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Book Brings Dayton's Past To Life


Roz told the story of the American Steam Laundry business in a three article series. They have been combined here.
These article appeared in the Dayton Daily News
on October 12, October 18 and October 26, 2002

 Photo sparks story of one family's struggle a century ago
by Roz Young


            I have been looking through the pages of a new book, Dayton Comes of Age, by Claudia Watson. The subtitle is `The city through the eyes of John H. Patterson, 1897-1992.' The book contains hundreds of photographs made from glass negatives in the archives of NCR; Claudia is the Research Center director for the Montgomery County Historical Society. She holds an M.A. degree in Historical Administration and Archives from Wright State University and has more than 20 years of experience in the fields of museums and archives. She is the author of several books in the field.
            For an ancient Daytonian like me, the book is priceless. Going through it stirs the juices flowing and triggers tales connected with the pictures from the murky recesses of the past.
            One example is the story of the American Steam Laundry. On page 42 in Dayton Comes of Age is the U.B. Building at Fourth and Main, now known as the Centre City Building. Across the street is a park around Stouffers, but long ago the American Steam Laundry was there.
            The Gass family was an impoverished but genteel family from St. Louis. The father, Florien Gass, had suffered business reverses in the bad times that followed the Columbian Exposition in 1893. He and his wife had three sons, Sherlock, Charles and Preston. Borrowing funds from Florien's mother, who lived in Middletown, the Gass family arrived in Dayton in August 1896, and took over the operation of the laundry.
            Sherlock described how the first block of East Fourth Street looked the morning they arrived. `On the south corner was Newsalt's jewelry store. Next to Newsalt's were some little shops that sold millinery, robes and bric-a-brac. Then came the tall, ornate browntone YMCA and then the American Steam Laundry like a tooth out in that block.
            `There were higher buildings showing behind it and beyond. And the laundry wasn't even all of the little gap. The other half was a fish stall with ice already dripping in the morning sun and reeking to high heavens. Beyond the fish stall was a restaurant - dinner 25 cents - and beyond the restaurant Isaac Stern's gents furnishings.
            `Across the street was a dark alley behind the U.B. Building, and then Billy Gray's livery and sales stable, the Central Hotel with its blaze of red for the saloon, yellow for the Moorish balconies on the second floor and blue for the shades of the top floor windows. Then came a harness shop and on the corner John Roth's saloon, the White House.'
            In front of the laundry was a pile of coal, and just as the Gass family arrived the first day, a fat workman came out of the laundry with a wheelbarrow full of ashes, which he dumped into the street. Then he loaded his barrow with coal and wheeled it into the laundry.
            The laundry did not have a back door - everything came and went by the front door.
            The staff consisted of an Irishman, Mike Donovan, who had hauled the coal into the laundry , and Mal, manager of the wash and starch rooms. Charley and Sherlock were assigned to help Mal. There were six farm girls to iron, two laundry wagon drivers and Florien Gass and his wife, who managed everything.
            Four girls quit their jobs at the end of the first day, and the Gass family had to work from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. to finish Monday's laundry.
            Everything in the plant - the washers, the dryers, the starchers and the pressing machines and even the hand irons - operated by steam. The second week the boiler broke down. When Florien Gass, on borrowed money, had a new boiler and steam injector installed, he had difficulty making it work. Then the Humane Society seized the laundry wagon horse because it had sore withers. Often the entire Gass family had to work all night to keep up with the laundry bundles.
            When they first came to Dayton, the Gass family rented a house in Riverdale, but they soon rented another on Jefferson Street within walking distance of the laundry.
            They hired a girl to do the housework. The first one was let go when Mrs. Gass found her blowing her nose on a tea towel.
            Dayton celebrated its centennial the year they arrived and the whole family went to see the centennial pageant. Sherlock went home for some reason. He had no key, but he thought since the cleaning girl had not gone to the centennial, she would let him in the house. He knocked at all the doors, but nobody answered. He found an unlocked window and started to climb in.
            It was the girl's bedroom. She screamed and Sherlock jumped back out of the window and ran back to the laundry. When the family arrived home at midnight, the girl had packed and fled.

