Giants on the Little Cuyahoga
ONE EXPECTS the mighty and overpowering rivers to influence the destiny of the people on their banks. Indeed rivers of barely controllable brute strength like the Ohio, the Colorado, the Columbia, are so totally imposing they force conclusions upon their shores and their men.
But the short, winding Cuyahoga is exciting for the opposite reason. It makes men loom large because they took her small breadth and currents and through man-made works amplified the Cuyahoga’s power and reach and navigability.
The tremendous national flour and cereal industry headquartered in Akron and made possible by the millrace which Dr. Crosby split off from the Little Cuyahoga vastly exceeded the expectations of Crosby and his colleagues. Yet Cuyahoga waters were about to start another chain of events which would make Akron the center for an enormous international saga.
When C. A. Barnes, Akron hat store owner, returned to visit his home town of Jamestown, New York, he met a frail young doctor who had ceased practicing medicine and was carrying around an idea too large for most men to see.
Benjamin Franklin Goodrich had started to practice medicine so young that people had no confidence, so he wandered into other vocations, at one point real estate. In this business, he came into possession of a failing Hudson River rubber plant which he could not sell. He felt his only way out was to operate it.
He was not able to halt the failure; but he became deeply involved in the mysterious personality of the witch, rubber. Soft and resilient when given its freedom, if captured in a mold only a little smaller than itself, rubber would crack iron to get out. Sometimes sticky, it could also be hard and glassy.
But Benjamin Franklin Goodrich could make it do his will rather predictably; and he could think of a thousand uses for it. He knew the process had to be different from that dictated by the equipment in his old shop on the Hudson. He needed big money and a lot of water to cool hot rubber.
Goodrich had married a Jamestown girl, and he was there looking for capital when C. A. Barnes came home to Jamestown from Akron. Goodrich was still not the confident type of man one pictures raising substantial capital. Yet when he discussed rubber all could see he had a mind with an upstairs in it. Listeners could picture him in the laboratory, if not behind the ledgers.
C. A. Barnes heard him. Barnes too was a quiet man, but in his work of fitting hats to the leading heads in Akron, he had come to know the soul and mind of his adopted town with a strange sureness.
From the back of a small drawing room Barnes watched Goodrich conclude an impromptu but earnest presentation of the potential in a rubber factory. Though Goodrich’s earnestness had captured the concentration of the man, his forthright statement that he was seeking capital started men edging away.
Barnes caught Goodrich’s eye and beckoned. Natively courteous, Goodrich required several minutes to disengage himself from the question period. But when he finally did, Barnes said to him, “Akron. Akron, Ohio, is the place you want. It has water from the canal and the Cuyahoga River.”
“I have water on the Hudson. What’s needed is-”
“Men who need a business that needs water. Akron people built water channels to encourage manufacturers.”
Goodrich studied Barnes with the natural suspicion of the oft disappointed. Barnes continued as if he spoke for all Akron, “Write down these names: Colonel Perkins; George Crouse; Schumacher; Seiberling; David King; Buchtel.”
Goodrich’s face was puzzled. Barnes went right on. “Those men will understand, and if they believe you, they’ll find the money.”
Goodrich made a trip to Akron.
Perkins and Crouse listened first. Colonel Perkins, son of General Perkins, then traveled to New York to look at Goodrich’s rubber shop to see if there was some machinery there and to see what he could learn of the rubber business.
When he came back to Akron, he called a meeting at the Empire House near Lock 1. Perkins looked around the taproom mentally taking attendance: Miller and Buchtel from farm machinery were there; Schumacher, Cummins, Hower, Allen from rolled oats and flour; Christy, a banker; David King, son of the Judge; and J. Parke Alexander, a professional town builder. The action men of Akron had come.
It was a formidable and an able court. Perkins said to young Goodrich, “Tell them your mind, Ben.”
Ben Goodrich rose. He explained the vast, varied market he saw for rubber. “I plan to start with fire hose. Leather hose leaks or breaks just when you need it most. Then I’d go to other lines. I’ll bring some of my machines from New York; and give it all my time. Everything else must come from somewhere.”
The most able of men can get their feet through their collars when confronted by a showdown like this one. Goodrich’s earnest, but modest delivery, coupled with his too varied biography, caused a silence in the room as Akron studied him.
But one of the leather men - a square-shaped block, George Crouse - stood and faced the group. In a slow, deep voice that vibrated windows, he said, “This young man has something Akron needs. We’ve got to keep him here. I subscribe one thousand dollars now.”
Perkins said, “Put me down for a thousand.”
In a half hour, there were notes for $13,500 on the table. It was a pivotal moment at Akron. In view of what happened, of course, this was pin money, but it came from some men who had never seen a piece of rubber.
Goodrich needed more. So the fund raising continued, and he took in as partner his brother-in-law from Jamestown, Harvey Tew.
