Digging Up West Park

By Ed Staskus

   Maggie Campbell grew up in Bay Village, ran around like a crazy girl on her dead-end street and through nearby back yards, went to grade school and high school in Bay Village, got her first job at the Bay Pool, and didn’t know West Park existed until she moved away from home.

   At first there wasn’t anybody anywhere in West Park. The wilderness didn’t have a name. There were some Indians who came and went and millions of trees. At the turn of the 19th century, it was lots of land, a handful of homes, and a few wagon paths. The paths were rutted and often impassable. The land was named for John West, an early pioneer.

   John West and his wife were from Ireland. They weren’t the founders of the new place, but they had a 600-acre farm with a 25-acre front yard and an artificial lake with rowboats on it. The land around the lake was called West Park. Over the years everybody came to call their entire locality the same thing.

   The terrain is bordered to the north by Lakewood, which hums on the shoreline of Lake Erie. It is west of Brooklyn and east of Fairview Park. Everything else is south of it. It is twelve and a half square miles formed as Rockport Hamlet in 1892, incorporated as Rockport Village in 1902, and renamed the Village of West Park in 1913. In the 1920s it was its own city with its own government. It became the last independent city to be annexed by Cleveland in 1923.

   George Reitz the mayor said, “I’m no longer going to be mayor of West Park. I’m going to be a resident of Cleveland.” Cleveland was the fifth largest city in the country at the time.

   After Maggie and Steve de Luca got married, they moved in with Steve’s brother Fat Freddie in Little Italy, but it got off to a bad start and went downhill. Fat Freddie had a heart of gold but a Three Stooges sense of humor that got on Maggie’s nerves. It wasn’t long before she wanted to do him in. She might have but for Fat Freddie being friends with the pastor of Holy Rosary Church and the local mobsters. Besides, he was her brother-in-law and murdering him would have looked bad at the next family picnic.

   The first road in West Park was a wooden plank toll road. Horse drawn streetcars went back and forth. All the other roads were unimproved, a mess of mud every spring and buried by snow every winter. Oswald Kamm opened a grocery store at the intersection of what is now Lorain Ave. and Rocky River Dr. Most people called West Park the “lost city.” Getting to the grocery store was an ordeal. Whenever a thunderstorm broke everybody stabled their horses at the store and stayed the night.

   There are four West Park neighborhoods, which are Kamm’s Corners, Riverside, Bellaire-Puritas, and Jefferson. Kamm’s Corners is Irish Catholic. There are taverns right and left of the corner. Riverside was largely unsettled until Cleveland Hopkins Airport was built there in 1925, when it became airplane country. Bellaire-Puritas is manufacturing intensive, largely due to the presence of many industrial parks. It is adjacent to highways and has access to the Norfolk-Southern and CSX rail lines. Jefferson was thinly populated for a long time but following annexation residential development moved fast forward.

   Grayton Rd. is north of the airport and more-or-less follows the lay of the Rocky River. Alan Apelt grew up on Grayton Rd. when it was a dirt road and everything around it was farmland. 

   “If a car was driving down our road they were lost,” Alan said. His grandfather August farmed vegetables there in the 1920s. After he kicked the milk bucket one of his four children took over the family farm. Rudy Apelt built a greenhouse while still farming outdoors. In the 1950s Cleveland was known as the “Greenhouse Capital of the Americas.” Through the 1960s there were more than fifty of them around town growing cucumbers, tomatoes, and leaf lettuce. It was where the Central and West Side Markets got their veggies.

   After Rudy met his maker Alan and his brother Ron took the helm. They specialized in English seedless cucumbers. When his brother passed away Alan turned the greenhouses into a hydroponic operation. He gave it up in 2016 and dismantled them. In their place he planted 400 Chinese Chestnut trees.

   “Chestnut trees are the easiest things to manage on a day-to-day basis by yourself,” he said.Three years later he had a harvest to meet the rising trend in cooking of using chestnuts. They have a sweet flavor and potato-like consistency. When they fall from their branches, they are enclosed in spiney burrs. Picking them up means wearing gloves. Picking them up barehanded means getting stabbed by a spiny burr.

   John West’s red brick house still stood on W. 138th Street when Maggie and her husband bought a house on West Ave. in the Jefferson neighborhood. John Marshall School of Engineering was at one end of the street and Cleveland Police First District headquarters was at the other end. Steve’s father had been a lawyer for the Cleveland Mob. Steve didn’t mind some law and order being close to hand.

   There weren’t any farms left. All the greenhouses were gone. Three interstates were nearby. There were three rail transit stops within hiking biking distance. Almost everybody was Irish, Latino, or Black. Maggie was Scottish, which was close enough. Steve was Italian, which wasn’t close, at all. But he had been born and bred in Little Italy, where the Dago’s were surrounded by Wasps and Jews. He knew how to mix it up with folks who were nothing like him.

   If things got sketchy, being from Little Italy, he knew how to take care of himself. If they got dangerous, he knew who to call. If Fat Freddie proved to be not enough back-up, he knew his brother knew enough dangerous men to set things right. In the event, their home was their castle. Just in case, they always had two or three dogs in the house. They weren’t Chihuahuas or Miniature Poodles, either.

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”


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