‘Memories of Christmas Past’ in Youngstown
Revisit the sights and lights of bygone holiday seasons as the Mahoning Valley Historical Society’s annual display at the Arms Family Museum celebrates 10 years.
As a child growing up in the working-class ethnic enclave of Youngstown’s Smoky Hollow neighborhood, Anthony Worrellia remembers the days when downtown was a booming hub of activity. The mills and industries tied to them provided a high standard of living. People had money to spend, and they usually spent it downtown: shopping, seeing a show or enjoying an evening out at one of the restaurants or nightclubs.
“It was like a playground for me,” recalls Worrellia, whose parents both worked in downtown Youngstown, his mother for Strouss’ Department Store and his father at Wean United, a company that made steel finishing equipment. “I was there just about every day, and I was at Strouss’ every time my mother worked. The stores at Christmas were magical, and my mother created that at home for us, in every room.”
Today, Worrellia — now the building and grounds supervisor for the Mahoning Valley Historical Society — re-creates the ambience of Christmases from years gone by at the Arms Family Museum, located just up the hill from downtown on Wick Avenue. The “Memories of Christmas Past” exhibition is now in its 10th year and has drawn thousands of holiday visitors to the home.
Each year, a total of seven rooms — the solarium, sitting room, dining room, butler’s pantry, carriage entrance, library and reception room — are decorated in a different theme. Visitor favorites include the train layout that features old German paper houses and a 2-foot-tall dollhouse that a man made for his family using cigar boxes and an orange crate.
Then, there’s the sitting room’s 8-1/2-foot-tall crystal tree, laden with more than 1,000 crystal prisms as ornaments. First created in 2011, the tree wasn’t displayed for the following two years but was brought back for 2017.
“It’s something to see, the way it captures the light and throws it all around the room,” says Bill Lawson, executive director of the Mahoning Valley Historical Society.
Located on the museum’s second floor, “It’s Christmastime in the City” features a photo mural of West Federal Street the way Worrellia — and many others of a certain age — remember it: with three movie theaters, as well as two department stores, Strouss’ and McKelvey’s, and smaller shops including haberdasheries and two five-and-dimes, Woolworth’s and McCrory’s.
As many as 6,000 people have come through the Arms Family Museum’s doors during the holiday season to see the exhibit, but it more typically draws around 4,500 during its seven-week run, which this year ends on Jan. 7.
“This is my favorite time of year,” Lawson adds, “from when the exhibit opens until the day it closes.”
Wilford Arms, the museum’s namesake, moved to Youngstown in 1888. He had already attained some business success and grew rich as Youngstown changed from a small town to a major industrial center. In 1899, he married Olive Arms, a distant cousin, and six years later, the two moved into the Arts and Crafts-style stone home on Wick Avenue, then the city’s millionaire’s row.
Arms died in 1947, and his wife lived in the home until her death in 1960. In her will, she left the property to the historical society with the provision that the first floor was kept as a museum showing life in the early 1900s. The historical society has long decorated the home for the holidays, but up until a decade ago it was rather understated.''
“We often featured things from the historical society’s collection, and we put up a tree,” Lawson says. “We usually had some kind of theme, and 10 years ago, we were looking for a new direction.”
Worrellia, an antiques dealer who works part time for the museum and came from a graphic design background, is an avid collector of holiday decorations and memorabilia as part of a nationwide collectors group called the Golden Glow of Christmas Past. For the annual exhibit, he relies on the historical society’s collection of toys and other holiday items as well as his own. Worrellia estimates about a quarter of the pieces on display at “Memories of Christmas Past” are from his personal collection, which ranges from the mid-1800s up to the 1970s.
“Throughout the year, we display the first-floor rooms, in many cases, the way we found them,” Lawson says. “Almost everything on the first floor belonged to Mrs. Arms or her family. But we set that aside for seven weeks ... and the house becomes a backdrop to this magnificent Christmas exhibit. It’s always amazing to me how well it works. Anthony respects the home and plays off it.”
The display also fits with the museum’s mission to show what life was like after the turn of the 20th century, Worrellia says, by featuring rare pieces that have largely been lost to time.
“Most people don’t see the things we have on display,” he says of the vintage decorations. “They’ve gotten thrown out, and you just can’t replace it.”
At least one decoration featured in the exhibit was a learning experience even for Worrellia. The Twinkler tree is laden with ornaments sold under the Twinklers brand name. Also known as twirlers or birdcages, the ornaments, which Youngstown’s Plakie Toy made in the 1950s, have a fan that spins from the heat generated by the lightbulb. The ornaments themselves were short-lived due to the fact that, eventually, they’d melt.
“One year, [I] got a call from a guy who said he invented them,” Worrellia recalls. The inventor was John Garver, a Boardman teacher who had several inventions patented including the Twinklers ornament. “His wife came up with the star shape. She was cutting cookies one day and suggested putting the fan in the middle of the star.”
The Youngstown exhibit was a success from its first year, increasing the number of holiday-season visitors to the home during what had previously been a slow time.
“That first year we had over 1,200 people in three or four weeks,” Worrellia says. “We used to give guided tours, but the doorbell never stopped ringing, so we had to stop doing tours.”
Worrellia says the exhibit takes him about a year to design — he’s already thinking about 2018, and says he has ideas brewing for the next three or four years — but he enjoys the process of creating the annual display, particularly the knowledge that in the cold of winter, it takes people to a warm place.
“It actually moves people to tears,” he says. “Seeing the lights or the ornaments or the old Christmas cards or toys just triggers an emotional response. The exhibit inspires people to go home and get the old decorations out from their attic or become collectors.”
Arms Family Museum
648 Wick Ave., Youngstown 44502
Hours: Tues.–Sun. noon–4 p.m., Thur. open until 7 p.m.
Admission: Adults $7, seniors $6, children $5, under 3 free (includes admission to all Mahoning Valley Historical Society sites)