Ohio County Trippin’ Part Eight: MAHONING COUNTY
By Nick Taggart - “Youngstown Tune-Up" - 28-29 April 2018 (Click here for previous County T)
The fish were most likely biting as we entered the county on an overcast Saturday morning along Mahoning Avenue. We crossed over the causeway of Lake Milton, a 1,685-acre reservoir, popular among anglers, as light drops of rain speckled the water’s surface. The only thing we were angling for, though, was breakfast, so we continued our drive east. The points of interest that caught our attention included the Jackson-Milton Middle and High School complex, built nearly a decade ago, and its neighbor, the Tri-Lakes Library, both constructed with natural stone. A nearby water tower displayed the school’s mascot and informed all visitors this was “Blue Jay Country.”
After ducking under the turnpike, we pulled in at The Korner restaurant, a popular, unassuming eatery that appears to attract hunters and other outdoorsy types, the kind of place where it’s necessary to post a sign, “No muddy boots.” After settling into an available booth, I went looking for the restroom and had to wait my turn behind two polite camouflage-adorned men wearing black NFL linebacker-like mascara. Had we been in the wilds, I would have bumped right into them, so well costumed they were to blend into their surroundings.
After our prerequisite coffees, Michele ordered the Sampler, which included a hotcake, two eggs, a choice of meat, and toast. I opted for the Italian Breakfast Bowl, a combination of any style eggs over a quarter pound hot sausage patty, home fries with peppers and onions, and topped with hot pepper marinara sauce. The diner behind me was regaling his companion with hunting tales. “I shot it and it went in and rode the ribs before it penetrated,” he said. “I saw blood coming out the side.” This narrative might have fouled my breakfast experience, especially with all that red sauce, had it not been for the supreme quality of the food (and my hunger) because I didn’t have a problem finishing every last bite in my bowl.
After our meal, we drove north on Lipkey Road with the sprawling Meander Creek Reservoir on our right. The vast preserve provides drinking water for the county, but is also a giant tease to anglers and hunters. Its community purpose prevents trespassing, but I read that the reservoir is well-stocked with fish, and, as we drove along its perimeter, Michele spotted a deer and wild turkey leisurely and tauntingly foraging behind a fence.
We continued north to just shy of the county border before turning into the parking lot of the Basilica and National Shrine of Our Lady of Lebanon. It is a replica of a shrine in Harissa, Lebanon. It’s difficult to miss because out front stands a 16-foot statue of the Virgin Mary atop a 55-foot round tower, resembling a sort of inland lighthouse. Unfortunately, the winding steps leading to the figure were closed to foot traffic, so we were left looking up the lady’s rose granite garments from below.
We stepped inside the religious gift shop. Being the heathen infidel that I am, I am always encouraged when I don’t spontaneously burst into flames when entering such establishments. There was another couple perusing the merchandise and I overheard them say they were looking for a gift in honor of their nephew’s first communion. Not knowing anything about the tyke, I’m still pretty sure he’d prefer an Xbox to any combination of religious tracts or rosaries that filled the shelves, but it wasn’t my decision to make. I did spot, however, an appropriate gift if the youngster planned to make a career in real estate. Wee statues of St. Joseph were on sale and the packaging guaranteed quick property sales if the little guy were buried somewhere on the property. “Faith can move mountains,” the box read, “and homes!”
Good natured ribbing of another’s beliefs comes with a price tag and our tab came to $19.18. That was the total on our receipt for a box of assorted saint notecards and a 26 oz. container of “Blessed Salt.” The latter may have looked like an ordinary package of Stonemill Iodized Salt, but the sticker on top confirmed it had been officially blessed, in this case upon inquiry, by Chorbishop Anthony Spinosa, the head honcho at the basilica. Both items are intended as gifts, but I feel as though we should keep at least a pinch of the latter to use at our next dinner party. (“I detect tarragon and mustard and…is that blessed salt I taste?! Oh, you must give me the recipe!”) A warning to consumers: excessive consumption of blessed salt in one’s diet can lead to high blessed blood pressure!
After a quick swing through the chapel, we got back in our car and returned to Mahoning Avenue for our eastward march toward the county seat. Along the way, we passed through the city of Austintown and a corridor of commerce that includes an everlasting string of ubiquitous Auto Zones and Burger Kings and Chevrolet dealerships. As we passed the cross street of Belle Vista Avenue, I could understand how the road got its name, for ahead of us was a clear view down to the Mahoning River Valley and the skyline of Youngstown.
