Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Clyde Singer

Screenshot of Vindicator art critic Clyde Singer via Google News Archive, September 12, 1971.

This is how I saw Clyde Singer when I was growing up in Youngstown. He wrote articles about new art shows at the Butler. I noticed them but cannot say I paid much attention. What I did not realize was his role at the Butler nor his body of work as a celebrated American artist. In researching him online, I discovered that one of his paintings, “On 14th Street” was sold by Christie’s for $50,000 on October 27, 2020.

Singer was a native Ohioan, born in 1908 in Malvern, Ohio, a small village in Carroll County, about 15 miles southeast of Canton. He was an artist from childhood, and much of his early art captured scenes and people from everyday life around Malvern. After high school, he worked for a time as a sign painter and then went to art school in Columbus before returning to Malvern. In 1933, he won a scholarship to the Art Students League in New York, where his teachers included John Steuert Curry, Thomas Hart Benton, Kenneth Hayes Miller, and Ivan Olinsky.

His style was characterized as Social Realist. While in New York, he painted in some of the same places famous painters of his time like George Bellow and John Sloan, including McSorley’s Saloon. But when he finished his studies, he returned to Ohio with $1.10 in his pocket. Soon, though, he received $500 for a large canvas exhibited at the Chicago Art Institute in 1935. Other exhibitions followed, but a steady income can be elusive for an artist.

In 1940, Joseph Butler III offered him a job. He was able to marry Bernice Shimp, an art student in 1941. Apart from war service from 1942 to 1945, he worked at the Butler until his death in 1999. He rose to the position of associate director. He also took on the work of writing articles for the Vindicator introducing new art shows at the Butler. He contributed a column every week.

He kept painting. He loved painting the blue-collar workers of Youngstown and the scenes of their lives. In all, he painted over 3,000 paintings, many in his basement studio in his home in Boardman. The Butler owns about 75 of them. He helped the Butler acquire a number of important works in its collection. He taught art classes at the Butler. And he made yearly trips to New York.

The advent of Abstract Art spelled the end of Social Realism and Regionalism in the art world. He tried his hand at this, sold some, but returned to what he loved because of his passion to capture everyday American life. The basic character of his paintings, including his humor, did not change–only the clothes–miniskirts and hippies replaced earlier styles.

He lived simply. He didn’t drive, his clothes looked like gifts and hand-me-downs. He could hold his own with other Social Realists but when the Butler acquired a painting of Kenneth Hayes Miller, Lou Zona, Butler director describes what happened in these words:

“He came in one morning, and I said, ‘I want to show you something.’ Instead of another electrical failure or a hole in the roof, the kind of things you have to deal with in an old building, I walked him over to the Kenneth Hayes Miller painting. He looked at it and his eyes filled with tears. He said, ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you.’”

His reputation has only grown since his death in 1999, purchased by collectors around the country. He is contribution to the cultural life of Youngstown during his nearly 60 years in the city is immeasurable. By the same token, the city and its people contributed so much to his work. In 2008 PBS Western Reserve filmed the video above on the occasion of a joint exhibition at the Butler and the Canton Museum of Art. It is a wonderful tribute to this man who did so much for Youngstown while creating a body of work that makes him one of America’s great artists.

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

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Canfield Fair Beginnings

Attorney Elisha Whittlesey, Public Domain.

He was one of Canfield’s early residents, moving from Connecticut to Canfield in 1806 to practice law and teach school. In 1812, he answered his young country’s call and fought under William Henry Harrison in the War of 1812. He represented Canfield in the Ohio House from 1821 to 1822, and in the U. S. Congress from 1823 to 1838. He also served as the first Comptroller of the U. S. Treasury.

In local history, what he is best known for is his role in forming the Mahoning County Agricultural Society, the parent organization of the Canfield Fair. It was 1846. The Ohio Legislature had just created Mahoning County as a new county from townships in Trumbull and Columbiana Counties. Canfield, because of its central location, was chosen to be the county seat. It was only in 1874 that the county seat was moved to Youngstown.

During that year, Attorney Whittlesey spoke to a gathering at the Canfield Congregational Church. It had the impressive title of “Competitive Exhibitions as a Means of Awakening More Active Interest in All Industrial Pursuits” (the beginning of all those 4-H competitions!). The address had the intended effect and out of this meeting the Mahoning County Agricultural Society was born.

