Category Archives: Dayton’s Leading Republican Plumber
Triggered by a ’50s Christmas like theirs
As we step across the hallway from an 18th century parlor into a mid-20th century living room decked out for Christmas, I freeze in mid-stride. Not simply because of the contrast between the dimly lit, austere Puritan chamber we’ve just left, where Christmas would have had no place, and the gaudy materialism of post-World War II America we’re entering. This self-guided museum tour is supposed to be a re-creation of history in a neighborhood of Colonial and Victorian houses and stores in seacoast New Hampshire. How is it that Candlelight Stroll, this panorama of New England antiquity, so unexpectedly drops me into my grandparents’ living room in Ohio, 872 miles west-southwest, a half-century before?
On that dressed blue spruce has bubbling colored glass lights the shape of small candles identical to theirs, as is the television, with its black-and-white program. “Howdy-Doody,” as I recall or perhaps imagine afterward.
Now that I think of it, Grandpa and Grandma were the first we knew to replace theirs with a color TV set, but that would have been a few years later than this display from the heart of the Eisenhower presidency. As would their aluminum Christmas tree, seemingly all tinsel, illuminated by the revolving plastic disc of colors in front of a light bulb; who knows what happened to the old bubbling decorations after that?
Circling slowly in the room, I keep repeating to my wife and daughters as much as to myself, I’m not that old. I’m not historic. This scene mirrors my own childhood, tinsel and ribbons and all, my own lifetime. History is what comes before us, at least after the last of a generation is buried and preferably much earlier.
In reality, Grandpa and Grandma have both been dead a quarter-century by this time, and that house sold after her death and his remarriage.
What I don’t voice as we pass through the room is my vague, underlying apprehension. No sense of warmth is stirred by encountering these objects from my childhood – no, “Oh, look!” accompanied by memories of comfort or affection, much less any impressions of individuals brought vividly back to life. If anything, that room represents something I’ve spent most of my adult life dodging.
But what, exactly, prompts this reaction?
As I’ve discovered, genealogy research leads to far more than names, dates, and places. It connects bone and blood over centuries.
Into the Great Black Swamp
Grandpa’s funeral struck the first crack in my assumptions of his background. His obituary said he was born in Van Wert, Ohio. I stared at the entry. I thought he had told me he was born just northwest of Dayton, “on a farm where Wolf Creek originates.” Only after my dad’s funeral would I realize that farm must have been where Dad was born, instead. And when Grandpa had nodded, over there, maybe he didn’t actually mean the farm in immediate view on that road north of Brookville, but rather a farm somewhere on its far side.
Still, this was the first clue I had that Grandpa hadn’t originated in Montgomery County, but four counties to the north, in the heart of what had been the Great Black Swamp. By now, I had already lived a couple of years in another corner of the swamp’s former expanse – some of America’s richest farmland, once it was drained in the late 1800s. Settled nearly three-quarters of a century after the land around Dayton, this was a place long prone to malaria – and then, to an oil boom, like those of Oklahoma and Texas. When Grandpa was born, it was still newly developing country – much of it only a generation or so – rather than long settled.
But how did he begin there? To understand that requires uncovering something of his grandparents, which I explain in depth in earlier posts on this blog.
In brief, the lives of both of my grandpa and grandma’s paternal grandparents would have centered on distinctive religious communities – for the Hodsons, the Quakers, formally known as the Society of Friends as well as just Friends; for the Ehrstines, it was the Dunkers, or German Baptist Brethren, before their branch emerged as the Church of the Brethren. Other strands would include the Brethren Church and the Grace Brethren – but not the Church of the United Brethren in Christ (generally known simply as United Brethren) and the River Brethren, or Brethren in Christ, which also play significant roles in the family history. Again, you’ll find these detailed in earlier posts.
I knew none of this at the time of Grandpa’s funeral. We were simply homogenous Midwesterners, awash in the middle class of America. Only later would I see how the very practice of simplicity and humility was a distinctive tradition now obscured by its very essence. Unconsciously, I was mourning the loss that accompanied their assimilation – the blackout of two legacies of focused living that had spanned nearly two centuries on this continent.
Even before Grandpa’s funeral, the large family Bible – later re-enforced by Grandma’s notes – had provided a few more clues about the Hodsons. Grandpa’s parents were Joshua and Alice McSherry Hodson, and Joshua was the son of Pleasant and Eunice Osban Hodson. But that was as far as it went, and there were no locations – no hint, especially, of the Tar Heel generations.