For availability of water and transportation, he located his plant near Lock 1 on the canal. The canal swaled out here to form two wide basins with sluice gates to release more water. Goodrich’s new neighbors on that site were mostly houses except for Mr. Ohio Columbus Barber who was building a new match factory there.
So beside the waters of the Ohio Canal inherited from the Cuyahoga rose Goodrich’s two-story brick factory, 50’ x 100’. It would change the economy of the midwest, spawning ultimately thousands of suppliers to the rubber industry. But at this moment, it housed a rusty jumble of iron which wilted the enthusiasm of the backers.
As they watched, however, the slender, balding young man, with large intense eyes and a wind-catching mustache, move with new poise and purpose. They figuratively exhaled. What the doctor lacked in committee he made up for in motion.
When the first shipment of Brazil Para rubber came up (at $1.17 a pound), Akron went down to Lock 1 to poke it, smell it, taste it, and shrug. “Too supple to build much on.
And when the stench of vulcanizing sulphur floated down the canal and the Cuyahoga, noses turned up. When the silver coins turned black in cash drawers along the canal from Goodrich’s sulphur, the shrugs became a nose pinch and a thumb in the direction of Lock 1.
But one day coils of fat black snakes were stacked in front of Goodrich, Tew & Company - fire hose. The shrugs changed meaning. “Who knows? Stranger things have happened.”
The young company had no sales force. It had to write letters to city governments to sell fire hose. City governments didn’t buy much through the mail. So Goodrich, Tew & Company made rubber machinery belting, fruit jar rings, valves for pumps, and tips for billiard cues.
It took in $50,000 in its first year. That was remarkable, but what bothered Goodrich, he needed more money. For five years there were no profits. Backers who had lent money became nervous. Harvey Tew was losing faith.
Ben Goodrich finally said, “Harvey, it looks like a buy-or-sell matter. You want to buy me out or sell to me?”
Tew thought a while. “I’ll sell.”
The settlement figure was $12,500 for Tew’s one-quarter interest in what became the B. F. Goodrich Company.
Tew’s withdrawal naturally drew unfavorable attention. The other subscribers now pressed Goodrich. He talked to Colonel Perkins about the future of the industry and how close the company was to profits. “But I need more money to get into more product lines.”
Perkins came away convinced all over again. He raised enough dollars to pay off all the nervous subscribers. Before paying them, Perkins offered each man the option of converting his loan to stock. Almost all took the cash.
Even with Perkins’s help, another money crisis struck in 1878. Perkins couldn’t help this time. So George Crouse stepped in and countersigned company loan applications up to $45,000. Crouse and Perkins were now stockholders.
The former subscribers, now very much relieved to be out of it with a whole skin, could afford to be cordial again. But the grins froze in 1880. B. F. Goodrich sales reached $319,000. Profit was $69,000, and the company paid a ten percent dividend. This meant that Dr. Goodrich was able to draw $4,000 over and above his $2,000 salary. Colonel Perkins and George Crouse also drew their first returns in 11 years.
While most of the world considers such a return slavery, a man starting his own business feels blessed. On the strength of it, Dr. Goodrich built another building beside the first. It cost $9,000.
After another eight years of rather slow, smoldering growth came the brush fire bonanza. A veterinarian in Scotland, Dr. Dunlop, wound a piece of rubber tubing around the front and back wheels of his boy’s bicycle to take up the shock of cobblestones.
The rubber tire had arrived.
Everything that rolled could now roll faster. It was the second birth of transportation. Production of all vehicles increased - and the demand for tires. On the Little Cuyahoga stood Ben Goodrich - ready.
Well, you know the rest of the story.
The waters of the Ohio Canal and the Little Cuyahoga were about to spawn a giant industry, because here and there across the country now the air was rent by an occasional series of four-banger explosions and blue smoke as a succession of angry black beetles began blatting over the roads, scaring horses.
They needed soft wheels. Akron was ready.
There came now to the banks of the Little Cuyahoga a Bunyanesque parade of Goodrich competitors: Ohio Columbus Barber, Frank Seiberling, Arthur Marks, Stahdelman, Litchfield, O’Neil, Goodyear, Harvey Firestone - tire builders.
But men along the Cuyahoga should pause and tell their children of Eliakim Crosby and C. A. Barnes. Because of them, three quarters of America’s rubber products were made in Akron and nearly everything that rolls - from bicycles to 200-ton off-highway mining trucks - rolled on Akron rubber.
That is no longer true.
The great rubber brand names moved south and west and abroad. Some of the most famous faded under dominant foreign trademarks of mergers.
Some Akron tire logos are weathering on empty factories.
Goodyear continues some operations in Akron. And Dr. Ben Goodrich’s name still stands as the B.F. Goodrich Chemical Company.
A previous chapter chronicles the widening circle of employment trauma rippling out.
That swift transition forced Akron to find a tire industry substitute - which it did.
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