by Bill Hogan
I think of the Wheeling of my young years as a time when the city was booming. City streets were full of pedestrian and vehicular traffic competing with streetcars for a place in the flow. Downtown was a bustling, moving sea of people with a pallor of coal smoke covering all. I attended all-boys Central Catholic downtown during the war years (“We don’t trust any air we can’t see.”). My mother had to pack a lunch for me because it was impossible to get into an eatery at noon, eat, and get back to class on time. In the spring warmth we would go to Saseen’s on Jacob Street, across from the Hazel Atlas building. We would worm our way in, and someone would yell across the people packed into the little space, “Hey, kid, you with the hat, how many milks?” One of us would reply “two dark and two white.” And the little bottles with the cardboard lids would come flying through the air. We would yell our order for sandwiches, pick them up, and then eat our lunch sitting outside on the curb.
In reality, I grew up during the depression. The war years brought jobs, but with rationing and austere war conditions, the social fabric had not changed from the ’30s.
Wheeling was a center though, with 1100 streetcars coming into town daily as well as 19 trains, to give you some idea of the vitality of the town. There were industrial plants up and down the Ohio River valley with Steubenville being another major hub.
Wheeling was and is different from the surrounding towns built on smokestack industries. I believe one of the differences is the women. Wheeling was blessed to have talented women from both sides of the tracks contribute mightily to color the industrial fabric of Wheeling and give it a certain panache not found in the other valley towns, with the exception of Pittsburgh.
The most visible was Eleanor Caldwell, a woman of privilege who started the Wheeling Symphony to give employment to pit musicians put out of work by the “talkies,” or movies with sound. It has to be the jewel in the cultural crown of Wheeling.
Other women whom I knew or heard of are not as well known, such as Myra Huffman. Her husband, Gene, was a friend of my father’s. The Huffmans lived very well. I believe he was the scion of a tannery business. I remember a story my dad told me of a Christmas shopping trip to Pittsburgh when Gene bought the Lionel train display installed in Gimbel’s window for his infant son. I believe Gene lost everything in the Depression and then died of tuberculosis in Florida soon after. My parents’ friendship with Myra, whom they admired and respected, continued throughout their lives. Myra had lived very comfortably but was suddenly left a widow with four children and no resources. She “never dropped a stitch,” and in the height of the Depression, in a man’s world, opened a restaurant called The Ship, which became a real success. The Ship was known for its mixed drinks, with her Singapore Sling as a specialty. The drink was garnished with a little paper umbrella which became the badge of the Umbrella Club, to which my father-in-law belonged with Jim Paisley, Jim Bolton, Herman Hobbs, Jack Fair, Stan Kirk, and others. If you were asked to show your umbrella and didn’t have it, the next round was on you. Their Christmas party is a story in itself.
Oglebay Park and the park system trust fund is the result of largesse and forward thinking and some unusual talent which came together in Wheeling at that time. They did a beautiful job of setting it all up.
Hidden from view was the staff who made it work, people like Mr. Heil, the principal of Woodsdale School. He ran the caddy camp, which took young boys of the Depression off the streets of Wheeling and installed them at “caddy camp” in Oglebay Park where they lived for the summer months, enjoyed the amenities, and learned to caddy correctly for the golfers while earning a few dollars to take home. This was before golf carts, of course. Miss Steinbecker, who later became Mrs. Faris, had her office in the single-story yellow clapboard building across from Wilson Hall. She operated the first day camp in Wheeling.
One of the most interesting women, to me, was Grace Conklin. My first memory of her was when I was very little, and my mother would take me to town shopping. We had lunch at the Jane Grace tea room, which was on the second floor above Schulte’s cigar store on the northeast corner of 12th and Market. I can remember looking up at the french doors which opened out onto small wrought iron balconies and thinking, Europe must look like this! Grace came from little Washington, and in the years that I knew her and knew of her, I never heard a word about her family.
She too started and operated a successful business without any training or backing and before feminism was a common word. Grace ran a thriving catering business, and I remember she was in charge of all the food at my sister Betty’s wedding. I am not sure of the sequence, probably overlapping, but she opened a restaurant on the ground floor of the old Wilson Hall, a former Oglebay barn. The floor was covered with tanbark which took care of any old barn smells. Grace was known for her excellent cuisine, and she had her following. After the war, Grace set up a kitchen in the basement of the building that currently houses the Oglebay Foundation offices and which stands at the back of the amphitheater. Here she served dinners to patrons who were seated on the grassy levels behind the permanent seating. And Wheeling had dinner theater in the 1940s! I remember when Mrs. Paull of Lawrencefield invited Mary Ann and me to dinner and the musical presentation. It was a very elegant evening.
The next coup by Grace was the purchase of the Howard mansion, probably from bankruptcy court. She converted the mansion into lovely apartments. Grace’s was the former living room with the entrance by way of the side porch. It was laid out like a loft apartment of the Soho district of New York with areas rather than walled off rooms. She utilized the first unitized kitchen and bathrooms installed in the wall that separated her living area from the former dining room. The former living room was quite large and was sectioned off into areas by furniture arrangement. Her dining area was charming and was eclectic, with her table set with plenty of silver, none of which matched.
Grace owned a piece of land, a canyon really, about which she had discussed building a home with Frank Lloyd Wright. Her claim to fame was that she had sewn a tear in his cape when he visited Wheeling. It has been said that the entrance to the Sil Bowman house on Lynwood Avenue was influenced by his visit.
Grace was not one who could trade on her beauty. She was built like a rectangle with a round face framed by a pageboy haircut, and she was always animated. I seem to remember a cigarette dangling from her mouth a lot. She was a hopeless romantic and writer of, I was told, trashy love stories.
So, here is a woman who came to Wheeling with no portfolio or platform and who competed successfully in a man’s world in economically depressed times. She did this with creativity and hard work and put flair and color into a smokestack industrial town. I believe that Wheeling was very fortunate to have attracted such a vast variety of hard-working, creative high rollers. They are one of the reasons Wheeling is very unique in character.
Featured photo from wheelingheritage.org