Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — The Ohio Leather Company

The Ohio Leather Company

The Mahoning Valley is known as the Steel Valley because of all the mills lining the river at one time. There was one stretch of along the Mahoning in Girard that might well have been called “The Leather Valley.” Girard was home to the Ohio Leather Company, which at one time was the largest processor of calf leather in the United States.

The tannery business in Girard traces back to the Krehl Tannery in 1868. They manufactured harness and sole leather. They first developed the chrome tanning process with patents submitted by August Schultz in 1884. They were followed in 1899 by what became the Ohio Leather Company. In that year the Mahoning Leather Company (the name was changed to Ohio Leather a few years later) was started using a new chrome tanning process patented by Joseph Smith. The process shortened the tanning process from four months to ten hours. The business thrived in Smith’s few remaining years, before his death in 1903.

The following year, the Krehl Tannery burned down in a spectacular fire leaving The Ohio Leather Company without a local competitor. The Ohio Leather Company grew to employing 500-600 workers. In 1917 the company declared a 33.3 percent dividend, a hefty return on investment in any era. The company continued to thrive during the 1920’s under president V.G. Lumbard, who joined the company as General Manager, with background as an expert tanning engineer. In 1933, during the Depression, the company was valued at 1,666,143.38 and did most of its business on a cash basis. They even sponsored a Marching Band which performed at the Mahoning Country Club. Throughout this time it was known for its fine leather products including leather gloves.

One of the challenges in the tanning business was the smell which clung to workers’ clothing. After a while the workers didn’t notice it but their families did. The more serious challenge, as in other industries, was the rise of unions seeking better conditions and wages. Workers with 10-15 years experience were laid off in 1934 under the guise of lack of business while new employees remain. Their complaints were not upheld however. By 1936, employment was up to 800 and they were voted an extra week’s bonus pay. This did not quell union activity. In March 1937, they staged a sitdown strike demanding recognition of the Boot, Shoe, & Leather Workers Union. On March 23, Ohio Leather agreed to recognize the union along with raising wages and agreeing to a 40 hour week.

The war brought contracts for manufacturing high quality leather for shoes. By 1943, 8,000 calfskins a day were processed by the plant. The company continued to thrive after the war until the late 1950’s when profits began to slip. The problem continued into the 1960’s and in 1963, Beggs and Cobb of Boston acquired a controlling interest in the company. Then in November of 1968, Talcott National of New York acquired the company as foreign competition further imperiled profits. Conditions worsened, layoffs followed, and finally operations ceased November 1, 1971.

The building stood vacant for the next two and a half decades with several fires occurring, and finally a blaze in 1995 that gutted the building. In the years since, the property has been in litigation with the city of Girard over cleanup of industrial wastes from the tanning processes, which has sought the acquisition of the land for parks and bike and walking trails. By 2013, much of this land had finally been acquired, with additional negotiations ongoing for some adjacent railway property.

Perhaps one day people will walk or cycle through this area. Will they remember when one of the largest leather businesses in the country operated here? At least they won’t have to contend with the smell.

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

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Dollar Savings & Trust

Early postcard of Dollar Savings and Trust Building

Somewhere around fifth grade, I decided my allowance wasn’t quite enough for my baseball card collecting (wish I still had that collection). So with dad fronting me the money for a lawn mower, I went door to door and convinced ten people within a couple blocks of my house to let me cut their grass and pay me for it. Back in the sixties, I earned about $20 a week. One of the best things my father did was insist I set up a savings account at the bank down the street from our home, the Dollar Savings and Trust. Our branch was located a few blocks from our home in the same block on Mahoning Avenue as Stambaugh-Thompson’s and an Isaly store. When I was young, I’d go to the bank with my dad sometimes, then we’d pick up some hardware for the house, and finish with ice cream. I had good memories of going to the bank.

I received my own passbook (with my dad’s name also on the account). Most weeks, I’d deposit $5 unless I had a very good week. And then something magical happened. Once a month the teller would add some money to my account that I didn’t deposit. It was interest and my first exposure to the idea that first you work for your money, and then you let your money work for you. I learned to set goals. I remember when I saw a stereo at Dave’s Appliance. I saved for months until I had enough money. I withdrew it from the bank and took it up to Dave’s and bought that stereo. Music never sounded so good!

