Akron: History

Great Lake, Good Spot to Settle

The last Ice Age left northern Ohio a priceless gift—a mammoth body of water to support fish, game and agriculture, along with rich soil and mineral deposits. Lake Erie was named for a tribe of native people who lived on its shores; other early inhabitants attracted by the bountiful flora and fauna included Iroquois, Miami, Shawnee, Wyandot, Delaware, and Ottawa Indian tribes. The first residents left little mark on the land, aside from a well-worn trail that became known as the Portage Path used to transport canoes between large bodies of water. The native tribes also left a linguistic heads-up—their words for the concepts of "hunger" and "cold" were soon understood by subsequent European explorers.

Northern Ohio's riches of fish and furs couldn't be ignored by adventurers from across the pond; French trappers set up outposts to protect their fur trade and subsequently fought the British for the area in what came to be known as the French and Indian War. As part of a treaty, France ceded Ohio and the Great Lakes to Great Britain, which forbade U.S. settlers to occupy the area. Not known for obedience to the Queen, pioneers from the eastern U.S. colonies continued to traverse the area; following the American Revolution, Great Britain ceded Ohio and the Northwest Territories to the U.S. However, the British continued to occupy fortifications that they had agreed to leave. Tensions had continued to run high between the U.S. and Great Britain after the war of American independence, and a new generation of "warhawks" on the east coast fed the unrest with reports that the Brits were inciting native tribes to perpetrate violence on U.S. pioneers and explorers along the Great Lakes. War was declared in 1812, with British and Canadian troops taking on an under-prepared U.S. military. Native American tribes picked a side and fought for reasons ranging from survival to revenge, although the tribes's alliance with the British was effectively ended when the Shawnee Chief Tecumseh was killed shortly after the Battle of Lake Erie.

The War of 1812 ultimately ended in a stalemate but with lasting effects on both Canada and the U.S.—national identity was cemented in both countries, and a firm border was established along the Great Lakes. Ohio had been a state since 1803, and the U.S. had just spent a great deal of effort to ensure that the productive, fertile area remained part of the Union. But how to bring those riches to the rest of the country?

The Ohio-Erie Canal

Ever since humans first cast eyes on the ocean-like expanse of Lake Erie, the creation of a navigable route between the lake and other major water systems nearby was a primary objective. The Appalachian and Adirondack Mountains created obstacles to ground transportation methods of the time, and water was viewed as an easy route. Plans for a canal system had been percolating for decades before the War of 1812; after the war, construction commenced on the Erie Canal that would connect the northeast end of the lake with the Hudson River, allowing for transportation of goods and people on to the Atlantic Ocean. A parallel canal was begun from the south shore of Lake Erie with a plan to join the Ohio River at Portsmouth, then proceed east through Pennsylvania to the wealthy eastern communities hungry for Ohio wheat, furs, and minerals.

Communities sprang up along the canal construction route and its attendant industries. An hour south of Lake Erie, at the high point of the Ohio-Erie canal, the town of Akron (Greek for "high") was platted in 1811 and founded in 1825. The canal required 17 locks to be passed in the vicinity of Akron, necessitating that passengers spend a number of hours in the burgeoning town. Businesses were developed to meet the needs and desires of the pass-through traffic as well as to facilitate the freight trade—barrels and pottery containers were manufactured in Akron amid taverns, general stores and boat building enterprises. Hard-working immigrants came to Akron to labor on the canal and stayed to prosper in canal-related businesses after the waterway was completed. Akron was established as a true crossroads, and then found itself at the figurative crossroads of the U.S. Civil War.

"Farmers of Rich and Joyous Ohio . . ."

