Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Thank you, Mr. and Mrs. Buhl!

I climbed onto the bike, pedaled furiously for about 45 seconds, then sighed dejectedly.


If someone were to ask me if there is one thing that is uniformly poor at budget hotels, I would definitely say the "fitness centers." They may be wiped down on a daily basis like any other room in the house, but the machines are more likely than not to be broken. Unfortunately the Days Inn in Boardman, Ohio was no exception. The treadmill jerked and squealed with each of my steps. The previous runner's workout, which ended only 1 minute and 12 seconds after it had begun, was sad confirmation that the problem wasn't just mine. Likewise, the display on the stationary bike failed to light up no matter how hard I pedaled, and it had no power switch that I could find. Since I couldn't adjust the resistance, the machine offered absolutely no challenge. I was left spinning my wheels, literally.
I reluctantly debated whether to seek out a commercial gym. Several years ago, after I had gotten overcharged by L.A. Fitness, I resolved never to give my credit card number to a facility regardless of the staff's promises about the ease of canceling memberships. But I was desperate. As an overweight, middle-aged person who has an enthusiastic relationship with food, I didn't want to miss a day of exercise if I could help it.

Then I got a bright idea: why not try the Buhl? 

Right up the street from the Community Library of the Shenango Valley, one of my research sites, is the Buhl Community Recreation Center (BCRC). Founded in 1903, it is similar to a YMCA. It offers fitness programs, exercise equipment, a pool, and other facilities at affordable rates to the public. 
The Buhl Community Recreation Center, Sharon, PA. Founded 1903.
The BCRC was one of many gifts to the people of Sharon from F. H. and Julia Buhl. In the early 1800s, F. H. Buhl's grandfather settled in Zelienople, a town about 50 miles southeast of Sharon. His father, Christian Henry Buhl, moved on to Detroit and became the Motor City's first mayor. The elder Buhl owned an iron works in Sharon, and son Frank Henry (1848-1918) eventually became its owner.  F. H. Buhl, as he became known, also developed successful companies of his own, particularly in the steel industry.  His marriage to Julia Forker (1854-1936), who hailed from a prominent family in Mercer County, deepened his connections to the area. Selling his steel companies to Andrew Carnegie and U.S. Steel made him a very wealthy man. 

During their lives and after their deaths, the Buhls were Sharon's most generous philanthropists. Some projects, like Buhl Farm, a 300-acre public park with a casino, lake, and other facilities, were million-dollar undertakings. Others, like providing cod-liver oil for schools with sickly pupils, were modest. The local Episcopal church, the hospital, and various other organizations benefitted from the Buhls' interests (for more biographical information about F. H. and Julia Buhl, see Shirley Minshull and William C. Philson, "Frank Henry Buhl: A Very Brief Biography" [pamphlet], available at the Mercer County Historical Society. See also articles about F. H. Buhl in the Sharon Herald within the week following his decease on June 7, 1918). 

Decades after the Buhls' deaths, people continue to benefit from their philanthropy. Even out-of-towners like me! 

I pulled into the BCRC parking lot in my salt-smeared Ford, wearing ratty sweat pants and not holding out much hope. I wasn't a resident, so I didn't expect to be welcomed. Yet, as it turns out, anyone with a driver's license or other ID can purchase a day pass. For only $8 -- the price of a ticket to a crummy movie -- I spent more than 2 hours hoofing on an elliptical machine and hefting barbells. Although I had to wait several minutes before a cardio machine became available, I didn't mind very much. There were disabled, elderly, and youth athletes who needed their workouts as much as I needed mine. In fact, if I lived near Sharon, I would be more inclined to join the BCRC than Gold's or another commercial gym because the Buhl's clientele are everyday people like myself. Observing how busy the BCRC was on a nondescript Tuesday morning, as well as the diverse people using it, it is definitely doing something right in terms of serving a public need. 

Thank you, F. H. and Julia Buhl! 

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