Happy to live in “The Flats”
Margaret (Osborn) Hougelman lives just a few blocks from where she spent a good part of her childhood, and where she lived when she was first married. But the neighborhood she knew back then – the area of Sharon known as The Flats – is only a faded memory. Redevelopment in the late 1950s obliterated the homes that once gave the area its character.
Margaret got there in a roundabout way. Her father, H. J. Osborn, was a West Virginia boy who moved to Sharon when he was 16 to work on the railroad. He married a Sharon girl named Mary Elizabeth, and they had two sons here, Lewis and Howard. The family moved to Greenville where Margaret was born. When she was a year old, they moved to Chicago. Her sister, Alice Faye, was born there.
“My mother named her after two aunts,” Margaret said, “but everyone always asked her if she was named after the actress.”
The neighborhood in Chicago was a lot like Sharon.
“There were a lot of immigrants. I never got over it that the one street had all Russian people, the next street had all Italians. There were about six families that weren’t immigrants.”
Every summer Margaret’s mother brought the whole family back to Sharon, where they stayed with her grandparents until September.
Margaret’s father died in Chicago when she was 13. Her mother, left with no financial resources, moved the family back to Sharon to live with Margaret’s grandfather. She was supposed to get a pension from the railroad, but she never got it until about the time Margaret’s sister was graduating from high school.
“Mother didn’t go back to work,” Margaret said. “Women didn’t work in those days. She had her kids to take care of, and she had my grandfather.”
Margaret has good memories from her childhood, especially picnics with her extended family.
“We had lots of aunts and uncles. When we first moved here, one of my uncles had a moving truck. We’d all go up to Lake Erie in it. His wife was always in the front because they had a kid that had polio. We’d all be in the back – my aunts and everyone. When my uncle started driving you didn’t know where you’d go. Sometimes we’d just go up to the rivers around here. We used to jump off the bridge and everything.”
Margaret also had a lot of friends in the neighborhood.
“Five of us went roller skating all the time, mostly to the local roller rink. Sometimes a friend and I would get a ride and we’d sneak up to Shady Grove. One time my mother and brother were looking for us. We got a ride and got back about 11 o’clock. My mother just had a fit.”
But aside from a few adventures like that, Margaret says that they really didn’t do anything wrong.
“None of my girlfriends, the five of us, ever smoked back then. We were too busy talking or skating.”
Halloween was celebrated a little more loosely in those days.
“They used to have Halloween from September on to the end of October. My friend Betty was always a conniver. She said, ‘Let’s go up to the West Hill. We’ll get candy and stuff.’ We went up there. The one lady slammed the door in our faces, and at another house an old guy answer the door and we ran like crazy. We never went up there again.”
Maybe their reception there was because they were from The Flats.
“We always said we’re happy to be from The Flats. My sister said some of the kids looked down on her because she was from The Flats. But my friends and I didn’t care where we lived!”
Margaret went to middle school and high school in Sharon.
“I went to tenth grade, then I got too smart for everybody and quit. A lot of girls did that. I got this job at Wimpy’s down on Water Street, across from the news stand that isn’t there anymore. I was 16 years old, and I was so happy to get that job. But my mother wouldn’t let me work at night, because she said all the roughnecks came in at night.”
When she was 18, she took a job at Westinghouse – for all of three days.
“A woman working there complained that she worked a whole week and only got $25, and I didn’t want to work for that little bit of money. But she must have had bonds or something coming out, because I worked only three days and got $25.”
Then Margaret started working at Carnegie.
“A woman told me I’d get killed in there. And when I first went there, I thought I might. But everybody was friendly there. I worked there about two years until they closed down. I was one of the last to be working there because I was operating a tow motor.”
During that time Margaret and her friends continued to enjoy life.
“We met a lot of nice guys, nice kids from Camp Reynolds. A lot of them roller skated, but didn’t dance, so we went roller skating with them.”
After Carnegie closed down, her girl friend’s father got her a job at Wheatland Tube.
“When I started working there a woman told me you’ll never get any oil on you. But from the day I started until the day I quit, we had to put these things through this machine that splattered you. That job lasted about six months because everybody was coming home from the war then.”
One of those who came home was Harold George Hougelman. While in the army, he developed severe ulcers, which kept him from going overseas. Margaret met him not long after he came home.
“I knew my husband’s family, but I didn’t know him. One of his friends was very impressed with my girl friend, so they came up together.”
Margaret and Harold dated for about a year.
“I gave him an ultimatum. I said, ‘If you’re not going to get married, just forget it, I’ll go up to Chicago or someplace.’ His buddy got married in February, and then we got married on July 20, 1946.”
Harold and his brother worked for a while on the Great Lakes freighters.
“All of his cousins in Detroit were plumbers, and he wanted to do that. When he applied for training under the GI Bill, they said the only thing they had open was Hoffman’s doing roofing and spouting and all that stuff.”
After learning the trade, he went into business for himself.
“That was the worst part because then he had to figure everything out by himself and had all the worries. His ulcers got really bad.”
They moved into the downstairs of a house at 144 River Street. Their daughter, Barbara Jean, was born in 1948, and son John in 1952. Margaret’s mother, who suffered a debilitating stroke shortly after John was born, lived with them.
Her sister, Alice Chestnut, and her sister’s husband John lived upstairs until they built a house in Wheatland.
Because they lived so near the Shenango River, they were flooded a couple of times..
“I remember one flood in particular because I lost all my toys,” said Margaret’s son John.
About 1958, a Sharon redevelopment project took their home to make way for senior citizen residences. Margaret and her family, along with her mother, moved to her sister’s house in Wheatland. They lived there seven years, until they moved into a duplex behind what is now Benson Studios on West Eighth Street.
“My husband had a rough life,” Margaret said. “When he was about 35, he had most of his stomach taken out because of the ulcers.”
“My grandmother lived with us all the time when we were on River Street,” John said. “After my aunt and uncle built the house in Wheatland, she would spend half the year with us and half with them. She was completely paralyzed on her right side. Her faculties were there, and she knew what was going on, but she couldn’t speak. If they would have had the therapy back then, she would have been fully functional.”
John remembers having a good childhood.
“We had a good family life,” he said. “I worked with my Dad in his business when I could, carrying shingles, and cleaning up. Every year we would go up to Geneva on the Lake for a two-week vacation.”
About 1970, the family moved to an apartment on Crescent Street in Hermitage. Three years later, at the age of 50, Harold died as a result of his ulcers.
“He had a rough life,” Margaret said. “He worked so hard in spite of his illness. A couple of days before he died, he put on his coat to go out. I asked him where he was going. He said he was going to help a neighbor with their furnace.”
For about the next 20 years, Margaret worked at Howell Industries in Masury. When she retired, she moved into the senior housing for which her family’s house had been torn down in the late 1950s.
“My husband always said we’d get our revenge by living here,” Margaret said. “I made it, but he didn’t.”
Excerpted from Lives of Quiet Inspiration, Volume 3, by Joe Zentis. Hermitage, PA: Green Street Press, 2009