Like anywhere else in the world, the business landscape of the Mahoning Valley started small. People moved to the area, set up companies – often with the help of their families – to serve the needs of their community. Over time, those family businesses grew bigger and bigger, leaving an imprint on the Mahoning Valley and on our collective memories.
While some of the names most synonymous with the area are tied to the steel industry – the Tods, the Wicks and others – it was their predecessors in the iron industry that became some of the first big names in family business around the turn of the 20th century.
“Looking at our own history, the early iron industry was mostly proprietorships of the mills and mining operations. You have names like Cartwright McCurdy & Co. and the Andrews & Hitchcock Iron Co. – the shareholders were family members and their extended families,” says Bill Lawson, executive director of the Mahoning Valley Historical Society.
As the mill industry developed and evolved from iron to steel, waves of migrants came to the region seeking work. Immigrants traditionally settled in neighborhoods surrounded by those from their homeland and it was in these communities that many family businesses got their starts.
“Within all the square miles of the city of Youngstown, you had enclaves because it was easier for people to live and adjust to their new society and find work and spend time with people who had a common language and culture,” Lawson says. “People formed these subcommunities to help each other and that extended out to businesses like the corner grocery, the gas station, the repair shop, the hardware store, the roofer, the plumber. They all worked within their own enclave and within their own tribe, so to speak. It made it easier to get by.”
After World War II, as the area’s population surged and expanded outward and toward the suburbs, many of those connections to a family’s original neighborhood remained, Lawson says.
As companies moved, expanded, shrank or changed leadership, ties stayed steadfast. It wasn’t unheard of for multiple generations of the same family to work at the same steel mill or, later, at General Motors.
“There’s pride in a company name. … There was an identity in that,” Lawson says. “Handel’s started out as a family business; it passed from the Handel family to the Fisher family and it’s now nationwide. We identify with that, just as we identified with Isaly’s even though Youngstown was their second market, behind Pittsburgh. When the Isalys moved into a new market, they sent part of the ‘family’ there to run it. That identity moved as the company grew.”