Our civilization has bumbled through at least four or five millennia wherein half of the people on the globe were largely discounted from serious consideration because they were women. In a place like Mansfield, Ohio, where values of the town simply rode the current of society, this hierarchical sense of civil order was so comprehensively assumed that it inadvertently provided a powerful blind spot in local culture.
If authorities weren’t taking you seriously, they were also not watching you very closely.
Tradition precluded women from positions of authority in certain tiers of community influence, but no woman is without power. One assumes otherwise at his own risk. Perhaps to his peril.
In the decades I spent in this town I have known many, many old women, and from the time I was young I was a favorite among those white-haired matriarchs because I asked questions, and, more importantly, I listened and actually heard what they said.
I earned their confidence, and so what I heard—in confidence—were tales that no other man was ever privileged to hear.
It has been almost a lifetime since I started collecting these stories, so I have long outgrown any reticence about sharing them; and all of those old women are long gone from this world, so they cannot object. I have to say though, that there was not a one of them whose knowing eyes did not grant tacit permission to pass the tales to their great-grandchildren if the time ever came ripe.
I consider their trust a mandate.
It seemed wholly unlikely then—when I was a boy—that one day I might have a voice to make the stories public, but those old women had seen enough of the world to recognize the possibilities in me. And today, with pen in hand and intention of speaking finally their story, I can see it was less like random possibilities and more like destiny.
I learned about Widow’s Landing from Ruth when she was in her nineties. She had lived there once, though she never married so she wasn’t one of the widows. Ruth presented such a soft and gently blurred demeanor it was impossible to imagine that behind those sweet grey eyes she might have the kind of sharp steel insides it took to contain such a hard secret within herself for decades. It was a perfect deception.
I don’t remember how the topic happened to come up in conversation, but she explained that Widow’s Landing had gotten that name in the 1930s when all the husbands had died off and the women were left behind.
Not everyone knew it by that name: only the owners and local tenants on the block ever referred to it that way, as well as City Hall officials and cops who walked the Fourth Street beat. The building went by a number of other names through different eras of its history, and was known variously by whatever business was occupying the sidewalk level storefront.
Built in 1890 of native stone, it entered the city’s history as the Carpenter Block. It was the original address of the first Kroger’s in town; and when the Lincoln Highway came down Fourth Street in 1915, it turned into a restaurant stop for tourists. In my younger days, it had been a well-known lunch tavern called the Daily Bar for decades, and in recent years it has become a micro-brewery called the Wooden Pony, and now City Grille.
The three-story building had two floors of apartments above stairs, and the second landing sometimes housed business operations, because the third floor was designed as a balconied gallery so as to let the sunshine of a great skylight above brighten a cheery central foyer, which could serve as a waiting room. A doctor saw patients there in the 1900s; a hairdresser in the 1910s.
The original builders had envisioned the space as a Mansfield Board of Trade block with all the upper spaces filled by labor union and manufacturing management offices, but the closest that particular dream ever came to realization was one year in the 1920s when it famously housed the local office of the Socialist Party.
By the 1930s, all the apartments were occupied by older couples. It was a very friendly arrangement because all the doors on both floors opened to this common sunny area, so by 1939 when the last of the husbands had passed away, all the widows were comfortably settled like one big family. The neighboring shops saw nothing but women going in and out of that door, and that’s when it became known as Widow’s Landing.
“But you weren’t a widow…” I posited to Ruth.
“No,” she replied, “but it didn’t matter once the war started.”
“You see, everything changed during the war. Everyone was afraid that all the upheaval was going to kill the city’s local job market, which had been so precariously balanced for survival during the Depression; but what happened was exactly the opposite.
“The factories in town retooled to make munitions and weapons and battle gear, and they swung into such fierce around-the-clock production that they suddenly needed a whole lot more workers. And all the spare men were off being soldiers.
“This town became a magnet for people who needed work, and they came from everywhere. The greatest majority of them were women. Every train brought more women to town, and they came from the mountains of Appalachia and the flatwoods of Alabama, and anywhere else the train passed through. It was an American stew you could never imagine.
“Westinghouse needed hands and it made no difference to them what color they were or how strangely they talked.
“Because, these women also came from Europe. They also spoke German, which became increasingly dangerous every day; and some of them spoke a language no one in Mansfield could recognize and that was the most dangerous of all.”
That was Ruth talking about herself.
The problem wasn’t finding jobs—it was finding a place to stay. All the boarding houses in the Flats filled up to double-shift rooming. No one uptown would even consider taking in a woman who was not a naturalized citizen.
Ruth came to Mansfield from Macedonia. When she stepped onto the platform at Union Station she knew no one in this town.
Most of those unclaimed and stunned women speaking unrecognizable words who stepped off the train would have been directed to the Friendly House, where somebody could have figured out what language they were speaking and directed them toward an appropriate part of town.
But there was no welcome wagon for Ruth. She followed the crowd toward the hill where the lowering sky was lit by the center of town.
Eyes Straight Ahead
She had no great illusions about what she was stepping into, and her worst imaginings were there to greet her right away walking through the Flats. Dim lights on the streets were clearly shrouding business establishments that had no signs: businesses that advertised with only a red light on the front porch.
Most of the crowd accompanying her from the train was made of soldiers in transit, and they all disappeared shortly within those blocks nearest the tracks, where men were welcome. Ruth found herself proceeding up Diamond Street alone, and she was grateful for street lights and suitcases so she didn’t look like a street walker.
