“I was down the street at the Franklin School playground when it happened,” one said.
“I was a child playing outside in the south end,” another read. “The blast shook our homes as well as us kids. It was very scary. My mother’s friend[’]s son died in that blast.”
Another found a space for vulnerability: “Lost my father in this bad accident,” it admitted.
At first glance, you might think that these testimonials are from some kind of organized support group—a space for an intimate conversation about some collectively traumatic event that had touched people’s lives profoundly. In a certain sense, that diagnosis isn’t far off. But it’s far from the whole story.
These are comments from a recent post about the 1962 Maumee Chemical Company factory explosion on “Toledo History & Nostalgia Grab Bag,” a private Facebook group that invites its 15,000+ members to “take a walk back in time,” mostly through old news articles and faded vintage photos. (The group’s size would be over 5% of Toledo’s population today, but the count includes many who have previously passed through Toledo or who feel some other connection to the place—a testament to the alluring aura of a city full of fascinating history.)
Created in July 2013, the group boasts around 20 posts every day from group members who feel compelled to share images of notable historical events, local celebrities, shuttered businesses and once-popular hangout spots. Others interact with content that moves them or inspires an acute nostalgia; many posts’ comment sections find internet strangers bonding over a shared history. And this is just one of many groups dedicated to Toledo’s history and culture.
It all begs the question: how did history-oriented Facebook groups become a platform for such tangible connection? And what does their popularity say about our way of preserving memories and building community in the 21st century?
From Florida to Facebook
Dale Eber has always been fascinated by his city’s history. As a child, he would listen to his grandmother tell tales of the Miami and Erie Canal. His grandfather would share stories of his time working as a steamer mate on Lake Erie.
Eber couldn’t get enough of the stories. While studying at the University of Toledo, he took so many history courses that he lost focus on his major, computer science, and did not graduate.
“I just got a want for history,” he said.
When Eber moved to Florida in 1991, he still longed for tales of ships and canals. Seventeen years later, his homesickness drove him to start a Facebook group called “Pieces of Time, Toledo, Ohio.” The group emerged from a desire to seek familiar snapshots of home; it was rooted in nostalgia from the start.
Eber’s idea resonated with thousands of other people. Living in Toledo once again, he dedicates most of his day to posting pictures and stories from the city’s past for the group’s 7,300 dedicated members. He scours the Library of Congress for material, sometimes searching for photographs and documents by street number. He “plays the Google game,” hopping from one image to the next suggested image, filtering countless results to find interesting pieces.
“I have a passion for it—like a drive,” he said. “Like someone’s pushed me every morning: ‘Get out there and get them pictures posted!’”
On average, Eber posts 120 times a day. Sometimes he doesn’t stop posting until four or five in the morning. As the page’s most frequent contributor, he has made it his mission to post content that will inspire good memories in his audience. But as a moderator, he has a more complex job.
Community-building in the Comments Section
Preserving community online requires a set of ground rules. Eber lays down his commandments in an all-caps admin announcement: “NO FOUL LANGUAGE. NO SALES. THE BIG ONE NO NO NO POLITICS I REALIZE WE ALL HAVE AN OPINION BUT THIS IS NOT THE PLACE FOR IT,” he writes. The rules also prohibit “FIGHTING BITING PINCHING OF ANY KIND.”
After an initial warning, members who violate these rules can be banished from the group. Eber also filters and deletes posts that do not adhere to the group’s standards. He acknowledges that the rules are strict, but explains, “IT’S MY JOB TO KEEP THIS GROUP FUNCTIONING.”
For the most part, members of the group try not to cause trouble. It’s not uncommon to see posts with captions stating, “Dale if this breaks the rules, please delete it.” In shows of virtual civic responsibility, members not only recognize the standards of the community but also express appreciation for the efforts of the community’s leaders.
In “Toledo History & Nostalgia Grab Bag,” admin Julie Lashley Kurtz asks, “Please do not ‘trash’ Toledo, or whine about the way things are today.” Kurtz’s request acknowledges the lamentations that often accompany old photographs of newly-paved streets or polished store-fronts, comparisons with today’s Toledo. Her rule indicates that the group is a place to fondly remember the past, not to disparage the present.
Keeping in line with these rules, members of Toledo history groups have built communities that serve for many as spaces to publicly reflect on the past—and often to find others who identify with their sentiments and experiences. Though some members are more active than others, the groups have clearly developed into a democratic space for open communal reflection.
There’s something profound about members’ rejection of a dichotomy between impersonality and intimacy. At times, it seems as though their comments are calling out into the great abyss of the internet, not begging for attention but not avoiding it either. When connections are made, they are non-judgmental and affirmative in nature, and they speak to the persistent small-town feeling of Toledo—even in a digital format.
A July 10 post in “Toledo History & Nostalgia Grab Bag” included vintage photos of an early-20th-century barbershop and jested that “1912 Barbers William E Straub and William Haggerty are looking for customers to stop by[.]” A group member quickly noticed her mother’s last name, commenting “I wonder if he was my great grand father [sic]?” The original poster swooped in to help her connect the pieces, asking her to pass along regards to her family and quipping, “Small world we live in.”
