Thursday, August 21, 2014

A Community Built from Steel: The Legacy of Frank and Julia Buhl

The Shenango Valley sits on the western edge of Pennsylvania, where the Shenango River flows southward toward the Ohio.   It includes 8 communities in Pennsylvania and, on the valley’s western heights, in Ohio.  Nestled in the river valley is the city of Sharon. At the top of the east hill is Hermitage.  When I was a boy, it was just Hickory Township.   In those days, the real economic center of the region was the Valley.  Sharon sat on either side of the river, while up and down the river were the steel mills, the fabricating plants, Westinghouse, a railroad tank care manufacturing center, and other industries.  Sharon was a mill town.  At one time it was a major steel producing area, based on the easy availability of a fuel that left no residue.  Today, much of that is gone, but there remains a powerful and positive legacy of a family who, at the height of the industrial revolution, ran the mills and, in their later years, contributed greatly to the quality of life in the community.   As a youngster, I took their gifts for granted.  Today, I am amazed.  Decades after the Shenango Valley became part of the rust belt, its residents continue to benefit from gifts to the community provided by the Buhl family as these communities seek a new role in a new age.  This is the story of their legacy.
The Buhl Family
Frank Buhl was the grandson of immigrants.  His grandfather, Christian Buhl, was a hat maker who emigrated from Bavaria in 1804 and settled in Zelionople in Butler County.  Frank’s father, Christian H. Buhl, was born in Butler in 1812 and learned the hatter’s trade.  With his brother, Fred, he moved to the Detroit area where they ran a successful fur trading company.  In 1855, Christian H. left the fur trade and became an industrialist, developing connections with a variety of banks, railroads, and several ironworks.  He served as Mayor of Detroit from 1860-61.  
            In 1862, Christian H. turned his attention to the Shenango Valley.   From the beginning, the Valley was attractive to iron makers.  It was one of a very few sources of “block coal”—a kind of coal that contained no sulfur and burned without leaving behind ashes (Mercer County, p. 71).  As early as 1850, Joel Curtis, a local coal mine operator, decided to take the next step and use some of his coal to smelt iron.  Curtis established the Sharon Iron Company, which occupied several blocks along the flats on the east side of the Shenango River.  The company included a coal railroad, two mines, and ten industrial buildings, including a furnace and rolling mill.  It also owned several company houses for employees.  Christian H. Buhl invested in the plant in 1865.  
            FrankH. Buhl was born in Detroit in 1848.  After graduating from Yale University, he moved to Sharon in 1867 to work for the Sharon Iron Company.   He later became plant manager and then superintendent.   He left the area in 1878 to take charge of his father’s copper and brass rolling mill in Detroit, returning to Sharon in 1887 to oversee operations at the Sharon plant.  By 1888, it was the largest plant in Mercer County, employing 700 workers .  Frank Buhl went on to acquire and lead other mills in the region, including the Sharon Steel Castings Company, the first steel manufacturing facility in the Valley and in Mercer County.  He also owned and operated several coal mines in the region.  
            Shortly after returning to Sharon, Buhl met and married Julia A. Forker.  Julia was born in Mercer.  Her parents, Henry and Selina Forker, brought her to Sharon as a young child.  Her father, a coal mine owner, died in a railroad accident in 1885.  The couple built a stone mansion on Sharon’s east hill, within easy walking distance of downtown Sharon.  The mansion remains today, restored and operating as a bed and breakfast.  The Buhls lived in Sharon for the remainder of their lives, where they were actively involved in the social life of the community. Frank died in 1918; Julia survived until 1936.
Commitment to Community
The Buhls were childless and, after Buhl sold his operations in the early 1900s, they devoted the rest of their lives to community service.  For example, they continued funding for the Christian H. Buhl Hospital—forerunner of today’s Sharon Regional Hospital—that Frank’s father had helped to get started.  One of their first investments was in the Buhl Independent Rifles (BIR), an independent military and civic organization that had grown out of a national call for volunteers during Spanish-American War.  Buhl made the first donation to the BIR and was a frequent contributor; he also loaned BIR funds (later cancelling the loan) to build an armory that housed the weekly BIR drills and a wide range of social and civic events, annual banquets, dances, and meetings.  In turn, the BIR supported other organizations, including the local chapter of the Sunshine Society and a community basketball team (Mercer County, p. 183).
The F.H. Buhl Club
            In 1901, the Buhls began work on the F.H. Buhl Club, setting aside funds for:
The maintenance of a club for social enjoyment by means of games, such as billiards, pool, bowling, checkers, chess or other innocent amusements, including also facilities for gymnastics exercises, swimming, and other athletic sports; the maintenance of a library and reading room for the use of its members and the encouragement of education; and the erection, furnishing and equipment of a building for the use of said club, with a hall for public and private purposes. (Buhlbullet