Later in junior high and high school other jobs followed. I still cut lawns, raked leaves, shoveled snow, delivered papers, and then worked at McKelvey’s. I wanted to go to college, so I kept saving. It paid off. Between savings and scholarships, I ended college debt-free–thanks to dad’s lessons and my local Dollar Savings & Trust, which later gave me a small loan for my first used car after college.

The Dollar Savings and Trust Company (the “and” was replace with “&” only in 1975) was established in 1887. Asael Adams, originally from Cleveland, was one of the early presidents, beginning in 1895. He oversaw the construction of their downtown headquarters on the northwest corner of Central Square in 1901-1902. Charles H. Owsley was the building architect. Owsley and his son Charles F. designed some of the iconic buildings in Youngstown. During this time it reached $1,500,000 in capital.

One of the first tenants of the building beside the bank was the Youngstown Club which occupied the seventh and eighth floors of the building until 1926. In 1947 the bank had grown to the point that it acquired City Trust and Savings for $1.3 million. By 1970, with the opening of an Austintown branch, the bank had thirteen branches. Between 1972 and 1975 the downtown bank was completely remodeled, including refacing the building with a modern looking granite face. At the time of its acquisition by National City Bank in Cleveland in 1994, it had 32 branches, having acquired some other regional banks with $1,052,621,000 in assets and $838,150,000 in deposits. In turn PNC Bank acquired National City Bank in 2008.

About the time PNC acquired National City Bank parts of the granite façade deteriorated and crumbling pieces started falling, endangering pedestrians. Scaffolding was erected and repairs were made by 2011. However PNC moved the downtown bank to City Centre One in 2012, leaving the old building, now rebranded 16 Wick Avenue nearly 90% unoccupied. Several office leasing companies list the whole building as available and held by NYO Properties, developer of many downtown properties, that recently has been trying to sell a number of these. It is also listed on the “Abandoned” website which has a number of images of the interior including the bank vault.

Today, PNC has four branches in the Youngstown area, a far cry from Dollar Savings and Trust at its height. It reflects both the changed landscape of banking and the changed economics of Youngstown. None of the banks we grew up with remain under the familiar names of that time, nor are any under local control. But that doesn’t mean we can’t remember the role they played in teaching us to save, giving us our first loan or mortgage, helping us to manage our earnings and investments, putting our money to work for 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 — The Wick Six

Wick Six

Car Ads from the Wick Six

At one time, if you wanted to buy a new car in Youngstown, you most likely would have at least looked at the dealerships on Wick Avenue known as the “Wick Six.” We had a ’56 Dodge from Strausbaugh’s and my wife’s father, who worked nearby at General Fireproofing, bought all his cars at State Chevrolet, and my wife’s first car, a ’76 Nova, came from State Chevrolet.

Actually a number of automobiles with legendary names like Nash and Huppmobile were once sold at dealerships along Wick Avenue. Volume 58 of Motor World from 1919 announced that:

Stearns Auto Sales Co., Youngstown, Ohio has purchased 70 feet on Wick Avenue where it will build a new salesroom.

There is a direct connection from Stearns Auto Sales to the Wick Six. Gene Hopper was one of the founders of Stearns. His sister married Arthur Sweeney, who, in 1955, founded the State Chevrolet dealership. The Sweeney family also was connected with the beginnings of Buick Youngstown, through the Sterns Company’s acquisition of the Buick franchise for the area in 1931.

Other franchisees followed. Hugh Kroehle, a classic car guy founded the Kroehle Lincoln-Mercury franchise. W. O. Stausbaugh launched Strausbaugh Dodge. Richard Barrett, who was in the auto business for 40 years owned Barrett Cadillac. Stackhouse Olds, also named after its founder rounded out the six.

I also found evidence of  Pontiac franchises along Wick Avenue during this time, first Buckeye Pontiac, and later Valley Pontiac. But they were never considered a part of the “Wick Six.”

Buckeye Pontiac

Pontiac ad listing Buckeye Pontiac on Wick Avenue.

 

Some classic cars were sold at these dealerships: all the finned “boats” of the late ’50’s and early sixties, the Mercury Comet and the Dodge Dart, Corvairs and Corvettes, the Olds 88 and the Cutlass, and all the muscle cars of the late ’60’s.