Since Canfield was the county seat, it was the logical choice for the county fair. The first fair was organized as a one-day affair held on October 5, 1847. Initially, livestock was tied up and produce displayed along Broad Street and meetings held at the Congregational Church. George Houk of the Mahoning County Agricultural Society described the early fairs like this, “People brought their ox teams in, their horse teams in. It was just an opportunity for the early farmers to get together and share their agricultural ideas with one another” (Source: WKBN27). The first fair turned a profit of $308.

In 1851, the Fair moved to its present location and expanded further in 1867. In 1896, the Main Hall (now the Floral and Fine Arts Building) was opened. In 1924 lighting allowed for night attendance for the first time. In 1936, the Grandstand was completed as a WPA project. In 1958 the Big Rock was installed and the rooster on the Grandstand in 1968.

There were war years when the Fair was not held. 1917–18, 1942–45. In 2020, due to the COVID pandemic, only the Junior Fair took place–honoring all the work those youth invested and returning in some way to the earliest beginnings of the Fair.

This year, the full Fair is on and celebrating the 175th anniversary of its beginnings at Canfield Congregational Church and an address by Elisha Whittlesey. All those Junior Fair competitions, all those exhibitions, the rides, the fair food, the grandstand shows, started with an idea set forth by one of Canfield’s early residents in the year Mahoning became a county. Thank you, Attorney Whittlesey!

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

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Mill Creek Park Trails

Mill Creek Park Trail, Photo by Marilyn Trube, all rights reserved

One of my most cherished memories of childhood was going for hikes with my dad in Mill Creek Park. I think the first one I remember was the One Way Trail, which at one time was One Way Road, beginning near the Green House, occupied by park foremen, on Lake Glacier, opposite the Parapet Bridge and ascending to overlook the Lily Pond and coming out by Bears Den Road. I also remember class trips starting at the Lily Pond with park naturalist Lindley Vickers

Trails generally run along the east and west sides of the lakes and gorges of Mill Creek. I grew up on the West Side, near the north end of the park. So walking the whole length of the trails was a challenge. Before I drove, I’d often ride to a trail entrance, and then walk my bike on a portion of the trails. Some of my favorite were the trails along the east and west sides of Lake Cohasset, one of the most beautiful parts of the park. My other favorite was the West Gorge Trail between Lake Cohasset and Lanterman’s Mill. This stretch helps you see how the creek carved out the gorge over generations and seemed to me one of the most untouched parts of the park.

The climax of this walk came as you approached Youngstown-Canfield Road and the falls and mill just beyond, framed by the bridge. This was a view you could only see on the trail. Two other short trails, on either side of the Hemlock Gorge flowing north from Pioneer Pavilion are also quite scenic. The one on the west is appropriately called Artist’s Trail. One the other side is Slippery Rock Trail, leading to Slippery Rock Pavilion.

I most often traveled along the west side of Lake Glacier. It is a whole different view if you take the East Glacier Trail, which runs the length of Lake Glacier from Volney Rogers Field to Slippery Rock Pavilion, with a close up view of the Parapet Bridge.

There were no wetlands at Lake Newport when I grew up. The trails followed the lake on either side, coming out at Shields Road. Now there is a boardwalk wetland trail, allowing people to walk through the wetlands while keeping their feet dry. East Newport Drive is now only open to one way, northbound traffic, and serves as a paved walking and cycling trail. On the other side of Shields, the road on the east side of Mill Creek is now closed to vehicles entirely, making for an easy walking and cycling trail, arched by trees.

Looking at the current trail map of the park, I don’t see some of the trails I remember, such as the Bears Den Trail running from the parking lot to the rock formations, or the trail between the Lily Pond and the Rock Garden that followed a creek. I know there are quite a few trails in John Melnick’s The Green Cathedral (pp. 409-411) that I don’t see on today’s park maps. I wonder if these have been kept up. It would be interesting to go back and explore!

What walking the trails gave was a sense of the rugged beauty of the park. The trails were up and down, following the contours of the gorge. There was so much of the park you could not see just driving or walking along the roads. Nor could you listen to the burbling of the creek unless you walked along. In the fall, you could savor the smell and crunch of fallen leaves. It was part of the wisdom of Volney Rogers and those who worked with him to lay out trails, occasionally with bridges or stone steps, but mostly just packed dirt that gave you a sense that you were walking in the park, and not just through it. They are part of what make it such a special place.