We weren’t sure what to expect of the city. Neither Michele nor I had ever been to this part of the state and no matter how many of my friends I surveyed, neither had any of them. All I thought I knew was based on half-remembered rumors and innuendo. The area used to be run by the Mob, right? The collapse of the steel industry decimated the local economy, right? Well, sort of yes to both of those questions. A quick check on Wikipedia filled in some of the blanks.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the city did witness its share of gangland killings including enough involving exploding automobiles that “Youngstown tune-up” became national slang for a car-bomb assassination. As recent as 2000, an investigative journalism story in The New Republic reported Mob control of all levels of government. Two years later, former United States Representative James Traficant was convicted of bribery, tax fraud, and racketeering. His worst crime, however, may have been the scurry of squirrels he wore on his head that could easily be considered the worst rug in Congressional history.
The Mahoning River Valley had been a center of iron and steel production since at least the middle of the 19th Century, but when that industry took a nose dive at the end of the 1970s, four local mills closed and about 50,000 people lost their jobs. The city’s population hovered around 167,000 for three decades, but by 2010 it had dropped to about 67,000.
With those facts and figures swirling through my head, I aimed to get a better perspective at the Youngstown Historical Center of Industry & Labor on West Wood Street. Our Ohio History Connection membership allowed us free admission. (My favorite of all the admissions!) The permanent exhibit, “By the Sweat of Their Brow: Forging the Steel Valley,” does an excellent job telling the story of the steel industry. A combination of interpretive panels, video, photographs, and archival items informs visitors about iron and steel production and the toll it takes on the workers responsible for keeping the mills running, many of them recent immigrants to the country. Museum brochures suggest allowing at least an hour to tour the exhibits. Our own visit was double that time.
Back in our car, I pushed play on the CD player. We’d been listening to Emmylou Harris’s “Wrecking Ball.” Coincidentally, the first song to play after our labor lesson was “Blackhawk.”
Well, I work the double shift/ In a bookstore on St. Clair/ While he pushed the burning ingots/ In Dofasco stinking air…Hold on to your aching heart/ I’ll wipe the liquor from your lips/ A small town hero never dies/ He fades a bit and then he slips/ Down into the blast furnace/ In the heat of the open hearth/ And at the punch clock he remembers/ Blackhawk and the white winged dove
Dofasco is a steel company based in Hamilton, Ontario, but I’m sure the grueling and exhausting experience of a steel mill worker is common across international borders.
Before leaving town, we paused on Wick Avenue so I could snap a photograph of the Mahoning County Courthouse. It’s just over a century old, having been completed in 1910, and displays the grand majesty of a public building constructed in the Second Renaissance Revival style, with six Ionic columns rising two stories in its central pavilion.
We drove south out of the downtown, across the Mahoning River and along Market Street. Despite the severe drop in population, I hadn’t noticed much in the way of urban blight in the limited tour of the city we’d so far taken. There didn’t seem to be an excess of boarded up or abandoned buildings and no more check cashing establishments than I might find in Columbus. If I was to judge Youngstown and Mahoning County on the state of the roads, though, they both might receive failing marks.
Market Street was so pitted and pockmarked that its 35 mile per hour speed limit seemed rather daring. Even slaloming around the potholes, I couldn’t help but bounce down and up through a few I couldn’t avoid. I think the lethal “Youngstown tune-up” has been replaced by the costly “Youngstown realignment.” It’s not as though Market Street is just a local thoroughfare that has been neglected by local government. It’s also Ohio State Route 7 that runs top to bottom through the county and beyond.
We rattled our way along until we turned onto the much better paved South Avenue, which led us to the city of Columbiana. The municipal district actually straddles two counties, but fortunately for us, our night’s accommodation was located on the Mahoning County side of the border.
Das Dutch Haus Inn & Suites has been around awhile, but was recently renovated into a boutique hotel, which means they can charge more for the rooms. The thing is, the rooms were really nice. We had reserved a King Suite, which meant our room not only had a bed big enough for two people to swim around in without ever meeting, but also featured a kitchenette, a whirlpool, and a walled-off “room” containing a sofa and television.
As we checked in, we noticed a gaggle of teens in the nearby lobby dressed to the nines for their prom. All the young women were holding bouquets in their hands as if they were heading to a wedding. “When did that become a thing?” we rhetorically asked the desk clerk. She responded that she was just happy the bare midriff prom dress was no longer in fashion. We purchased a couple of drinks from Zeke’s Coffee in the lobby and retired to our room for a late afternoon siesta.
Being the rash and reckless couple that we are, when it came time for dinner, Michele and I risked life and bone-rattling limb with a drive back to Youngstown on cratered Market Street. Then, to add to our derring-do street cred, we pulled up to the popular Roberto’s Italian Ristorante on West Federal Street on a Saturday night without a reservation. That’s just the way we roll.
