FRANK & JULIA BUHL'S LEGACY
The story of Julia Forker and Frank Henry Buhl should naturally begin with “Once upon a time…”
Though it has been told time and time again, it is 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 Buhls 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 due to a kindly king.
What a grand pair they must have been – a gentle Julia, loved by the community not for her wealth but for her charming simplicity; and 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 Julia 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 the young Julia, it was beginning of a new lifestyle in her beloved Shenango Valley. But 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 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 Sharon Hills,” an account quotes her as saying. And, Frank, a powerful business tycoon who usually followed his own head, listened to his lady. He not only abided by Julia’s wishes and remained as head of the Sharon Iron Company, but dutifully listened to his mother, too. A story recalled some years ago, said the elder Mrs. Buhl, upon visiting the newlyweds in their 10-room, gray, frame house said, “Why Frank, how dare you let your wife live in this house. You should build her a mansion.”
Then There Was a Mansion - The Buhl Mansion
Frank Buhl did just that. Today, the Buhl’s castle-like garrison stands as a historical landmark. It is a reminder to all who pass by of the legacy the Buhl’s 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.
Construction on the mansion got under way in 1891. The Buhls engaged Charles Owsley of Youngstown 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 was entered on the National Register of Historic Places. Its beauty and charm are enhanced by architectural features of the Richardson Romanesque influence. Arches, columns, finials and turrets enhance its charm; its magnetic quality is irresistible. Passers-by gaze longingly at the domain legend.
Although stories from the past fail to tell much of Frank’s 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 was always gracious and notably modest. 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. Buhl learned early in his married life that Julia was not a delicate Victorian doll, but very much a lady of conviction. As construction of their mansion proceeded, accounts say he matter-of-factly made design suggestions and plans for decoration accents, but Mrs. Buhl had 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 herself had planned to display ruffled covers at all of 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 throughout the 14 rooms, and caterers from Cleveland served what were called exquisite delicacies.
The castle was a showplace. Mrs. Buhl commissioned a Detroit decorator to travel to Frankfurt to buy furnishings for her home. Vibrant colors of red, lilac, pink and green highlighted the brocade, parquetry, fretwork and furnishings. Mrs. Buhl received 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 golf striped chairs and love seats flanked the room. Guests gazed out toward State Street through gold filigree velvet draperies. The Buhls would spend their evenings in a shelf-lined den. Sparks would occasionally spew from the fire flowing with logs and limbs cut during the building of Buhl Farm. Built-up soot etched a bedizen-edged, blue oriental rug, but Frank Buhl did not care insisting 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.”
While the Buhls had no children of their own, they cherished their young relatives and provided a “quiet” room for their visits. 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 go down to the kitchen before entertaining guests and sit and eat a bowl of soup, to test the evening fare. Holidays were joyous occasions. On Christmas Day, the family would gather around the big oak dining room table and take in the bounty of the 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 buttered truffles.
Just prior to the turn of the century, after Mr. Buhl sold the Buhl Steel Company, 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, by 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.
Interests Worth Repeating
Mr. Buhl’s interests are history but they are worth repeating. In 1903, he established the F. H. Buhl Club (now known as the Buhl Community Recreation Center) on East State Street. While his generosity touched the folks here, he also stretched his hands across the world. He underwrote a loan for a railroad in Manilla. He and Peter L. Kimberly established the Twin Falls Land and Water Company in Idaho and built a dam across the Snake River in 1903, the world’s third 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 didn’t forget the people of the Shenango Valley, or the world. He left $2 million to the suffering war orphans in Northern France and Belgium. Today, in France, a Buhl Pavilion in the Sanatorium Edith Caveli-Marie de Page War Memorial Hospital stands in tribute to his generosity.
The Buhl’s 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 area he designated as a recreational facility for the people of the community.
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 amusements 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 nickels out of the workingman. His Buhl Farm was for these men and their families to be a healthful recreation where they would not have to spend a cent. He directed 75,000 trees and shrubs to be planted in the farm and he hired a landscape architect from Cleveland to lay out the property. Mr. Buhl noted the architect was having trouble figuring out the road plan for the area, so he fired him and hired his assistant to continue the project. Buhl built the Casino on a lake, had a nine-hole golf course constructed and tennis courts laid out. Playgrounds, picnic groves and an athletic field with a grandstand were available to the public. Everything, except the light lunches provided at the Casino, were free to the people of the community.
For more than 20 years, Mr. and Mrs. Buhl served as the first family of the Shenango Valley. Then, in the summer of 1918, the community was plunged into sorrow when they lost their leading citizen. Frank H. Buhl was dead. But Mrs. Buhl, who had joined her steel-king husband is 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 the 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 does of cod liver oil to nurture their good health. In carrying on her husband’s philanthropic work, Mrs. Buhl helped the once faltering operations of the Buhl Trustees. Buhl Hospital, named after Mr. Buhl’s father, Christian H. Buhl and 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 the women of the valley that the Buhl Club provided for boys and men.
When she died of a heart attack in the late afternoon of June 3, 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 man and woman who lived high on “Sharon Hill” and journeyed twice around the world, left their biggest mark on the Shenango Valley. Here, their philanthropy is not measured in dollar and cents, but in civic pride and respect for all they inspired.