The Best Barber in America By John E. Vacha

the pdf is here

 Cleveland Public Library (top) George Myers/WRHS (bottom)
The Best Barber in America 
By John E. Vacha 

When Elbert Hubbard called Cleveland’s George Myers the best barber in America, people listened.

Hubbard’s was a name to be reckoned with in the adolescent years of the Twentieth Century. His Roycroft Shops in New York were filling American parlors with the solid oak and copper bric-a-brac of the arts and crafts movement. His periodicals, The Philistine and The Fra, brought him national recognition as the “Sage of East Aurora.” One of his essays alone, “A Message to Garcia,” ran through forty million copies.

You could say he was the Oprah of his day.

Myers himself was certainly aware of the value of a testimonial from Elbert Hubbard. Across the marble wall above the mirrors in his Hollenden Hotel establishment, he had imprinted in dignified Old English letters over Hubbard’s signature, “The Best Barber Shop in America!”

Though he played on a smaller stage, George A. Myers managed to compile a resume as varied and impressive as Hubbard’s. He was recognized as a national leader and innovator in his profession and became one of the most respected members of Cleveland’s black bourgeoisie. As the confidant and trusted lieutenant of Mark A. Hanna, he became a force in Ohio Republican politics. Behind the scenes, he campaigned effectively to maintain the rights and dignity of his race. In later years he maintained a voluminous correspondence with James Ford Rhodes, providing the historian with his inside knowledge of the political maneuvers of the McKinley era.

It wasn’t a bad record for a barber, even for one who had bucked his father’s wishes for a son with a medical degree. George was the son of Isaac Myers, an influential member of Baltimore’s antebellum free Negro community. Like Frederick Douglass, the senior Myers had learned the trade of caulker in the Baltimore shipyards. When white caulkers and carpenters struck against working with blacks, Isaac took a leading role on the formation of a cooperatively owned black shipyard. He became president of the colored caulkers’ union, and that led to the presidency of the colored wing of the National Labor Union.

Born in Baltimore in 1859, George Myers was ten years old when his mother died in the midst of his father’s organizing activities. Isaac took George along on a trip to organize black workers in the South and then sent him to live with a clergyman in Rhode Island. George returned to Baltimore following his father’s remarriage and finished high school there but found himself excluded from the city college because of his race.

That’s when George decided to call a end to his higher education, despite his father’s desire that he enroll in Cornell Medical School. After a brief stab as a painter’s apprentice in Washington, he returned to Baltimore to master the barber’s trade.

Young Myers came to Cleveland in 1879 and found a job in the barber shop of the city’s leading hotel, the Weddell House. He had come to the right place at the right time. Cleveland was in the midst of its post-Civil War growth, and its barbering trade was dominated by African Americans. Myers soon became foreman of the shop, and among the influential patrons he serviced was the rising Republican politico, Mark Hanna.

His upscale clientele served Myers well when a new hotel, the Hollenden, challenged the supremacy of the Weddell House. The Hollenden’s owner was Liberty E. Holden, publisher of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, who advanced Myers four-fifths of the capital required to operate the barber shop in his hostelry. The remaining $400 was provided by a select group which included Hanna’s brother Leonard, his brother-in-law Rhodes, ironmaster William Chisholm, and future Cleveland mayor Tom L. Johnson. “Suffice to say that I paid every one of you gentlemen,” Myers later recalled to Rhodes with pardonable pride. Once again, Myers had made a good career move.

Located in the booming downtown area east of Public Square, the Hollenden quickly became the gathering place for the city’s elite as well as its distinguished visitors. One of its premiere attractions undoubtedly was the longest bar in town. Another was its dining room, which was appropriated by the politicians and reputedly became the incubator of the plebian ambrosia christened “Hanna Hash.”

When not eating or drinking, politicians naturally gravitated to the hotel’s barber shop, which, like politics, remained a strictly male domain in the 1880s. Myers served them so well that in time a total of eight U.S. Presidents, from Hayes to Harding, took their turns in his chair, along with such miscellaneous luminaries as Joseph Jefferson, Mark Twain, Lloyd George, and Marshall Ferdinand Foch. As for the regulars, according to the eminent neurosurgeon Dr. Harvey Cushing, it became “a mark of distinction to have one’ s insignia on a private shaving mug in George A. Myers’s personal rack.”

In such a milieu, it was almost inevitable that Myers himself would get involved in “the game,” as he called politics. Mark Hanna had hitched his wagon to a rising star in Ohio politics named William McKinley and invited Myers on board for the ride. As a Cuyahoga County delegate to the Ohio State Republican Convention, Myers helped nominate McKinley for governor in 1891. He supported the Ohioan for President as a delegate to the Republican National Convention the following year. McKinley fell short that time, but Myers cast the deciding vote to place a McKinley man on the Republican National Committee, giving the Hanna forces a strategic foothold for the next campaign.

As the crucial campaign of 1896 approached, Hanna decided that Myers was ready for greater responsibilities. A vital part of Hanna’s strategy to secure the nomination for McKinley involved capturing Republican delegations from the Southern states. Since most white Southerners at the time were Democrats, blacks enjoyed by default a disproportionate influence in the Southern Republican organization.

That’s where Myers came in, as the Cleveland barber undertook to organize black delegates for McKinley not only in Ohio but in Louisiana and Mississippi as well. The convention took place in the segregated city of St. Louis, where Hanna further entrusted Myers with the delicate task of overseeing accommodations and providing for the entertainment of the colored delegates.

McKinley, of course, won not only the nomination but went on to take the election. Hanna then had Myers installed as his personal representative on the Republican State Executive Committee, where Myers worked to integrate the Negro voters of Ohio into the Hanna machine. One of Myers’ guiding principles was the discouragement of segregated political rallies in order “to demonstrate that in party union there is strength.”

Myers had developed a deep personal attachment to Hanna, whom he affectionately dubbed “Uncle Mark.” “His word is his bond and he measures white and black men alike, — by results,” wrote Myers of his political patron. “He is loyal to his friends, a natural born fighter and has the courage of his convictions.

It isn’t surprising, then, that Myers was willing to go to extraordinary measures to help secure Hanna’s election to the U.S. Senate in 1897. State legislatures then held the power of appointment to that office, so when Uncle Mark was still a vote short of election, Myers approached William H. Clifford, a black representative from Cuyahoga County, and bluntly paid for his vote in cold, hard cash. “It was politics as played in those days,” Myers later explained to Rhodes. “When I paid Clifford to vote for M.A. I did not think it a dishonest act. I was simply playing the game.”

Though McKinley had offered to reward him for his support with a political appointment, Myers was reluctant to neglect his thriving business for an active role in “the game.” The barber showed no reluctance to cash in his political capital for the benefit of fellow African Americans, however. He arranged the appointment of John P. Green, the originator of Labor Day in Ohio, as chief clerk in the Post Office Stamp Division in Washington. This earned Myers the enmity of Harry C. Smith, publisher of the black weekly Cleveland Gazette, who saw the barber’s influence as a threat to his own leadership among the city’ s Negro voters. As the Cleveland Plain Dealer called it in 1900, “George A. Myers is without doubt the most widely known colored man in Cleveland and probably the leading politician of his race in Ohio.”

Among the other appointments for which Myers smoothed the way were those of Blanche K. Bruce as register of the U.S. Treasury and Charles A. Cottrell of Toledo as collector of internal revenue at Honolulu. Only when he saw his livelihood threatened through political action did Myers act in his own interest. In 1902 he asked Hanna “to do me the favor to use every influence at your command” to defeat a proposed state law which sought to place Ohio’s barbering business under the control of a state board. Myers feared that this licensing board, like the barber’s schools, would come under the domination of labor unions which excluded blacks. Hanna promised to “take it up with my friends at Columbus and see if something cannot be done.”

Evidently something could be done, and the bill was defeated.

After Hanna’s death in 1904, Myers dropped his active involvement in politics. “I served Mr. Hanna because I loved him,” Myers told Rhodes, “and even though I put my head in the door of the Ohio Penitentiary to make him U.S. Senator, I would do the same thing again, could the opportunity present itself.” With both Hanna and McKinley gone, however, Myers wasn’t about to stick his neck out for anyone else. Instead, Myers tended to business with impressive results.

By 1920 he had more than thirty employees in his shop, including seventeen barbers, three women’s hairdressers (barriers were falling by then), six manicurists, and two pedicurists. Myers claimed that his was the first barber shop in Cleveland to provide the services of manicurists.

In fact, Myers was on the cutting edge (we wanted to avoid the cliche, but couldn’t resist the pun ) of numerous innovations in the trade. He was one of the first barbers to adopt porcelain fixtures and install individual marble wash basins at each chair. He also pioneered in the use of sterilizers and humidors.

The Koken Barbers’ Supply Company of St. Louis incorporated Myers’ suggestions in the development of the modern barber chair and solicited pictures of Myers and his shop for its house newsletter.

From the standpoint of his busy patrons, perhaps the most appreciated innovation of Myers was the telephone service he provided at each chair. “While having his hair cut a patron may talk to his home or transact business,” marvelled a contemporary trade journal.

“A desk phone is plugged in like a stand lamp and removed when not in use.”

One practice that earned Myers some sharp barbs from Harry Smith was the latter’s allegation that blacks were refused service in the Hollenden barber shop. On the basis of contemporary custom, it was probably true. Another black editor writing on discrimination in Cleveland at the turn of the century described how blacks were told by white barbers to “Go to one of your own people,” only to be told by some of their own, “Now men, we would like to work on you but you know we can’t do it. It would kill our business.” In Myers’ exclusive shop, blacks likely were welcome only behind the barber chairs. To Myers, it probably was simply a case of how that game happened to be played. When Booker T. Washington was organizing the National Negro Business League in 1900, he urged Myers to appear on the program at Boston.

“It is very important that the business of barbering be represented, and there is no one in the country who can do it as well as yourself,” wrote Washington. “We cannot afford to not have you present.”