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

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Thomas G. McDonald

Thomas G. McDonald, Photo from Youngstown Vindicator, July 13, 1930 (via Google News Archive)

He oversaw the development of Carnegie Steel’s (later U.S. Steel) Ohio Works and the construction of the McDonald Works which were named after him, as was the village that grew up around these mills, McDonald, Ohio. He was Thomas G. McDonald, who was described in an editorial in the Youngstown Vindicator of July 14, 1930 (two days after his death) as “one of the old type of steel men who began at the bottom and by mastering every detail of the industry gradually worked their way up to the top.” From all I can find out about him, this is a fitting summary of his career.

McDonald was born in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania November 11, 1848. He learned to work hard on his father’s farm. Then, after public schools, he enrolled at the Iron City Commercial College, graduating to the carpenter’s trade in 1868. His first job was as a carpenter working on the construction of Carnegie Steel’s Edgar Thompson. He never left the company. He worked his way up in the company, learning all the details of manufacturing steel. In 1880, he became night superintendent at the converting department of their plant in Braddock. Then, in July 1880, he was assigned night superintendent at the Allegheny Bessemer Works in Duquesne, Pennsylvania. It was probably during this time that he became a close confidant of Andrew Carnegie, with whom he was a lifelong friend.

The company brought him to Youngstown in 1893 as general superintendent of the Ohio Works. Based on his advice, the plant decided to increase their equipment beyond the two 8 ton converters they had originally intended. He oversaw the instruction and the first heat in 1895. By 1897, monthly output exceeded 30,000 tons every month. Eventually, it would exceed 50,000 tons.

In 1906 Carnegie Steel promoted McDonald to general superintendent of the Youngstown District which included the Ohio Works, Upper and Lower Union Mills, Greenville Mills, and the Niles Furnace. Then in 1909, Carnegie Steel acquired land across the river from Girard for a new mill. In 1916 the new mill, whose construction was overseen by McDonald produced its first steel. Recognizing his leadership, Carnegie named the mills the McDonald Works. As it turns out, McDonald not only built the mill, he built the town of McDonald, building housing for the workers. The Village of McDonald was incorporated December 12, 1918. When it became apparent that workers with families would not come without schools, the company built schools, opening McDonald High School in 1929. It is still in use, having been renovated by Ricciuti, Balog and Partners in 1990.

He retired in 1921 but continued working as a consulting manager. He was involved in a number of civic causes in the Youngstown area including service as a vice president of the Youngstown Chamber of Commerce and director of the Youngstown and Northern Railway Company. He served several terms on the Board of Education and as a director at First National and Dollar Banks.

He celebrated his 50th anniversary with Elizabeth on November 27, 1928. On July 1, 1930, in his 82nd year he was hospitalized at North Side Hospital in critical condition with a kidney infection. He died on July 12, 1930. He is buried in Belmont Park Cemetery.

From all I can read, everything McDonald built, he built well with a vision for the future. In fact, a portion of the McDonald Works is still making steel as McDonald Steel. The complex of plants he oversaw outlasted him by nearly fifty years until U.S. Steel ended operations in 1979. One wonders “what if” the area’s steel industry had enjoyed leadership like his throughout its history. What he did do is contribute to the capacity that helped make the Steel Valley the third largest steel maker in the country. That is no small thing.

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

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Alfred L. Bright

Alfred L. Bright, Youngstown Vindicator, August 15, 1971 via Google News Archive

I was reminded of Al Bright about a year ago when reading Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste. In the book she tells the story of a city championship Little League team that celebrated with a picnic and swimming outing at one of Youngstown’s pools. One member of that team was Black. He had to remain outside the fence, with teammates bringing him food. They couldn’t bring him the pool. After parents argued with the pool management, the boy was allowed to sit in a raft to be pulled around the pool by a lifeguard. For a few minutes. Everyone else had to exit the pool. The lifeguard whispered to him, “Whatever you do, don’t touch the water.” That Black Little Leaguer was Al Bright. The year was 1951. (Source: Sydney Morning Herald).