Alice, meanwhile, was Joshua’s second wife. His first, Josephine Jones Hodson, had died of complications after the birth of their second son, Kyle. Only their first son, Samuel, survived.
It wasn’t just any city, mind you
In declaring himself “Dayton’s leading Republican plumber,” Grandpa simultaneously claimed pride in his adopted community, his political party, and his new trade. True, he had lived in the city’s orb of influence ever since the family had moved down from Van Wert to Montgomery County. But resettling inside the city limits also meant new experiences, hopes, and horizons, and Dayton could boast a special identity.
At the time, the Gem City was benefiting from a handful of exceptional leaders. Long the home of inventors and tinkers – Dayton had already laid claim to having more patent holders per capita than anywhere else in the country – the city was now famed as the home of the Wright brothers, an economic legacy that would blossom through the sprawling Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. The brothers were sons of Bishop Milton Wright, who had served as pastor of what would become Euclid Avenue United Brethren church before heading the traditionalist faction in a split within the denomination – the same congregation, in its liberal incarnation, where Grandpa and Grandma were devoted members. Although the Wright brothers started out as bicycle makers before turning their attention to flying, another line of Dayton-made bicycles did prosper – Huffy, with its popular fat-tire bikes of my childhood.
More influential on the locale was John Henry Patterson, an idealistic and paternalistic manufacturer who turned a rudimentary invention by a Dayton tavern owner into a ubiquitous and indispensable retailing instrument. As the genius behind the National Cash Register Co., Patterson not only pioneered modern marketing and sales strategies but also improved working conditions for his employees, something that often earned him the loathing of other industrialists. Rather than settle for an ugly slum factory, the NCR complex in Dayton was a light-filled, tree-lined campus more akin to a college in appearance. Patterson’s ancestors had been founders of Lexington, Kentucky, but left for Ohio in protest when that state voted to allow slavery; some of his kin joined the Shaker community in nearby Lebanon, Ohio, while his parents moved to Rubicon Farm, a sprawling tract then just south of Dayton containing much of the land that would become the NCR compound.
After the Flood of 1913 devasted both the city and the Miami Valley, Patterson spearheaded the drive that would assure such catastrophe would never strike again. The result was the Miami Conservancy District, which straightened the conflux of rivers, built levees and raised bridges, and between 1919 and 1921 erected five large dry-basin dams that would retain flood waters for slower, safer release. The project also brought its young manager to prominence, a young engineer named Arthur Morgan, who would later apply the same principles to the construction of the federal Tennessee Valley Authority during the Great Depression before becoming president of nearby Antioch College.
Patterson also brought a young inventor to town who would add his own impact, Charles F. Kettering. Joining with another NCR manager, Edward Deeds, Kettering would redesign the electrical system of the automobile to allow it to be started without recourse to the unsafe and peevish ratchet, appropriately known as a crank. Their work become Dayton Electronics Laboratory Company, or DELCO, which would soon merge into General Motors Corp. and make Dayton GM’s largest center of operations outside of Detroit. Kettering, second only to Thomas Edison in the number of patents to his name, led GM’s team of scientists and engineers in Dayton to many useful inventions, including the refrigerator, no-knock gasoline, and a working Diesel engine. Eventually, five GM divisions operated in the city.
Already, the city had pioneered in a new way of municipal government, one based on a nonpartisan city manager rather than the mayor.
McOwen Street, action central
After moving from the farm, the family lived in a succession of rented houses Grandpa later pointed out as I rode with him around the northwestern quadrant of town. In these houses, Grandma was soon coping with three small children – Marion, my dad, born in 1922, Myrl Yvonne in 1924, and Donna June in 1927. One photo of the three kids gives the location as 421 Upland Avenue and has Dad in overalls and a fireman’s hat. Another, from Gettysburg Avenue, shows Myrl holding a doll nearly her own size, a scowling Donna gripping a teddy bear, and Dad in knickers and sneakers, deep in a book rather than acknowledging the camera.
The place I knew is the home they eventually owned at 39 McOwen Street, which was also the headquarters for his plumbing business. What catches me off-guard is that the actual purchase didn’t take place until June 20, 1940 – for $3,825. Up to this point, Grandpa had been, like his own father, landless; Joshua had set forth from the family’s small “plantation” in North Carolina, as all farms there were called, and become a sojourning tenant among the Hoosiers and Buckeyes. Now entering his own fifth decade, Grandpa could finally say he was sinking roots.
