ursuline High School in 1965 and then studied speech and drama at Youngstown State, graduating in 1972.

Before his two movie roles, he worked a variety of jobs around Youngstown. He was a bouncer at Wedgewood Lanes Orange Room. He hosted a weekly Ukrainian Radio Hour music show on WKTL radio in Struthers and was the WKBN Kid in their radio and TV promotions. Then he got a job as a radio dispatcher for the Mahoning County Sheriff’s Department. He even participated in undercover operations. Captain Steve Terlecky once said of him, “I’d like to have a dozen more like him. He does a hell of a job for me.”

He was active at St. Anne’s Ukrainian Catholic Church in Austintown. He taught CCD and coached the basketball team for St. Anne’s school. He was also District 5 director for the Little People of America. It was at a national convention for the organization in 1979 that he was recruited for the part of “Little Pat” in the movie Under the Rainbow. That, in turn, led to the E.T. role.

Sadly, his fame was brief. In 1983 he contracted pneumonia. An infection followed and he was admitted to St. Elizabeth’s on the afternoon of January 26, 1983. He died the next morning at 1:08 am, at age 35. He was buried in Calvary Cemetery, mere blocks from his childhood home.

Although he was small in stature and short in lifespan, he was big not only on the silver screen but also around the city. He had to be impressive to succeed as a bouncer and in undercover operations. His faith, his church, and his ethnic community were important to him. He raised money for various local organizations. He never saw his size as a disability but showed how much Little People were capable of. Doesn’t he sound like a guy who grew up in Youngstown?

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

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Perlee Brush

One of the first things to be done after the very beginnings of a settlement was to build a school and hire a teacher. This was the case in what was then Youngstown Township, where the first school was established by 1805 or sooner. It was a one room log cabin that might have been something like that above (I cannot find any actual renderings) built on Central Square. Most sources say that it was on the site of the Civil War Soldiers Monument.

The first teacher to be hired was Perlee Brush. We know he was teaching by the fall of 1806 because of an account statement dated October 6, 1806 by Robert Montgomery, who lived just east of the village. Brush had obtained from him cloth for a coat and pants for his teaching clothing, and a subsequent purchase on October 17 of thread, linen, and leather for shirts and shoes. This likely represented a good portion of his salary.

Perlee Brush was no mere school teacher. Like many early settlers in the Youngstown area, he was born in Connecticut, a graduate in 1793 of Yale College, and admitted to the bar after reading law in Connecticut. He was fluent in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew, as well as trained in the law. When he moved to the Western Reserve, he was admitted to the Trumbull County bar, of which Youngstown was a part at this time.

The school had 20 to 30 students in summer and 40 in the winter. They paid $1.50 a term for the basic instruction in reading, spelling, writing, and arithmetic. The cost of the higher branches of grammar and geography was $2.00 a term.

Brush was succeeded in Youngstown by James Noyes after a few years. He was a “tall, slim man from Connecticut.” In 1818, Jabez Manning took on these duties followed by Phebe Wick, the first woman at this school, in 1820.

Brush, known as “Old Perlee,” not so much for his age as for his wide acquaintanceships, taught in the area for many years in both Hubbard and Poland. He also practiced law in the justice courts and higher courts in Warren.

In 1826, according to Ohio Genealogy Express, he purchased 100 acres of land in Hubbard. A fellow resident gave this description of his farm:

“A small stream, called Yankee Run, flowed through his land, on which there was an old-fashioned carding machine and fulling mill, which he operated for about a year, and then turned his attention to his farm.”

He lived by himself on the farm until, late in life and in failing health, he was cared for by a neighbor. He died in 1852 at the age of 84. By this time, schools had sprung up throughout the area. Public education would come around the middle of the century. Two years after Brush’s death, Judge William Rayen left a Bequest for a public high school, and in 1866, The Rayen School opened. But it all started with “Old Perlee” Brush, who brought his academic training to lowly one-room schoolhouses in the Youngstown area, setting many of the first generation of children in the village on the path to become Youngstown’s future leaders.

