Sunday, October 2, 2011

My East Cleveland Story

My Story of Growing Up In East Cleveland

My Family

The first thing to ask about my life in East Cleveland is how I got there in the first place.  Since I was born there, we have to consider the reasons my parents chose East Cleveland as the place to live and raise a family.  Those reasons may be similar to those of most families in East Cleveland at that time.  In 1920, when dad was six years old, his family moved to Collinwood.  The reason for that move was that my grandfather, Herman Dreifort, worked for General Electric, which had just opened its new lamp facility on E 152nd Street near Five Points.  The home in Collinwood allowed grandpa to walk to work every day from 1920 until he retired in 1954.  As a result my dad, Carl Dreifort, lived in Collinwood and graduated from Collinwood High School in 1932.  The country was in the middle of the Great Depression and it was difficult to find work, especially for recent high school graduates.  Dad did whatever he could to help support the family in those days.  By 1936 he had found a job at National Acme Company located at E 131 and Coit.  That was also the year that he met my mother, whom he married in 1938.  Because there was still a depression going on, mom and dad moved to a small apartment on Hayden Avenue just on the Collinwood side of the border with East Cleveland.

By 1940 mom and dad needed to look for a bigger place to live, because I was expected to arrive in September of that year.  As it turned out, I fooled them and arrived a month earlier than expected.  Not the first time I caused them problems by doing the unexpected.  In any case, they had to find a place to live and raise their new family.  I’m sure they asked the same questions that home buyers ask today such as:  How much can we afford?  How close to work can I be?  What are the neighborhood amenities?  Is the school system good?

East Cleveland was a logical choice for their house hunting.  It is next door to the community with which they were familiar (Collinwood).  The city had a good reputation for its community resources such as schools, parks, and shopping.  There was also a large supply of available homes that they might be able to afford.  The next decision concerned whether to rent or buy.  Dad came from a tradition of home ownership.  Therefore the main question was how to find a home, which they could afford to buy.  They decided that they should buy a two family home so that the rent from one suite would help them pay the mortgage, taxes and other expense related to home ownership.  They found the home of my childhood at 1719 – 1721 Shaw Avenue on the corner of Shaw and Plymouth Place. 

Our house on Shaw Avenue was the type of house that was built all over the Cleveland area right after World War I.  That was a period in which much of East Cleveland was developed.  The house had two suites, one up and one down.  Each suite had five rooms and a bath. As was true of many East Cleveland two family homes, it had an unfinished attic with two large rooms.  In most houses that space was just used for storage.  Dad decided to convert that attic to a third living space so that we could live on the third floor and rent out the first and second floor suites.  Since East Cleveland zoning was very strict about such conversions, Dad had to present his plans to City Hall and obtain a rooming house permit before making the renovations. 

It has been a tradition for Dreifort men to be very handy and self reliant in many areas including home maintenance. Dad often told me that we couldn’t afford to live in our house if he didn’t do everything himself.  Thanks to him I was able to learn many of those skills too.  With the help of his father, brothers, uncles and other family members, he planned and constructed the third floor renovation.  It consisted of building a dormer, which almost doubled the area of floor space.  They added plumbing, which made it possible to have a full kitchen and bathroom.  The result was a very comfortable two bedroom suite, which met all the zoning and other code requirements of the City of East Cleveland.  We moved into that suite when I was born and stayed there until my sister was born in 1944.  At that time we moved to the first floor and never had a problem finding good tenants for the third floor suite.  As a matter of fact my new wife and I lived there briefly in 1962 and 1963 before moving to Chicago (More about that later). 
Dad's Homes and Work 1936 to 1946