Nevertheless, Myers demurred. Identifying oneself as “a colored business man,” he once wrote, was tantamount to “an admission of inferiority.” A dozen years later, Washington recommended Myers to head a Republican drive to organize the Negro vote in the presidential election.

Though flattered, Myers turned this offer down too, on account of the press of business. His application to his profession rewarded him well enough.

Myers revealed to Rhodes that he had paid an income tax of $1,617 in 1920, on gross receipts of $67,325. That put him in the upper brackets of Cleveland’s black middle class, where he assumed a position of social as well as business leadership.

Out of a city of close to 400,000 at the turn of the century, Cleveland’s African Americans formed a rudimentary minority of around ten thousand. Though not yet completely ghettoized, they tended to form their own churches, social organizations, and neighborhoods. Myers belonged to the city’s oldest black congregation, St. John’s A.M.E., and was a founding member of the segregated Cuyahoga Lodge of Elks. As a member of the Euchre Club, he belonged to the lighter-skinned social elite of the black community. With other black barbers and service workers, he also formed a Caterers’ Club that became famed for the prestige of its annual banquets.

Yet Myers wasn’t entirely circumscribed by the color line. He was a member of the civic-minded City Club and the Early Settlers Association. According to Cleveland safety director Edwin D. Barry, Myers “had more white friends than any colored man in Cleveland.”

The very proper Victorian parlor of the Myers home on Giddings Avenue was once pictured in the Sunday magazine of the Plain Dealer. Following a divorce from his first wife Sarah, Myers had wed Maude Stewart in 1896. A son from the first marriage and a daughter from the second both became teachers in Cleveland’s public schools.

Despite his father’s activities as a labor organizer, George Myers had become as conservative as any Republican businessman. His own shop was a nonunion one, though his employees seemed content with the arrangement. He was genuinely upset over a May Day riot in the streets of Cleveland, consoling himself with the reflection that “Negroes are neither Socialist, Anarchist nor Bolshevist.”

Although keeping a well-stocked wine cellar for himself, Myers was in favor of Prohibition.

“I favored prohibition for the other fellow — some of my employees–and this is the secret of the Prohibition victory,” he admitted frankly to Rhodes.

In personal appearance, Myers was always a good advertisement for his tonsorial skills. Trim throughout his life, he displayed a low, full hairline in youth, to which a well-shaped mustache added dignity. A fall down the elevator shaft in a customer’s home once broke his leg and foot, giving him a limp for years and enabling him to forecast the weather afterwards.

Following World War I, Myers purchased a new home in the predominantly Jewish Glenville neighborhood, appropriating the entire third floor for his sanctum sanctorium. Half of it became a billiard room, the other half his library. There he was said to have assembled one of the country’s most comprehensive collections of books by and about African Americans.

It was books that formed the common bond between Myers and James Ford Rhodes. After Rhodes retired from business to write history, Myers would walk over to his Euclid Avenue mansion to give Rhodes his daily shave and trim. On the way, he would often pick up a bundle of books for Rhodes from the library of the Case School of Applied Sciences, then still located downtown. “Me and my partner Jim are writing a history,” he once explained to a curious friend.

“Jim is doing the light work and I am doing the heavy.”

In time Rhodes moved to Massachusetts, where he continued issuing his magisterial “History of the United States From the Compromise of 1850.” As he approached the McKinley volume, Rhodes discovered that Myers might again be of help to him–this time with some of the light work. The historian was primarily interested in the barber’s knowledge of the inside workings of the Hanna McKinley political machine. When the volume was completed, he acknowledged his indebtedness in print “to George A. Myers of Cleveland for useful suggestions.”

Myers and Rhodes covered a wide range of topics in their letters, however, from old Cleveland acquaintances to World War I. When Herbert Croly published his reverential biography of Mark Hanna, Myers complained to Rhodes that he scarcely recognized the subject. “We knew Mr. Hanna to be a rough brusque character with an indomitable will of his own that respected the rights of no one who stood in the way of his successful accomplishment of the object he had set out to accomplish,” he wrote.

World War I proved to be a watershed in the racial thinking of George Myers. After fighting for freedom on the Western Front, Myers predicted to Rhodes that “the Negro will not submit to the atrocities and indignities of the past and present in silence.” Yet Myers was worried about another phenomenon of the war, the Great Migration of Southern blacks to Northern industrial cities. Cleveland’s small, comfortable black minority had suddenly tripled in size, he informed Rhodes. “Many of the Negroes are of the lowest and most shiftless class,” he wrote.

“Where Cleveland was once free from race prejudice, it is now anything but that….”

Prior to the war, Myers had tended to subordinate group solidarity in favor of individual enterprise. He was slow to join the N.A.A.C.P. and the Urban League. Although he supported Booker T. Washington’s efforts at vocational uplift at Tuskegee and was acknowledged by his secretary as “Mr. Washington’s most intimate, personal friend living in Cleveland,” Myers was consistently critical of any support by Washington of separate but equal welfare agencies. He regretted Washington’s endorsement of “in reality a Jim Crow” Y.M.C.A. branch in Cleveland and similarly objected to the formation of the Phillis Wheatley Home for single African American girls.

“Segregation here of any kind to me is a step backward and will ultimately be a blow to our Mixed Public Schools,” wrote Myers to Washington.

Myers preferred to fight racism by private initiative behind the scenes, as when he wrote the editor of the Plain Dealer to protest the paper’s use of the terms “darkies” and “negress.” The practice was halted, though Myers had to repeat his admonition after the war to the paper’s next editor. With less success, Myers also conducted a letter campaign against the screening in Ohio of the Klan-glorifying movie, “The Birth of a Nation.”

But the tensions raised by the Great Migration ultimately caused Myers to adopt a more contentious approach. The clincher probably occurred in 1923, when the Hollenden management informed Myers that his black employees would be replaced with whites effective with his retirement. European immigrants had been challenging the black supremacy in the barbering business since 1908, when James Benson had lost his lease in The Arcade.

In order to save his staff’s jobs, Myers postponed his retirement despite a heart condition brought out by an attack of influenza. A stronger tone entered into his exchanges with the white establishment.

When racial outbreaks loomed over the use of a swimming pool in Woodland Hills Park by Negroes, Myers prevailed on the safety department to station two black policemen there.

He was outspoken in his responses to a 1926 Cleveland Chamber of Commerce survey on immigration and emigration. He placed the blame for the squalid housing conditions in Cleveland’s “black belt” squarely on the Cleveland real estate interests for refusing to rent or sell desirable habitation to colored. Myers also scored the business community in general for its failure to provide economic opportunities for the Negro youth coming out of the schools. “There is not a bank in Cleveland that employs any of our group as a clerk, teller or bookkeeper,” he wrote, “scarcely an office that use any as clerks or stenographers and no stores, though our business runs up in the millions; that employ any as sales-women, salesmen or clerks.”

To Judge George S. Adams, Myers observed that “while I do not condone crime, (all criminals look alike to me), the negro, morally and otherwise, is what the white man has made him, through the denial of justice, imposition and an equal chance.” While the Negro community of Cleveland was working to assimilate the newly arrived immigrants from the South, he told Congressman Chester C. Bolton, “We who formerly lived here before the influx cannot carry the burden alone, nor should we. The industrial interest of the north forced this problem upon us….”

In the late 1920s Myers joined his old rival, Harry Smith of the Gazette, in a public campaign against the establishment of a Negro hospital in Cleveland. In a letter to the Plain Dealer he refuted, on the basis of his own personal experience, charges that blacks were turned away from or refused private rooms at City Hospital. Cleveland was on its way to becoming “one of the greatest medical centers of the world,” Myers asserted, and his people wanted to enjoy, “in common with all others, the benefit of the greatest medical skill and attention that the world has ever known.”

It wasn’t only equal care that Myers was concerned with, but equal opportunity for African Americans in the medical profession. He and Smith also fought for several years to gain admission of colored interns and nurses at City Hospital. City Manager William Hopkins might accuse Myers of having “gone over to Harry Smith bag and baggage,” but City Council finally rewarded their efforts with passage of a resolution granting the desired hospital privileges.

The following morning, January 17, 1930, as his daughter Dorothy drove Myers to his streetcar stop, he told her he was feeling better than he had in a long time. That was good, for at breakfast he had told the family that he faced the most difficult task of his life that day. Unable to continue working any longer, the seventy- year-old barber had finally sold out to the Hollenden. Now he had to inform his employees that they were effectively out of jobs.

He worked all morning, telling the staff just before noon that there would be an important meeting upon his return from lunch. Myers then walked a couple of blocks to the New York Central office in the Union Trust Building to purchase a ticket for a rest cure in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Reaching for his change, he suddenly reeled, grabbed at the counter, and crumpled to the floor.

Even before they could carry him to the building’s dispensary, Myers was dead of heart failure. Once before, after risking his career and reputation to make Mark Hanna a Senator, George A. Myers had withdrawn from “the game” of politics. Now, faced with what would undoubtedly have been the most painful confrontation of his career, he was released by death.

Eulogies poured in from both sides of the color line.

“His death removes a potent factor that those of the race in Cleveland can ill afford to lose at this time,” wrote his old adversary and recent ally, Harry Smith.

City Manager Hopkins estimated his correspondence with eminent men as “good enough and unusual enough to justify its preservation.” That also turned out to be the judgment of history.

Russell H. Davis, Black Americans in Cleveland: From George Peake to Carl B. Stokes, 1796-1969 (Washington, D.C.: The Associated Publishers, 1972).

John A. Garraty (ed.), The Barber and the Historian: The Correspondence of George A. Myers and James Ford Rhodes, 1910-1923 (Columbus: The Ohio Historical Society, 1956).

Felix James, “The Civic and Political Activities of George A. Myers, “The Journal of Negro History”, Vol. LVIII, No. 2 (April, 1973), pp. 166-178.

Kenneth L. Kuzmer, A Ghetto Takes Shape: Black Cleveland, 1870-1930 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1976).