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

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Mary Wells Lawrence

By Wells Rich Greene – From my own personal collection called Braniff Flying Colors Collection., CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

“Plop, Plop, Fizz, Fizz,”

“Quality is Job One”

“I Love New York.”

Many of us will readily recognize those ad campaigns for Alka-Seltzer, Ford, and New York City. What we may not know is that the woman who was responsible for some of the most successful ads in advertising history grew up in Youngstown. She was the woman behind the end of plain planes in her Braniff airlines campaign that included the “Braniff Strip” Superbowl ads. Her team recommended painting the planes in colorful pastels. She was the first woman CEO of a major advertising agency traded on the Big Board of the New York Stock Exchange. In 2020. she was awarded the Cannes Lion Lifetime Achievement, the Lion of St. Mark–the pinnacle of advertising awards. All from a beginning in Youngstown.

This is Women’s History Month, and so it seemed fitting to recognize a famous woman from Youngstown. Mary Wells Lawrence was born Mary Georgene Berg on May 25, 1928. Her father was a furniture maker. From an early age, her mother enrolled her in elocution, music, dance, and drama lessons leading to a lifelong love of theatre, a key element in her advertising work. After a year in New York at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theater in New York at 17, she went on to Carnegie Institute of Technology to study merchandising. There, she met her first husband, Burt Wells, an industrial design student. They married and moved to Youngstown, Mary taking a job as a copywriter, the text part of advertising, for McKelvey’s.

A year later, she was the fashion advertising manager for Macy’s in New York. That year, she divorced Burt, who she remarried in 1954. In 1953, she joined an established firm, McCann-Erickson as copywriter and head of the copy group. In 1957, she moved to a more innovative firm, Doyle, Dane, Bernbach as a Vice President after a brief stint with Lennan and Newell. The late 50’s represented a period of prosperity and the explosion of television as a media, and her career took off with it. Then in 1964 Jack Tinker, who she had worked with at McCann-Erickson formed a new firm with Richard Rich and Stuart Greene, and recruited Mary. Their first client was Alka-Seltzer, and Mary and her team came up with the “No Matter What Shape Your Stomach’s In” campaign, which was hugely successful.

The mid-60’s represented a time of major change in her life. She and Burt were divorced for a second time in 1965. Her firm landed the Braniff account mentioned earlier and she landed Harding Lawrence, Braniff’s CEO as her second husband, marrying him in 1967. They were married until his death in 2002. Jack Tinker and Partners made a major blunder in offering her the job of president with a significant pay increase, but without the title, believing having a woman would undermine confidence in the firm. She left to start her own agency, along with Rich and Greene, forming Wells Rich Greene with her as CEO. After she married Lawrence, they had to shed the Braniff account, but there other accounts included TWA, Benson & Hedges, Proctor and Gamble, Bic (“Flick your Bic), Miles Laboratories, Purina, and Midas (“Trust the Midas Touch”). By 1969, she was the highest paid advertising executive. In 1976, the firm had billings of $187 million.

She retired in 1990, selling the firm to a French firm, BDDP. Sadly, that firm ceased operations in 1998. They lacked Mary’s genius. In 2008, she joined Joni Evans, Lesley Stahl, Liz Smith, and Peggy Noonan in forming wowowow.com, a website for women, refocused as purewow.com, aimed at younger women in 2010. In 2020, Mansion Global reported the listing of her Park Avenue mansion for $27.95 million. She is living at the time of this writing. All in all, not bad for a woman who got her start in Youngstown.

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

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — George L. Oles

New York Tribune, January 8, 1922, p. 54.