The following day, Denny Pezzin posted a photograph of a newspaper article about his father Johnny’s bowling career in Eber’s group. “I was just remembering when my father, now 90 years old, broke the world record of the most consecutive strikes in a row in league play and he held that record for 21 years,” he reminisced. Adding that Johnny had earned the title in 1976 at Miracle Lanes (“He bowled 33 strikes in a row!”), Pezzin said that his father was now in old age and in need of prayers.
Hundreds of people reacted to and commented on the post, offering heartwarming messages of support for the bowling legend and his son. Some detailed their love of the sport and their own connections to the lanes; a few even recalled the event itself.
“I remember that night,” one commenter wrote. “… We were all coming in and everybody was telling us to be quiet. We got to see the last part of [your father’s] last game. He had a great crowd watching and cheering him on. And since everybody there were bowlers we all knew and respected what a great feat he accomplished.”
Lynna Mortemore posted her own account of family history in “Pieces of Time.” While pursuing her master’s degree, her mother-in-law Lenore had briefly dated a man named Joseph who wore her graduation ring on his pinky finger. After they parted ways, he said he would send her the ring, but he never did. Mortemore explained that Lenore, now 93 years old, had recently learned of Joseph’s passing; when she reached out to his family to offer condolences, his daughter sent her the ring—70 years after the end of their relationship.
The return of the ring surprised Lynna—as did the comments on her post. A couple of group members recognized Lenore as their 8th grade science teacher. Another commenter reminisced on childhood memories with Lenore’s son, Jeff. “Tell Jeff I said hi!!!” he wrote. “Grew up with him!!!”
“[My mother-in-law is] not on social media, so I copied everything there and mailed it to her,” Lynna told Midstory. “She will get a kick out of it, though, I can tell you that.”
It’s in these types of connections that group admin Eber finds fulfillment.
“[People] think it’s pieces of time of Toledo. But it goes beyond Toledo. It’s just…it’s a piece of time. It’s a snippet—a snapshot of life that you maybe passed in your car as a kid that you totally forgot about. But all of a sudden, boom! There you see that click again,” he said. “And that makes me feel good because I know it’s making somebody else feel good. And that’s my purpose.”
Faded Photographs, Strong Memories
Apart from strengthening community relationships, some groups have found purpose in a more narrow type of historical preservation. Mark Snyder is the sole poster in his private “Toledo Business Matchbook History” group, but his 95 members occasionally comment with reactions and requests. The accessibility of the memories makes the group particularly appealing; within a few clicks and scrolls, it’s easy to find an entire encyclopedia’s worth of matchbook covers with old advertisements for businesses long gone.
As archival materials have filled up members’ feeds, these pages have gradually become platforms for teaching and learning beyond the physical classroom: images of political memorabilia, videos of now-disbanded music groups and stories of disruptive natural disasters.
A June 2019 post from Snyder on the “East Toledo Historical Society” Facebook page, for example, depicted an ancient-looking Lustig’s whiskey bottle along with some speculation about its origins. “[L]abel states address was 100 main st. 1904 city directory gives 99 main as the address. May have moved the business across the street at some point[,]” the caption explained.
While the post found relatively little popularity compared to others in the group, it inspired some commenters to share their own accounts of the image’s connections to Toledo history.
One group member felt compelled to respond to the question of origins: “Remember, right around turn of the century (1900-1904) the city of Toledo renumbered the streets, and in some instances even renamed them,” she wrote. “If this is the case, they may never have moved this company at all. Just a thought…”
Another viewer shared that he recognized the bottle because his family had built and operated an East Toledo nightclub for more than 50 years. “I remember the label because we served it at the bar and to the many diners who frequented the Ritz from 1929-1993,” he wrote, attaching a faded photograph of his parents and sharing some accompanying family history.
Similar dynamics played out on Snyder’s May 21 post in his “Matchbook History” group, where an advertisement for the Glass Bar prompted questions and memories of the venue.
By creating a uniquely interactive atmosphere for historical learning, these Facebook groups have, for many, helped to bring Toledo’s rich past (back) to life.
Today: Tomorrow’s Yesterday
While Eber says he doesn’t view himself as a historian (he’s a self-proclaimed “average guy” and “picture-digger”), his group members frequently acknowledge the work he does to preserve Toledo’s history in “Pieces of Time.”
On a recent post, one member commented, “Thank you for all you do, it’s great to see things that bring back memories.” “Hardest working man on the internet,” another added.
To Eber, the community’s impact lies not only in its present, but in its future. “After I’m gone, I want to leave something behind,” he explained. “You know, [so] that it lives on.” He keeps the log-in information for his page with a family member, just in case—he wants to ensure that the page will remain a resource and a gathering place for his community.
Eber envisions researchers looking back on his page to find a treasure trove of Toledoan historical archives. But the history won’t be confined to Facebook posts. One can imagine future generations of historians assembling family trees through comment sections and reconstructing stories of community built through likes and shares, pieces of time crafted from ordinary citizens’ efforts to preserve Toledo’s history.