Vol 8, Issue 31 Jun 13-Jun 19, 2002
A Fathers Tale

How a 60-year-old story connects three generations of fathers and sons


Tómas Ramos, circa 1915.

The family story that my father, Thomas "Butch" Ramos, recounts most often takes place in 1943, when he was growing up in Youngstown with his four older brothers and three older sisters. It's a story about his father, Tómas Ramos, a Mexican immigrant who came to the Midwest 12 years earlier to lay track for the B&O Railroad.

My father's tale revolves around immigrants, their sons and daughters, the factories that attracted them to Northeast Ohio and the close-knit neighborhoods they called home. What happened between a father and his young son almost 60 years ago reflects a distant time and different values.

Tómas Ramos died in March, 1969, and his obituary was straightforward. There was a list of surviving kin, but no personal stories.

My father is now the last of Tómas' children still alive, and many of the family's stories are lost. The reasons why his father and mother left Mexico for the United States in the 1920s are vague.

Those questions, and others, are best left for future chapters. For me, it's this one story that resonates most around Father's Day.

Youngstown, 1943 Nine-year-old Butch leaves the house early, just like he does every weekday morning, for Jefferson Elementary School a block away. His world is the Westside neighborhood of Brier Hill, named for the large Youngstown Sheet and Tube (YS&T) steel works located at the base of the street. The area, mostly home to working-class Italian and Irish families, has corner groceries, playgrounds and movie theaters.

Photo By Steve Ramos
My father's family didn't have much money, and all of the children, young and old, were expected to work. Still, he remembers his childhood as being comfortable and safe. The most memorable flash of violence involved his sister Mary and her husband, Antonio.

"My sister Mary's husband was a drinker and he beat her when he got drunk," my father says. "She lived in the next neighborhood down the hill, Monkey's Nest. One day, I came home from school and she was in our living room. She was beaten and bloody, and my mother Joséfa was tending to her. They were nervous because my dad was due home and they weren't sure what he would do. So I decided to stick around and see what happened."

My father remembers his dad coming home on the bus, right on time as usual. When he saw his daughter, he asked her what happened, speaking in Spanish. Then, after she answered all his questions, he turned around and left with Mary to speak to his son-in-law at their home down the hill.

"I wanted to see what happened, so I followed right behind my dad," my father tells me. "He was a private man and didn't say much. He just kept walking, and I kept up. The walk to my sister's house took about 15 minutes. We went inside, and my father spoke to Antonio. My dad told him, 'Your personal problems are your personal problems, and that's between you and your wife. But if you were out drinking and you were doing this because you were drunk, well, that's another matter and you'll have to deal with me. I didn't raise my children to be beaten by drunks.' "

There was no talking on the walk back to the house on Superior Street in Brier Hill. Once they got home, Mary returned to her husband. For the time being, things went back to normal.

Photo By Steve Ramos
Present-day Youngstown

In the 1930 census, the U.S. government listed Youngstown as a Major Metropolitan District. On maps, it was designated by a big red circle, equivalent to Atlanta, Houston, Dallas and New Orleans. But many people today have no idea what a vibrant city Youngstown once was.

In 1930, Youngstown had a city population of 170,002, with 364,560 people living in its metropolitan area. More than 4,000 Mexicans lived in Ohio at the time of the 1930 census, less than the Mexican population found in neighboring states Indiana, Illinois and Michigan.

Of those Mexicans, 279 called Youngstown home, a jump from the 64 Mexicans listed there for the 1920 census. At the same time, Cincinnati claimed 35 Mexicans and Cleveland was home to 743.

By 1930, Youngstown was a melting pot for new immigrants. Almost 7,000 Italians and 4,500 Czechs lived there. More than 32,000 Youngstown residents couldn't speak English, with 7,002 people speaking Italian and 236 people speaking Spanish.