That was racism in Youngstown in 1951. That would have discouraged many others. Not Bright. The picture above is from a 50 year old news story in The Vindicator on August 15, 1971, noting that Bright was going to be the featured speaker at the National Junior Achievers Conference and was going to be awarded Speaker of the Year Award. The article also notes that he had joined Junior Achievers in 1958, was president of the chapter in 1959, and won the Achievers of the Year Award that same year. At the national conference in 1959, he was persuaded by the president of Colgate-Palmolive, S. Bayard Colgate, to go to college instead of barber school. He won a scholarship at Youngstown University and graduated in 1964 with a Bachelor of Science. A year later, he added a Master of Arts in painting from Kent State.

He taught art and painting at Youngstown after graduation. Louis Zona, executive director of the Butler was one of his students! Then, in 1970, he established the Black Studies program at Youngstown State and directed it for 18 years. He was the first full-time Black faculty member at Youngstown. During this time, he hosted Alex Haley, Jesse Jackson, Maya Angelou, and Shirley Chisholm at the university. Marvin Haire, one of Bright’s first students in the program, wrote:

“[The black studies program] sought to infuse the systematic study of African people into university curriculum and do that in a way that provided exposure to a wide range of what we would call the black experience, including music, art, history, politics and education. So the original vision was to build a program that offered that kind global awareness to students who took courses.”

He never stopped painting and his works are part of permanent collections at The Butler Institute of American Art, the Kent State University Gallery, the Harmon and Harriet Kelly Collection of African-American Art, Canton Museum of Art. Roanoke Museum of Fine Arts and Northeastern University. He exhibited his art in more than 100 solo exhibitions over his career. In 2012, he painted “Portals in Time” to a live jazz performance at the Akron Art Museum.

He was awarded the the Distinguished Teaching Award from YSU in 2006. He died October 28, 2019 at age 79. For my last two years at Youngstown State, I worked in the Student Development Program. Bright spoke for the program regularly and helped open the eyes of this white guy from the Westside to the beauty of black culture and the outlines of black history. I was struck that I never was diminished in my own racial identity but enlarged in my appreciation of the culture and history of Blacks in Youngstown. He built bridges with people rather than walls. He could have been bitter. Instead, he was better, as a program founder, an artist, as a mentor to younger Black leaders. He was born and died in Youngstown. His life was a gift to 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 — Consolidated Warehouse

Consolidated Warehouse ad in the Youngstown Vindicator, August 7, 1961

One of my memories of growing up in Youngstown was Saturday morning trips to the Consolidate Warehouse in downtown Youngstown. It was located on the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and West Commerce Street, what is now the site of the Mahoning County Sheriff’s Office and Jail. As you can see from the ad above, the building closest to Fifth Avenue was a six floor cube, connected by what looks like a two-story building and a third three-story building where loading docks were located. The downtown store also had a tire and paint sales facility across the street behind the downtown fire station.

As I recall, dad usually went there for whatever supplies he needed for household jobs–paint, tools, hardware, seal coat for the driveway, caulk–you name it. Mom usually gave him a list of cleaning supplies that often sold for better prices than at the local grocery. As their ad said “we are never undersold.” It was kind of an overwhelming place–you could find school clothes, casual clothes, work clothes, personal care items, appliances, automotive supplies, and garden supplies. It was the closest thing we had to Walmart. Sears was a pricier version. K-Mart, Almart, Montgomery Ward, Woolco, and Walmart were all in the future.

Eventually Consolidated opened stores, under the name Consolidated Discount Stores, at 5635 South Avenue, where Petiti’s Garden Center is located, and at 1729 S. Raccoon Rd, in the Wedgewood Plaza. Later on, they opened a store in Salem and after the downtown store closed in the early 1980’s, there was a store for a few years in the McGuffey Mall on the East side. This no longer appeared in their ads by 1984. Obviously these stores as well as the downtown store are long gone. I could not find information about when they finally went out of business. I suspect the buying power of the national stores who came into the area led to their closure.

Consolidated was way ahead of the times. In a way, it was the “proof of concept” for all these other stores. It wasn’t fancy. It was a warehouse. My memory is that it wasn’t brightly lit. It was no frills. It didn’t need to be. All that mattered for my parents was good prices. As far as I know, they were not undersold!