It was here that their fourth child, Thelma, quickly dubbed TJ by her siblings, was born. As we reexamine the time frame, she calculates, “so they had to have moved there before 1934. They converted the living room to the delivery room. Dad took your Dad, Myrl, and Donna to Uncle Arlie’s earlier that Sunday morning, so they were not present for this superhuman birth.”
Her cousin Wilma, in comparison, admits, “I don’t remember anything about the time when TJ was born.” From her perspective, maybe it was just another day of playing ball with her cousins Marion, Myrl, and Donna.
The McOwen Street house we remember is as least twice the size it was in fact. The frame structure was built in the late 1800s on a narrow lot, and had a railroad-car sequence of living room, dining room, kitchen, and, at the back, the office of James F. Hodson Plumbing & Heating. Its clapboards were narrow, painted a café au lait. An L-shaped porch wrapped around the front, allowing entry to the residence through the dining room, rather than the door to the living room. It helped that the dining room was essentially set sideways into the house, with a bay window on the side beside the entry, with the stairs to the second floor opposite. A natural-gas fireplace sat along the wall against the kitchen, though I never recall it actually working. (It probably would have been too hot for the room, anyway.) A separate entry at the end of a walkway beside the house led to the office. There was also a corridor from the kitchen to the office, as well as a doorway no longer in use.
Along an alley at the back of the lot was “the shop,” a small two-story carriage house filled with bins of plumbing supplies – the various joints and elbows, valves, caulking, solder and muriatic acid – as well as a much-used pipe cutter and threader on a stand. The structure had its own definitive smells: the mixture of oil and metal shavings, plus old warehouse dust, especially. In front of this but behind a trellis lay rows of cast-iron and lead pipes in many diameters. There was barely room at the side for the boarded gate to the alley, where Grandpa rented neighboring garages to securely park his trucks overnight. His own car was out on the street.
As kids, we would play on the pipes, of course, though there weren’t many fantasies we could construct from their utilitarian appearance. It was more like walking metal tight-rope.
Riding along in Bessie and other business
When I came along, as their second grandchild, Grandpa was 48 – not quite five years older than his father had been at Grandpa’s birth. This might suggest Grandpa had experienced some of the emotional distance from his own father that I, in turn, felt from him. That is, he was repeating a pattern he had absorbed as a child. There was, at least, something formal in the relationship between generations.
My earliest memories include climbing – repeatedly – up through his legs as he sat in his upholstered chair in their living room (in the days before the recliner) or of being bounced on his lap – the same chair he’d wind up snoring in after Sunday dinners. Curiously, I don’t recall the same playfulness with my own dad, although I carry a memory of riding home on his shoulders once, all the way from Wayne Avenue to our rental on Wilmington, and impressions of riding piggy-back from time to time.
Later memories have Grandpa sitting in the chair, teasing at a strand of hair – a nervous habit that left bald patches in his otherwise thick head of hair.
While his plumbers relied on a fleet of paneled vans, Grandpa always relied on a pickup named “Bessie,” no matter the make or model, or a nondescript car for his rounds. The vinyl seat-covers he proudly installed were sticky hot in the summer and stiffly cold in winter. During the years we were without a car of our own, Dad would sometimes borrow Bessie for the weekend so we could run errands or go out to the farm. In those days, we kids could always ride in the open-air bed, as long as we behaved ourselves. It’s been outlawed, at least where I live.
By the time I remember riding along with Grandpa on his plumbing rounds, he was well established and in his 50s. At that time in my life, chemistry experiments would have been more interesting, along with seining crawdads. But there was little explanation in these trips to the plumbing supply warehouse or the Ford dealer, much less the intricacies of one hot water heater over another, or the reasons we were popping into basements all over town.
As boss, he could combine business and pleasure. I remember his stopping at a small grocery on Riverside Drive, the only place for miles that carried a delicacy known as pickled pigs feet. He bought several jars, and then found an excuse to be in another part of town where he could pull to the curb, run up to a door, and hand one to the woman of the house. “Surprise Ike when he comes home tonight,” he told her.
“Oh, James!” she shrieked. “You know how much he likes these!”
Ike was one of his black diggers. Or “colored,” as they said.
Me, I never touched the stuff. And, come to think of it, I’m not sure he offered.