The George A. Myers Papers (Columbus: Ohio Historical Society Archives)

This article first ran in Timeline Magazine, Jan/Feb 2000.

The Arts in Northeast Ohio aggregation

1 Utility Versus Innovation: A Polemic on Art, Architecture and Cultural Conservatism in Cleveland by Steven Litt
2 Architecture in Cleveland
3 Music in Cleveland
4 Dance in Cleveland
5 Art in Cleveland
6 The Cleveland School – Watercolor and Clay by William Robinson
6 Theater in Cleveland (through the 1980s)
8 The Rise of the Cleveland Museum of Art by Andrea Volpe Belt Magazine 11.4.2014
9 “Artistic Choice” WVIZ Video about Cleveland’s Artistic Legacy
10 Cleveland Art and History Curriculum Website
11 Cigarette tax for arts and culture has generated $65 million at halfway point (Plain Dealer 11/5/11)
12 Elegant Cleveland from the Plain Dealer

George Voinovich Era as Cleveland Mayor aggregation

1 Interview With Senator George Voinovich, Cleveland Mayor from 1980 thru 1989 (video)
2 The Voinovich Collections from Cleveland State Univ and Ohio Univ
3 Mayor of Cleveland: The Comeback City from the Voinovich Collections (CSU and Ohio Univ)
4 Mayoral Administration of George V. Voinovich – The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History
5 George Voinovich from Wikipedia
6 Voinovich and Forbes: The Era of Good Feelings (Cleveland Magazine 12/2012)
7 Mr. Ohio
8 The Great Divide – from Cleveland Magazine
10 George Voinovich Biography

11 George Voinovich, former Cleveland mayor, Ohio governor and U.S. senator, dies 6.12.16

Carl Stokes aggregation

1 “The Election That Changed Cleveland Forever” by Michael D. Roberts
2 “It Seems the Race Issue is With Us” Andrew Glass, Washington Post (10/30/1967)
3 Eyes on the Prize – Episode 9 “Power!” (1967–1968)
4 The New Mayor Brought Hope, But Did the Dreams Die? by Margaret Bernstein, Sarah Crump and April McClellan-Copeland
5 The Man, the Strategy and the Seismic Shift by Brent Larkin
6 Carl B. Stokes from the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History
7 Carl Stokes Talks About His Careers as a News Anchor, Mayor and Judge (CSPAN 10.30.84)
8 Money and Mobilization: Volunteers in the Stokes Mayoral Campaign by Elis Ribeiro
9 Carl Stokes: Reflections of a veteran political observer by Brent Larkin

10 Carl Stokes Funeral Program

11 Classic Debate Between Cleveland mayoral candidates Carl Stokes and Seth Taft Cleveland City Club Nov 4, 1967 (Audio)

12 Mayoral Candidate Carl Stokes Speaks at the Cleveland City Club 9.15.67 (Audio)

13 Carl Stokes and Ralph Locher at Cleveland City Club 7/9/1971 (Audio)

14 Stokes Era Comes to An End (Plain Dealer 1.18.1998)

15 Excellent collection of essays about Carl Stokes from in 2007 “Carl Stokes: Profile of the Pioneer”

Flora Stone Mather aggregation

1 Her Fathers’ Daughter: Flora Stone Mather and Her Gifts to Cleveland by Dr. Marian Morton
2 Short biography of Flora Stone Mather from the Flora Stone Mather Center for Women
3 Gladys Haddad speaks about Flora Stone Mather
4 Flora Stone Mather Documentaries
5 A Tribute to Flora Stone Mather

6. Between Old and New Woman: Flora Stone Mather and the Politics of Gender  By Dr. Einav Rabinovitch-Fox

“Fracking and the Impact of the Utica Shale on Ohio” a forum on May 16, 2017

“Fracking and the Impact of the Utica Shale on Ohio”
a forum moderated by Dan Shingler, Crain’s Cleveland Business

Tuesday May 16, 2017  
7-8:30 p.m.
Free & Open to the Public
Solon Community Center 35000 Portz Pkwy, Solon, OH 44139

RSVP here  Event flyer here

Michael Chadsey, Ohio Oil and Gas Association
Trent Dougherty, Ohio Environmental Council

Edward “Ned” Hill, John Glenn College of Pub Affairs, The OH State Univ.
Dan Shingler, Crain’s Cleveland Business

Dan Shingler

Co-sponsored by the Case Western Reserve University Siegal Lifelong Learning Program, League of Women Voters-Greater Cleveland,, Plain Dealer and Cuyahoga County Library Systems
Corporate sponsor: First Interstate Properties, Ltd.
For more information, email:

News Aggregator Archives: FEATURE area 2016


Can’t You Hear the 1948 Whistle Blowin’ 10.27.16 (New York Times)


Cleveland Indians in 1948: A Story of Integration 10.24.16 (New York Times)


Everything You Want to Know About Swing State Ohio, But Were Afraid to Ask 10.20.16 (Fortune)


“Heart of Steel” Series from Plain Dealer About Steel Industry in Cleveland 10.16.16 (Plain Dealer)


Video from the “Marijuana Legalization in Ohio” Forum w/Moderator Jackie Borchardt, 10.13.16


Confessions of a Rust Belt Orphan (or how I learned to stop worrying and love Akron) by Jason Segedy 10.12.16 (Cleveland Scene)


The Importance of “Ground Game” in Ohio President Campaigns 10.9.16 (Bloomberg)


Collinwood 1908: Bringing a Fire Back into History 10.6.16 (Belt)


So Now We Know For Sure: Mansfield Frazier 10.2.16 (Cool Cleveland) 


“Voter Registration in Ohio” a Short History by Michael Curtin 9.25.16


Video from Eastside Candidate Forum at Brush High School 9.22.16


Midwest Lawschools and Their Students Adapt to New Realities 9.21.16 (Cleveland Scene)


Video from “Hough: A Short Look to the Past, a Long Look to the Future” 9.19.16 (City Club)


Video from “Lake Erie and Cuyahoga River Water Quality” Forum on 9.15.16


“Presidents and Health: How James A. Garfield’s Death Changed American Medicine  9.14.16 (


The Rise and Fall of Geauga Lake Park”-video 9.9.16 (



Louis Stokes Autobiography “The Gentleman from Ohio” Part 1 is here  Part 2 is here


“Redistricting and Voting Rights in Ohio” Forum (Video) 8.25.16


Cleveland Metro Economic Performance is Mixed, According Cleveland Federal Reserve 8.25.16


On the Cusp: Cleveland’s Larchmere Neighborhood 8.24.16 (Belt)


How Milwaukee Shook Off the Rust 8.23.16 (Politico)


Cleaving the Crooked Mirror: What’s Really Behind the East and West Side Rivalry in Cleveland 8.17.16 (Thrillist)


Morgan Street Cemetary in Ohio City Steeped in History, Architecture 8.3.16 (


Great Lakes Exposition: A World’s Fair to Remember Opened 80 Years Ago This summer: photos 7.28.16 (


It’s Time to Retire Tired Talk About the “Rust Belt” 7.27.16 (CBS Marketwatch)


In Cleveland’s Public Square, Rights are Exercised. Loudly 7.26.16 (New York Times)


Cleveland was the Original Motor City (Ringer) 7.18.16


A Visual History of Streetcars and Trolleys in Cleveland 7.14.16 (


Cleveland Rising? by Alex Baca 7.14.16 (American Conservative)


The Forgotten Fastest Man by Daniel McGraw 7.12.16 (theundefeated)


Hough: Before and Beyond. A Series on Cleveland’s Hough Neighborhood 50 Years After the 1966 Riots (Ideastream)


When Cleveland Became a “Convention City” 7.11.16 (Belt)

The Challenge of Keeping Black Families From Leaving the Midwest 7.5.16 (Atlantic)

Chasing the Ghosts of Coventry Village by Brad Masi 6.30.16 (Belt)

“Cleveland and the Great War” by Kevin Naughton June, 2016 (Pressure Life)

Public Square Renovation, From Beginning to End (

“Titles and Tears” an essay by Joe Posnanski 6.20.16 (NBC)

David Morgenthaler, “Cleveland’s Quiet Business Visionary” Dies 6.17.16 Read More

How Cincinnati Salvaged the Nation’s Most Dangerous Neighborhood 6.16.16 (Politico) 

The Preacher Who Took on the Police. Cop shootings Have Torn Apart Cleveland. Jawanza Colvin is Trying to Root Out Racism from Legal System 6.16.16 (Politico) 

George Voinovich, Former Cleveland Mayor, Ohio Governor, U.S. Senator Dies 6.12.16 (

Teaching Cleveland Digital Interview with Senator George Voinovich (2014)  

The Ingredients of George Voinovich’s Success as Ohio’s Governor: Tom Suddes (

George Voinovich, Former Cleveland Mayor, Ohio Governor, U.S. Senator Dies 6.12.16 ( 

A Photo History of University Circle 6.8.16 (

Springfield Ohio Middle Class, Incomes Hardest Hit in U.S., Study Finds 6.5.16 (Dayton Daily News) 

A Visual History of the Detroit Superior Bridge 6.1.16 ( 


Opinion Essay on Northeast Ohio Regionalism Written by a Student at St. Ignatius High School 5.29.16


A Photo History of Cleveland’s Playhouse Square; Rise, Decline and Rebirth 5.27.16


Oberlin College: The Big Uneasy: What’s Roiling the Liberal Arts College 5.23.16 New York Magazine


Video from “Republican National Convention: What’s in it for Cleveland” forum 5.17.18


Video from “Cleveland’s Radio Superstars” 5.16.16


University Hospitals Marks 150 in 2016; a Historical Photo Essay 5.13.16


Learn More About Republican National Convention’s Impact on Cleveland 5.11.16


Go Hug a Tree. You Just Might Live Longer. Once Upon a Time, Cleveland was the Forest City. -Tim Kovach 4.30.16