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 Youngstown Telegram

For all my years of growing up, Youngstown was basically a one-newspaper town. In 2019, Youngstown faced the prospect of becoming a newspaper desert as the Vindicator announced it would cease operations. Subsequently, the Warren Tribune-Chronicle picked up the Vindicator name and continues to publish a paper in Youngstown under that name. Several other news outlets stepped up their news coverage including The Business Journal and a new online news outlet, Mahoning Matters. Local television stations added coverage on their websites as well. There are actually more news outlets than in 2019.

This was the case in Youngstown through much of its history until 1936. My dad talked about delivering the Telegram in his youth. For about five decades, Youngstown had two major papers, the Youngstown Vindicator and the Youngstown Telegram. It arose out of a newspaper war in the 1880’s. McKelvey’s founder G. M. McKelvey, Judge L. W. King, H. M. Garlick, William Cornelius, and Hal K. Taylor formed the Youngstown Printing Company on November 17, 1885, with McKelvey as president. On December 1, the Youngstown Evening Telegram came into existence with Judge L. W. King as editorial manager, In 1891, they discontinued the Sunday paper and in 1895 the name became the Youngstown Telegram.

The paper was known to have a Republican bent. The paper advocated prohibition, which may have been the reason publisher Samuel G, McClure’s home was bombed. A few years later, The New York Times, reported the bombing of the newspaper offices on the night of November 15, 1918.

One of Youngstown’s most well-known reporters came out of the Telegram. Esther Hamilton began her career as a reporter with the paper and then joined the Vindicator when the Telegram was acquired by the Vindicator in 1936. One of her early assignments was to cover the Youngstown City Schools.

In subsequent years, the newspaper became part of the Scripps-Howard chain. The paper had more of a national focus and subscriptions began to slip, and hence ad revenues. Then in 1928, the paper turned its back on its Republican base and endorsed Al Smith in his race against Herbert Hoover. Smith lost and the paper lost circulation. Around this time, a circulation reporting scandal arose, as the newspaper reported higher circulation figures when in fact, the circulation department was buying back over 3,000 copies. By the time when they were acquired by the Vindicator, one source puts their circulation in the neighborhood of 24,000 to over 42,000 for the Vindicator, which meant much higher ad revenues for the Vindicator. The Vindicator also had a Sunday edition.

Youngstown Vindicator from May 3, 1960, the last day “And The Youngstown Telegram” appears.

The last edition of The Youngstown Telegram was July 2, 1936. For many years, the name appearing at the top of the front page was “Youngstown Vindicator” and in much smaller print “The Youngstown Telegram.” The last day this appears on the paper was May 3, 1960, after which only the Youngstown Vindicator and later Vindicator appears. I don’t know what the disappearance of the name meant, but the use of the two may have suggested more of a merger than an acquisition. Certainly staff for both newspapers worked on the Vindicator. Perhaps it was also a way to appeal to old Telegram subscribers. A front page story on July 3, 1936 in the new paper states: “Readers of the Telegram will find little changed in the new Vindicator-Telegram. The Vindicator has won national recognition for its progressive editorial policy and undoubtedly it will be continued in the merged publication.”

My dad used to call it the Vindicator-Telegram. Now I understand why. I was just learning to read when the last vestige of the Telegram disappeared. But the hyphenated name looks back to a time when Youngstown was a two-newspaper town.

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

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Songs of the Summer

Rolling Stones in concert, Houtrusthallen The Hague (NL), 15 April 1967, Ben Merk (ANEFO), CC0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Do you remember where you were the first time you heard the Beatles sing “A Hard Day’s Night”? Was there a song you associated with your first love? Was there a song you loved to crank up to full volume on a hot summer evening cruising around in your car? Were you like me and always had you radio set to WHOT?

I took a walk down memory lane with the help of Billboard’s Summer Songs 1958-2020: The Top 10 Tunes of Each Summer“. I looked back at the decade of 1963-1972, the last year being when I graduated from high school. I listened to some of those songs on a transistor with an earphone jack. Others I listened to cranked up on my stereo (“turn that awful music down!”). Some were the songs blaring from loudspeakers on midways at Idora Park or the Canfield Fair or the dances we went to. Here are some of the ones I remembered:

1963: “Blowing in the Wind” by Peter, Paul, and Mary. This was the last summer of John F. Kennedy’s “Camelot” and this reflected the idealism he inspired. We played my brother’s LP recording of their songs over and over. I still tear up when I watch one of our videos and they sing this song. And there was Mary’s voice and that long blonde hair!

