The Woman Who Saw Kenmore Grow Up
Originally published as "Reflections" in Akron Life Magazine on October 14, 2009
As Akron’s Kenmore neighborhood observes its centennial, current residents and those who used to call Kenmore home are reminiscing. Ruth Zeh dwells in the second group and, at age 96, the granddaughter of local historian P.P. Cherry is savoring memories that date back to 1916, when her parents, Charles and Mamie Cherry, moved to South 13th Street off Kenmore Boulevard.
The Cherry family moved to Kenmore from Bishop Street in Akron. Zeh was born July 9, 1911, and one of her earliest memories is being rescued by boat from Bishop Street during the devastating flood of 1913. She was the youngest of six children, but never knew three brothers who died before her birth.
“I was 5 years old when we moved to Kenmore,” Zeh recalls. “The streets were mud. The house next to us had farm animals. We had a chicken coop. I had to hold the chicken (when it was time for slaughter). At the corner (on the boulevard) was a grocery store with a meat market. It was Ritzman’s grocery.”
The mention of Ritzman’s name triggers a special memory about the grocer, who often gave candy to his customers’ children. “Mr. Ritzman knew I didn’t like candy, so he gave me a dill pickle,” Zeh says.
Across the street from Ritzman’s were a bakery, a flower shop, a milliner and the Ideal Café, a restaurant whose owner also ran a poolroom. Next to the Ideal was the Boulevard, a movie theater, and nearby was McDowell’s Drug Store, a meeting place for teenagers. “That’s where I met Steve,” Zeh says of the man she would later marry. “Steve lived on 15th Street.”
Kenmore also had another movie theater, the Rialto, which Zeh says she didn’t like because the place was crawling with mice that “ran all over our feet.”
Zeh spent many Saturday afternoons at the movies. “We stayed and stayed until my mother came looking for me,” she says, adding that she knew it was time to go when she heard her mother coughing at the back of the theater.
Other pictures from Zeh’s memory book include watching hobos line up for handouts and a vegetable vendor and a ragman who did business from horse-drawn wagons. “I sold aluminum foil balls to him,” she says of the ragman. “Sometimes they’d fall off the wagon, and I’d sell them to him again.”
The Cherrys had the first telephone on 13th Street. “Mom charged 5 cents for the neighbors to use our phone,” Zeh recalls.
Zeh’s father, a volunteer fireman, died when she was 14. After his death, Zeh’s mother drove with her daughters to Palo Alto, Calif., in the family’s Model A Ford in search of employment. When none could be found, she sold the car to raise train fare back to Kenmore.
“The neighbors were very good,” Zeh says of the time after her father’s death. “I knew all of them. I was a busybody. I used to go to the grocery for a lady on our street. My mother asked me what she paid me. I told her 2 cents. She said, ‘No more!’”
Zeh and her sisters, the late Pearl Witwer and the late Bessie Zembrodt, performed around town as the Singing Cherry Sisters. “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” was one of Zeh’s favorite songs.
A highlight of Zeh’s teen years was when the bridge over the Ohio & Erie Canal was completed, facilitating traffic to the Northern Ohio Traction & Light car barns. The community celebrated with a parade in which Zeh was crowned Miss Kenmore Car Barns Bridge.
Looking back some 80 years later, she says, “I went to different merchants and asked, ‘Will you vote for me?’ That’s how I got to sit on a cart or something in the parade. It was just very funny. Emma, my friend, was mad at me because I beat her out.”
In 1928, the year Kenmore was annexed to Akron, Zeh was a salutatorian of Kenmore High School’s January graduating class, and her future husband was valedictorian of the June class. Both went to work for Goodyear, she as a secretary for 18 years. The late Steve Zeh enjoyed a 48-year career, rising from stock boy to assistant vice president.
They were married on Feb. 13, 1937, had four children and lived for the next 17 years on 13th Street. In all, Zeh lived 40 years on 13th Street, a vantage point from which she concludes, “I saw Kenmore grow up.”