The Death of America in Small-Town Ohio

A pickup truck rolls through the town square in Kinsman, Ohio.

Trumbull County, Ohio is one of those quaint little patches in the American quilt. Located in the Mahoning Valley, on the far northeastern edge of the Buckeye state, Trumbull borders Pennsylvania and serves as a microcosm of Ohio itself, with a mixture of Rust Belt decline, Appalachian culture, small cities, rural hamlets, and lots of corn fields. The county’s combination of redneck charm and economic anxiety have made it a go-to stop for vote-craving politicos, who barnstorm Trumbull’s many barns every election season promising an imminent return to a mystic Mayberrian past of small-town fuzziness and industrial might embodied by the now-defunct Republic Steel blast furnace in the county seat of Warren.

With a rich history of organized labor, Trumbull (along with neighboring Mahoning County, home to the former “Steel City” of Youngstown) has long been a stronghold for the Democratic Party. In fact, the last time Trumbull voted Republican was for Richard Nixon in 1972. That is, until the county balked tradition and supported Donald Trump for president in 2016. Trumbull County is now Trump country thanks to a fear of death — a death brought on by economic stagnation, declining public health, the opiate epidemic, and the impression that America has been lying comatose in an open grave for too long.

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Death, Technology, and the Rise of Steel: Why Workers Matter in American History

Workers in the Mahoning Valley’s iron mills came in a variety of ages, including small children, as seen in this early 1870s photo of Brown, Bonnell & Co.’s nail mill crew.

Workers in Ohio’s Mahoning Valley iron mills ranged from old guys to small children, as seen in this early 1870s photo of Brown, Bonnell & Co.’s nail mill crew.

Publisher’s Note: Today we’re doing something a bit different. This is a guest article by Clayton Ruminski, a specialist in the rise of iron and steel production in Northeast Ohio’s Mahoning Valley. I grew up in the “Valley,” so this post is totally local history for me, but for those of you unfamiliar with the tragic story of the rise and fall of Ohio’s once glorious steel industry, this post will provide some much-needed context about how workers built America.  

Northeast Ohio’s Mahoning Valley, and in particular the city of Youngstown, is one of America’s poster children for de-industrialization, desolation, and the general lack of an economy. Heck, it even inspired a Bruce Springsteen song. But there was once prosperity in this buckle of the American Rust Belt. The valley was affectionately known as the “Steel Valley,” but there is a general ignorance as to how this region became one of the most dominant steel producers in the United States.

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