Alexander Body and Fender has been a part of Akron’s history since 1928. From our location (still the same) in historic North Hill to employment of generations of families, we are proud of the city’s history as well as our part in it. This month we bring you a two-part series on the history of Akron. We hope you enjoy it. We are Akron.
Part 1: Beginnings
Our history makes us who we are. The iconic people, places and events in the history of Akron combine to make a city with a culture and spirit that is unique among U.S. cities. Our history is a story of innovation, industry and invention. We have been the home to builders, activists, gangsters, innovators and (finally) champions. Our people have created ideas and innovations that have changed history. We are not glamorous or arrogant; we are a town of quiet strength and humble brilliance. From the Rubber City to the City of Invention, Akron is a town that has earned everything it has.
Before 1825, most of Ohio was still an unsettled area, west of civilization and part of the Connecticut Western Reserve. In 1811, a settler named Paul Williams moved to the area that is now Butchel Avenue and saw the great potential in the high ground along the Cuyahoga River and near the developing Ohio and Erie Canal. Following Williams’s suggestion, a surveyor for the Connecticut Land Company named General Simon Perkins travelled to the area and agreed that it was the perfect spot for their new town. In December of 1825, the two men co-founded a village and named it after the Greek word for “summit” or “high point.” It was thus that the town of Akron was born.
The canal was completed in 1827, and Akron immediately began to grow at a rapid pace. Workers built homes along the river, mills began to arrive and the city began to form an identity. In 1844, it replaced Cuyahoga Falls as the county seat of Summit County and became the predominant town on its side of the river.
Industry and Innovation
By the middle of the 19th century, Akron became a center of travel and industry in the area. It was also clear that the residents of this town could help define the middle of America. In 1847, Akron Public Schools was formed and established the first public school in Ohio. The Akron School of Law of 1847 also established the K-12 grade school system that was soon adopted throughout the entire country. In 1851 Sojourner Truth gave her now famous Ain’t I a Woman? speech at the Ohio Women’s Rights Conference in Akron.
Mills and factories began also began to develop in Akron around this time, eventually giving birth to the stoneware, farming equipment, fishing tackle and sewer pipe industries. Through the 1850’s, several manufacturers such as the Barber Match Company, General Mills, Quaker Oats and the Buckeye Reaver and Mower Company would make their homes in Akron. Industry and innovation again combined when the modern toy industry was born with the founding of the Akron Toy Company. However, none of these establishments would have nearly as large an effect on the city, its residents and its future like the tire companies.
The Rubber City
From 1869 all the way up to the early 20th century, Akron was the center of the universe for the tire industry and the birthplace of the American trucking industry. The B.F. Goodrich Company established its headquarters in Akron in 1869 and would be followed by the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company in 1898, Firestone Tire and Rubber Company in 1900 and General Tire in 1915. This not only had a huge effect for the automotive industry, it changed the identity and the culture of Akron forever. Housing was built throughout the city, businesses and shops popped up and the city became a boom town.
Education continued to be an important part of the Akron culture, and in 1897, St. Mary High School was formed by Richard Gilmour and Rev. Dr. Thomas F. Mahar. Gilmour was then the Bishop of Cleveland, and Rev. Mahar was the pastor of St. Vincent Church, the oldest Catholic church in Akron. They were charged with forming a mission in the area and established the St. Mary Parish and the school one year later. Also connected to the church, St. Vincent High School was established in 1906 to provide continuing classical education to parishioners. In 1972, the two school would merge to form St. Vincent-St. Mary High School which is still open today.
Another piece of Akron’s past and present that was a result of the tire revolution was the beautiful estate built by F.A. Seiberling. Seiberling, the founder of the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, began the building of the estate in 1912, and it was completed in 1915. He would name it Stan Hywet, an Old English term meaning “stone quarry” because of the site’s previous use. In 1957, the family donated the estate to a non-profit organization to preserve and maintain it. Its main features are its many beautiful gardens, Tudor Revival style buildings and large lagoon. The entire estate is now part of a museum that is open to the public and home to numerous community events like the Antique and Collector Car Show, the Annual Classic and the Ohio Shakespeare Festival.
Growth and Depression
Between 1910 and 1920, Akron was the fastest growing city in America with a 201.8 percent increase in population during the decade. Many of the city’s 208,000 citizens were immigrants and others who moved there to work at the various factories. With the explosion of automobiles in America and the need for rubber during World War I, the tire companies began to flourish unlike ever before, and the entire town flourished with them. With the intense competition, the companies began to form new ideas and move into other growing industries. Goodyear, for instance, formed the Goodyear-Zeppelin Company and began to manufacture blimps for the war effort.
Also during that decade, one of the founding establishments of Akron in an event that helped change the identity of the city. On Easter Sunday of 1913, a historic storm hit the area, dropping over nine and half inches of rain on Akron. The rain had been directly preceded by a terrible winter storm, and the results were disastrous. Five people were killed in the “Great Flood of 1913,” and the Ohio and Erie Canal system which had helped to build the village into a thriving city was destroyed. The canal had been a definitive part of the city’s identity previous to this event, but luckily for the citizens, the town had largely moved on from it. By that point, Akron had become the Rubber City, and railroads and other means had done away with the city’s reliance upon the canal for transportation and industry.
When the Great Depression hit, it hit cities like Akron particularly hard. Factory workers lost their jobs at record rates, and many people who had previously been on top of the world moved into poverty. However, even still the city was resilient and even continued to grow in population as more and more people sought any available work.