Fortunately, co-owner Roberto Faraglia didn’t bat an eye at our audacious behavior and found us an available table in the basement. That might sound akin to seating us at the best spot…next to the Men’s Room, but the lower level was actually a cozy place. An exposed stone wall, warm red carpeting, wood accents, and a fireplace at one end, made it feel like we were dining in a Tuscan cottage.
Our waiter, who resembled actor Chris Pratt, brought us glasses of wine and fresh bread with a delectable cheesy dipping oil. I started with Roberto’s Roasted Shrimp Cocktail before moving on to the Homemade Lasagna. Michele’s entrée was the house favorite fiocchi, “a beautiful blend of four cheeses and pear wrapped in pasta purses and served in a broth.” Everything was delicious.
We had after dinner plans, but didn’t disclose them to our waiter, who left us to linger with a post-meal glow a little too long before bringing us the check.
By the time we returned to our car and drove the few blocks to the Youngstown State University campus, it was 8:05 pm. A free program, “Oasis In Space,” was scheduled to begin at 8 pm at the Ward Beecher Planetarium. The website warned, “Once the show has started, latecomers will not be admitted.” Since we’d yet to find a parking space, we accepted our status as latecomers and just drove on by. We did, however, chance upon our own celestial show. As we crossed the Mahoning River on our way out of downtown, I glanced to the west horizon and was momentarily blinded by a fireball sun as it peeked through a sliver of an opening in the clouds.
We returned to Das Dutch Haus Inn, picked up a couple more drinks from Zeke’s and a couple of complimentary cookies from the lobby, and retired to our room. I’d like to say it was a peaceful evening, but if I was to critique the inn for anything, it would be for the thinly insulated space between our ceiling and the floor above us. For about an hour after 10 pm, it sounded as though King Kong and Jabba the Hutt were upstairs vying for the title, “Heaviest Pacer of the Universe.” I never knew a person could walk with such heft. The walking stopped by midnight, but erupted again the next morning between 6-7 am.
Fortunately, the beds were super comfortable, providing optimal rest. We arose around 9 am and descended to the inn’s basement for our complimentary hot breakfast of scrambled eggs and sausage links, donuts and coffee. Many of the other tables were occupied by older couples who all seemed to know each other. We had noticed quite a few vintage automobiles in the parking lot, so they may have been in town for a car show.
After checking out, we returned to State Route 7, but only followed it as far as U.S. Route 224, where we turned east. The scenery was once again an unbroken stream of stores as we motored through the communities of Boardman and Poland. At the latter, we turned north onto Poland Avenue which took us away from the commercial district and into a more residential area. We turned right at Wetmore Avenue and followed it down a steep stretch to a stream, over a bridge, and into the parking lot for Yellow Creek Park.
We hoped to follow a mile-long trail along the creek to the remains of the Hopewell Furnace. What remains in a thick portion of forest near the dam to Lake Hamilton is the cut blocks of stone that once made up the first blast furnace in the state and one of the first west of the Allegheny Mountains. You may have heard about it if you paid special attention to Bruce Springsteen’s song, “Youngstown.”
Here in northeast Ohio/ Back in eighteen-o-three/ James and Danny Heaton/ Found the ore that was linin’ Yellow Creek/ They built a blast furnace/ Here along the shore/ And they made the cannon balls/ That helped the Union win the war (listen here)
I hate to be the party pooping fact police, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that the Boss took a little literary license. While the Heaton furnace did mark the beginning of the iron and steel industry in the Mahoning Valley, it only operated until 1808, long before the American Civil War. Even had Springsteen found a good rhyming line referencing the War of 1812, it would have been a stretch. Whether it strictly aligns with the truth or not, I suppose it’s still pretty cool to have a Rock & Roll Hall of Famer write a song about your city.
We followed a primitive trail that led away from the parking lot, noticing early sprouts of skunk cabbage and white trillium, Ohio’s wildflower. The park literature cautioned that the Hopewell Furnace was accessible by trail only when the Yellow Creek water levels were low. I didn’t know how serious to take the warning until we came to the first of three creek crossings. The water was running fast and was indeed too high for a non-aquatic hike. As we scanned the area for any easy fording, I looked up and was surprised to see a deer on the opposite bank staring at us. Before I could ask its advice, it turned, gave us a few flicks of its white tail, and ambled off into the brush. Defeated, we returned to our car.
We ascended back up Wetmore Avenue to Poland Avenue and north to State Street into an industrial tract where the road ran parallel with railroad tracks. Turning left onto Indianola Avenue, we traveled west a few miles to Mill Creek MetroParks, a series of connected green spaces that encompasses over 4,400 acres. It’s a gem of a park with myriad activities and attractions to offer, but we zeroed in on Lanterman’s Mill and Covered Bridge.
