Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — James A. Campbell


James Anson Campbell. Public Domain

One of the facts I discovered when I wrote last week about the steel strike of 1916 and the East Youngstown riots was that East Youngstown was renamed Campbell in honor of Youngstown Sheet and Tube’s chairman, James A. Campbell. That made me curious about this man who played such a crucial role in Youngstown Sheet and Tube’s early corporate history and left his mark on the Mahoning Valley.

James Anson Campbell was born on September 11, 1854 in Ohltown, a village once located between Austintown and Meander Reservoir. [There is still an Ohltown Road running northwest from Route 46 just north of the center of Austintown out toward the reservoir.] He was expected to die from tuberculosis as a child, but recovered and excelled in baseball and boxing. He went on to study business at Hiram College, sold hardware and furniture and then first became associated with George Dennick Wick at Trumbull Iron Company. The two of them formed Mahoning Valley Iron Company in 1895 with Wick as president and Campbell as superintendent. When Republic Steel took over the firm in 1900, Wick and Campbell resigned, gathered a group of local investors and formed Youngstown Sheet and Tube in 1901 with Wick as the first president. Campbell served first as secretary, then vice president and finally president of the company, beginning in 1904, when Wick’s health failed. Wick later was one of those who died on the Titanic.

As noted above, Campbell was leading Youngstown Sheet and Tube at the time of the 1916 strike and riots that resulted in the destruction of much of East Youngstown. Campbell led the rebuilding efforts, including building worker housing that included indoor plumbing and electricity. In 1922, the village renamed itself Campbell in recognition of his efforts. In 1923, Youngstown Sheet and Tube acquired the Brier Hill Steel Company and the Steel and Tube Company of America near Chicago, making it the fifth largest steel company in the country, just 22 years after its founding.

Campbell set his sights on a merger with Bethlehem Steel in 1931, which would have created the second largest steel company in the country. It was not to be, as other steel makers, particularly Republic Steel, fought the merger. This was not the only adversity Campbell faced during this time. His only son, Louis J. Campbell, who worked as treasurer of the company, was suffering a progressive disease resulting from his service in World War I. Eventually, a leg was amputated and he died just two years after Campbell. Campbell, passed away suddenly from a stroke on September 20, 1933. Funeral services were held at his mansion, Elmcourt, in Liberty Township, and he is buried in Tod Homestead Cemetery.

According to a 2004 Vindicator article, the wealth Campbell acquired was rapidly dissipated, and nothing of it remains today. Campbell earned upwards of $250,000 a year, but was better at acquiring wealth than building and preserving it. Campbell spent significant amounts in legal bills in the fight for Bethlehem Steel, and lost money on his investment in the Youngstown City Club. Unlike multi-generational families who lived off of the earnings from principle that was preserved and built from generation to generation, the Campbell fortune of $407,272 at his death was rapidly burned through. Some was due to the death of Campbell, his wife and son within two years of each other. Heirs lived lavishly, but none was able to remain married. The Depression resulted in a sell off of assets, often at a fraction of their former value. Susan Lopez, a great granddaughter of Campbell observed that this axiom about wealthy families was true of hers: “It takes three generations to burn through a family fortune: One generation to make it, one to enjoy it and one to spend the last of it.”

In some ways, Campbell’s personal fortune paralleled that of the company he built. Both lasted about two generations. It’s an interesting question to ask whether there is any connection, and not one I’ve had the chance to research in detail. Just as the family failed to preserve and grow the principal of its wealth, did the company fail to preserve and grow its “principal” in the business decisions that were made? How, if at all, did Campbell contribute to that? Interesting questions for a researcher.

Nevertheless, Campbell did something quite striking in leading a startup to become the fifth largest steel maker during his lifetime, and nearly making it the second. He left his name to a village and built some of the best worker housing in the country. It was his mills that lit much of the Mahoning Valley at night. Perhaps he is a reminder that even the greatest among us cannot do it all.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Colonel George Dennick Wick


Colonel George Dennick Wick, photo in the Public Domain

The Wick family is one of the prominent families in Youngstown history. Wicks were among the early settlers of the city, and have been prominent leaders in the steel, and banking and finance institutions of the city as well as in civic affairs. I am still learning about the family history but one thing I discovered very quickly is that it there is far more material than can be covered in a single blog post. So I thought I would start with one of the most interesting members of the family–one with two wives and a daughter named Mary, the founder of one of the major steel companies in the Valley, and a passenger on a fateful voyage.

Colonel Wick was the son of Paul and Susan Wick and born in Youngstown on June 24, 1854. His father was a banker. He was educated in Youngstown schools and then went to Williams College. On graduation, he began his career in the iron and steel industry with Wick, Bonnell and Company in Chicago. Later he moved to Cleveland, selling iron commodities. It was here he met prominent socialite Mary Caroline Chamberlain who he married in 1879.

They moved to Youngstown in 1882 where he was president first of Trumbull Iron Company, then in 1895 he and James A. Campbell formed the Mahoning Valley Iron Company which he also served as president. When Republic Iron and Steel took over the firm around 1900, Wick and Campbell resigned, and with a group of local investors formed Youngstown Sheet and Tube in 1901, of which Colonel Wick was the first president.

