Buhl Community Recreation Center History
Though is has been told time and tine again, it’s like a favorite fairy tale – fascinating, flavorful, even fanciful- encircled in an aura of legend with whispers of magical charm.
Like a prince and princess, the Buhl’s reigned supreme from their castle-like fortress atop “Sharon Hill” as Shenango Valley’s first family.
They never sat cloaked in golden robes upon a jeweled throne, but the “wishes” they granted and the lives they touched with an outpouring of generosity, earned Mrs. Buhl the title of “fairy godmother” and Mr. Buhl the respect of a kindly king.
What a grand pair they must have been; gentle Julia, loved by the community not for her wealth but for her charming simplicity; Frank Buhl, whose sterling character has been recorded in his deeds and legacy to the entire community, and yes, to the whole world.
There was no doubt the union of Julie Forker and Frank Henry Buhl in 1888 was a grandiose occasion. The news account reflects its eloquence and sets the stage for a marriage sparked by style.
For young Julia, it was the beginning of a new lifestyle in her beloved Shenango Valley. But for Frank, who had already risen to fame as a great industrialist, was anticipating moving on. Mr. Buhl wanted to continue his empire building elsewhere. When he confided his plan to his new bride, she refused to listen. “I love the Shenango Valley too much and I do not wish to leave here. I want to live in the Sharon Hills,” an account quotes her as saying.
And, Frank, although a powerful business tycoon who usually followed his own head, listened to his lady. He not only abided to Julia’s wishes, and remained as head of the Sharon Iron Co., but dutifully listened to his mother, too. A story recalled some years ago said the elder Mrs. Buhl, upon visiting the newly weds in their 10-room grey frame house said, “why Frank, how dare you let your wife live in this house. You should build her a mansion.”
Frank Buhl did just that. The Buhl’s castle-like garrison stands today as a historical landmark. It’s a reminder to tell all who pass of the legacy the Buhls left to the Shenango Valley.
The mansion, once cloaked in the smoke and haze from the mills Mr. Buhl built, today sits on stately grounds. The grand home, shaded beneath old oaks, is a rambling, imposing structure that typifies the great showplaces of prosperity built by entrepreneurs in the late 19th century.
The construction on the mansion got underway in 1891. The Buhls engaged Charles Owsley of Youngstown, Ohio to design their home, but they provided plenty of input to its style after touring a mansion in Detroit that caught their fancy. The two-and-one-half story house of native ashlar sandstone has been entered on the National Register of Historical Places.
Its beauty and charm is enhanced by architectural features of Richardson Romanesque influences. Arches, columns, finials and turrets enhance its charm; its magnetic quality is irresistible. Pass’ers-by gaze longingly at the domain that breathes passion into the Buhl legacy.
Although stories from the past fail to tell much of Frank and Julia’s personal life, little anecdotes have been passed along and give a good indication of their personalities. They were a charismatic pair. Dashing Frank Buhl, big and broad shouldered, cut a fine figure about town and his thick, curly white hair made him recognizable from afar. He exuded confidence but shunned all ostentation and derived great pleasure in giving to others. Julia, always gracious, and notably modest, did not step in Frank Buhl’s footsteps. She was his partner in marriage and his partner in life. Stories say he often sought her advice in making decisions which have influenced the success story of the community.
Mr. Buhl learned early in his marriage life that Julia was not a delicate, Victorian doll, but very much a lady of conviction. As construction oft their mansion proceeded, accounts say he matter-of-factly made design suggestions and plans for decoration accents. But, Mrs. Buhl has her own plans. When he told her there would be no lace curtains in his study which fronted the home, she immediately instructed the builders to switch “his” room to the rear of the house instead of the front tower where she planned to display ruffled covers at all the windows.
With the house complete and decorated in posh style, the Buhls staged an open house for 100 guests and entertained them royally. An orchestra sent music through the 14 rooms and caterers from Cleveland served what were called exquisite delicacies.