During this period, Youngstown was changing as people moved into the suburbs west and south of the city. A number of these dealerships followed, most moving to the Boardman area where a new concentration of dealerships formed. Buick Youngstown hung on until 1986 when they relocated to Market Street. State Chevrolet closed in 1998.

The buildings where these dealerships were located became derelict, and in 2016, the City of Youngstown began demolishing them. But at the Sweeney Chevrolet and Buick dealerships a couple of the Wick Six families are carrying on the car business, according to a 2019 Business Journal article. Doug Sweeney, who dusted parts shelves at State Chevrolet as a 14 year old owns these GM Franchises, buying out brother Dave’s Buick franchise in 2009. Doug had taken over the State Chevrolet franchise in 1981 until selling it in 1998. In 2009, GM awarded Doug with a Chevrolet franchise once again. His daughter Alexa Sweeney Blackann is vice president of the company. Bobby Stackhouse, grandson of the founder of Stackhouse Olds is also a managing partner.

The “Wick Six” recalls a different era that connects all the way back to the infancy of the automotive industry. It is a reminder of a time when Wick Avenue north of the mansions, the Butler, and what was then Youngstown University consisted of a thriving business district where Youngstown bought its cars.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — East Federal Street

East Federal Street

East Federal Street, probably some time in the 1940’s or early 50’s. Stambaugh Building and Realty Building are in the foreground. Photo source unknown.

One of the things that I’ve discovered is that there is a real gap in my memories of Youngstown east of Central Square. For a short time in the 1960’s my father worked at Haber’s Furniture at 200 East Federal and as a kid, I went to the YMCA on North Champion every Saturday for a couple years. I honestly have a hard time remembering much else. I remember the Stambaugh and Realty Buildings opposite each other just east of the square. Most of my memories of downtown, particularly because I worked at McKelvey’s during high school and college, were west of the square. I went to an orthodontist in Central Tower and remember stores like Strouss,’ Lustig’s, Reicharts, Fanny Farmers, Stambaugh-Thompson’s, Record Rendezvous, and of course, the Home Savings Building.

89.119 B1aF325 N. View from Walnut and Federal Streets looking W

East Federal Street in the 1960’s. Photo from Mahoning Valley Historical Society archives.

Looking at old photographs of East Federal Street, I am amazed at the sheer number of stores and businesses, many with awning fronts, that lined East Federal from the 1940’s to the 1960’s. In one photo, I can make out Rocky’s Tavern, Castle Jewelers, East Federal Furniture Company, Factory Shoe Store, Lewis Apparel on Credit, Volunteers of America Opportunity Store, Fishers Dry Goods, and a partially obscured sign for Modern…. Another has signs for the Bargain Store, Marlane, The Atlas Grille, and Downtown Tile Center. Others have signs for Nick’s Shoe Repair, a camera and jewelry store, Leonard’s Clothes Shop, Best Cleaners, Philco/Royal TV Service, the Regent Theater, LeCar Furniture Store, an Army-Navy store, and a Sherwin-Williams paint and wallpaper store. All of these can be seen in a Homeplate TV/MetroMonthly video of East Federal Street in the 1960’s. At one time Rulli Brothers had two stores on East Federal, at 345 and at 21. Eventually the consolidated to the 21 E. Federal location.

I noticed two things from the pictures. One was that this was usually a busy place, cars lining the streets and a number of people on the sidewalks. The other was that the names suggested that these stores may have served a more economically-challenged part of Youngstown than the stores on the other side of Central Square. Bargain stores, stores offering apparel on credit, repair shops for shoes and appliances probably served those who lived paycheck to paycheck.

All these old storefronts are gone. The Realty and Stambaugh Buildings remain (the latter now a DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel) as does the Haber Building now owned by Ohio One with an additional story. East Gateway Community College now occupies the block between South Champion and South Walnut. The YMCA is still on North Champion. But the cityscape has totally changed.

The gap in my own memories of East Federal seems to be matched with a lack of information in books I have or online articles apart from a few videos. I’d love to hear from others who have memories of downtown east of Central Square. It’s plain to me that downtown wasn’t just on West Federal back then. I’d like to know more about what I missed.