Looking Back at Elyria: A Midwest City at Midcentury by Marci Rich (The History Press, 2019)
Looking Back at Elyria is a pleasant and nostalgic account of growing up in mid-century middle America. Author Marci Rich loves the Midwest town she grew up in, and it shows. Although she doesn’t ignore unhappy facts, her outlook is positive.
The book’s twelve essays, all with fine photos from “back in the day,” describe everyday life in Lorain County — more specifically, in Elyria, Ohio — from her childhood in the 1950s through the 1960s. As Rich writes, “One benefit of nostalgia, or of remembering, is that there is something to be gained by looking back, and perhaps that something is finding a new way forward.” These essays were inspired by a request from the Chronicle-Telegram to celebrate the city’s bicentennial.
Quirky facts abound, such as how Heman (yes, that’s how he spelled it) Ely decided to name the new town in 1817 by combining his name with that of the Illyrian provinces in Europe. Rich likes to think he also summoned up Shakespeare’s Illyria, the magic kingdom in Twelfth Night.
We think the world of iPhones (thanks, Facebook and Twitter, etc.) is complicated, but even in the telephone switchboard days, as Rich’s book reveals, phone life was complex. She recounts an interview with the niece of a local telephone operator. (Oh, wait, that’s probably news to us now too — phone calls had to be personally placed by operators sitting at the telephone company that you had to talk to.) The niece shared typed protocol instructions issued to switchboard employees during World War II. Fun fact: Priority calls — from the President on down — could break into any other calls.
By Rich’s time, party lines were taken for granted. Several families might share a line, and rules about not listening in to others’ conversations were printed. (Of course, not everyone followed those rules and one could hear many interesting things that were “none of your business.” Rich probably didn’t do that. I did.) If you ever need a way not to pay at a pay phone (sadly phone booths are largely extinct today), Rich shares a method her young girlfriend used. (See page 93—I’ll never tell.)
Overall, this collection of stories is like something one might hear at a family reunion — especially ones describing the stores in town, their owners, shopping in them. Others reflect on history and are touching in their brutal truth, such as the loss of 20-year-old “Bubby” (Norman Jones, Jr.) who had just applied for a job at the Ford plant, but got drafted instead. He served in Vietnam only four months before he was killed. What, Rich asks, might have happened if he’d not been drafted, been alive, when the news came (which it did) that he’d gotten the job? We all lost, she argues convincingly.
Rich remembers seeing presidential nominee John F. Kennedy in “When JFK Came through Town.” Her father put her on his shoulders so she could see him on that September 1960 day. Later, she recalls, she remembers her mother crying at the news of Kennedy’s assassination. Others in Elyria, whose names she chronicles, had closer association with the President and were also devastated by his death.
Bottom Line: This is a well-written, memory-rich book, not only for Elyria and Lorain County residents, but also for anyone who grew up in middle America (hand raised here, though far from Ohio). It celebrates a commonality of experience to be treasured and remembered.