Regional Alignment Not Competition: How Greater Milwaukee is Remaking Economic Development (Brookings)


Playhouse Square Founding Father, David O. Frazier is Honored, Remembered 4.28.2016 (


Revisiting Hough: Manfield Frazier 4.27.16 (Cool Cleveland)


Cleveland’s Public Square: Two Centuries of Transformation by Mark Souther April 2016 (Cleveland State University)


Two “Unlikely” Blockbuster Empressarios’ from Cleveland Energe as the “Future of Hollywood” 4.25.16 (Crain’s Cleveland Business) 


Video from “Van Aken Project” Forum 4.21.16


Will the Shaker Van Aken Project Succeed? Preview of Thursday 4/21 Free Forum: Steven Litt (


Ohio Won’t Save NE Ohio Public Transit, So Let’s Tax Parking to Fund it Instead: Tim Kovach (opinion) 4.8.16


Sculpted Landscapes: Art and Place in Cleveland’s Cultural Gardens (1916-2006) by Prof Mark Tebeau (CSU)


Coldest Opening Day Since 1907 4.19.1907 (Cleveland Plain Dealer)

Jim Rokakis Talks about NE Ohio Housing, Tree Canopy and Other Issues at 1st Unitarian Church 4.3.16 (Video) 

Metro Cleveland Population Loss Dampens Growth 3.30.16 (Cleveland Federal Reserve)

A Contested Republican Convention in Cleveland? What You Need to Know 3.29.16 (Plain Dealer/ 

No New Confirmed Aquatic Invasive Species in Great Lakes for 10 Years 3.29.16 (Duluth News Tribune)

Labor Markets are Getting Close to Maximum Employment in Many Parts of Our Region 3.28.16 (Cleveland Fed) 

Your City is Not the Next Silicon Valley by Richey Piiparinen 3.9.16 (Cleveland State University)

Greater Cleveland Employment Trends: 2014 and 2015  -March 2016 (Cleveland State University) 

“Viktor Schreckengost-The Exchange of Art with the Everyday” – winner of the 2016 Teaching Cleveland website award at History Day 3.5.16

2016 Ohio Primary Discussion with Brent Larkin and Mark Naymik 3.2.16 (Video)

Video of Three Ohio Democratic Senate Candidates at Endorsement Meeting released 3.1.16 (

New Images Reveal True Impact of Freeways on Cleveland’s Neighborhoods 2.25.16 (Freshwater)

A Walk Through North Collinwood 2.24.16 (Belt) 

Candidates for Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Debate at the Cleveland City Club: Timothy McGinty v. Michael O’Malley: Video 2.23.16 (City Club)


Is Waterfront Development Paying Off? Nine Takeaways From LWV Forum: Steven Litt 2.15.16 (Plain Dealer/


How Local Media Coverage is Forcing Cleveland to Finally Fix Its Lead Problem 2.9.16 (Columbia Journalism Review)


Roundwood Manor: Poignant Legacy of the Van Sweringens; What to do With it Now? Steven Litt 2.4.16 (Plain Dealer/


Once Famous for Beer, Milwaukee Now Bets on Water 1.26.16 (Marketplace)


The Striking Similarities of the Browns’ Move to Baltimore and the Rams Move to L.A. 1.16.16 (Baltimore Sun)


5 Facts About Brokered Presidential Conventions: Could We Have One in Cleveland This Summer? 1.8.16 (Dayton Daily News)


What Would it Take to Fix Cleveland’s Roads?: Angie Schmidt 1.4.16 (City Club)


Correcting For Bias: Mansfield Frazier 1.2.16 (Cool Cleveland)


Republican Lawyer Details Three Scenerios for 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland. Two of them are in “Uncharted Territory” 12.29.15 (Politico)


Cleveland Puts More Kids in Strong Preschools, Thousands Still Shut Out 12.20.15 (Plain Dealer/


The Coldest Darn Place in the World: The Great Lakes Bowl 12.16.15 (Belt)


Will Cleveland 2016 Be 1968 Chicago? 12.14.15 (Next City)


You Green Boy: An Essay on the Flats: Lee Chilcote 12.5.15 (Cleveland Scene)


What Would Dr. King Do?: Mansfield Frazier 11.23.15 (Cool Cleveland)


The Cleveland Mafia: The End of an Era and Demise of a Don Plain Dealer/ (11.23.15)


Vacant Houses, Blighted Buildings Still Plague Cleveland, But Problem is Shrinking Plain Dealer/ (11.21.15)


Video From the “Housing Crisis” Forum Moderated by Brent Larkin (10.7.15)


Toxic Neglect: Curing Cleveland’s Legacy of Lead Poisoning Plain Dealer/ (10.20.15)


Video From the “How to Become An Education Activist in Northeast Ohio” Forum Moderated by Jill Miller Zimon (8.19.15)


Video From the “Land Use in Cuyahoga County” Forum Moderated by Steven Litt (7.29.15)


Video From the Regionalism Forum with County Executive Armond Budish, Regional Coordinator Eddy Kraus and Moderator Tom Beres (6.17.15)


Regionalism in Northeast Ohio-Material on the Subject From the Past 10+ Years

A Website Devoted to John D. Rockefeller and winner of the 2015 Teaching Cleveland “History Day” Website Award, Created by Victor Pan, Birchwood School

“The Scourge of Corrupt and Inefficient Politicians”: The Citizens League of Greater Cleveland By Marian Morton

The pdf is here

“The Scourge of Corrupt and Inefficient Politicians”: The Citizens League of Greater Cleveland
By Marian Morton

Cleveland’s self-styled enemy of “corrupt and inefficient politicians”1 was born in 1896, inspired by what its founders considered the disastrous state of local politics. For more than a century, fueled by righteous anger and empirical data, the league tackled big and small challenges, winning some battles and losing others.

The Cleveland organization, originally called the Municipal Association, took its cue, as well as reforms like municipal home rule and a professional city manager, from the National Municipal League. This organization, later the National Civic League, was established in 1894. Its concern: American cities, their governments designed for smaller, more homogeneous populations, were overwhelmed by rapid, unplanned growth and the difficulties of absorbing an enormous influx of European immigrants. The serious depression that began in 1893 exacerbated these problems, creating widespread unemployment and political unrest. The results: political bosses and machines, patronage, mismanagement, and disorder. The league’s founders included some of the Progressive era’s leading lights, including Teddy Roosevelt, later President of the United States, and Louis D. Brandeis, later U.S. Supreme Court Justice. Like other Progressive reformers, these men believed that professional direction and scientific principles could solve urban political problems. The association held its first national meeting in Cleveland in 1895.

Clevelanders quickly followed suit. Appalled and indignant at the open corruption and mismanagement of the mayoral administration of Republican Robert McKisson, a group of city leaders gathered in the office of Harry A. Garfield, son of the assassinated President James A. Garfield and professor of law at Western Reserve University. He had also served on the National League’s executive board. “It was obvious,” the group believed, “that the Augean stables, which was the government of the city, needed thorough cleaning.”2 The Cleveland Municipal Association was then organized, the second municipal association in the United States. It described its members as “nonpartisan … in the normal meaning of the phrase” – that is, they were both Republicans and Democrats but placed the interest of the city before that of party – and as “civic leaders of the community in the noblest sense of the term.”3

Almost all were businessmen like William and Samuel Mather, John Sherwin, or Tom L. Johnson, associated with the city’s leading industries or commercial establishments, plus a few professional men – academics like Garfield, H.W. Bourne, professor of history at Western Reserve College for Women, and lawyer Frederic C. Howe. The group also included a handful of prominent Jewish men: Rabbi Moses J. Gries, Martin A. Marks, and Morris A. Black, who became the group’s second president. All were white.

Quite logically, they believed that if political institutions operated like efficient businesses with well-informed men like themselves at the helm, all would be well. “To promote businesslike and efficient conduct” in government was their goal. 4Quite logically too, they were never critics of free enterprise capitalism and never endorsed even the mild “gas and water socialism” – that is, municipal ownership of utilities – advocated by reformers like Johnson and Howe, both of whom soon became disenchanted with the group.

1 The Citizens League of Cleveland, 1896-1946: Fifty Years of Critical and Constructive Service ( Cleveland: Citizens League of Cleveland, 1946), 3.

  1. 2  The Citizens League, 2
  2. 3  The Citizens League, 3
  3. 4  75 Years of Doing Good: The Citizens League of Greater Cleveland, 1896-1971 (Cleveland: The Citizens League of Greater Cleveland, n.d.), 7.


The Municipal Association’s first challenge was to defeat McKisson’s 1897 re-election bid. The association’s publications made no explicit recommendation, or condemnation, of his administration, but simply laid bare the facts, at least as members saw them. McKisson won. Two years later, the association took off the gloves and distributed thousands of handbills urging his defeat and charging, “City Government [Is] a Disgrace.” “A corrupt political machine is in power in Cleveland. The first duty of the voter is to crush it.”5 The association also staged a “splendid and enthusiastic” meeting at Gray’s Armory to rally the faithful to the cause of good government. Banker J.W.G. Cowles decried “machine” politics as “the voice of the devil.”6 McKisson lost.