A DIFFERENT DOWNTOWN - 100 years ago, every Saturday was a celebration

            One hundred years ago, every Saturday night was a festival in downtown Dayton.
            Factories were closed until Monday morning. Workers had a packet of pay in their pockets. `From dinner time to midnight,' Sherlock Gass wrote in his 1940 book, Family Crisis , `the crowds milled in every direction. . . . Streetcar loads of Civil War veterans from the Soldiers' Home came downtown every Saturday night, and the old chaps in their blue uniforms rolled from one saloon to another. Someone was always escorting one to a comfortable seat on the curb. Many times lone women stalked the old soldiers and many were the marriages contracted while the soldiers were too drunk to protest, thus ensuring the brides the widows' pension when their husbands died in the course of time.'
            Most of the downtown shops closed on Saturday nights, but the half-doors of the saloons never stopped flapping. In the nine-block area bounded by First, Ludlow, Fifth and Jefferson, 54 saloons stayed open for business. Free lunch in the saloons was popular, and at almost every corner small-time operators set up little peanut stands or popcorn carts.
            East Market Street, which ran one block from Main to Jefferson between Third and Fourth, had 10 saloons in its short length. They were operated by John Brill, Charles Gilliland, John Gusler, Kate Kaestle, Moses C. Moore, Adam Orth, Allen Ramby, Charles Saylor, Edward Stoecklein and S.C. Wagner.
            Five billiard parlors kept late Saturday hours: The Atlantic at 132 E. Second St.; Harry Bussey in the Hotel Cooper; Stoecklein and Behm at 33 S. Main; Thomas White at 115 S. Jefferson; and Henry Winters at 39 S. Main.
            Five bath emporiums stayed open on Saturdays. The Dayton Turkish Bath Co. had two places: at 17 E. Second and at 34 W. Third. George Meyer operated a bath in the YMCA on East Fourth, Philip Pfanner stayed open at 123 S. Jefferson and Kelly Reek operated a bath on the southwest corner of Second and Main.
            Names of the barbers in downtown Dayton that stayed open on Saturday nights are names well remembered in Dayton history. They were Valentine Bieser, John C. Bisch, Henry Boone, Daniel Clark, O.R. Bradford, Lawrence Dany, William Goetz, Henry Gross, W.A. McFarland and George Meyer. Other barbers were Robert A. Probst, Henry Rotterman, George Rotterman, Walter Schaeffer, Harry Snyder, John Steffen, John Suess, Frank Swisher, John Teach, Joseph Unterburger, Charles White, Sanford Williams, William Wise, C.E. Wolf and the two Wollenhaupt brothers.
            The fish stall, with its gas jet flaring into the street, also remained open on Saturday night.
            The American Steam Laundry stayed open, too, until the last revelers had picked up their bundles with next week's stiff collars and the shirts with their ironed starched bosoms. Dayton on Saturday night was a jolly town, with soldiers sleeping in the gutters, barmen with their green eyeshades, farmers come to town, shop girls in their boater hats, white blouses, black skirts and high-laced shoes and the snipping barbers.
            The American Steam Laundry struggled along for five years. Through it all, the chief employee, Mal, who ran the big washer and understood the vagaries of the boiler and injector, was the steadying influence of the business. Then the Amalgamated Laundry Workers Union moved into Ohio and began organizing workers in laundries.
            Mal joined the union and tried to get the rest of the laundry workers to join. He and Florien Gass had many an argument. Mal contended that the workers should have a say in how the laundry was run. Florien Gass refused: he was the owner, along with his wife, and adamantly stated that they should have the say as to the operation of the American Steam Laundry. The union could butt out of their business. He refused to allow the union organizers into his shop.
            Finally the union called a strike against all laundries in Dayton. Mel went out on strike. The two delivery wagon drivers did not join the union but quit their jobs rather than become union scabs.
            `I will run the washers myself and operate this laundry the way I choose to run it,' Florien Gass announced.

UNIONS TARGET BUSINESS - American Steam Laundry gives up the struggle

            Florien Gass tried to run the American Steam Laundry himself after Mal quit and the wagon drivers left. Business was bad. Many of his customers who were union workers in shops refused to send their laundry to a non-union shop. Tom Sells, owner of the Pearl laundry, offered to have several of the American Steam laundry workers do some of his work at his laundry and some of their own at the Pearl laundry also. Business was so poor that only one trip was needed to make the collection rounds.
            Florien made Preston Gass, then 14 years old, driver of the laundry -collection wagon. One day he came home with his clothes torn, his face scratched and his horse's harness cut. Some union girls had stopped the wagon, beat up Preston, whipped the horse and sent it driverless down the street, scattering the laundry bundles in the gutters.
            The laundry limped along for a time, hiring drivers wherever they could find them. Then a good washer applied for work, and a man named Walter Munday took the driving job. One day Walter came into the shop and told Florien he knew where they could get a lot of hand laundry at fancy prices.
            `Where's that?' asked Florien.
            `At Lib Hedges' house,' Walter told him. `In fact, she's got two houses - one on Pearl Street and one on Warren.'
            `Lib Hedges! Isn't she a - isn't she a - ' Florien didn't know what to call her.
            `She's a madame,' said Walter.
            `I'll take her laundry ,' said Florien. `It means I can keep on two girls I was going to let go.'
            `Oh, dear,' said Mrs. Gass when she heard. `Don't let our other customers know. They wouldn't approve of having their laundry mixed with Lib Hedges' girls' laundry.'
            Once again, however, with the Hedges' laundry, it looked as if the American Steam Laundry might pull through. The fish stall closed and Florien took the space over. Now customers could drop off their laundry in a room with clean, freshly-painted white walls and clean curtains at the windows instead of tracking through the narrow hallway where the coal and ashes were hauled. There was even money in the bank for Sherlock to start college in the fall.
            With continued help from the Pearl laundry , the Gass family business thrived. Sherlock left for college. When he came home for Christmas, Florien thought business would hold up for four years, long enough for Sherlock to finish college.
            Late one evening Florien and Sherlock were sitting around talking about the future when a loud knocking came at the door. When Florien opened the door, there stood Tom Sells. `Somebody came by my place and told me the laundry is on fire!' he shouted. `Come on. Let's go.'
            Tom and Florien drove off in the laundry wagon.
            Sherlock and Preston followed on foot. They arrived just as the fire trucks were leaving. The office was not damaged, but the engine room was ruined. The walls, roof and water tank had fallen on top of the boiler. Florien and Tom boarded up the doors and went home until daylight when they could see to assess the damage.
            Tom Sells offered to take over all the work until repairs could be made. But Florien Gass was discouraged.
            The strike and five years of constant struggle and the fire had finally defeated him.
            `No,' he said, `I give up. It's too much.' But he had an idea. If Tom would agree to go into business with him, Tom could be the boss and Florien would serve as superintendent of laundry operations.
            Tom agreed, and in the new company, Florien Gass had a better income than he had ever had when he operated the American Steam Laundry . He worked at the Troy Laundry for 10 years. At the end of that time he paid off his debt to his mother, paid all his other debts and back rent and was able to retire with a pension.
            Sherlock became a professor of English at the University of Nebraska and author of two books of essays, a mystery story, and Family Crisis , from which some of the material for this column is taken.
            It was a time when downtown Dayton was booming. Wilbur and Orville Wright came home from their first trip to Kitty Hawk. Life in Dayton was looking up.