The castle was a showplace. Mrs. Buhl had authorized a Detroit decorator to travel to France to buy furnishings for her home. Vibrant colors like red, lilac, pink and green highlighted the brocade, parquetry and fretwork and furnishings. Mrs. Buhl would receive friends in one of her twin parlors on the east side. There, plush old-world tapestries created a distinguished atmosphere. The parlors, adjoined by impressive columns, were carpeted in lush red floor coverings. Red frieze, satin and gold striped chairs and love seats flanked the room. Guests gazed out toward State Street through gold filigreed velvet draperies.
The Buhls would spend their evenings in a shelf-lined den. Sparks would occasionally spew from the fire glowing with logs and limbs cleared in the building of Buhl Farm. Built-up soot etched a bedizen-edged blue oriental rug, but Frank Buhl did not care. He insisted there be no fire screen.
The mansion, built for $60,000 in an era when 2,400 employees manned the Buhl mill was often filled with laughing children-nieces and nephews of the couple, who played hide n’ seek in the tower and probably sought secret passageways in the enchanting “palace.”
The Buhl trademark, which was inscribed on a mantle in their home, “good friends, good fire, good cheer,” reflected their hospitality. Stories say Mrs. Buhl would always do down to the kitchen before entertaining guests and sit and eat a bowl of soup, to test the evening fair.
Holidays were joyous occasions. On Christmas Day, the family would gather round the big oak dining room table and take in the bounty oft he feast in the room wainscoted in oak. Tempting aromas seeped from the kitchen, where a black gas stove, equipped with four warming ovens, extended over eight feet of the wall. Mr. Buhl reveled over the scrumptious Epicurean delights- pheasant pie, light creamed and butted truffles.
Just prior to the turn of the century, after Mr. Buhl sold the Buhl Steel Co., he considered building a steel plant along Lake Erie. His wife, accounts recall, was “aghast.” And in her subtle style influenced his decision to remain.
The Buhls continuing to live in the Shenango Valley, left their mark everywhere. Mr. Buhl especially loved the people of the community; he treated his employees fairly and often sat on the stoop in front of his home, waving to workers as they passed by. many would come and sit with Mr. Buhl and he often dipped into his pocket to give them a few dollars as extra spending money.
Mr. Buhl’s interests are history, but they are worth repeating.
In 1903, he established the F.H. Buhl Club on East State Street. While his generosity touched the folks here, he also stretched his hands across the world. He endorsed a loan for a railroad in Manila, Philippines. He and Pete L. Kimberly established the Twin Falls Land and Water Co. in Idaho and built a dam across the Snake River in 1903, the world’s largest irrigation project. Buhl, Idaho, stands as a tribute to him today. Mr. Buhl also played a major role in the founding of a town in Minnesota. There, the Buhl name is immortalized along the Messeba iron range. A 1902 Herald news report placed the value of Sharon Steel and Frank H. Buhl iron ore deposits in that Minnesota region at $15 to $25 million.
Mr. Buhl, once called a classic model of a peculiar breed of empire builders , performed many humanitarian deeds. Even in death, Frank Buhl did not forget the people of the Shenango Valley, of the world. He left $2 million to the suffering war orphans in Northern France and Belgium. Today, in France, there is a Buhl Pavilion in the Sanitorium d’Hefaut, and in Brussels, the Edith Cavell-Marie dePage War Memorial Hospital stands in tribute to his generosity.
The Buhls also purchased 300 acres of land in the middle of the Shenango Valley with an eye to the future recreational welfare of the community. In 1915, Mr. Buhl transferred to the Buhl trustees the endowment to take care of the upkeep for an arena he designed as a town recreational facility for the people.
Mr. Buhl requested the area be known as Buhl Farm rather than Buhl Park. Although Mr. Buhl never asked anything of the people, he was adamant in establishing the name Buhl Farm. Supposedly, early amusement parks were coming into their own at that time and Mr. Buhl felt their backers were working in devious ways to eke the pennies and nickles out of the workingman.