Defeating Tom Johnson was a different matter. Although Johnson had been a founding member of the association, his single tax ideas and belief in municipal ownership of utilities made him suspect when he ran for mayor of Cleveland in 1901: “[The association] cannot recommend Mr. Johnson because it is not prepared to advocate the theories advanced by him; and because, to the minds of some of its members, Mr. Johnson thinks less of Cleveland and its welfare than of the demonstration of a theory and the pursuit of higher political honors.” The association endorsed his opponent in 1903; did recommend Johnson in 1905; and in 1907, again endorsed his opponent, Theodore E. Burton. Johnson won every time. In 1909, Herman C. Baehr got the association’s nod for mayor and handed Johnson his final defeat.7 Johnson later described the Municipal Association as “… supposed[ly] … distinctly nonpartisan and above the influences of Privilege” and pointedly commented that “city government belonged to the business interests generally …. The campaign funds came largely from business men who believed in a ‘business men’s government,’ and who couldn’t or wouldn’t see that there was anything radically wrong with the system.”8

The association did not make another recommendation for a mayoral candidate until 1989 although it continued its policy of doing research, providing information, and making recommendations for candidates for city, county, and state offices, sometimes Democrats and sometimes Republicans. In 1909, for example, the association recommended seven Republicans and three Democrats for Cleveland City Council after reviewing the credentials of 63 candidates. Here are two recommendations: “[Democrat] THOMAS B. FLOWER, present member of the city council. Mr. Flower’s work in the council has disclosed that he is a man of ability and is qualified for the office. …. [Republican] THOMAS W. FLEMING, lawyer and proprietor of a barber shop …. Is regarded as intelligent and trustworthy and of sufficient ability for service in the council.”9 Fleming was the first African American to be elected to Cleveland City Council but in 1929 went to jail for corruption in office.

In 1910, Mayo Fesler became director of the association, a position he held until 1945 except for the years, 1917 to 1923. Under his direction, the association became the Civic League in 1913 and then the Citizens League in 1923. By 1971, it had become the Citizens League of Greater Cleveland, an acknowledgement that by then most of its members lived outside the city. (It will be referred to hereinafter as the CL or “the league.”) In 1913, Fesler organized the City Club of Cleveland, an organization still committed to free and open political debate. When he died in 1945, Fesler was eulogized as “one of the most ardent fighters for the cause of good government in Cleveland’s history.”10 On his watch the league would establish itself as a force for successful political reform.

Chief of these successes was home rule for the city of Cleveland, advocated by many Progressive reformers including Johnson. Johnson called it “the most pressing of all civic problems.”11 The league explained home rule as the right of cities “to frame their own charters and legislate for themselves in

  1. 5  75 Years of Doing Good, 3-4.
  2. 6  Cleveland Plain Dealer, March 29, 1899: 1.
  3. 7  75 Years of Doing Good, 9.
  4. 8  Tom L. Johnson, My Story (Kent, Ohio and London, England: Kent State University Press,1993), 171, 114.
  5. 9  Cleveland Plain Dealer, October 29, 1909: 4.
  6. 10  75 Years of Doing Good, 32.

11 Johnson, 148.


strictly local affairs,” free from the “constant interference from the state capitol” that had made local governments “pawns in the game of state and national politics.” State governments, sometimes corrupt, passed “unintelligent and irresponsible legislation” for cities, the league charged.12 Home rule, in contrast, would bring the city’s government closer to its citizens and more accountable to them.

Fesler had come from St. Louis, which had home rule, and aided by Newton D. Baker and A.R. Hatton, a political science professor at Western Reserve University, Fesler prepared and distributed a pamphlet, “Constitutional Home Rule for Ohio Cities.” The men then helped to organize the Ohio Municipal League in 1912. Their lobbying of the General Assembly got a home rule amendment on the ballot, and it was approved by Ohio voters in September, 1912.13

The league put together a slate of candidates to re-write Cleveland’s charter. Baker, then mayor, was named the group’s chairman, and Fesler, its secretary. The new charter provided for a mayor-council form of government, both to be elected on a non-partisan basis for two-year terms. The CL sponsored meetings around the city to educate voters, and the new charter, approved in July 1913, also included initiative, referendum, and recall, all popular Progressive reforms. In 1914, Cleveland’s became the first municipal home rule charter in Ohio. 14 The league proudly took credit: “Municipal Home Rule Is Citizens League Baby,” crowed the league’s history.15

In 1916, the CL became a forceful advocate for a city manager form of government. This appealed to the league and other Progressives because it placed important administrative responsibilities in the hands of an efficient nonpartisan expert instead of a partisan mayor likely to distribute jobs to his political cronies. Cleveland voters approved the city manager plan in 1921. In 1924, city council chose William R. Hopkins as city manager; he was replaced in 1930 by Daniel Morgan. In 1923, the city experimented with the first of five elections to city council by proportional representation, another structural reform that was supposed to make council more representative and less corrupt.

By the 1920s, Baker had parted ways with the CL, which in 1916 had recommended a “no” vote on a bond issue to support Baker’s signature achievement as mayor – a municipally owned light plant. A legacy from Johnson’s administration, the plant began operation in 1914. The league argued that since financial reports for 1915 and 1916 had not been made available, there was no way for a voter to know whether or not “the plant is a paying investment.”16 Baker, however, claimed that the public facility had expanded its customer base and saved Clevelanders money in its first years of operation.17

Moreover, according to Baker’s biographer, C.H. Cramer, Baker had come to believe that party responsibility, not nonpartisanship, was essential to good government. Consequently, he had little faith in proportional representation or the city manager form of government. “Baker was certain that it was personnel who were important, that good government came from good men rather than by experimentation in the forms of government.”18

Baker seemed to have won the argument, for neither the city manager nor proportional representation ended corruption. Republican boss Maurice Maschke and Democratic boss W. Burr Gongwer found other ways to divide up the city jobs,19 and it was business as usual at City Hall. In addition, proportional representation voting was complicated, and vote-tallying was confusing and time- consuming.

  1. 12  Cleveland Plain Dealer, January 21, 1912: 11.
  2. 13  75 Years of Doing Good, 12.
  3. 14  David D. Van Tassel and John J. Grabowski, eds., Encyclopedia of Cleveland History (Bloomington and London, Indiana University Press, 1996), 534-5.

15 16 17

75 Years of Doing Good, 11.
Cleveland Plain Dealer, October 26, 1916: 3. Van Tassel and Grabowski, 717.

18 C.H. Cramer, Newton D. Baker: A Biography (Cleveland and New York: World Publishing, 1961), 60-61. 19 Van Tassel and Grabowski, 801.


Cleveland politicians and voters were disgusted and dismayed, and the league had to fight off efforts in 1925, 1927, 1928, and 1929 to repeal one or both reforms. The economic and political disorder of the Depression was the last straw, and voters repealed both the city manager and proportional representation in 1931.20 Cleveland returned to a popularly elected mayor and ward-based voting.

The league had found an unlikely ally in its battle for city manager and proportional representation: the League of Women Voters (LWV). “Unlikely” because the Municipal Association, and then the Civic League, had expressed no interest in or support for woman suffrage although individual members like Baker, Howe, and Johnson counted themselves suffragists. In 1894, Ohio women had won the right to vote for and sit on school boards, and the association, and then the league, advised women what men to vote for but seldom recommended women for office. “The law enabling women to vote at school elections had for its purpose the introduction of a purifying element in the election of school officials,” the association reminded Cleveland women, urging them not to vote for a candidate “backed by the worst class of politicians … and professional ward workers.”21 In 1902, an angry woman protested that “the Municipal Association is a self-constituted, self-perpetuating body of men whose opinions do not count for any more than any other good citizen’s opinion.”22 Even though the CL did campaign for constitutional amendments such as home rule, it did not endorse the woman suffrage amendments on the Ohio ballot in 1914 and 1917. (Both amendments lost.) Although women were allowed to go to “splendid and enthusiastic” public meetings sponsored by the league, they were not permitted to attend the league’s annual meetings until spring 1920, as the 19th (Woman Suffrage) Amendment was on the verge of passage by the states.23 In 1923, the league rewrote its constitution, now encouraging “competent men and women [italics in the original] to stand for public office.”24

Despite this cavalier treatment, the LWV, founded in 1919 to persuade women to become educated voters, generally found itself on the same side of most issues with the Citizens League. One major difference: LWV never endorsed candidates.

During the first decades of the twentieth century, the farsighted CL championed many reforms later achieved: a smaller Cleveland City Council, voter registration, and lowering the voting age to 18. The league also lobbied the Ohio General Assembly for civil service laws for local, county, and state offices and protested an apportionment system that advantaged rural over urban counties.

Much of its success derived from its Governmental Research Institute, established in 1943. Its publications over the next five decades hammered home the league’s familiar structural reforms for the city and county. The institute’s financial support from local government, foundations, and individuals also raised crucial funds for the league. Publications included “Civil Service Personnel in the City of Cleveland” (1949), “Voting Machines for Cuyahoga County” (1948), “The Sewerage Problem in Cuyahoga County” (1952), “Of Time and Traffic and How to Move About More Easily in Cleveland” (1956) , and “Ohio’s Apportionment and Subdistricting” (1963).

The league’s “Analysis of the Cleveland Municipal Electric Light Plant” (1964) advised Mayor Ralph Locher that the plant was wasting tax payers’ money, that its rates to customers should be raised, and the money funneled into the city’s general fund. Locher argued, as had Baker and Johnson, that the public facility provided a necessary “yardstick” by which the rates of the Cleveland Electric Illuminating

20 Marian J. Morton, “It Was the Worst of Times, It Was the Worst of Times: Cleveland and the Great Depression,” was-the-worst-of-times-cleveland-and-the-great-depression-by-marian-morton

  1. 21  Cleveland Plain Dealer, March 24, 1900: 5.
  2. 22  Cleveland Plain Dealer, March 12, 1902: 2.
  3. 23  Cleveland Plain Dealer, April 12, 1920:13.
  4. 24  75 Years of Doing Good, 19.


could be measured. The league remained un-persuaded and urged the city to sell the public plant to the private utility.25

During the 1950s and 1960s, the institute did the research on city finances for Mayors Anthony Celebrezze, Locher, and Carl Stokes that underpinned their requests to the voters to raise city taxes. Its 1964 study of tax policies pointed out that Cleveland’s upper and middle classes had left the city, taking their tax dollars with them, leaving a population in need of greater services and a city with fewer funds to provide them. The study suggested an income tax on money earned in the city, regardless of where the taxpayer lived – that is, a regional income tax such as is now in place. Simultaneously, the institute suggested ways that the city might save money, becoming “a watchdog for economy,” according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer.26

In 1967, one-time league president and long-time supporter of its reforms, Seth Taft mounted an historic campaign for mayor of Cleveland. Republican Taft, grandson of U.S. President William Howard Taft, faced off against Democrat Carl Stokes, narrowly losing the race that made Stokes the first African American mayor of a large American city. Taft then served as Cuyahoga County Commissioner, 1971-1978, a reminder of the league’s still-viable political presence.

