A City Starts Down the Path of Decline Back in the Depression

Pt. 5 of a series by Cindy Miller

Both of my parents were born prior to and lived through the Great Depression, and saw the results of the stock market crash in October 1929.  My mother was nine years old at that time.  My father, who missed two years of school due to smallpox, had just graduated from high school at the age of 19. 

I remember the stories they told me about their childhoods, growing up and being adults during that era.  There were hardships. 

My mom, born in St. Clair Shores near Detroit, spent most of her childhood moving to other states.  My grandfather, a master glass blower, was easily bored so it was not uncommon for him to come home from work and tell Grandma that he quit his job and had another job waiting in another town.  According to my grandmother, they rented completely furnished homes and owned nothing but some clothes, family photos and my grandfather's guns and hunting dogs; all of which, along with three children, had to loaded in the family car with dogs in crates and remaining luggage strapped to the sideboards. 

After 15 years of marriage, Grandma divorced my grandfather citing that she was “tired of his quitting jobs and moving [crap] and having nothing.”  She raised three daughters by taking in laundry, house cleaning, sewing; whatever honest means she could.  Mom told me she and her two sisters each had only one pair of shoes to wear for dress, school and play.  Each of the girls had one doll which Grandma gave to even less fortunate children each Christmas when her daughters received a new doll from Santa. 

While a high school student, Dad worked as a clerk at the small Kroger grocery in downtown Toronto; a job that, during the Great Depression, offered him a promotion to store manager and then transferred him to Cleveland.  

By 1932, half of Cleveland's factory workers were jobless.  Although I do not know where Dad's store was located in Cleveland, I do remember that he told me that many store customers could barely afford meat, often skimping on cheaper cuts and incorporating the meat into soups, stews and casserole dishes.  Getting to know store customers and taking note of  each of their personal home situations, Dad would stay past closing each Saturday, wrap up the cuts of meat that otherwise would have been thrown out, and deliver those packages to families in the neighborhood who were in need. 

Much to his dismay, after several years in Cleveland, Dad returned home to hang wallpaper and repair appliances for his father's business.  At the age of 33 and preparing to marry Mom, he was drafted and served as a Sea Bee during WWII.  Following discharge, he joined Mom back in Toronto and left his father's business for employment at the Toronto Ohio Edison power plant.  He retired under disability after 35 years of service. 

In 1971, three months shy of my sixteenth birthday, my dad died at the age of 62.  Should he had still been alive today at 105 years old, I am sure we would discuss my own homelessness in Cleveland, the present economic state of Toronto, the Ohio Valley and the world.

Growth and Losses

Incorporated in 1881, Toronto's early years of growth in population and industry saw plentiful jobs in retail and in the manufacturing of glassware, shoes, bricks, clay sewer pipes and the highly collectable fine china produced by the American China Company; once Toronto's largest employer in the early 1900s.

The town was once a port city for shipping and receiving of goods by riverboat.  Reportedly, the view of the lights, as seen from the Ohio River at night, sparkled through the mist and fog like gems, thus resulting in the town being referred to as “The Gem City”. 

Of course, factories closed and jobs were lost during the Great Depression.  New industries sprang up in the form of the many steel mills that lined the Ohio River valley putting thousands back to work.  The addition of several new electric power plants in the region were an added bonus. 

The town took a turn for the worse in the mid-1970s.  At that time, although cheap Japanese steel was slowly making its way to the “big three” U.S. automobile makers, the steel industry was still thriving in the tri-state area of Western Pennsylvania, the northern panhandle of West Virginia and eastern Ohio despite some layoffs.  A comeback in hiring was hopeful but things only got worse for the steel industry here. 

In the early seventies, many stores in once bustling downtown Steubenville were closing with some moving to the recently opened mall. When I left the area in 1978, Toronto still had a good variety of retail establishments stretching along six blocks of the main thoroughfare of Fourth Street, with a number of other businesses located on the four side streets that intersected Fourth Street.  In later years, the aging store owners eventually 'closed up shop' due to not having family members willing to continue running the business; some buildings caught fire and were demolished leaving gaping holes in the cityscape.

Construction of a new four-lane Rt. 7 highway, completed a few years prior, did not help.  Vehicle traffic, once passing through Toronto, eventually sped past the city on the highway.  This brought on hard economic times resulting in more small business closures due to the drop of sales. 

In the early 1980s, the mass exodus from this region began as a result of additional layoffs and closures of major employers; namely Weirton Steel, Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel and the Toronto Ohio Edison power plant.  Weirton Steel, which went bankrupt in the early 21st century just short of its 100th birthday eventually was auctioned off and in 2005 a merger was completed with Arcelor Mittal, reportedly now employing only 1,000 people.

Copyright Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless Street Chronicle October 2014 Cleveland, Ohio