These immigrants came to work in area factories. In 1939, there were 18 steel works and rolling mills in Youngstown that boasted a combined employment of 46,547 workers. An additional 3,455 people worked in the railroads. The city ranked right behind Pittsburgh and Chicago in steel production.

Photo By Steve Ramos
Thomas "Butch" Ramos on the bridge where he watched President Franklin D. Roosevelt make a 1944 campaign stop.

One of Youngstown's largest steel plants was YS&T's Brier Hill Works. Founded by Youngstown resident James A. Campbell, YS&T purchased the Brier Hill Steel Company and the Sheet and Tube Company of East Chicago in 1923.

Signified by the towering black chimneys around its two blast furnaces, the Brier Hill Works boasted 84 by-product coke ovens, 12 open-hearth furnaces, one by-product recovery plant, one blooming mill, two round mills and other steel departments. Until it shut down on Dec. 30, 1979, the Brier Hill Works was a self-contained steel-making city.

Youngstow, 1943: My father remembers that a few months had gone by since that first afternoon when his sister Mary arrived beaten at their doorstep. The second time she came seeking help, Mary's bruises and welts were even bloodier than before. Her 1-month-old son, Anthony, also had scratches on his arms.

"My mother was visibly nervous because she didn't know what my dad would do," he says, speaking calmly. "Like before, I stuck around to see what would happen. My dad arrived from work. He looked at my sister and asked who did this to her. Then he went to his room, picked up his pistol and tucked it inside his belt. My mother was upset, but she didn't say anything. He walked out the door and I followed.

"The men in the neighborhood knew something was up because they all got off their porches and headed towards Monkey's Nest. A big crowd was waiting for my dad outside Mary's house.

Photo By Steve Ramos
The current site of Tómas Ramos' first home in Youngstown

"I never knew what to make of my dad because he was so quiet, but I think the men in the neighborhood really respected him. He was a rancher in Mexico and was a good shot with a pistol. A few years earlier, one of his nephews came to Youngstown to visit, got drunk and trashed his aunt's house. My father went, scolded him and told him to take the next train out of Youngstown, and he did it."

By the time they reached Mary's house, the crowd of men had grown visibly larger. They stood in the street outside of Mary's house. Antonio was inside. Tómas climbed the steps and pounded on the door.

"He yelled into the house, 'Antonio, I know you're in there,' " my father says. "' Remember what I told you. Now come out and face your punishment like a man.' "

Currently, Youngstown has seen better days. Most of its steel plants are closed, and the local economy has yet to rebound.

On a recent visit, my father and I leave my parents' home in Struthers, a working-class suburb, and drive to Youngstown's Southside in search of his parents' first home. Tómas Ramos was a laborer for the B&O Railroad who inspected switches as long as his health permitted the strenuous work. After his hip began hurting, he continued working, trimming the shrubs and trees around the B&O passenger station.

Photo By Steve Ramos
The view looking down Brier Hill's Superior Street into the adjoining Monkey's Nest neighborhood.

Their first house was owned by the B&O and was located near the station on Todd Avenue. In 1930, the street was home to Wards Bakery, where they sold day-old banana cakes for five cents a piece, and Isaly's ice cream plant, home of the skyscraper cone.

A nearby railroad trestle provided access to their family garden located on public land along the banks of the Mahoning River. From the trestle, alongside the city water works, my father watched President Franklin D. Roosevelt make a campaign whistle stop in 1944.

No signs of the Todd Avenue house exist today. The lot is filled with concrete blocks, bricks and rubble. A sign offers a straightforward warning: "Keep Out."

"My dad seldom talked about his family," my father says. "He was the silent type. His only confidante was my mother. I always had one question for him: Why did he leave Mexico? I still don't know the answer."

Like the house on Todd Avenue, the neighborhood that was Monkey's Nest is also gone, its houses and businesses replaced with warehouses and factories. The street signs are intact, but little else indicates that a bustling community once occupied this area.

Photo By Steve Ramos
Jefferson Elementary School in Brier Hill.

