Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — The Shields Family

James H. Shields

I biked all over Youngstown during my teen years, often through Mill Creek Park, where I sometimes came out on Shields Road, running east and west through Boardman Township. I never gave a thought to where the name came from. Since then, I’ve learned that many of those streets are named after early families from the area. It turns out that this was true of Shields Road.

Thomas Shields, originally from Staunton, Virginia moved to Ohio in 1798. As early as 1800, he operated a mill known as Baird’s Mill on the site of what is now Lanterman’s Mill. His son, Andrew Shields was born October 18, 1808. At the time, Thomas, who first lived in Boardman Township, had a farm in Canfield Township, where Andrew was born. Later the family moved to the farm in Boardman Township, located astride Canfield Road and the westernmost part of Shields Road.

An early map of Mahoning County showing the property of Andrew Shields in northwest Boardman Township, between two properties owned by Elizabeth Lanterman

Andrew married Jane Price, daughter of an early West side family, in 1826. They had three children of whom James Howard was the eldest. Andrew was an industrious farmer and stockman who drove his own stock to Pittsburgh. Andrew lived on the farm until 1880. Jane lived until 1901.

James Howard was born November 12, 1840 on the farm, as many children of the day were. He followed in his father’s footsteps, driving cattle as far as Little Valley, New York from the time he was twelve. At thirteen, he went to Illinois to buy cattle, carrying $7,000 on his person, driving them all the way to Hudson, New York, an 87 1/2 day journey! At age 19, he settled down as a farmer and stockman in the Youngstown area, owning five farms altogether, with the Boardman Township farm his home, consolidating two other farms into his holdings.

He tried to enlist in the first company raised from Youngstown during the Civil War. He was rejected because he’d broken both arms at some point caring for animals, two of a number of accidents he had. His injuries didn’t prevent him from marrying Lois Starr, with whom he had three children, one of whom, Mary (Mate) drowned in Mill Creek at age eight. In 1883, he moved into Youngstown, living for a time on Glenwood, then at 1040 Mahoning Avenue. He set up a meat business in downtown Youngstown, at two locations before finally setting up at 129 E. Federal. He closed up the business in 1897 and returned to farming and shipping cattle. He was known as a cattleman throughout Ohio.

He was also politically active as chairman of the Democratic Party and elected Mahoning County Sheriff in 1898, serving a term ending in 1900. After this time he moved back to the farm. He also served on the Canfield Fair Board for many years. He lived on the farm until the death of Lois in 1914, moving in with his daughter, eventually relocating to Akron, where he passed after a stroke, on June 1, 1919. He is buried in Canfield Village Cemetery, in an unmarked grave. His obituary says “he was of genial disposition and made friends readily.”

The farm passed to his son Allora who only lived until 1926. I’ve not been able to determine what happened to the farm after Allora’s passing. He had three sons, Russell who died in 1930, James Howard, who worked at Isaly’s and died in 1987, and John Allen, who lived until 1992. A daughter Norma J. Shields Smith died in 2007.

The Shields family were among the early families to settle in the Boardman area and well known in farming and livestock circles in the Youngstown area. Today they are remembered by the road that bears their name.

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

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Gypsy Lane

John Brenkacs Hungarian Gypsy Orchestra, Cleveland Press Collection, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Gypsy Lane forms the northern border of Youngstown. I always thought that was an interesting name. Why Gypsy?

I couldn’t find out much about this, but there is one oral history by a North Side resident, John Manning, who speaks of a settlement of Gypsies in the vicinity of the intersection of Belmont Avenue and what became known as Gypsy Lane. He claims that’s where the name came from. He states there were old fairgrounds in that area and this is where they arrived when they came to Youngstown.

I cannot find any other confirmation of this information, but Steve Piskor, who has written a history of Hungarian Slovak Gypsies in America, states that between 1885 and 1910, Hungarian-Slovak Gypsies settled in Braddock, Homestead, Uniontown, and Johnstown, Pennsylvania, Cleveland and Youngstown, Gary, Indiana, as well as New York City. On his website, he has a picture of a Gypsy orchestra of Gypsies in Youngstown. Underneath he says these Gypsies or Roma migrated from Kassa, Hungary (which is now the largest city in eastern Slovakia, but then part of Hungary). He says they lived in Youngstown for about thirty years and then most moved to Cleveland to join the larger community there, the largest in the country.

One of the stereotypes the Gypsies (also called Roma or Romani) faced was that of thievery or con artistry. What was distinctive about them was the music, and every community had its orchestra. They were known for their fiddlers and their music influenced Franz Liszt, Bela Bartok, and Zoltan Kodaly. Chris Haigh has posted an extensive history of this music down to the present.

But who were these people? Most histories trace their origin to Northern India. They migrated first to Persia and then arrived in Europe in the Middle Ages. Many at the time thought they came from Egypt, hence the name “Gypsies.” But both genetic and linguistic evidence point to a North Indian origin. The Hungarian-Slovak Gypsies migrated to the U.S. in the late 1800’s.

I would love to know more about the history of this group in the city, and wonder if there are any descendants still living in the Valley. And it would be interesting to confirm that Gypsy Lane owes its name to a real Gypsy community in the city.

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

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Benjamin F. Wirt


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.