By TERRY BRLAS
Strongsville Post editor
There is probably no resident of Strongsville that has the history, memories and perspective more so than Lee Sprague. The 90-year-old resident turned nine decades old on July 8. He left the city he loves only one time when he served in the United States Navy from 1943-46 on the battleship North Carolina.
There have been many changes in the city, none bigger than the population. There were approximately 800 people living in Strongsville when he was born in 1921. Today there are 45,000.
"It was all farms, nothing else," Lee said of his youth.
The name Sprague will forever be linked with Strongsville. Sprague Road was named for his ancestors. The first Sprague came to the new world in 1623 on the Anna Little James, one of the first ships following the Mayflower's arrival.
Francis Sprague's wife, Mary, was five months pregnant. They planned on sailing on the Mayflower, but were convinced to stay where they were for a time due to the need for medical care.
"The man in charge of the Mayflower told them you better stay in England where there are hospitals. There isn't anything in that new America except trees and Indians," Lee said.
Brothers David and Knight Sprague arrived in the area in 1817. Sprague Road is named after these two pioneer ancestors of Lee.
A lot of what you see that is positive about Strongsville can be attributed to Lee. A very good athlete, he started the Little League baseball program, a forerunner of the city recreation program, so children would have the opportunity to learn and compete.
"I coached all the 4-H kids. We won the county baseball championship two years," he said.
Lee played football, basketball and baseball at Strongsville High School in the late 1930s. He "tore" his collarbone playing football, which limited his throwing ability.
Lee's brother Ben was a third baseman in the Cleveland Indians farm system for two years. He gave up on the dream of reaching the majors and returned to Strongsville.
Lee recalls traveling to county fairs with a man named Malc Fish to show off their baseball-pitching prowess. Even Bob Feller, the Cleveland Indians hall of famer, came out to visit.
"Feller was a farm boy from Iowa. He was a helluva' nice guy. We were about the same age and size," Lee said.
The state of Ohio permitted townships to become villages with a mayor and council in 1927. Welsh-born politician and jurist Edward Blythin moved to Strongsville in 1922. He was probably best known for presiding as judge over the murder trial of Dr. Sam Sheppard in 1954. But he was also instrumental in incorporating the township as a village in 1927 pushing Strongsville towards greater development urging those who would hear him that the location was prime for development.
"He was the nicest, quietest man you'd ever meet," Sprague said. "He was the best man in the world to get us straightened out. He came to dad's funeral and died (1958) two or three months later."
Blythin drafted the paperwork on a land contract when Lee's father, E.A., purchased the family farm after returning from service in World War I.
"He kept telling our people that the roads have got to come through your town if you start to develop it," Lee said.
E.A. became mayor of Strongsville in 1950 and served two terms. He was the last part-time mayor for the city getting paid $200 per year. The Ohio Turnpike was built in 1951 during his administration. Three or four times per day he had to leave the family hatchery business to hold mayor's court, according to Lee.
During the Depression there was not much work so men worked on farms for $1 per day for 12 hours of work. Once the economy got better men got jobs in Cleveland leaving a void for such entities as the fire department. There were not enough individuals available to form a full-time fire department. When E.A. became mayor the city purchased a 1928 International fire pumper truck.
Lee purchased his first piece of property for $100 an acre. He was prominent in getting Bob Schmitt to come to Strongsville and build homes.
"I had to get Bob here to build big houses," Lee said. "I sold him his first piece of property."
Lee looks at 1959 as a watershed moment in the city's history. In his words that was the year of "the big blow up."
Forest City Enterprises, a national real estate company, purchased hundreds of acres in Strongsville. The growth of the city meant larger houses for residents would have to be built. It took a two-thirds majority to override a veto by then Mayor William Thompson, the former building inspector who zoned the city in Forest City's favor without council approval as mayor according to Lee. A campaign to get enough representation on council to override the mayor's veto power was the goal, which was accomplished during the election of 1959.
"We rezoned Forest City out of town in the1960s," he said. "We didn't have to worry about Thompson's vetoes as before and we were on our way as a city."
Lee drove school bus for 43 years and was on the volunteer fire department. Neither job was the type where you got rich. He received $1 per day for driving bus when he started and $1 per call on the fire department. He also drove various groups on trips on a Strongsville city bus. On one such trip the brakes on the bus gave out. While the group ate lunch he fixed the brakes unbeknownst to his passengers.
"I needed a couple of bucks. I think we had four school buses. I think they have over 100 now," he said. "We didn't receive any benefits on the fire department. They taught me how to put out fires on the ship (U.S.S. North Carolina)."
In regards to his service to our country he realizes how fortunate he was to return back to Strongsville after World War II.
"Quite a few of them boys (high school classmates) went to war and didn't come back," he said. "Being on a battleship was better than being in the army. I told the officer I wanted to go into the Navy because there was a chance I would get to fly. I never got to."
Lee began to build houses in Strongsville after he returned from his Navy service. His home building was born of necessity.
"I did it because I needed a place to live and there hadn't been any building for three or four years," he said. "I had to have a house because my brother was in my grandpa's house. I had three brothers and three sisters. I ended up building one house per year."
He started building houses due to need and it came to an end due to a community need.
"There weren't a lot of people in the community to drive the school buses so he stopped building and drove the bus," Linda, Lee's daughter, said.
The U.S.S. North Carolina is displayed in Wilmington, N.C. Lee was on his way to visit his home from 1943-46 a number of years ago, but his wife became ill and he had to return home prior to reaching Wilmington.
Through the years Lee has served as a trustee of Southwest General Hospital, on the Strongsville School Board from 1956-60, 10 years as a 4-H Club advisor and 15 years on the city's Recreation Board. He also received an award from the Rotary Club of Strongsville and one from the Strongsville Historical Society, given by Mayor Wally Ehrnfelt one week before his untimely passing in 2003.