Once, he let me open the mail when it arrived beside the dining room. I remember handling a check for almost seven hundred dollars and thinking it was an impressive sum. (In fairness, the average annual wage at the time was under $5,000.) I imagined Grandpa must be a very rich man to be getting checks like that. But another envelope had a cancelation mark saying HELP STAMP OUT SYPHILLIS. “Grandpa, what’s syphillis?” I asked innocently.
Business, politics, Masons, and religion
If Leroy touted his Rotorooter and its edge in his plumbing business, Grandpa answered with his Republicanism. Not that he ever ran for office or even served as an Election Day poll checker, as far as I know. Presumably, he could be counted on to contribute financially to campaigns, but even there I’m in the dark. “I know James was a Republican, but I do not know how involved he was,” Wilma says.
Despite his own partisan identification, Grandpa spoke repeatedly of his friend Jesse Haines, his wife’s second-cousin and Hall of Fame pitcher who was urged to run for county auditor after retiring from Major League Baseball. When Republicans approached Haines to run on the slate, he acknowledged that he was good at dealing with the public but knew nothing of auditing. And so, when elected, he invited his young opponent to become his assistant, the half of the team who actually knew the details of auditing. But there was a caveat: if you accept, you agree not to run against me; in return, when I retire, I’ll support your campaign. As a result, Haines returned to office for seven consecutive terms, totalling 28 years – and, true to promise, on his retirement, Jesse Yoder ran unopposed for successive victories.
I imagine that Grandpa’s Republicanism was somehow interwoven with his freemasonry. I faintly remember he wore the ring and perhaps the lapel pin. Beyond that, and an awareness that Grandma was a member of the women’s auxiliary, Order of the Eastern Star, I know little. What I do realize is that these would have been a repudiation of both their Quaker and Brethren heritage, which opposed both the taking of oaths, secrecy, and favoritism to individuals. The United Brethren had already struggled with the issue, as Tom Crouch describes in The Bishop’s Boys: A Life of Wilbur and Orville Wright:
“A group of young ministers – Liberals, as they would come to be called – argued that the church must be brought into step with the times. Secret societies no longer aroused the horror they had in 1840. The Masonic order had grown from a membership of perhaps 5,000 during the 1850s to as many as 200,000 members by 1865. Membership in a lodge or fraternal order offered a sense of belonging and identity so often missing in the lives of American who had left farms, small towns, or villages for the big city.”
The tension finally led the denomination to split in 1882, with Wright heading the minority conservatives. The description of the sense of belonging and identity for those who left farms and small towns for the city would certainly fit the situation of Leroy and James, in moving to Dayton.
Discussing Bishop Milton Wright, Crouch observes, “Masonry – perceived as an elitist conspiracy whose only real purpose was to confer unfair advantage on its members – ran counter to his most cherished values.” But to a young man, now moved to the city and attempting to establish a livelihood, these connections might be considered helpful to survival or success.
As a child, we attended the Shrine Circus, which performed each year in a pavilion at the County Fairgrounds. I knew we got the tickets through Grandpa, but I didn’t know he was a member of this select group of Masons. The circus seemed a rather weird tradition, something I just couldn’t appreciate within its hawking of cotton candy and Cracker Jacks, the parts we really liked. The trapeze artists, elephants, and lion tamers simply came from a surreal dimension that somehow failed to impress children who had television at home.
We knew the Mason’s large limestone temple next to the Dayton Art Institute overlooked the Great Miami River and downtown. There were later stories Grandpa had planned to sponsor Dad in membership, using money he placed in a cigar box after he gave up smoking cigars. But Dad never joined, and I don’t know if it was for lack of interest or whether Grandpa never pressed the issue. Or, for that matter, what happened to the money.
“I know James was a Mason,” Wilma wrote. “I think it was more for business than anything else.”
Sometime after Grandma’s death and his remarriage, Grandpa sent me “this clipping out of my Shrine Monthly News. I like it very much and a bit of joy comes as I realize I am one – only one – of ‘those Shriners.’” I long ago lost the clipping and now wonder just what it was he so much valued. Nevertheless, Masonic membership was part of his self-identity.
On the educational side
In this family, education was taken seriously, within limits of practicality and with a strong dose of suspicion.
I had always assumed that Grandpa had finished high school. His father, however, had received only rudimentary schooling at the outset and after the Civil War. In North Carolina, the Quaker schools were the last to shut down, and reopened early in the years after with much assistance from Friends in the North.