1964: “House of the Rising Sun” by the Animals. Was it Eric Burdon’s low growl as he sang “There is a house in New Orleans…” or the subject matter–a house of ill-repute? We all thought of ourselves as “bad boys” when we heard him sing it.

1965: “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” The Rolling Stones. Speaking of bad boys. It spoke what a lot of us testosterone- drunk boys were feeling.

1966: “Summer in the City” The Lovin’ Spoonful. John Sebastian sang about getting dirty and gritty in the city but how “at night it’s a different world./Go out and find a girl.” We knew dirty and gritty in Youngstown and I was starting to wake up to the idea of going out and finding a girl as an awkward junior high student. Here’s a video of Sebastian singing the song.

1967: This was the summer of The Doors’ “Light my Fire” and Scott McKenzie’s “San Francisco.” I remember waking up to deliver Sunday papers with “San Francisco” running through my head. Just don’t light my fire with flowers in my hair! It was always cool when they’d play the long version of “Light My Fire” on the radio. Nothing like it.

1968: OK, this is true confessions time. Herb Alpert’s “This Guy’s in Love with You” was the number one song and it was the theme of my crush on a girl in my neighborhood. She never knew! Heard the song recently and was struck with what a truly awful singer Alpert was. I think it was the only time he tried singing. It’s funny how there were the sweet love songs and then the bad boy songs. It was also the summer of Steppenwolf’s “Born to be Wild.”

1969: Not sure there was a standout that year, but “One” by Three Dog Night was a song I could identify with. I listened to a lot of Three Dog Night around that time.

1970: It wasn’t top 10 that summer but it spoke to the grief so many of us felt from the killings at nearby Kent State. Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young’s “Ohio’ captured the grief and anguish so many of us felt. I can’t help but think of a young girl from Boardman who died that day who is memorialized in the words, “What if you knew her and found her dead on the ground? How can you run when you know.” That girl was 400 feet away and walking to class. Here’s a live acoustic recording I had not seen before of Neil Young singing the song in 1971.

1971: It seemed that the songs got gentler after Kent State. My memory of this year was James Taylor’s “You’ve Got a Friend.” It was stuck in my head enough that when I had to give the valedictory address for my high school class in 1972, it was the basis of my talk.

1972: The song from this year’s list with the most staying power was “Lean on Me” by Bill Withers, but for me, the Hollies last gasp, “Long Cool Woman (In a Black Dress)” was the song I remember.

I’ll stop there. It’s pretty apparent that girls were a big thing on my mind at that time. In the fall of 1972, I went to Youngstown State. On the second day, I met a girl from the Southside who I started dating a few weeks later. Forty-nine years later she is sitting across the room as I write. I consider myself fortunate and blessed. Life didn’t turn out like the songs–rather far different and better.

What are some of the songs you remember from the summers of your youth and of what do they remind you?

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 Baby Doll Dance

Mt. Carmel Festival – Lowellville, OH – Baby Doll Dance 7.12.17 uploaded to YouTube by PaOrgRecChaos

After a year of COVID restrictions, the Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Festival in Lowellville is celebrating its 126th year July 14-17, 2021. Like every festival, there are all the great fair foods, rides, and games, including bocce tournaments each evening and a 50/50 raffle. The Mount Carmel Society Facebook page is probably the best source of information about events.

What makes the festival unique is the Baby Doll Dance which occurs each night of the festival. Around 10:30 pm each night a giant baby doll appears. The fire department keeps the crowd back. The doll has a red, white, and green dress, the colors of Italy, a papier mache’ head covered with a babushka, and long arms sticking straight out, loaded with fireworks. The doll starts dancing and twirling as the fireworks are ignited and start firing. Rockets also fire out of the head. You can’t dance without music. The Mt Carmel Society Band plays “Il Bersagliere” as the baby doll dances and fireworks ignite.

So who is behind, or perhaps it would be better to say, under that baby doll? For the past forty years, Frank Speziale has been the man beneath the doll. According to a 2018 AP story, Speziale’s uncle built the costume when he was a kid. From childhood, he had hoped to dance beneath the doll, built by his uncle. Forty years ago he got his wish. It almost didn’t happen. When his uncle passed, they were going to destroy the costume, but his grandfather stood up for him, and insisted that he would take over.