More importantly, the Brier Hill Works, the lifeblood of the neighborhood, is gone. At one time, Monkey's Nest residents walked to the Fox Theater, the Gay Time Café and an Isaly's corner store. A bus garage and a storage warehouse have replaced them.

People outside Youngstown have never heard of Brier Hill. For the people who grew up there, it remains a source of fond memories and lasting friendships. Superior Street is still paved with bricks, although its A-frame houses are looking fairly worn.

My father points to the grass lot where his childhood home once stood. Like many things in this neighborhood, the home is gone.

On the porch of a nearby house, a man pokes his head out of the door and asks what we're doing.

"I grew up on this street," my fathers answers, pointing to the empty lot. "I used to live in a house right here."

Photo By Steve Ramos
Thomas "Butch" Ramos visits Evans Field, the baseball diamond where he watched Triple A ball as a child.

I take pictures of the vacant plot of land, and we continue our walk. Jefferson Elementary School still operates. The lot where my father played baseball has been turned into a community garden. On its fence, a rusted "Brier Hill" sign offers a connection to the past.

Further up the hillside, the concrete bleachers at the Evans Field baseball diamond are worn and crumbling. Still, you can tell that at one time it was a beautiful park.

"We used to watch Triple A ball here on Sundays," my father says. "This stretch of houses used to be nothing but Italians. They were all 'Goombas.' On Saturday morning, you could smell the fresh bread the women were baking in their backyard brick ovens."

Youngstown, 1943: At that time, Monkey's Nest was a bustling neighborhood. Thousands of workers crossed the pedestrian bridges daily into the Brier Hill Works. Smoke poured from the steel plant's smokestacks.

Black soot covered the nearby homes and businesses. The grime was a sign of the area's prosperity.

Photo By Steve Ramos
Youngstown's B&O passenger station is undergoing repairs to reopen as a restaurant.

Outside Mary's home, the crowd of men waited silently in the street while Tómas banged on the door. My father remembers waiting alongside the men. He also remembers his father reaching for his pistol.

"My dad waited another minute, shot out the lock, then pushed the door open and went inside," he says. "Antonio had crawled out a back window, and nobody ever saw him again.

"The men dispersed, and my dad and I walked home. He didn't say a word to me. Later, we would hear about Antonio from time to time, but he never came back to Youngstown."

Back home in Cincinnati, I download Internet images and articles pertaining to Youngstown's past. I read 50 Years in Steel, a history of YS&T from 1900 to 1949, and update my knowledge of the B&O Railroad by flipping through History of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad.

At their Struthers home, my parents embark on a search for old photographs of Tómas Ramos. They find nothing. There weren't many pictures taken of my grandfather, not even during his final years when he lived briefly at our house in Struthers.

As my father says, he was a private man.

I remember my recent trip with my father. From Fellows Riverside Gardens, on a hilltop overlooking Youngstown, I saw Todd Avenue and Superior Street in one glance. A small steel plant operated in the former spot of the Brier Hill Works. A nearby historical museum celebrated the city's industrial heritage.

Youngstown holds on proudly to its steel-making heritage. My father has memories of his own. And, as with many sons, through the years his stories have become my stories, too.

My father stays connected to his old neighborhood by volunteering with the Brier Hill Scholarship Committee. He helps raise college money for children of Italian descent whose families are connected to the old neighborhood.

I never saw Brier Hill in its heyday, but I feel like I've been there. I wasn't there when my grandfather confronted an abusive son-in-law with pistol drawn, but I can picture the details in my mind.

I've always asked my father if he was surprised that my grandfather would allow such a young boy to tag along on such a mission. After all, there was a strong chance of violence.

To this day, my father hasn't entirely answered that question regarding a father, a young boy, pistols and frontier justice. Like his father, he also has a private side.

For the time being, his stories will have to suffice. ©

E-mail Steve Ramos

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