It began as a joke. Then it turned serious, and one of the more unusual political stories unfolded in Youngstown’s colorful political history. George L. Oles grew up in Riceville, Pennsylvania and after setting up fruit, grocery, and meat markets in a number of different towns came to Youngstown in 1907. He took over the building of the former Youngstown Opera House on the southwest corner of Central Square and opened his Fulton Fruit and Meat Market. His ads appeared every Thursday in The Vindicator. He touted the superiority of the food in his market, his prices, and commented on the matters of the day. He wrote all the copy himself. A New York Times article compared his ads to Billy Sunday, a contemporary evangelist, for their “slam-bang statements.” His ads were one of the first things to which people turned. Here’s one example from June 23, 1921:

The campaign that began as a joke started in the summer of 1921 after Mayor Fred Warnock won his party’s nomination for another term in office. Some of his ads had expressed dissatisfaction with what he saw as the “machine politics” of both parties in the city and that he thought he could do as well. He first declared his intent to run on August 4, 1921 declaring that women should vote for Mayor Warnock or Mr. Doeright in the primary taking place the following Tuesday, so they can vote for him as an independent on November 8 to defeat them. He calls himself “The Next Mayor of Youngstown.”

He made his declaration the following week. This necessitated him moving into the Tod Hotel to establish residency in Youngstown in time to register as a candidate. He explains all this in this ad from August 11, 1921:

He announced he will work forgo his salary (which he was not able to do because that could be construed as a bribe) and announced his commitment to clean up vice and dirty politics and bootlegging (this was prohibition). He focused his appeal on women voters (who had just recently won the right to vote) and held meetings with women’s groups all over the city, introduced by his wife.

When November 8 came, the amazing happened. This “Potato Peddler” running as an Independent on a Reform platform won by 459 votes over the incumbent Fred Warnock. (He was the only Independent elected as Mayor in Youngstown until Jay Williams ran as an Independent for his first term in 2005. He ran as a Democrat his second term.) He left for Florida with his wife immediately to avoid office-seekers, returning shortly before he took office on January 3, 1922. On his first day of office he informed city workers he expected them to work eight hours or leave and set strict rules forbidding police from drinking and accepting favors.

Like many other reformers, he found that he was up against entrenched interests in the city. His life was threatened. City council resisted his efforts. By the end of June, he was fed up and tendered his resignation, effective at 12:00 am Saturday July 1, 1922. That evening a rally of citizens on Central Square, and later at his home asked him to reconsider. He did and asked for his resignation to be returned at 9:00 am Saturday. Council refused, arguing his resignation had already taken effect. Council president William G. Reese was sworn in as Mayor. In 1923, he lost by a landslide to the Klan endorsed candidate, Charles Scheible, during the heyday of Klan activity in the Valley.

Oles went back to his profitable market, It suffered a fire in 1934, but he rebuilt and continued to serve the Valley. In 1945, having purchased a shipment of potatoes at a favorable price, he donated $500 immediately when he received a request for assistance from the Infantile Paralysis (Polio) Drive. By the 1940’s the market was called Oles’ and in 1948, George L. Oles celebrated 50 years as a grocer with this ad:

Surveying the newspapers for ads for Oles’, I noticed the rise of chains and other grocers that may explain this somewhat cryptic ad that appeared on September 9, 1948. As far as I can determine, this was the last ad to appear in The Vindicator.

I cannot find out anything else about George L. Oles after this date. I would love to know how his story ended. He pulled off an amazing outsider victory for mayor in 1921. He had a passion for good government that seemed to reflect his passion for good business. His market and the ads he wrote each week were a Youngstown institution. It sounds like he was an amazingly generous man. Reading between the lines, I suspect that as Youngstown grew and people moved further from downtown and competitors arose including grocery chains, it became harder to sustain his business. I wish I knew the rest of the story….

Addendum: Tips from a couple readers added to this story. Oles lived on Youngstown Poland Road in Poland. His estate later became the site of Byzantine Catholic Central with his house becoming the home for the Sisters. It is likely that Oles’ health was declining around the time of this last ad. He leased out the deparments to employees. He died on July 15, 1952 and was buried at Tod Homestead Cemetery.

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

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Dr. John C. Melnick

Vintage exam (and surgery) table

There was a time in my childhood when I wanted to be a doctor. I think it had to do with my admiration for my pediatrician, Dr. James Birch. When I was very young, he used to make house calls with his black leather medical bag. I loved the wood toys in his office. It turns out he was one of the many illustrious medical professionals that served the needs of Youngstown area residents over the years from Henry Manning, Timothy Woodbridge, and Charles Dutton in the middle of the nineteenth century to Carlos Booth, who in 1898 became the first doctor in the country to use an automobile to make house calls.