Both Democrats and Republicans valued CL endorsements because of its nonpartisan reputation and its large membership: it claimed 5,200 members in 1975.27 Dennis Kucinich, then a league member, got its recommendation in his 1967 run for councilman in Cleveland’s Ward 7 when he was still a 21- year-old student at Cleveland State University. When he was elected mayor, however, Kucinich, ran afoul of the league. In 1978, It again urged the sale of Cleveland’s Municipal Light Plant.28 Kucinich’s refusal to sell drove the city into default and nearly cost him a recall election.29 (The election had been made possible by the CL’s “baby,” home rule.)

Perhaps with Kucinich in mind, CL executive director Blair R. Kost later said, “You would have to hold your nose for some people we’ve preferred [the league did not use the term “endorse” although it was commonly understood that’s what “preferred” meant] … There are times when a candidate only
has a few qualifications but is the best in the race.” Regardless, the league’s “preferred candidates” won about 90 percent of the time.30

According to a poll done for the county Democratic Party, voters rated the league endorsement as the second most influential factor in picking the mayor. In 1989, the league broke an 80-year precedent and “preferred” County Commissioner Tim Hagan and City Council President George Forbes over several other candidates in the nonpartisan mayoral primary. One of the not-preferred candidates, then-State Senator Michael R. White, responded angrily: “It is a sad day in Cleveland that the Citizens League could endorse a political scoundrel like George Forbes. I’m sure the founders of the Citizens League are turning over in their graves.” White beat Hagan in the primary to run against – and beat- Forbes in the general election for mayor.31 At least in this case, the league endorsement had lost its influence.

The Research Institute continued to provide policy-makers with valuable data. As Cleveland attempted to repurpose itself as a “come-back city” and a tourist destination, the institute published “Public Opinion About Public Affairs in Greater Cleveland, 1988-1990:” Greater Clevelanders were optimistic about the city’s future, they liked the new downtown projects such as Tower City and Gateway, they believed that the city’s image was improving but realized that the city’s public schools

  1. 25  Cleveland Plain Dealer, September 30, 1964:7; November 12, 1964: 6.
  2. 26  75 Years of Doing Good, 30-31.
  3. 27  Cleveland Plain Dealer, June 20, 1956: 6.
  4. 28  Cleveland Plain Dealer, December 3, 1978:135.
  5. 29  For the decades-long, politically divisive conflict between Cleveland Electric Illuminating and the municipal light plant, first called Muny Light and now Cleveland Public Power, see Van Tassel and Grabowski, 717-719.
  1. 30  Plain Dealer, May 23, 1982: C1.
  2. 31  Plain Dealer, September 12, 1989: 1.


were a serious problem.32 The George Gund Foundation and the Cleveland Foundation funded the institute’s 1992 report and recommendations on the Cleveland public schools’ financial emergency. 33After a disastrous primary election in June 1992 that triggered investigations by the F.B.I. and the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor, among other agencies, the institute was asked to assess the county’s Board of Elections and make recommendations; the institute produced a bulletin, Reforming the Elections Process in Cuyahoga County (1992), that advocated hiring a director who would “run the office as a business and not as a patronage hiring hall for the local political parties.”34

The league’s most enduring battle was county-wide metropolitan government, or what the league initially called “county home rule” for Cuyahoga County, a restructuring to replace the hodge- podge of dozens of suburban governments, that fostered the league’s sworn enemies, inefficiency and corruption. “Cities, villages, and school districts have developed in great numbers about the rim of the larger cities until there is confusion of authority, absence of direct responsibility in administration and a great waste of public funds,” proclaimed its January 1917 Bulletin. “No Man Is An Island” became the League “clarion call.”35 Although the specific plans for county reorganization have varied, in general, the league has advocated the “consolidation of various jurisdictions into a scientifically managed regional government” that would be stronger, more efficient, cheaper, and free of corruption.36

The league failed to get the necessary county home rule amendment on the state-wide ballot in 1917, but undismayed, lobbied the Ohio General Assembly for an amendment in 1919, 1921, 1923, 1925, 1927, 1929, and 1931. In 1933, the league got the amendment on the ballot by petition, and the amendment was approved by voters in the fall. An elected commission drew up a charter approved by a county-wide majority in 1935. Fearing for their jobs, elected officials took the charter to the Ohio Supreme Court, which declared it unconstitutional because it had not received a majority in all the areas outside of the largest city and in a majority of the municipalities and townships.37 Votes on a charter commission failed in 1936 and 1941.

As suburban outmigration accelerated after World War II, however, the time seemed ripe for another effort. Voters approved a charter commission in 1949 but turned down the charter itself the next year, defeated, according to the league, by county officials, the mayor of Cleveland, and “provincial-minded suburbanites.”38 Throughout the 1950s, the league organized supporters, did studies, issued reports, and drew up its own version of a new simplified charter for county government. A more complicated charter was turned down by the voters in 1959.39 City voters were told that the new county government would raise their taxes; suburban voters feared loss of their autonomy. Efforts at reforming county government failed in 1969, 1970, and 1980. Cleveland’s ethnic and racial groups feared they would lose hard-won political power.40 In the meantime, however, there was movement toward centralization as Cleveland turned over its hospitals to the MetroHealth System, its zoo to the MetroParks and its transit and sewer systems to regional authorities.

In 2002, Brent Larkin, Plain Dealer editorial director, celebrated the league’s achievements: “It brought home rule to Ohio, successfully championed one-man one-vote apportionment, fought for open government, secured election law reform and was the first group to call for reduction of the size of

32 Citizens League Research Institute, Public Opinion About Public Affairs in Greater Cleveland, 1988- 1990,(Cleveland: Citizens League of Greater Cleveland, October 1990), 1.
33 Citizens League Research Institute, Responding to the Cleveland Public Schools Financial Emergency: A Report to the Cleveland Board of Education and Superintendent” (Cleveland: Citizens League of Greater Cleveland, June 1992).

  1. 34  Plain Dealer, January 5:1993:6B.
  2. 35  75 Years of Doing Good, 19.
  3. 36  Van Tassell and Grabowski, 850-852.
  4. 37  75 Years of Doing Good, 20.
  5. 38  75 Years of Doing Good, 20
  6. 39  75 Years of Doing Good, 20
  7. 40  Van Tassell and Grabowski, 850-852.


Cleveland City Council from 33 to 21 members.” But he also lamented its diminishing influence and ailing finances as its research institute competed less successfully for funds with local universities. The league’s acting executive director conceded, ‘We need to have a better idea of what we want to be.” Larkin advised the league to find a “charismatic” leader and a “compelling cause.”41

Instead, the CL in 2004 made still another stab at reforming county government, allied this time with the county Republican Party. The newest plan called for replacing the three county commissioners with a county executive and an 11-member council. The alliance failed to collect enough valid signatures to put the issue on the ballot, local business leaders withdrew their support, and the drive collapsed. So did the Citizens League; it had failed to pay its executive director for months.

In July 2008, FBI raids on the Cuyahoga County Administration Building, the homes of public officials, and the offices of private companies uncovered the most corrupt administration in the county’s history. The scandal spread outward into suburbs, courts, school systems, the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority, and MetroHealth Hospital. Although dozens of smaller fish got caught in the federal net, the real targets were top county officials: County Commissioner Jimmy Dimora (Public Official 1) and County Auditor Frank Russo (Public Official 2), both also powers in the county Democratic Party. Both subsequently went to jail.

After months of subpoenas, arrests, trials, and imprisonments, disgusted voters in November 2009 did approve a new county government with a chief executive and 11 elected representatives, similar to league’s latest plan. And although defunct, or at least dormant, during this period of county crisis, the CL, the self-styled “scourge of corrupt and efficient politicians,” might have claimed a hollow victory in having said – for decades – “We told you so.” More positively, when Cuyahoga County government was re-constructed, the league might have taken credit for its decades of laying the groundwork for change.

In spring 2010, even as the wide-spread corruption continued to make headlines and the new county government took shape, the Citizens League of Greater Cleveland was reborn: new leadership, same goals – “integrity and efficiency” – achieved the same way: candidate evaluation and structural reform. 42

Talk of the kind of structural reforms that the CL has long urged – eliminating the duplication of public services and governmental entities – is still in the air. Its advocates now call it regionalism and point out that it would be efficient and save money. This is the argument used by the CL for decades, and should be an appealing one, since in 2014, Cleveland and the county’s suburbs and cities are strapped for funds, thanks to the collapse of property values in the recession of 2008 and a General Assembly in Columbus that is reluctant to share public funds. But as Joe Frolik has pointed out, the league’s proudest creation, the home rule amendment that gives autonomy to Ohio cities, towns, and suburbs, is the mightiest obstacle to regional government, the league’s most cherished cause. 43 And as it has for decades, voters’ deep loyalty to place or political position may well count for more than promises of a more efficient, less expensive government.

41 Plain Dealer, August 4:2002: 4.


Social Reform and Philanthropic Order

“Social Reform and Philanthropic Order in Cleveland 1896-1920”

Superb article written by Dr. John Grabowski for Ohio’s Western Reserve: a regional reader By Harry Forrest Lupold

Comparison of Hiram House, Goodrich Settlement and Alta House Settlements.

