There were a number of decades in the history of Mansfield—several whole generations on the timeline—when the city was known in Ohio and around the nation as “Little Chicago.”
The implication was that Mansfield lived up to the lively reputation of Chicago as a hive of crime, vice and corruption.
It was a reputation not without merit.
There were plenty of other towns in the American Midwest who aspired to the title of Little Chicago, and each of them had its own litany of vices and public sins to recite in establishing their claim to the title.
But Mansfield has the rare distinction of having earned the title honestly—in paperwork filed by the U.S. Army in the 1940s.
There was a reason why criminals and carousers converged on Mansfield: 1) it was easy to get to, and 2) it was just small enough and just big enough.
If you were a crime boss in New York and you wanted to sit down with your counterpart from Chicago, you could get on a train and meet halfway. It’s possible you’d go to Cleveland, but there is every possibility that someone with a badge would recognize you there. But from Penn Station you could just as easily catch a comfortable ride west and get off in Mansfield: a place small enough that no one will know you, but big enough that you would remain anonymous.
And substantial enough to offer good food.
The city was easy to reach by two major railroads racing back and forth between New York & Chicago several times every day.
In fact, it was exactly on account of these same railroads that the U.S. Army came to focus on Mansfield in the 1940s.
1940s: Vice in Khaki
In the years during WWII, the city’s railroad grid saw a wild boom in traffic with upwards of 150 trains a day passing through or stopping in the Flats. Most of that congestion was industrial freight shuffling around to wartime factories, but many of the trains had cross-country passenger cars carrying GIs in transit.
The soldiers learned pretty quickly that they could hop off the train to spend time in Mansfield’s bars and brothels because the city’s vice district was only a short walk from Union Station. And with so many trains running through, the men could be back enroute in just a short while with their commanding officer none the wiser.
It was such a convenient setup, and so wildly popular, that Mansfield became quite well known to the enlisted Armed Forces.
So well recognized, in fact, that when the Army had an alarming outbreak of an unfortunate social disease, and was able to trace it back to a vector in the Flats, they asked the city to shut down the brothels.
City officials affected quiet denial at first, but it went to public debate pretty quickly. Ultimately Congress was forced to issue specifications for brothel proximity to GI availability, and the FBI began to monitor all commercial districts within fifty miles of any Military Base—which included Camp Millard in Bucyrus. In 1942, the War Department stepped in to watch the Flats.
A game of cat-and-mouse moved from the streets of the Flats into the headlines of the News-Journal as reporters tracked cathouses like a board game.
City leaders made a show of compliance and reform, but what made Mansfield truly a Little Chicago is that the crime and corruption was wholly institutionalized: they weren’t going to try too hard to stop the flow of drinking customers who spent their Army pay in the Flats.
Certain prominent brothels did close their doors during the war. Those women were moved into trailers that dodged around the city, and whenever the Feds were in town they parked on Bowman Street just outside city limits.
The truth is, it is not an easy thing to simply stop the vice. The city was addicted, and it was endemic all through the lifeblood of city government and an integral part of the city’s self-identity.
Hence the designation: Little Chicago.
Not everyone in uniform, of course, was in search of Gin & Sin—plenty of GIs passing through Mansfield set their sights considerably higher. They would have to climb out of the Flats, however, and up the Main Street hill to find entertainment suitable for respectable American men.
The Mansfield USO club was on Park Avenue West, a block and a half off the Square, in the YMCA. Aside from their casual lounge, USO provided free meals and lodging for soldiers in transit, and held a Tuesday evening party every week during the war. Women of the city held dances and sponsored traveling musical shows—especially when Camp Millard established a subcamp outside of Mifflin. The Y made their swimming pool and gym facilities available to idle troops, and in 1942 they had over 4,000 military personnel sign in.
The greatest number of uniformed men taking advantage of the facility were air cadets in training at the Mansfield airport, but the guest book had signatures from every state of the union.
The Government Solution to the Red-Light District
Through months and years of nonstop traffic of bar-hopping GIs, it became obvious that the vice district of Mansfield was not going to undergo any self-imposed regulation.
City Council discussed repercussions of putting an end to the vice district, but decided it was preferable to keep all the bawdy elements of town segregated in one concentrated bunch of neighborhoods rather than forcing it to spread out over the rest of town.
Ultimately, the way it ended was quick and definitive: the Federal Government tore it all down and built a U.S. Post Office on the site.
And it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to understand why U.S. Route 30, when it was redesigned following the war, was given a new route outside the city.
It would be hard to overstate how critically important the railroad station was to the vitality of downtown Mansfield during these virulent days of Little Chicago. There were 16 million Americans who served during the war, nearly all of them rode the railroad transits at some point, and the single largest railroad in America stopped in Mansfield several times every day. Fully 25% of all those who served never left the country, and stateside troops received 1-2 days of overnight liberty per week.
Big-city ports became a pressure–cooker of civilians and law enforcement for uniformed men loaded with back pay looking for “a woman, a drink, and a dollar left over.” It was simpler to hop a train to a place inland where there were fewer eyes watching them, and grateful barkeeps and brothel madams happy to take their cash.
So Union Station stood at the crossroads of America.
Within an easy stroll of the station platform were untold dozens of restaurants, diners, saloons, brothels, pool halls, bookie joints, and crap games. Untold because any number of these establishments might close up and move a few doors down the street at a moment’s notice.
There was one landmark that stood tall throughout it all, however, and it is today literally the last remaining doorway in all the Flats that GIs frequented in the WWII rush.
It was often the first stop by soldiers on leave, who popped in for a beer and a hot pepper, and was such a familiar and well-loved destination that it acquired a kind of international fame: when Corporal Pataky from Mansfield set up his tent to serve as a modest makeshift beer hall for his Company on the island of Tinian in 1945, he hung a sign over the door that read, “Creamers.”
The End Of An Era
That whole 1940s wild Little Chicago era of Mansfield was a cultural phenomenon that was wholly shaped by the times—a kind of robust crazy vitality that came with the War—and once that time ended, the whole shape of life redefined itself.
The age of railroads declined with the interstate highway system. The Vice District was flattened, and most of Franklin Street was simply erased from the map and from consciousness.
It was never really mentioned again, like wild oats sewn in the irresponsible youth of someone who grew into respectable maturity.
One way of life was put out, so another new light could kindle the next iteration of Mansfield and America.
Images and stories in this article come from many sources, including Frank Gilbert, Phil Stoodt, Tom Root, Crawford County Chapter Ohio Genealogical Society, Richland Soil and Water Conservation District, Hal McCuen, Virgil Hess, Bill McCarrick, Virginia Imhoff, and Anne Sabri.