One of those illustrious physicians was Dr. John C. Melnick. He was a Youngstown native, son of Arseny and Rose Melnick. He graduated from The Rayen School in 1946 and Youngstown College in 1949. Before entering medical school at Western Reserve University, he completed a graduate degree in Education and a one year Research Fellowship in biochemistry. In 1955, he received his medical degree. He then did an internship and residency in Radiology in Youngstown followed by a year as a clinical fellow in Radiology at the University of Cincinnati.

Dr, John C. Melnick

He returned to his home town, where he practiced medicine and contributed to the community for the rest of his life. He was a staff radiologist for Southside and Northside hospitals, Eventually he was named Chief of the Diagnostic Imaging Department and Director of the Department of Nuclear Medicine. He discovered a rare bone disease in 1966, which was named in his honor the Melnick Needles Syndrome.

He was a past president of the Mahoning County Medical Society. The Society celebrated its centennial in 1972, and as editor of their newsletter, he contributed a number of historical articles. These were eventually published as A History of Medicine in Youngstown and Mahoning County in 1973.

The Green Catuedral

From this time forward, one of his efforts was to research and preserve both medical history and the history of Mill Creek Park. In 1976, he published his history and description of the park, The Green Cathedral, which remains in print and may be purchased at Fellows Gardens. It is my Mill Creek Park Bible! It arose from his lifelong love of the park, a love shared with his parents and children. He wrote in the Introduction to The Green Cathedral:

The author was introduced to Mill Creek Park when just a toddler, enjoying family picnics, hiking, boating and fishing with his two brothers, Arseny and Al, and his two sisters. Mary and Helen. His parents, during their courtship, picnicked, boated and swam in Lake Glacier. As a young boy he spent many a summer day with neighborhood friends, walking several miles to the park for a day of enjoyment. Food was cooked for lunches, then the hills, ravines and rocks were challenged, climbed and conquered, much as Mount Everest but not quite as high. During his college days, many hours were spent studying with nature’s beauty as a backdrop. The Lake Newport vista near daffodil meadow was a favorite spot as was Lookout Point at the top of the Rock Garden.

John C. Melnick, The Green Cathedral, (unnumbered page)

How many of us can identify with his story? In addition to his book, John Melnick supported a museum bearing his name focused on the history of the park and Fellows Riverside Gardens, located in the D.D. and Velma Davis Visitor Center. He also honored his father with contributions that helped fund the Arseny Melnick observation tower overlooking Lake Glacier, where his parents spent so many of their hours during their courtship.

Another museum honored his mother Rose. Melnick attributed his decision to go to medical school and his success in medical practice to her encouragement and support. Over the years, as he researched the Valley’s medical history, he also collected a number of medical artifacts from the day books of Dr. Henry Manning, where he recorded the patients he saw, his diagnosis, treatment, and fee, to medical and surgical instruments, and medical equipment including an iron lung used to treat polio to a portable X-ray machine. For years the “museum” was stored in crates in rented buildings, and later at Northeast Ohio Medical University in Rootstown. Melnick wanted his museum in Youngstown. In 1999, he reached an agreement to buy the old IBM building across from the Arms Museum from Youngstown State, and the Rose Melnick Medical Museum opened in this location. In 2016, the museum exchanged places with WYSU, which moved into Melnick Hall while the Melnick Medical Museum moved into Cushwa Hall, the home of the Bitonte College of Health and Human Services. The collection includes a Civil War amputation kit, clothing worn by nurses and doctors during different periods, and covers medical and nursing practice, dentistry, and pharmacy. Currently museum hours are suspended due to COVID-19. When open, admission is free.

Dr. John C. Melnick died on January 15, 2008 after an extended illness. But his contributions to medicine and his efforts to preserve the history of his two great loves, the practice of medicine and Mill Creek Park both live on in publications and museums, the latter bearing the names of his mother and father. It is to be hoped that future generations will build on the efforts of Dr. Melnick at both of these museums, perhaps the best way to recognize his contribution to Youngstown.