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February 2003
Youngstown, Ohio

    When you drive by Youngstown, you might think of salt. Salt is what initially drew animals and then people to this area. They came for the salt licks that occurred naturally in this region. The county name acknowledges this beginning: it's called Mahoning, derived from a Native American term meaning, at the lick.

    But salt is not the most precious mineral in these parts. Iron and coal claim that honor. In 1803, iron ore was discovered in the Mahoning Valley–it was the first iron ore found in Ohio. Daniel and James Heaton built a smelting furnace and began producing kettles, caldrons, flatirons and stoves. Hence, the beginnings of Ohio=s iron and steel industry.

    In the mid-1800s, the industry was given another boost. High-quality coal was discovered which was used to fire blast furnaces. This gave Youngstown two primary resources for iron and steel production: ore deposits and coal. That's why the industry became concentrated here. At one time Youngstown was the seventh largest steel producer in the nation, and steel mills filled the Mahoning River Valley: U.S. Steel, Republic Steel, Youngstown Sheet & Tube.

    Life in Youngstown was shaped by steel. The residents were largely an immigrant population who came to work in the mills.  Slovaks, Slovenians, Irish, and Italians were the most numerous. Their houses were working class homes: simple, sturdy and stained by fallout from the smoke that blanketed the city. During boom times, the mills roared 24 hours a day. The nighttime sky glowed pink from the furnaces, and during the day the smoke created a sense of perpetual dusk.

    Throughout the era of Youngstown steel, factory smoke was a sign of prosperity. It meant the mills were running at full blastCit meant work. But today, the air is clear. Surfaces are no longer coated with a dark sticky film, and the rinse water from a batch of laundry no longer comes out black. In this community, clean air means hard times.

     September 19, 1977 is referred to in Youngstown as "Black Monday." That's when the first big mill closing was announced. Others followed, and soon more than 25,000 jobs were gone. Why did the Youngstown mills close? Several reasons. One is that they weren=t able to compete with cheap steel produced in other countries. Another is that the companies had not  put money into the factories, and they had become outdated. Still another reason: new environment regulations that were expensive to comply with. The result was the departure of the industry that had built Youngstown, and that Youngstown had been built around.

    It wasn=t just Youngstown. The steel industry left big cities and small towns throughout northeast Ohio. Cleveland, Youngstown, Warren, and many smaller communities had the economic props knocked out from under them.

    Today, Youngstown's steel industry is greatly diminished. Yet, there are remnantsreminders of this heritage. Homes built for the mill workers still stand, and there are ethnic neighborhoods where their descendants live. The churches they built remain as momuments to the many immigrant groups of the city, and a certain gritty feeling remains.

    Today, the largest employers in Mahoning County include the health care industry and education. Youngstown College, a school with about 800 students in 1940, has grown into Youngstown State University with an enrollment of over 12,500. Youngstown hosts several national distribution centers, taking advantage of the city=s central location. And the General Motors facility at Lordstown is a large employer of Mahoning County residents, though it=s located in Trumbull County.

    So like the other large cities of Northeast Ohio, Youngstown has replaced its industrial jobs with those in health care, education and the service economy. Even though the picture of economic life in post-industrial regions is still coming into focus, the new employment mix will probably look a lot like what we have right here.

*   *   *

    Youngstown was a steel industry town, but it wasn't just steel.

    Such as, Good Humor started in Youngstown. The Good Humor Ice Cream Bar was introduced here in 1920 by a drug store owner named Harry Burt. Harry Burt was experimenting with chocolate syrups to pour over ice cream when he came up with the idea of coating a slab of ice cream with chocolate and putting it on a stick. After three years, he perfected his product which he named Good Humor because he believed that a person=s good humor is related to what one eats.

    Pretty soon the Good Humor truck became a fixture in America=s neighborhoods. And the Good Humor man--dressed crisply in a white shirt, white pants, white hat and a black bow tie--became a familiar presence. There was even a movie called The Good Humor Man, a 1950 comedy in which a Good Humor man named Biff Jones (honest!) becomes accidentally embroiled in a robbery.

    Another contribution to the American landscape with roots in Youngstown is Arby=s Roast Beef. The first Arby=s appeared in 1964 in the community of Boardman, to Youngstown=s south, and it was a harbinger of things to come. Today there are more than 3,000 Arby=s worldwide.

    Arby=s was a creation of two brothers, Forrest and Leroy Raffel, who owned a food service company. They anticipated the potential of fast food and decided to create a chain that served something other than hamburgers. One rainy Halloween, the Raffel brothers visited a sandwich shop in Boston that was attracting a large and loyal following with its roast beef sandwiches. In that, an idea was born.

    They decided to name their sandwich Big Tex: the Big Tex roast beef sandwich. But somebody already owned the name so the Raffel Brothers came up with Arby=s. That name is based in two letters, R and B, which might be thought to stand for roast beef. But actually, it came from the names of its founders, the Raffel Brothers. Raffel Brothers roast beef sandwiches became AArby=s.@

    And here=s another contribution of Youngstown to America=s landscape: the push-up bra. A Youngstown native who invented the contraption. Now, can you imagine an America without Good Humor, Arby=s or the push-up bra? Not a pretty thought, is it?

For more about Youngstown and its surrounding communities, see the tape or CD for I-480/80 East: Cleveland to Youngstown.

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