A new building was constructed on East State Street, a short walk from the Buhl mansion, to house the club.  It was completed in 1903.  The ground floor included bowling alleys, a small auditorium, locker and shower rooms, and general rooms; the second floor included offices, the library stacks, a reading and reference rooms, as well as a billiard room and gym.  A music room and several meeting and classrooms were on the third floor.  
            The library faced State Street and featured marble floors and a two-story semi-circular stacks for books with hardwood shelves, a large reading/reference room, and a children’s library.  Initially, the library was available only to Buhl Club members, but in the 1920s, voters approved a levy to support the library, which became the Sharon Free Public Library in 1923.   It attracted nearly 2,000 members in the first year and continued to grow, expanding children’s branches to five local elementary schools.  By the late 1960s, the library was over-crowded, forcing a move to a new facility a block away from its original Buhl Club home.
Julia Buhl and the Buhl Girls Club
            After Frank Buhl died in 1918, Julia continued his community service work.  One of her many projects was the Mercer County branch of the International Sunshine Society.  This group supported under-privileged children, arranging summer vacations on local farm and providing medical and dental care, eyeglasses, shoes and clothing, and hot lunches for school children.   In the 1930s, she remodeled the Boys’ Club, and, in 1936, expanded the club’s basic mission by opening a girls’ club on the site of the old Buhl Independent Rifles Armory.   Memberships were given to female students who maintained good grades in school.  Over the years, it served as a recreation center for girls and as a venue for dances and other social events.  The Club continued operations until 1987, when its services were consolidated with the F.H. Buhl Club. 
Buhl Community Recreation Center
            Today, the Buhl Community Recreation Centeroperates out of the original F.H. Buhl building on East State Street.    Recent youth programs included academic tutoring, piano, guitar, and voice lessons, and instruction on crocheting and German.  A mother/child “Fun Time Gym” program focuses on developing gross motor skills, while a “Prince Party” introduced young girls to ballet and the social graces.   Dance classes were offered for pre-school youngsters through teenagers.  Youth gymnastics training was offered for beginner through advanced.  Adult programs included yoga, volleyball, guitar, painting, voice, crocheting, sewing, piano, and German.  In addition, members and guests have access to an indoor swimming pool and handball and racquetball courts, ping pong, pool, air hockey and other games.  A new service introduced in 2013 was a Building Blocks Child Center in the site of the original Children’s Library.  In addition, the Center hosted an arts and crafts show and a community sing.
            A focal point for many Center fitness programs is the Henry and Catherine EvansFitness Center.  Recently, Fitness Center has been enhanced with the addition of $100,000 in new cardio and strength training equipment.  
            The vision of the Center is  to provide individuals & families a positive, accepting environment, enabling them to achieve excellence in their leisure, education, physical fitness & life.”  Center Director Tony Rogers notes, “There’s hardly a person here who won’t tell you how being a member has changed his life, who found a mentor or got advice, who was touched in a positive way.” 