Wick was married twice, and both wives names were Mary. His first wife died in 1893. They had one daughter, Mary Natalie, born in 1880. After three years, Wick married fellow Youngstown native Mary Peebles Hitchcock. Their son, George Dennick Jr was born in 1897. In 1896, he served as aide de camp for Governor Asa Bushnell, which also made him a staff officer in the National Guard, and hence the rank of Colonel.

Due to ill health, Wick turned the presidency of Youngstown Sheet and Tube over to James A. Campbell in 1904. He never fully regained his health but did return to the company a few years before he died. It was ill health that led him to go to Europe in February of 1912 with his wife and daughter and a cousin’s daughter, Caroline Bonnell. They toured Italy, France, and London, before their return voyage home–on the Titanic.

The Wick party were in their first class cabins when they heard the tearing sound of the Titanic colliding with the iceberg. At first they were unconcerned believing the reports of the Titanic’s unsinkability. Eventually they were told to report to the A deck and Mrs Wick, Mary and Caroline Bonnell were boarded on a lifeboat. Colonel Wick, like other gentlemen of the time remained behind to take a later boat. Sadly, there were not enough boats, and Colonel Wick, was last seen waving to his wife and daughter from the ship’s railing. He went down with the ship and his body was never recovered.

A memorial service was held for George Dennick Wick on April 24, 1912. At 11 am, factories, schools, and businesses observed five minutes of silence. The family’s pew at First Presbyterian Church was roped off. Mary returned to Youngstown and lived until 1920. She is buried in lot 748 of Oak Hill Cemetery next to a monument for her husband.

The Wick Mansion where Mary lived until her death is now owned by Youngstown State University where it is a co-ed student residence, Wick House. In researching this post, I discovered several articles, including this one from The Vindicator, recounting stories of the house being haunted, perhaps by Mary’s ghost!

Colonel Wick was one of a group of civic leaders that led Youngstown to eminence in steel manufacturing. He served on numerous boards and was an active civic leader. He ended his life like so many others on that ship, courageously and a gentleman to the end.


Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Black Monday


Photo by Stu Spivak [CC BY-SA 2.0] via Flickr

Most of the posts I’ve written about Youngstown are about good memories. This one isn’t, but September 19, 2017 marks forty years since Black Monday. Youngstown never has given up, but it never has been the same.

On Monday, September 19, 1977, Youngstown Sheet and Tube, no longer locally controlled, issued this statement:

“Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company, a subsidiary of Lykes Corporation, announced today that it is implementing steps immediately to concentrate a major portion of its steel production at the Indian Harbor Works near Chicago. . . .The company now employs 22,000 people. The production cut-back at the Campbell Works will require the lay-off or termination of approximately 5,000 employees in the Youngstown workers.” (cited in Robert Bruno, Steelworker Alley, p.9).

Five thousand people and their families faced the lost of a major income source, and work generations had counted on for a career. Between 1979 and 1980, U. S. Steel left Youngstown. By the mid-1980’s Republic Steel declared bankruptcy and ceased operations. Like a rock thrown into a pond, the big splash of Black Monday rippled throughout the Youngstown economy. It is estimated the area lost 40,000 manufacturing jobs and 400 satellite businesses.

There were probably multiple causes, including suburban malls and plazas, but McKelvey’s (Higbee’s) closed a couple years later, leaving my father without a job at age 59. Many younger workers left Youngstown to find work in other cities, many moving south and west. Older workers like my dad found whatever they could locally, to get by until retiring, usually at much lower wages. At the time, my wife and I were starting out our lives together and living in Toledo (a city that suffered similar catastrophic losses of automotive manufacturing jobs later on). When we heard the news, we realized that we would not be returning to the same Youngstown that we had grown up in when we visited parents. Gone was the glow of blast furnaces lighting up the valley at night.

I could go over all the history of attempts to re-start the mills, or lure manufacturers to Youngstown, or talk about all the reasons the mills failed. Others have hashed all that out. All I can say is I’ve never had much tolerance for those who blame workers or followers or circumstances for failure, particularly if the ones doing the blaming are management or leadership (I say that as one who has worked in management).

When someone dear to you dies, you grieve and face how life will be different after the loss. I remember the anniversaries of my parent’s deaths. As the years pass, I probably think less of the loss than of what we had. I also realize we can never go back to that life, or bring our parents back.

Perhaps that’s what the fortieth anniversary of Black Monday is like, as well. We grieve what the Valley lost, remember what was good, and maybe learn from the past so we don’t repeat it. We learn not to put all our eggs in one economic basket, and that we no longer can count on a particular type of job always being there for ourselves and our kids. We learn that ultimately the company won’t look out for us, nor can we count on the government to look out for us. And maybe we remember that our greatest resources are still our faith, our families and friends, and our own hard work, initiative, and a Youngstown “stick-to-it-ive-ness” that doesn’t give up, but keeps on getting up.

For those who will be in the Youngstown area on September 19, the Mahoning Valley Historical Society is hosting “Remembering Black Monday: 40 Years Later” at the Tyler History Center from 7:00 to 8:30 pm. A panel of historians and community leaders will discuss the impact and legacy event. This is a free event. More information is available at the Mahoning Valley Historical Society website.