The link is here

The most important and effective manifestation of the social gospel movement in the United States and in Cleveland was the social settlement house. The settlement served as the primary instrument for the advocacy of social reform measures during the Progressive Era. Settlements have been aptly characterized as “spearheads for reform:’ although settlement work did not involve benevolence or charity, per se. Rather than attempting to ameliorate social problems by the provision of material aid, the settlements sought to cure these problems by eliminating their causes. The basic premise of the settlement movement was the actual residence of well-educated settlement workers within depressed areas of the city. By sharing the living conditions of the urban poor, the workers would learn the roots of urban problems. Using their own knowledge and skills, these individuals hoped to eradicate the problems at their sources and to educate the neighborhood residents so that they might overcome their condition. The desire to create an urban village lay at the heart of many settlement efforts. Those involved in the settlement movement believed that urban neighborhoods could overcome their problems if they established the network of mutual aid and sharing considered to typify small-town life.

The movement which began in England quickly spread to the United States. By 1900 there were nearly one hundred settlement houses in the nation, five of which were located in Cleveland. Four of these early enterprises, Hiram House, Goodrich House, Alta House, and the Council Educational Alliance, have left behind them substantial information concerning their origins, supporters, personnel, and policies. This information makes possible a survey of their divergent, yet similar characteristics.

Hiram House, established in July 1896, is generally considered to have been the first true social settlement in Cleveland. The idea for the settlement originated in a YMCA study class at Hiram College in Hiram, Ohio. Affiliated with the Disciples of Christ Church, the college attracted students with both religious and academic interests. The class chose to study the social settlement movement and, encouraged by lectures from luminaries such as Graham Taylor, founder of the Chicago Commons Settlement, decided to examine the possibility of starting a settlement house in Cleveland, some fifty miles to the north. A visit to the city convinced the students, most of whom were from small towns, that such work would be needed : “We went to Whiskey Isle; there we found saloons, prostitution, open sewers, and all in all everything was not very good. We went back to Hiram College with the report that Cleveland needed a settlement very bad.”


Seven members of that class began actual settlement work following graduation in June 1896. They took up residence in a rented house in the Irish quarter near Whiskey Island on the City’s West Side. They began kindergarten classes and started planning for educational classes directed toward all age levels in the neighborhood. Pamphlets issued by the students while at this location emphasized the Christian, social gospel basis of the work and clearly outlined their idealistic goals. The hope of Hiram House, they said, “is to become part of the life of its own ward becoming so by personal helpfulness. In helping the masses, its wish is to help remove the cause of distress, further than this we do not commit ourselves to any social program regarding the vexed industrial and economic problems of the day.” Other early publications solicited support from the general public for the work in the name of Christ.


Protestant Christianity could not long prosper in an Irish Catholic neighborhood. By the autumn of 1896 pressure from local priests forced the settlement to relocate. It moved to the Haymarket district on the East Side. This was the center of the city’s Jewish community, and despite some early protests by the residents of the area the settlement managed to take root. Its initial locations in this area, a series of rented houses along Orange Avenue, provided Hiram House with enough space to continue and expand its programs. The workers again began a kindergarten to which they added a day nursery, high school classes for older youths, debating clubs, excursions to parks, and a summer camp. Most of these programs were directed toward educating the people of the neighborhood and providing them with the intellectual means to rise above their environment. Other programs, such as camping and excursions, were attempts to physically remove people, especially children, from the crowded conditions and debilitating atmosphere of the inner city.


The staff carried on its work without substantive support from any single institution. Hiram College provided its good wishes and a continuous flow of student volunteers, but no financial support. Funds came primarily from collections taken up in rural churches by one of the original student volunteers, George Bellamy. Initially financial solicitor for the settlement, Bellamy assumed control of all work in 1897 and retained it until his retirement in 1946.


Bellamy came from a religious family of moderate means. He was born in Cascade, Michigan, in 1872, descended on his mother’s side from colonists who had arrived in 1620. Several relatives were active in the Disciples of Christ Church, and his older brother, William, a Hiram graduate, served as a minister for that denomination. Bellamy followed his brother into the ministerial course at Hiram, earning all of his college expenses through summer jobs and part-time employment during the school year. His interest in social settlement work was sparked in 1895 by a chance meeting with Graham Taylor while at a Chautauqua lecture. Years later he would credit his conversion to the social gospel to a vision he had had in church while still a youth.

Bellamy’s convictions were tested to the limit during his first several years at the settlement. He worked without pay, having given his savings to the settlement. He was often rebuffed when he attempted to solicit funds from the major churches in Cleveland because the enterprise he represented was viewed as socialistic. One church official told Bellamy, “You ought to be ostracized from [for) living among such people. God never intended to save such people. You should shove them off in a comer and let them be there and rot.” Fund-raising was successful only among small Disciples congregations in the rural towns surrounding the city. They contributed money as well as flowers for distribution in the bleak city neighborhood.

Despite the youthful dedication and idealism committed to the settlement, Hiram House prospered only after Bellamy found a substantial secular source of funds. A meeting in 1898 with a prominent jurist and member of the Disciples of Christ Church, Henry White, paved the way for this change. White contributed money, but more importantly, he formed an executive committee to oversee the affairs of Hiram House. By 1900 the committee had evolved into a board of trustees that consisted primarily of prominent businessmen, most of whom were important enough to be listed in the city’s Blue Book. The board of trustees served to legitimize Hiram House as an institution worthy of support. Within two years it solicited sufficient funds, including substantial donations from John D. Rockefeller and Samuel Mather, to build and equip a four-story structure for the settlement at East Twenty-seventh Street and Orange Avenue. The guarantee of support allowed Hiram House’s budget to grow from $2,210.31 in 1898 to $6,860.00 in 1900, to $12,745.60 in 1905, and to $20,614.10 in 1910. More importantly, Samuel Mather, perhaps the city’s richest citizen, became a member of the board during this period and took an unflagging interest in the work of the settlement.

Having such wherewithal, Bellamy was able to expand programs and activities which he believed would eliminate the problems plaguing his neighborhood. A new publication, Hiram House Life, initially offered a forum for studies of local problems. A playground constructed at the rear of the settlement building provided much-needed open space for the neighborhood. The ample structure had rooms which were used by clubs and classes as well as by other organizations, such as the Visiting Nurse Association and a branch of the Cleveland Public Library. New staff, including a playground director, a director of boys’ work, and a neighborhood visitor, Similarly extended the settlement’s work and its utility. By World War I, Hiram House provided play areas for children, meeting rooms for clubs (mainly for children), weekly entertainments, a gymnasium, and vocational education and homemaking classes within its facilities, as well as headquarters for nurses and workers who visited the sick and needy in its surrounding neighborhood.

The ethnic background of Hiram House’s clientele was changing, too, during this time. As the Jewish immigrant population prospered and moved out of the Haymarket district, Italian immigrants began moving in, beginning about 1905. They, in tum, were eventually replaced by southern blacks, who began moving to Cleveland in large numbers during the First World War.

Relieved by the successful efforts of his board of trustees from the constant task of soliciting funds, Bellamy became involved in various nonsettlement activities directed toward social reform. For example, he made some effort to rid the neighborhood of Harry Bernstein, its corrupt ward boss. He also became an active member of the Cleveland Council of Sociology, an organization comprised of clerics, charity workers, and others, which was devoted to the discussion of the social issues of the day. He served on two committees of the chamber of commerce, both of which were dedicated to the elimination of particular social ills: the chamber’s Bath House Committee of 1901 studied the lack of bathing facilities in the inner city and successfully implemented a program for the construction of bathhouses; and its Committee on the Housing Problem of 1903-4 surveyed housing condition s in the city and made recommendations for a revision of the city’s housing code.

As late as 1905, Bellamy also remained active in the Disciples of Christ Church. He used a speech at a church convention that year to set forth his strong social gospel idealism and to decry the criticism of reform-minded clerics by the church establishment: “The representatives of the most advanced religious thought, no matter how God-fearing or how conscientious, have by no means passed the period of church discipline or rebuke. This lack of freedom in religious thought and study has hindered a wholesome, righteous growth of religious understanding.

The growth of Hiram House had consequences for both Bellamy’s social thought and the institution itself. As it grew, Hiram House drifted away from the concept of “personal helpfulness.” Certainly neighborhood residents could meet and work with staff members, but these workers were much less neighbors in themselves. They were professional employees who answered to the demands of an institutional bureaucracy. As early as 1902, Hiram House had eleven different departments directed largely by paid staff rather than by student volunteers. These employees reported to George Bellamy. By 1910 Bellamy was an administrator of an institution removed, for the most part, from close contact with its clientele. As an administrator responsible to a board of trustees, he had to ensure that his operation ran smoothly and that its backers were pleased with both its progress and programs. To these ends he devised settlement programs which were popular, and he personally abstained from causes or issues which might irritate his supporters. Popular programs drew large numbers of people to the settlement and thus seemed to prove its worth to its patrons. Therefore, by World War I, Hiram House had come to concentrate on recreational programs which would appeal to the children in the neighborhood. It tended to avoid programs which were educational or which were directed at adult immigrants, as the former would be unpopular and the latter dealt with a clientele which was difficult to attract in large numbers.

While Hiram House would come to be characterized as one of the city’s most conservative settlement houses, Goodrich House, the second settlement in the city, was perhaps its most liberal. This social settlement evolved from a series of boys’ clubs and classes held in Cleveland’s First Presbyterian (Old Stone) Church in the mid-1890s. Located on Public Square, the church had one of the city’s oldest and most prestigious congregations. The classes and clubs, which attracted children from the congested, run- down neighborhood to the north of the church, were directed by Elizabeth and Edward W. Haines, Elizabeth being the daughter of the church’s pastor, Dr. Hiram C. Haydn.

As the work seemed to fill a major need in the neighborhood, the church began planning its expansion. Central to this planning was Flora Stone Mather, a member of the church, the wife of Samuel Mather, and the daughter of Amasa Stone, railroad builder and industrialist and one of the city’s most influential men in the immediate post-Civil War period. Wealthy in her own right, Flora Stone’s marriage to Samuel Mather allowed her to become the benefactor of a variety of charitable and educational agencies. Goodrich, however, was her most important charitable interest. Upon her death in 1909, her husband noted, “There was nothing she ever did in which she was more interested than Goodrich House.