In the mid-1800s, Ohio was a microcosm of the nation. The northern counties, including Summit, were home to some of the most passionate abolitionists in the country. The southern counties, abutting pro-slavery states Kentucky and Virginia, were equally passionate in support of states' rights. In this atmosphere of division, the pro-abolition family of John Brown moved to northern Ohio in search of a politically supportive community. Brown and his family lived a somewhat chaotic existence, as he struggled to provide for his wife and children as a tanner, sheep farmer and wool merchant. In 1844, Brown moved to Akron and partnered with city founder Simon Perkins in a wool business; the partnership was dissolved in 1851 for financial reasons and Brown moved his family out of Ohio as he became increasingly troubled by slavery in the U.S. Events in "bleeding Kansas" inspired Brown and several of his sons to travel to the free state to take part in raids on pro-slavery factions. Brown gained a national platform for his views and actions, which culminated in his band's raid on Harper's Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia). Brown was apprehended by Robert E. Lee and was hanged in 1859—arguably, the raid on Harper's Ferry pushed the country into Civil War and ultimately gained Brown's goal of ending slavery in the U.S.

With Brown's fierce beliefs in its memory and Sojourner Truth's Akron speech ringing in its ears, Ohio joined the Union and contributed more than its conscripted quota of volunteers to the army during the Civil War. During and after the war, life in Akron and northern Ohio underwent a shift from the agrarian to the industrial, as entrepreneurs adapted to meet the demands of a nation doing battle. Railroads began to crisscross the country, and Akron was not immune—train transport of goods eventually led to the demise of the Ohio-Erie Canal in 1913. However, in the late 1800s, Akron needed all the freight transport systems available: B.F. Goodrich had come to town.

Akron's Beginnings in Rubber

Dr. Benjamin Franklin Goodrich grew up on the east coast and received his medical education in Cleveland, Ohio. After serving as a surgeon during the Civil War, Goodrich could see the potential in vulcanized rubber products as developed by Charles Goodyear and decided in 1870 to locate a company in Akron. A couple of decades later, the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, named in honor of Charles Goodyear, based its headquarters in Akron and provided competition for Goodrich. Firestone Rubber followed in 1900 and General Tire in 1915, establishing Akron as the "Rubber Capital of the World." Rubber production at that time consisted mainly of bicycle and carriage tires and rubber pads for horseshoes. The industry pulled in workers not only from other states but from other countries, making for a motivated and diverse population.

Akron's fortunes were boosted by rubber demand during World War I; the ensuing Great Depression had an economic impact on the industry and the city as a whole, but the American love affair with the automobile came to the rescue. In the early 1900s, the Model T had been outfitted with Goodyear tires; by 1926, Goodyear had become the world's largest rubber company as it sprinted to keep ahead of its competitors in Akron. World War II again increased the need for fighter plane tires and other equipment, bringing more growth and wealth to the Rubber Capital. With many men serving in the military, women entered the industrial workforce in droves; the local rubber manufacturers used women in advertising to both promote the war effort and their products.

After the war, change was in the air. In the 1950s and 1960s, radial tires became the industry standard and Akron's factories weren't equipped for the switch. Some companies attempted a hybrid tire with poor results, and B.F. Goodrich converted its machinery over to radial production equipment at great expense to the company. These costs, coupled with industry strikes and factory shutdowns in the 1970s and 1980s, decimated the rubber business in Akron. Today, Firestone maintains a technical research center in Akron and Goodyear continues to produce racing tires while researching new tire technology, but most of the other rubber companies have left.

Post-Rubber Akron

Akron has rebounded from the tough days in the rubber industry, again demonstrating its ingenuity and resourcefulness in the field of polymer research and engineering. More than 400 polymer-related companies operate in the area, and the University of Akron has created both a degree program in polymer engineering and a research facility that supports local efforts. In addition, aerospace design is taking flight in local industry.

The city of Akron is redefining itself and rediscovering itself as it celebrates its contributions to American inventiveness, music, and sports. The downtown area is undergoing a renaissance, and the Ohio & Erie Canal National Heritage Corridor has been preserved in recognition of the history of the waterway. Akron is facing forward, but it remembers how it got where it is today.

Historical Information: Summit County Historical Society, 550 Copley Road, Akron, OH 44320; telephone (330) 535-1120; email schs@summithistory.org