In 1846, German Lanterman and Samuel Kimberly constructed a gristmill into the natural rock of Mill Creek Gorge, just south of present day Canfield Road. It was restored in the early 1980s and still operates today, grinding corn and wheat that can be purchased inside the gift shop run by MetroParks. With a picturesque waterfall next to the mill, this point in the park is a very popular spot.
We toured the mill and got an up-close look at the functioning waterwheel. Just a short hop from the mill is a recently constructed covered bridge. During our visit, a young couple was making use of the scenic nature of the bridge by posing for pictures with a professional photographer.
We hiked north away from the mill along the East Gorge Trail. It follows a series of boardwalk steps that hug the large rock outcroppings of the ravine, dipping to the level of the creek before ascending to a road. We followed the latter to an interesting silver suspension bridge topped with two spires at each end. As I’ve now come to accept at such structures, there was a young couple getting their picture taken. We walked across the span and poked around some bluebells coloring the roadside before turning back.
The return journey revealed cardinals and a tufted titmouse in the trees as well as swallows darting about the creek. Just as we were to leave the low level of the gorge, Michele spotted a blue heron standing very still in a quiet pool of the creek. We stood still and watched it. It didn’t move. We waited. It waited. We whispered to each other. It maintained its statuesque pose. We waited longer. Then…ZAP!...its beak darted into the water and came up with a fish! It wiggled for just a brief moment in the heron’s bill before disappearing down its throat. The bird’s patience, as well as our own, paid off!
After a bit of outdoor adventure, we headed back indoors for a bout of culture. Back in downtown Youngstown, on the campus of Youngstown State University, is the Butler Institute of American Art. Founded in 1919, the museum is dedicated to preserving and exhibiting art in all media created by citizens of the United States. Everyone finds their own favorites in an art museum, but some of my own personal highlights included Winslow Homer’s Snap the Whip, Norman Rockwell’s Lincoln the Railsplitter, and The Oregon Trail by Albert Beirstadt. If you should visit the Butler yourself, I would especially recommend finding Marc Sijan’s Seated Security Guard #2 and being prepared to be fooled and amazed. We didn’t quite make it around to all the exhibits. After a while, museum fatigue set in, so we left some art to be discovered another day.
Exiting the city along Mahoning Avenue, we crossed the Mahoning River, and then turned left onto McKinley Avenue where we found Fellows Riverside Gardens. It sits near the confluence of Mill Creek and the Mahoning River and is the northern tip of the Mill Creek MetroPark. The impetus for choosing Mahoning County for this particular weekend was the promise of blooming tulips. Each year around this time, over 40,000 tulip, crocus, and narcissus bulbs begin carpeting the grounds with colors. We may have been just a week or so early to enjoy the full effect, but there were enough blooming tulips to make it worth the trip. The afternoon air was still a bit nippy, maybe too much for a prolonged stroll, but there were quite a few other visitors willing to risk a shiver or two. The well-kept twelve acres of garden are said to attract over 400,000 visitors each year.
After an abbreviated stroll, we continued west on Mahoning Avenue to State Route 46 and then south for five miles to the village of Canfield. It seemed as though everywhere we looked, there were large metal plaques informing visitors of something important that had occurred on that spot. With a population of about 7,000, Canfield must have more historical markers per capita than anywhere else around. It helps that Canfield was the original county seat of Mahoning County. During a final flurry of county creation in the state, Mahoning came into existence in 1846 by combining spare townships from northern Trumbull County and southern Columbiana County.
Our purpose for stopping in Canfield was to see the original County Courthouse, a Classical Revival style building erected in 1848, soon after the centrally-located town was chosen to be the county’s seat of government. It held that status for thirty years, until Youngstown wrestled it away in a challenge that had to be decided by the United States Supreme Court. Afterwards, without any government business to conduct, the former courthouse functioned for four decades as a school before passing into private hands and continuing life in various commercial pursuits. The exterior was restored more than a century after its initial construction so that county trippers like us could continue to appreciate its form and history.
With our county itinerary complete, we turned west onto U.S. Route 224 and followed a direct route about twelve miles to the county line. The scenery wasn’t especially interesting except for a herd of long horn cattle we passed in a field. Our final action in Mahoning County was to cross over the Berlin Reservoir, which straddles Mahoning and Portage Counties and has the distinction of being Ohio’s fifth largest inland lake. With the sun shining brightly above us, I concluded it was a better day for sightseeing than for fishing.
Time spent in the county: 31 hours, 7 minutes
Miles driven in the county: 128 miles