His Buhl Farm was for these men and their families as a healthful recreation where they wouldn’t have to spend a cent. He directed 75,000 trees and shrubs planted in the farm and he hired his assistant to continue the layout project. Buhl built the casino on the lake, and had a nine hole golf course laid out. Playgrounds, picnic groves and an athletic field with grandstands were available to the public. Everything except the light lunches provided at the casino were free to the people of the community.
But Mrs. Buhl, who had joined her steel-king husband in all his affectionate gestures toward the valley, continued to fulfill his dreams. Julia Buhl knew well her husband believed in spending his money where he made it. She, too, had a love for charitable work and maintained the Mercer County Branch of International Sunshine Society as her pet project.
She was especially interested in the welfare of the needy children of the valley. Through the Sunshine Society, she financed summer vacations on area farms for impoverished young people. It was by quiet decree that she saw them properly fed and clothed. She even established a fund to purchase glasses for many and gave the money to correct minor eye ailments.
During the Great Depression, Mrs. Buhl further proved her capabilities. She helped ease many families’ financial burdens. She saw that the Sunshine Society provided free milk and hot lunches. She often insisted children be given ample doses of cod liver oil to nurture their good health. In carrying of her husband’s philanthropic work, Mrs. Buhl helped once faltering operations of the Buhl Trustees. Buhl hospital named after Mr. Buhl’s father, Christian H., built in 1896, carried a deficit on its ledgers for many years. It was Mrs. Buhl who saw the books were cleared.
She was a social worker of sorts before the term was popular. Mrs. Buhl dedicated herself to the Shenango Valley and helped make life easier and happier for thousands. She obtained much pleasure in seeing her good deeds make people happy. A memory recalled at her death was the sight of her beaming happily as she enjoyed the concerts and features of Buhl Farm.
Even after an accident when she suffered a fractured leg and was unable to walk without assistance, her good deeds continued. She was chauffeured about town daily. She often braved brisk weather to visit a favorite site, the lovely pond in Buhl Farm that today bears her name. Shortly before her death in 1936, Mrs. Buhl acquired the Buhl Armory on South Sharpsville Avenue to offer the same type of facility for women of the valley that the Buhl Club provided for buys and men.
When she died of a heart attak on the late afternoon of June 3rd, 1936, gloom paled the community. The woman who had spent her entire lifetime performing kind deeds, touching the souls of so many, was gone. But her death did not end the Buhl reign. It continues today. For the men and women who lived high on “Sharon Hill,” who journeyed twice round the world, left their biggest mark on the Shenango Valley.
“Here, their philanthropies are not measured in dollars and cents, but in civic pride and respect for all they inspired.”
The Buhl Community Recreation Center will be celebrating it’s 114th birthday on September 19, 2017. On September 19, 1903 Frank Buhl and his wife, Julia Forker Buhl, delivered the deed of F. H. Buhl Club to its directors and officers. Mr. Buhl told of his experiences as a young man in Sharon 34 years prior, when he first arrived in town. He realized there was no place to go to spend an evening and very few places that could keep a young man from “falling into devious ways”.
When the doors opened in 1903, the F. H. Buhl Club became known as an important part of the social recreational and cultural life of the town. The club continued to flourish, and in 1906, it was known as “the finest equipped club of its kind in the world”. Today the Buhl Community Recreation Center has nearly 1,800 members.
The mission of the Buhl Community Recreation Center is “To provide quality recreational, social wellness and educational programs for all people of all ages in our communities.” Every week, over 60 organized classes and activities are offered, ranging from youth sports, youth fitness, student athlete fitness and strength training, adult group fitness, aquatic fitness, adult personal fitness training, and such enhancement programs as student tutoring, musical instrument lessons, voice lessons, needle point and aquatic programs to include swimming lessons.
The mission of the Buhl Community Recreation Center is to continue the dream of Frank Buhl in perpetuity. That mission continues to be fulfilled over a century later.