Newton Falls – As everyone in this area knows, the Ravenna Arsenal (known as the Ravenna Ordnance Plant at the time) played a major role in the massive munitions manufacture during WWII. Less well known is the vitally important role played by our area’s USO facilities constructed specifically to provide a recreational and social outlet for the thousands of workers, many of them women, at the ROP. Only one of these historic US recreational centers in the area is left, the embattled one in Newton Falls.
In a laudatory report on the front page of the “Warren Tribune Chronicle” of its dedication on January 18, 1942, the Newton Falls USO facility was hailed as “the first designed for defense workers which has been opened in the nation”. A letter of congratulations from none other than the First Lady of our nation, Eleanor Roosevelt, was read at this dedication ceremony attended by over 500 local residents who packed the $82,000 structure. The assistant treasurer of the national USO, John Hickey, pointed out the importance of the bond between America’s workers and those on the front lines in the battle against fascism by stating that “this center will serve that army behind the Army”. The Newton Falls Mayor, Elmo Bailey, pledged the full cooperation of local government in making the center a grand success; the Falls high school band performed; a member of the local Boy Scouts troop, Ernest Shaulis, led participants in the Pledge of Allegiance; American Legion members conducted the flag-raising ceremony; and a symbolic key to this pioneering building was presented by federal officials to a representative of the local YWCA, Bertha Daniel, who was responsible for the management of the Newton Falls USO center.
For the duration of WWII, this facility provided a variety of activities and services for RAP workers every day, for the entire day. One of the most notable and unique activities were the so-called “Dawn Patrol” parties. This innovative service to ordnance workers caught the attention of the national Office of Civilian Defense. In their review of a handful of USO centers throughout the country, the OCD national publication of 1943 took explicit note of our town and facility: “Newton Falls, Ohio has its ‘Dawn Patrol’ parties for men and women workers who finish their day’s work during the early morning hours”. Commenting decades later on the significance of such innovative services from the Newton Falls USO, a historian states that “Dawn Patrol clubs were especially popular, providing round-the-clock dances, daybreak outings and entertainment for workers on all three shifts, especially those on the graveyard shift”. In addition to this unique service, the Newton Falls USO also provided recreational opportunities, childcare, crafts, indoor picnics, dances, photography as well s free coffee and donuts.
For decades following its noble service as an USO center, this unique facility operated as a highly valued Community Center for countless residents in need of quality space for wedding receptions, birthday parties, graduation ceremonies, transportation and meals for seniors, dances for teens, tai-chi and yoga lessons, family reunions, girl scouts craft displays, as well as numerous on-stage theatrical productions. Every Christmas for many years, it hosted a Hometown Christmas attended by thousands of residents seeking a bit of holiday cheer and celebration.
Despite the enormous historical significance as well as the multitude of invaluable services provided to area residents, the Community Center was abruptly closed in late 2014 by City Council in the aftermath of a failed 1% municipal tax imposition. To make matters worse, it now faces the very real and imminent threat of demolition.
I am reminded of what the heroic Polish people did with their beloved old town center of their capital, Warsaw. The Nazi invaders and occupiers, in an act of utter cruelty and hatred, completely demolished Warsaw’s old town center before being forced out by the Red Army and the Warsaw Uprising. However, the architectural plans to every building in that old town center survived. In their wisdom and determination to reclaim their history, the Poles reconstructed every building exactly as it was before demolition. The material and visible connection to their past was saved for generations to come.
Every people, whether at the local or national level, finds some of their core identity within the material structures erected and used by their ancestors and predecessors. These historic buildings are not merely physical structures. They are the embodiment of the spirit of their builders and the times of their birth. In the case of the former USO Center in Newton Falls, we have not only a rare manifestation of Americana, but a part of the very Spirit of America.