Originally, Flora Mather proposed that she would construct a parish house in which the church could undertake neighborhood work. However, the lack of land immediately adjacent to the church and a feeling that the scope of such work might soon overwhelm the church led to a reconsideration. Since 1893, Mather had carried on a correspondence with Professor Henry E. Bourne of Western Reserve University in which they discussed social settlement work. Bourne apparently used this correspondence to assist her in understanding settlement work. She had probably first learned of settlement work through a friend, Lucy B. Buell, a former resident of the College Settlement in New York. The physical problems of constructing a parish house and her correspondence with Bourne led Mather to propose the construction of a fully equipped settlement in the general neighborhood of the church. When Goodrich House finally began work in May 1897, it operated out of a new building constructed expressly for it at St. Clair and East Sixth Street. Flora Mather had paid for the structure and for a number of years thereafter underwrote the cost of the settlement’s operations.

The programs in the new building were supervised by Starr Cadwallader. Cadwallader, a graduate of Union Theological Seminary in Utica, New York, had worked briefly at Union Settlement before coming to Cleveland. During his five-year tenure at Goodrich House, he directed the agency in many of the standard areas of settlement work. The structure housed a bowling alley, baths, laundry, library, and meeting rooms which were made available to neighborhood residents and to a variety of clubs and social groups. Cadwallader and his staff also attempted to improve neighborhood conditions by lobbying for cleaner streets and encouraging area residents to plant home gardens.

However, quite unlike Hiram House, Goodrich House became known as a public forum for the discussion of social reform issues; records indicate, for example, that a young socialist club met at the facilities. Some of the meetings held at Goodrich House led to the creation of such reform-oriented groups as the Consumers’ League of Ohio, and the Legal Aid Society, as well as the creation of a separate, rural boys’ farm for housing juvenile offenders. Among the settlement residents who took part in such discussions were Frederick C. Howe and Newton D. Baker, both of whom left the settlement for positions in Tom L. Johnson’s mayoral administration.

Goodrich had a board of directors as soon as it had a building. Composed largely of people affiliated with the First Presbyterian Church and their friends, this body did little, if anything, to challenge the somewhat radical events at the settlement. Dr. Haydn presided over the first board, which included Flora and Samuel Mather, Elizabeth and Edward Haines, Professor Bourne, and Lucy Buell. By 1905, Cadwallader, Howe, and Baker, all of whom had left the employ of the settlement, had joined the board. James R. Garfield, son of President Garfield and law partner of Howe, also served on the board during the early years of the settlement.

The tightly knit nature of this board and its ties to the church rather than to business, were probably two factors which allowed Goodrich to pursue a more radical course than Hiram House. That the settlement existed because of Flora Mather’s largess is, however, a more important factor. Whereas Bellamy had a number of donors to please, Cadwallader had only Mrs. Mather and his rather small board to consider when directing the settlement. Then, too, Hiram House was Bellamy’s creation ; its failure would be his failure. Cadwallader could, and did, walk away from Goodrich whenever he pleased. In his case, the social goals he wished to achieve took precedence over loyalty to any particular institution.

Goodrich was an institution from the first day it opened its doors. Its funding, operations, and physical structure grew simultaneously. As such it proved to be both sound and remarkably flexible. When the population of its neighborhood began to decline around 1908, it was easily able to move its operations to a new location at East Thirty-first Street and St. Clair, some twenty-four blocks to the east. Mather had expressly provided for such a contingency when she deeded the settlement to its board:

“I desire the house to be used for a Christian Social Settlement so long as, in the judgement of the trustees, that is a useful and needful work in the neighborhood; but if ever in their judgment there was a time when to continue such work, there would be a waste of energy the trustees may dispose of the property. If it should be deemed wise by the trustees to discontinue the work there I wish them to use the funds, including the proceeds of any sale of the house, to carry on the work in some other downtown locality.”

Though the liberal nature of Goodrich could not be written into its articles of incorporation, it nevertheless seemed to be an integral part of the settlement. Cadwallader’s work seems to have set the liberal tone for the settlement. There after it would tend to attract new headworkers of a similar mien. Five headwork ers followed in rather quick succession when Cadwallader left Goodrich in 1904. The rapid turnover ended in 1917 when Alice Gannett, formerly of Henry Street Settlement in New York, took the position and held it until 1947. Gannett continued to strengthen Goodrich’s liberal reputation. During her career she served as president of the Ohio Consumers’ League and the National Federation of Settlements, and was active in the League for Human Rights.

Alta House, which began settlement work in Cleveland’s Little Italy district in 1900, provided yet another example of the diversity of the settlement and reform impulse in Cleveland. Sequestered in a compact ethnic neighborhood, it exhibited none of the neighborhood activism which characterized the very early years of Hiram House nor the liberal leanings characteristic of Goodrich and its staff. Nor was Alta the creation of youthful idealism or a church. Alta House reflected the expressed needs of the neighborhood as acted upon by social gospel idealism. Mothers in the Little Italy district attempted to establish a day nursery in the mid-1890s. Many of them worked in the vineyards in the east of the city and needed day care for their children. They appealed to the Cleveland Day Nursery Association for help. Louise (Mrs. Marius E.) Rawson of the association directed its efforts to assist the Italian mothers. Rawson, a New England-born school teacher, began the nursery in a small cottage, which the work soon outgrew. Relocated in a larger structure, the nursery expanded to Include boys’ clubs, mothers’ clubs, and cooking classes, and again strained the capacity of its quarters. At this point, Rawson began to search tor funding to provide a permanent, larger building for the work. She approached John D. Rockefeller for that aid.


Rockefeller was a natural choice. He was wealthy and a devoutly religious man. As such, he made his money available to a number of worthy causes in and outside of Cleveland-whether his philanthropy signified a social gospel-like desire to help his fellow men or followed the tradition of benevolence by the wealthy cannot be stated with any certainty. Most important in Rawson’s plans was the fact that Rockefeller, when in Cleveland, daily traveled through the Italian district on his way to and from his estate in Forest Hills.


Rockefeller proved amenable to assisting the undertaking. In 1898 he agreed to build a structure for the work being carried on by Rawson. During the discussion and construction phases, the work projected for the new building grew well beyond the confines of a nursery and evolved into a settlement. Rockefeller’s hopes for the settlement were in the best tradition of the social gospel movement. He expressed them in a letter he sent to the dedication ceremony for the building in 1900: “May the spirit of the Christ Child dwell Within this house, built primarily for the children, and may that same spirit of love go out with each one who passes through its doors and be broadly disseminated In the surrounding homes.”


While Rockefeller’s letter spelled out the Christian foundations of the endeavor, a second letter from his daughter, Alta Rockefeller Prentice (after whom the settlement was named), explicitly stated its purpose: 

“The work for which it stands, namely that of helping to educate your children mentally, morally, and physically, and through them aiding in every effort to elevate and purify home life and the life of the neighborhood is very dear to me.”


Katherine E. Smith, formerly of the Rivington Street Settlement in New York, came to Cleveland to head the work at Alta House. Work in the new structure focused primarily on child-oriented activities. It included a day nursery, a kindergarten, boys’ clubs, girls’ classes in sewing, millinery, and cooking, a school for eighteen crippled children, and a gymnasium. In addition, a medical dispensary, a resident visiting nurse, public baths, a public laundry, and a playground were provided.

Smith answered to a board of trustees which included J. G. W. Cowles, a real estate dealer who lived in the Heights area just above the settlement; Paul L. Feiss, one of the officers of the Joseph and Feiss clothing company; John D. Rockefeller, Jr.; Alta Rockefeller Prentice; Professor Matoon M. Curtis of neighboring Western Reserve University; Belle Sherwin, daughter of a prominent family and a leading figure in various reform movements; Maude O. (Mrs. William) Truesdale, the wife of an assistant professor at Western Reserve University; and Louise Rawson. The board certainly did not represent the religious element, nor, excepting the Rockefeller contingent, did it lean particularly on the wealthiest families of the city. The presence of Rawson and Truesdale, neither of whom represented money or social status, was unusual, but was an acknowledgment of the Day Nursery Association’s role in the creation of Alta House, as well as of Truesdale’s strong educational programming.

Alta House had no need to combat social evils such as poor housing, overcrowding, or open sewers. The housing stock of the neighborhood was largely new, having been erected by the Italian immigrants during the last decades of the nineteenth century. It was almost a rural area, five miles from the center of the city. Its only industries were a street car carbarn and the monument works of Joseph Carabelli. The settlement’s task, therefore, naturally centered on the social, academic, civic, and sanitation education of the immigrants. Smith may have chafed at these apparently pedestrian duties. Her first annual report, for example, indicated an interest in starting a social reform club for young boys. The record does not indicate if she accomplished this. However, classes in English, sewing, cooking, and hygiene, as well as physical education programs, were still strong, if indirect, means of social reform, for they seemed to guarantee the training of useful, healthy future citizens who would be assets to the community.

The Rockefeller family continued to support Alta House until 1921, at which time John D. Rockefeller, Jr., asked to be relieved of its annual costs. Because of the long-term interest of the Rockefellers and the insular nature of the Little Italy neighborhood, Alta House was quite dissimilar from either Hiram House or Goodrich House. Yet it still shared the Christian seed of these organizations as well as their dedication to social reform in one guise or another.


Journalism in Northeast Ohio aggregation

1 “Hard Copy in Cleveland” An Overview of Cleveland Journalism Since 1818 by John Vacha
2 “Cleveland’s Daily News Dilemma” Cleveland City Club 9.13.13
3 Communications/Media/Journalism Links from Encyclopedia of Cleveland
4 Teaching Cleveland Journalism Hall of Fame
5 The Plain Dealer from Cleveland Historical

Plain Dealer 100th Anniversary book published in 1942 and written by Archer H. Shaw

Plain Dealer is celebrating 175 years of covering Cleveland’s news-Special section 1/8/17