Still, the 1870 Census reports 13-year-old Joshua was working the farm while his 10-year-old brother attended school. Grandpa’s mother and his wife both taught school for a while; a college degree was not required in those days, especially in the one-room schools.
TJ notes, though, “I don’t think my dad went beyond eighth grade. The boys had to work the farmland. I have my mother’s eighth-grade graduation picture, but not a high school picture. She did prepare for a teacher’s certificate and I assume she did teach, but not for long.”
Now I’m wondering just what drew Grandma to teaching.
Homemade noodles, crates of oysters, fried chicken, and more
Because of the geographical distances, Dad’s sisters and their families were to a large degree alien to my sister and me. Family reunions, gathering the descendants of Grandpa’s father, Joshua, were no less confusing, even though they were attended largely by people who lived within driving distance of us. Only after I undertook the genealogical research did the connections become clearer. Fortunately, I launched into this project shortly after cousin Floyd had begun collecting materials and asking questions, and we were soon swapping our findings and hunches.
Reflecting on the reunions, Floyd recalled:
“Uncle James, no one enjoyed the food more, unless it was me. Remember the homemade ice cream! Aunt Erma with her quiet manner always enjoyed herself being with the family.”
Food, of course, quickly points to the kitchen where Grandma rolled out dough on tea towels and deftly cut with an unerringly accurate paring knife her homemade noodles – a vestige of her Pennsylvania Dutch heritage, as I would learn. TJ details the process: “She would spread her homemade noodles on clean dish cloths on the kitchen table and then, after they had dried some, transfer them to dowels between two chairs.” In my memory, wooden yardsticks were used instead. Either would work.
Only when I was reading Emerson L. Lesher’s humorous The Muppie Manual: The Mennonite Urban Professional’s Guide for Humility and Success and came across his mentioned of how the generation moving away from the farm prefers “pasta” to “noodles” did it click – none of her daughters or granddaughters learned the recipe or the knack.
Only now do the vague memories linger of overheard discussion of scrapple and German-named specialties we children would never touch willingly in a million years – one sounded vaguely like, hog maws, pig stomach, or maybe “corn paws.” Another was their synonym for cottage cheese, along the lines of “shmear-case” (schmerkase). A Sunday after-church dinner typically included pickled eggs and pickled beets, possibly also from that tradition.
Grandpa’s steaks, meanwhile, would be pounded out with a tenderizing hammer, breaded, and fried Southern-style – definitely not the marinated ones we now grill and savor.
Continue reading Homemade noodles, crates of oysters, fried chicken, and more
I’ve long sensed that Grandpa had two best friends. The first was the farmer Arlie Binkley, his wife’s brother-in-law and the father of Wilma, Orpha, and Kenny.
The other was David Thomas Gregory, for a decade the pastor of Euclid Avenue church, where much of their social life was centered.
In a way, they embodied two different identities for Grandpa: one, with rural life and its older values, and the other urban, accompanied by prestige, learning, and no doubt the political skills to maneuver through the denomination’s hierarchy, including its merger with the Evangelical Association a couple of years before I was born, to form what would be known as the Evangelical United Brethren, or EUB, church.
One was a Midwestern native who stayed close to his roots; the other, from the East Coast side of the Allegheny Mountains, albeit from the easternmost tip of West Virginia.
Both of them were a decade older than Grandpa. Arlie was born November 30, 1891; David, July 16, 1889. Perhaps growing up as the youngest of three boys in his family inclined Grandpa toward older males. In turn, his two comrades died within eight months of each other – David, in a late-night collision on December 27, 1956; Arlie on August 9, 1957, after a long decline to Lou Gehrig’s Disease (ALS). The dislocation and grief he must have felt in these two losses so close together must have been overwhelming.
The admiration was apparent for Bishop Gregory or Doctor Gregory, the two terms by which I always heard him referenced. Grandpa spoke often of the man and was proud of the cedar-wood-cover New Testament gift (along with a small vial of Jordan River water) bought back from the Holy Land – but I had no idea of Grandpa’s idolization, as TJ put it, to the point he would do anything the bishop asked. So was Gregory the one who moved Grandpa into the Masonic circles? Or was it his own brother, Leroy? Considering how much Grandpa treasured that identity, I’m surprised Dad never joined – or was encouraged to become one.
From denominational records Henry E. Gable posted online, a sketch of Gregory’s career emerges.