I’m not sure whether our family would have been considered middle class or lower middle class when we lived in East Cleveland.  Dad had a factory job in the maintenance department of National Acme Company.  According to W2 forms that I have, his annual pay was $1,104.81 in 1936.  That rose to $2,173.78 by 1939.  That amount did not even reach the $2,500 limit for reporting your earnings to the IRS that year.  I don’t know how that compared with other East Cleveland homeowners at that time.    I never felt deprived.  I didn’t get everything I asked for; but what I did get always seemed to be adequate.  I never knew how much my dad made and never considered whether that was more or less than the other fathers made.  To me my friends and I seemed to be in the same economic class.  Perhaps our family would have been classified as blue collar based upon Dad’s job and income level. 
No category would completely describe us unless the modifier “upwardly mobile” were added.  Dad was not able to go to college due to his need to work and support his family during the depression.  By 1940 the country was still in an economic depression and he had the best job he could find.  That job provided enough for him to buy a house and support his family in a fine community.  Dad’s younger brother, Donald, was able to earn a degree in engineering from Case Institute of Technology.  Grandma got a secretarial job at White Motor Company to help put him through college.  As the oldest son and first to be married, Dad had to follow in Grandpa’s footsteps.  That meant finding the best possible job and advancing by acquiring new skills through work experience.  Grandpa had done that at General Electric where he started out as an unskilled laborer and became a skilled tool and die maker.  Most successful companies at that time realized the need to invest in their employees by training and developing the necessary skills to meet the needs of the organization.  This required an employee with the ability and ambition necessary to advance by learning those new skills.  The result was good for the employee as well as the company.

Dad’s job at National Acme had an influence on our decision to live in East Cleveland.  Like his father Dad was able to walk from home to work and back, a distance of 1.5 to 2 miles each way, depending on the route.  It was not unusual for people to walk that far to work in those days.  Another option available was public transportation.  The main streetcar and bus line through East Cleveland was along Euclid Avenue.  When we first lived on Shaw Avenue, the streetcar line was still running.  It was later replaced by buses.  There was a major public transit hub at Windermere and Euclid.  Originally it was the streetcar barns for the Cleveland Railway Company later known as Cleveland Transit System (CTS).  From anyplace in East Cleveland you could easily and quickly get to anywhere in the region by public transit.  East of Windermere and Euclid the streetcars and busses traveled as far as the City of Euclid.  That provided access to the industrial area between Euclid Avenue and the Nickel Plate Railroad.  That included the area from E. 152nd Street to Ivanhoe where General Electric, Murray Ohio, Clark Controller, and other factories provided employment.  Farther east was the area around London Road and Euclid Avenue, which included Parker Appliance, Anchor Rubber and other factories.  Still farther east was Thompson Products TAPCO plant later known as TRW, Graphite Bronze and Eaton.  For anyone working downtown or points in between, public transportation provided easy access from East Cleveland.  There were also bus lines providing access to the area on the hill traveling on Noble Road and Taylor Road.  A major cross-town line cut through East Cleveland on Superior Avenue between Glenville and Cleveland Heights and points south.

With all the discussion of transportation, you might ask, what about automobiles?  Well, in the first place, they were an expense.  When you are making just enough to feed and house your family, you think twice before incurring other expense.  The Dreifort family had a history of owning automobiles.  Grandpa had a Model T Ford, which he probably didn’t use much.  Remember, he also walked to and from work.  By 1929, when my dad was 15 years old, Grandpa decided he needed a new car.  He bought a new Chandler, which was made in the nearby factory later occupied by Parker Appliance and currently used by The Cleveland Clinic.  That was a beautiful car, which he kept until 1954.  1929 was the year that Chandler went out of business due to the depression.  It was a great car and one of the last made in Cleveland.  When grandpa bought the Chandler, he kept the Model T, which became the car used by my dad and his brothers through the 1930s.  Dad did own a 1940 Chevrolet briefly, but he did not keep it long because of wartime restrictions. 

My First Years In East Cleveland

 When we moved to Shaw Avenue, World War II had already started in Europe.  The American economy was starting to revive due to war work.  Even so the depression did not actually end until the post war recovery of the late 1940s.  When the US entered the war Dad was 27 years old with a pre Pearl Harbor child (me) and employed in essential war work.  Those were the exact qualifications for being exempted from the military draft.  He often said that he should have made my middle name “Weatherstrip”, because I kept him out of the draft.  His two brothers, Donald and Ralph were younger than Dad and both served in uniform throughout the war.  Donald, who had a degree in civil engineering from Case, was in the Corps of Engineers in the China, Burma, India Theater.  He worked on the Lido Road.  Ralph served on a Navy destroyer in the Caribbean.  That was important duty due to the presence of German submarines in that area. 