But where did this tradition come from? I understand it goes back to thirteenth century Italy where villages would burn a papier mache’ baby doll each year to cleanse the village of and ward off any evil spirits. Let’s hope this year’s dance wards off the virus for all the people in Lowellville!

There was only one other place I could find that has a Baby Doll Dance, the San Rocco Festival in Aliquippa, PA, but the description of its significance is different, it only occurs one night, and it hasn’t been going as long as Lowellville’s so this seems to be another unique Mahoning Valley tradition. I wish I could be there. I’ve never seen the dance and I know I would love the food. Another year, perhaps. But to all of those celebrating, Buona Festa!

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

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Central Square

Public Square (showing Diamond Cafe)
1909-06-15, Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections

Central Square, the heart of Youngstown’s business district has undergone numerous changes reflecting the development of the city from John Young’s village to the present. At various times, it has been called Central Square, “the Diamond,” and Federal Plaza. Over the years it has seen foot and horse-drawn traffic, streetcars, buses and automobiles. For roughly 30 years, it was a plaza with no east-west traffic on Federal Street. For 31 years, there was a branch of the library on the north side of the square. Here is a timeline reflecting some of the changes on the Square over the years.

1798: John Young lays out plats for his village, designating a public square, a rectangle 250 by 400 feet, similar to New England Villages with the simple word “Square” on his map. With foresight, he lays out streets intersecting the square 100 feet wide.

1803: Youngstown’s first log schoolhouse opens on the Square.

1806: Perlee Brush hired as the first school-teacher.

1800-1860: Central Square is the center of the village primarily along East and West Federal Street consisting of residences and small businesses. For example, Woodman’s Grocery occupied the site that later became the Mahoning Bank Building.

1866: The Rayen School built by P. Ross Berry opens on Wick Avenue north of downtown.

1869: First Tod Hotel built on the southeast part of Central Square by. P. Ross Berry.

Realty Building and the Tod Hotel, from an undated vintage postcard.

1870: The Civil War Soldiers Monument is dedicated July 4, 1870 by Governor Rutherford B. Hayes and Congressman James A. Garfield.

1870’s: P. Ross Berry builds Opera House and building complex known as “The Diamond Block” on the southwest corner of public square.

1875: Horse drawn street cars provide transportation from the Square.

1876: Youngstown becomes the county seat of Mahoning County. The ubiquitous P. Ross Berry builds the first courthouse building at Wick and Wood.

1882: Federal Street is paved.

1886: Electric street lights installed.

1889: First of the downtown office towers built, the four story Federal Building, Daniel Burnham architect.

1899: Market Street Bridge opens, making Central Square the traffic hub from all sides of town.

1902: Dollar Savings and Trust Building completed built by Charles H. and Charles F. Owsley.

1906: Stambaugh Building built. Albert Kahn architect

1907: The Wick Building, also designed by Burnham is erected.

1910: Mahoning National Bank Building, also designed by Kahn.

1923: Central Square Library opened on the site of the defunct “Maid of the Mists” Fountain on the north side of the Square.

1924: Realty Building, architect Morris Scheibel.

1926: Keith-Albee Theatre, later the Palace, built on the northeast side of the Square

1926: Union National Bank, Walker & Weeks architect.

1929: Central Tower, a distinctive art deco building designed by Morris Scheibel.

1940’s: Street car tracks are torn up and used for war material.

1954: Central Square Library closes.

1960: In October, John F. Kennedy speaks from the balcony of the Tod Hotel to an estimated crowd of 60,000 on Central Square.

1964: Palace Theatre closed and subsequently razed.

1968: Tod House is razed for urban renewal.

1974: Central Square is transformed into Federal Plaza, closing east-west traffic for one block in each direction from the square, creating a pedestrian mall.

2004: Central Square re-opened to traffic with new traffic patterns, beds, benches.

This is a far from exhaustive timeline of Central Square. If you know of key dates and events that should be added, leave a comment. I hope this page can be a concise source of the history of this space. Central Square has been the heart of Youngstown, its civic and business heart, a center for political rallies and celebrations, of tree-lightings and festivals.

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