At the corner of Fourth Street there was a big hotel with a comfortable sidewalk crowd of folks passing and pausing, chatting and loitering, so a stranger was not so obviously all by herself. But as the night wore on and the evening crowd waned, Ruth was trying not to look desperate, keeping an eye out for policemen.
That was when an old woman walked across the street looking directly at her with a smile on her face. The woman had come out of a doorway across the street, a place Ruth came to know as Widow’s Landing.
There were seven widows in residence at the Fourth Street address in 1943, living above a furniture store and a café called the DeLuxe. When Ruth took up residence with them that night, there were more than twenty extra women living in the widows’ space.
Only about half of them spoke much English.
Though they camped on couches and cots tucked into closets, corners, kitchens and hallways, the impromptu boarding house was always clean and orderly because the widows’ keen sense of decorum and courtesy imbued the chaos with dignity and manifest respect.
Ruth said that there were islands of clarity within the disorder—hall tables and sewing stands tucked against the walls—where the widows always kept fresh flowers. Redefining what in any other circumstances would be the inherent squalor of overcrowding was a delicate aura of feminine refinement.
No one had to point out to the widows that nobody took them seriously. The women were very much aware that they were virtually invisible.
So they knew if they gave a home to any number of working women in defiance of housing codes, no one would even know. Or if they provided sanctuary for any particularly illegal foreigners in defiance of Federal laws and local convention, no one would ever be the wiser.
Even though they were in the heart of downtown on what was, at that time, the busiest street through the city.
An endless number of women could walk through the Fourth Street door and up those stairs and no one would even notice, so long as no men walked through that door to create any suspicion of impropriety.
So that was the rule: no men.
All of the younger women—dozens sometimes—were of marriageable age and not averse to meeting eligible husbands, but they were not allowed—under any circumstances—to bring them to the Widows’ place.
Ruth was definitely not looking for a husband. She was actually quite relieved to be away from the attentions of her hometown village where men seemed to eye all women hungrily and dispassionately like a blue plate special at the cafeteria.
There was a man who sat next to her on the line at the factory however, who spoke to her continually as if they were a couple. She couldn’t understand most of what he said, but his eyes spoke clear messages which defied any language barrier.
Her friends at the Widows’ taught her ways to discourage his advances, and American phrases calculated to subdue his attraction, but anything she said—no matter how reasoned, or how poignant, or how hurtful it sounded—could do nothing other than pile fuel on to his fire.
She finally hit upon the solution one day quite by accident and without the aid of her friends’ advice. Somehow she struck right to the sore point of his manhood, and it struck so true he simply stopped speaking to her. He wouldn’t even look at her. She asked him why he wasn’t in uniform. He should be off fighting the war.
I never asked Ruth what his name was—somehow that didn’t seem of any great importance to her at this point in the story. And after hearing the rest, it wasn’t hard to imagine why saying his name might seem like invoking a ghost.
Ruth’s would-be suitor was deeply wounded by her remark, but like so many wild plants that are snubbed and cut back on the surface, his obsession spread its roots deeper underground to make him stronger.
He wasn’t looking at her any more, but he started watching her. He followed her one day after work and she saw him staring at her from across the Square. After that, she knew enough to never walk straight home from the factory. Nevertheless, somehow he found out where she lived anyway.
She knew that because one of the Widows turned him away one evening when he tried to climb the stairs. He asked for her before the old woman threatened to call the police because no men were allowed past the door.
Of course they would never have called the police, but he didn’t know that. What he did know after that evening, was that he needed a strategy.
It is hard to know just what it was that Ruth’s stalker thought was going to happen if he got up the stairs at Widow’s Landing. Was he going up there to hurt her? Or to kidnap her; did he imagine she would suddenly like him if he showed up in her bedroom at midnight? The guy was teetering on the edge.
But he figured out how to get up there.
He got himself a wig, and he found a dress and a reasonably stylish hat, and he strode easily in the Fourth Street door and up the stairs. He even made it somehow through the foyer, past some ladies playing cards, and up to the balcony like a shadow on the wall.
But he had no idea where he was going, and at the point when he made a weird U-turn at the end of the gallery, every head at the card table automatically turned in concern. The disguise got him up there out of the corner of their eyes, but it couldn’t sustain the illusion once they all were trying to figure out who it was swishing around on the balcony.
One of the women yelled, “Who are you!?” and everyone rose in sudden alarm. The man managed to utter Ruth’s name, and in an instant they all knew exactly who he was; and in the involuntary rush of horror at least one of them screamed.
The man didn’t know what to do—he was frozen on the edge looking for a magic exit when suddenly one of the Widows burst out of her room behind him.
It was not a wide balcony. Her door happened to be right behind him as he teetered in panic, and before anyone could guess what was happening it had already happened.
The man in his wig and the nice hat went over the balcony rail head first.
He died as the only man who ever set foot in Widow’s Landing.
Like I said—like Ruth said—they couldn’t call the police. None of the women had done anything wrong, but they would all be taken away if the cops ever had reason to tread upstairs and see how many unregistered, non-taxpaying, un-American women were bunking in every spare space of Widow’s Landing.
But they had to get the man in the wig out of the building. There was no way they could carry him out—even a block away—and risk being seen by anyone on the street. In those wartime days, when factories were running shifts every possible hour, there were people on the sidewalk even in the middle of the night.
It was the Widows who came up with the plan. It was executed perfectly over the many shifts of the next three days, and every single woman of the household had her own part to play.
Each of those women had a purse over her arm as she walked out the Fourth Street door, and of course nobody even noticed them one way or another, so it meant nothing to anyone if she pulled a small parcel out of her purse, wrapped in brown butcher’s paper, and dropped it in a corner trash receptacle on her way down the street.