I don’t have many memories from our first four years in East Cleveland (1940 – 1944).  That was the time that we lived on the third floor.  Dad was working at National Acme, a lot of the time on the night shift.  I do remember sitting with my mother, sometimes on her lap, while we listened to Bing Crosby on the radio.  His theme song, “When the  Blue of the Night Meets the Gold of the Day”, was one of my earliest memories.  I was an avid listener to all the popular music even as a small child.  Mom says that I often stood in front of the radio and record player bouncing with the music.  Some of my favorites were: Spike Jones playing “Der Fuhrer’s Face”, Pistol Packin’ Mama, and Chattanooga Choo Choo.  That early interest in music has stayed with me all my life.

Click on these links for some examples.

Old Time Radio Shows 
I have several mental pictures of living on the third floor.  I think I can remember one of my first Christmas trees.  That could have been as early as 1941 when I was about 1 ½ years old.  I remember a birthday party, when I was three or four.  There was also a time when my grandmother on Mom’s side came back from a trip to Florida and brought me a tiny catcher’s mitt, which I still have today.  I also remember the day that somebody came to take our 1940 Chevrolet. I asked Dad why and he told me he couldn’t get gasoline and tires for it anymore.  I later learned that we had been able to take a trip to Canada to visit my Mom’s relatives before selling the car.  That was at the time of gasoline rationing and Dad was able to make that long trip by installing an extra gas tank in the trunk and saving up his rationed gasoline.

Gasoline Ration Sticker

Other things I remember about life in East Cleveland during the war include the rationing of food.  I can remember going with Mom to obtain ration stamps and tokens.  She had to get them at Prospect School.  These stamps and tokens were needed to buy certain food such as meat and sugar.  I liked the tokens best.  They were about the size of a dime and some were red and some were blue.

Wartime Travel Permit 1943

I also remember saving metal and grease for the war effort.  We would empty all of our tin cans, take off both ends and step on them to flatten them out.  The ends went inside the flattened can.  That and other metal was picked up by the City in a special truck.  I remember seeing one of our neighbor men working on one of those scrap drive trucks.  When I asked what they were doing, I was told that they were collecting things for the war.  We also saved cooking grease.  We took it to a local mom and pop grocery on Hayden Avenue.  I remember that the owner’s last name was Scher.    Mr. Scher always let me take a cookie from one of the cookie bins.  Needless to say, I always liked going there.  Another use for cooking grease was in making soap.  We sometimes took our grease to my Great Aunt Ethel Dreifort, who made soap and gave us some from time to time.  As I have said before, I never felt deprived as a child.  However, I do remember asking for some things and getting the answer that we can’t get that because there is a war going on.  I guess that seemed to be a reasonable answer at the time. 
My War Ration Book

1945 was a significant year for me.  I had my fifth birthday that year on August 8.  Another thing that happened around my birthday was cause for great celebration.  One day in August we were out in the front yard and I noticed that all the car drivers were blowing their horns and several people stopped to talk to Dad.  Everyone seemed very happy.  I asked Dad what all the excitement was about.  He told me everyone was happy, because the war was over.  That day was Wednesday, August 15, 1945, VJ Day.  To this day I can see that scene in my mind as if it were a movie clip. 

Another event, which made 1945 a special year in my life, was my first day at school.  That September Mom took me to Prospect School, where I enrolled in the afternoon session of kindergarten.  That was my first experience with a group of children with many of whom I was to share the next 13 years of school.  Our teacher was Mrs. Lowry and the classroom was on the first floor overlooking the Euclid Avenue playground.  All I remember about that experience is sitting around in a semicircle and listening to our teacher.  I’m not sure what I was supposed to learn in kindergarten.  The most important life lessons I think I learned included the following: 1. you need permission to go to the bathroom, 2. don’t wait until the last minute to ask.  Most importantly I learned to be self reliant.  After that first day, I walked to and from school by myself.  Even though it was only one block, it involved crossing Euclid Avenue and Shaw Avenue.

East Cleveland Police Officer Jack Baker

Another important event of 1945 was meeting a man, who would be a part of my life for all my years at Prospect.  That man was Officer Jack Baker of the East Cleveland Police Department.  Jack was the school crossing guard at Shaw and Euclid and he helped me and other children safely across that busy intersection for all of those seven years.  Jack always seemed old and fatherly to me.  I’m not sure how old he actually was at that time, but he worked at that intersection until he retired on January 1, 1959.  I have his autograph, which I obtained when I graduated from Prospect in 1952.

 Copyright 2011 Robert C. Dreifort all rights reserved

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