In 1907, Buhl began to acquire land in Hickory Township (now Hermitage, Pa.), bordering Sharon, for the purpose of creating a park “for the benefit and enjoyment of the public.”   By 1911, he had acquired 300 acres, which he began to develop.  The “Buhl Farm” (a term he used to avoid confusion with an amusement park) initially included four miles of roadways, seven wells for drinking water, an 11-acre artificial lake (today called Lake Julia) and a lakeside building—the Casino—that was used by swimmers and for dances and other social events.  
            Buhl Farm opened in 1914, with the goal, according to Frank Buhl, that it be “used as a playground and a place of cultural enhancement for the public in general and especially the residents of the community."   It included a picnic grove with a shelter building.  There were also tennis courts, an athletic field with seating for 1,000 spectators, a children’s playground and a golf course.  For many years, Lake Julia was a popular ice skating site in winter months; a professional ice skating rink was creating when the Lake no longer was appropriate.  Lake Julia was recently re-dredged and re-opened.
            Over the years, other features were added to Buhl Farm, including a swimming pool and pool house adjacent to the Casino, a Farm House that today is the home of the Avalon Golf and Country Club, an Activities Building housing child care and a Summer Youth Program, a memorial garden in memory of Julia Buhl, a baseball field, a driving range, a fitness trail, and a gazebo.  In 2001, an arboretum project was begun that today features more than six hundred trees.
            The park itself is free and open to the public.  Anyone can use it for jogging picnics, playing tennis or using the other facilities.  The swimming pool has a small fee, but it is kept low.  The park is a popular site for family and school reunions, wedding receptions, and other events.
            An important part of the original park was a free nine-hole golf course—still the only free golf course in the United States.   Called “Dum Dum” by locals, the free course has several simple rules that reflect Buhl’s commitment to free public access:
·      Each golfer must have a bag, a minimum of four clubs, and a putter.
·      No children under seven are permitted on the course.
·      Children aged seven to eleven are permitted to play if they are accompanied by an adult and have completed a formal golf instruction course.
·      Shirts are required; “short-shorts” are not permitted.
·      No alcoholic beverages are permitted.
·      Play is limited to groups of four members or fewer.
            Dum Dum introduced many Valley youngsters to the game of golf.  Joe Thiel, owner of Joe Thiel Golf Schools, wrote in 2008
“ . . . like most children growing up in our blue collar city I could not afford the expensive game of golf, but through Mr. Buhl’s generous gift this 9-hole course was free for all youngsters like me as it still is today, and I wore out my welcome.  With old Sam Sneed signature hand-me-down gold clubs, I would be there from 5:30 am in the morning when the sun was just perfect on summer days and did not return until the church bills rang at their 5:30 daily time.  From the time I was 10 years old I knew . . . that I would at all costs become a gold professional.”

            “We have been blessed with an asset that very few Communities will ever have,” observed Buhl Park Corporation President Phil Marrie in a December 2013 Facebook message.  He noted some of the many services that the Park provides to the Shenango Valley community today: 
Free public concerts during the summers that brings the residents of the Communities together to appreciate what was given to us and to enjoy relationships that we have developed over the years. A swimming pool that is operated to allow all residents of the Shenango Valley have a community pool that benefits all. A fantastic place to walk and run and be with friends and enjoy the beauty of the Farm. Many activities that allow our youth to understand environmental needs....Fishing in Lake Julia.....Programs during the year to teach students of the Valley, about the environment.
            It was not unusual for companies to provide recreational facilities to their workers in the heady days of the Industrial Revolution.  In the Shenango Valley, for instance, Westinghouse Corporation also created a small public park that included tennis courts, baseball diamonds, and a picnic area.  What made Buhl Park, the Buhl Clubs, and the library unusual is that, often, they were created after—in some cases decades after—the Buhls sold their interest in the local steel mills.  The Buhl facilities were, upon reflection, more of a personal contribution to a community that had been good to them than an investment in worker satisfaction.
            It is worth noting that Frank Buhl also lent his name to the town of Buhl, Idaho, which was founded in 1906.  Buhl had been a major investor in a large-scale irrigation project in the area, which is now known as the Trout Capitol of the World.  Yet, as Steve Cump noted in the news service, “Our man Frank gets no respect hereabouts.”   The Buhls contributed not to their own name or business interests, but to the community where they spent their adult lives.
            The challenge, today, is that it is harder to define community.  Wendell Berry defined “community” as a local interdependence:  “ . . .a community is a locally understood interdependence of local people, local culture, local economy and local nature.” (Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community, p. 120).   In today’s global economy, when supply chains, production, and value chains are distributed globally, it is sometimes harder to see how we are interdependent on a local scale.  Part of the legacy of Frank and Julia Buhl is the vision that one invests in ways that help create community.
Berry, Wendell.  Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community.  Pantheon Books, 1992.

Mercer County Historical Society.  Mercer County Pennsylvania:Pictorial History 1800-2000.  Donnnig Company Publishers, 2001.