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August 2005
, Ohio

   There’s something missing when you drive through Akron on I-77 these days: something that once permeated life in this community. Up through about the middle 20th century, it was hard to imagine Akron without it. Now it’s gone. 

    What we’re talking about is an odor. Actually, two odors intermingled in a marriage unique to Akron. One was the scent of burning oats. The other was the smell of rubber. Rita Dove, an Akron native who served as Poet Laureate of the United States, has written that she remembers these two all-pervading smells from her childhood. Neither was pleasant, she observed, but they were always there—part of everyday life.

    Oatmeal and tires: that just about sums up Akron a few decades ago. It isn’t so any more, though. Like many Midwestern cities, Akron has had to change. But let’s start at the beginning: how Akron came to be. 

    The word, Akron, is from a Greek word meaning, “a high place.” And though it’s hard to tell from the interstate, Akron is located in a high place—a  point also made in the name of the county: Summit County. This “high place” is why there is an Akron. When the Ohio & Erie Canal was being planned, it became evident that the route was going to run from the mouth of the Cuyahoga River at Cleveland and head south along the Cuyahoga River Valley. About 40 miles in was a steep slope where it would take a while to maneuver the canal boats up and down. Travelers would have to wait around while this maneuvering took place, and they’d have time to buy stuff and do things. It would be a great place to locate businesses—and a community. 

    The owner of most of the land was a man named Simon Perkins. He figured out what was going to happen here and laid out a town along the projected canal route. Then, to make sure this route was chosen, he donated the canal right of way plus 1/3 of the town to the state, which sold that land to help finance the canal. Meanwhile, the land value of the other 2/3rd jumped nicely and so everybody was happy. The result of all this happiness is Akron. 

    Early residents of Akron used the canals not just for transportation but also for water power. Mills were established that ground wheat into flour. Then other products were developed, such as, oats processed into cereal: oatmeal. Akron claims to be the originator of oatmeal and was home to the company that developed into Quaker Oats. We can glimpse a remnant of the Quaker Oats days when we drive through Akron. Off in the distance the downtown skyline is visible, which features a large silo complex. Once it was used for storing the oats. Today it has been turned into a hotel and conference center. 

    Akron industry really kicked into gear with the arrival of Benjamin Franklin Goodrich in 1870. B. F. Goodrich was owner of a small rubber company in upstate New York. He was short on working capital and his primary investor refused to commit any more money unless he moved west of the Alleghenies where there wasn’t as much competition. 

    B.F. Goodrich knocked on Cleveland’s doors in search of assistance, but the city leaders were obsessed with steel; they couldn’t be bothered with this odd little product, rubber. He then tried Akron and here found a receptive audience. Akron was bustling at the time and eager to develop its industrial base. The Board of Trade come up with a modest loan, and B. F. Goodrich set up shop. His factory produced fire hoses and rubber tubing—later, solid rubber bicycle tires.  

    That first factory was the beginning of what became the rubber capital of the world. The B.F. Goodrich Company was joined in Akron by competitors:  Goodyear, Firestone, and General Tire: the “Big 4" of the rubber industry. Rubber brought rapid growth and prosperity to this community. Indeed, in the decade between 1910 and 1920, Akron’s population swelled from 69,000 to over 200,000 residents, making it the fastest growing city in the nation. The automobile created enormous demand as did the two world wars. In Akron, rubber was king. 

    But in the early 1950s, Quaker Oats closed its Akron production facilities. And in the rubber industry, worldwide competition began to weigh in. One by one, the factories shut down until rubber manufacturing was but a memory. Goodyear retains its corporate headquarters in Akron, but everybody else left. The stench of rubber and the smell of burning oats drifted away from this city. 

    As you drive through Akron on I-77, you’ll see remnants of Akron’s industrial heritage. You’ll drive through neighborhoods of modest homes that were built for those who worked in the factories. You’ll see signs from the road that provide a link to the past: Firestone Boulevard and the Rubber Bowl, where the University of Akron football team plays its home games. Look up in the sky, and maybe you’ll catch a glimpse of one of the two Goodyear blimps that are stationed in Akron. At the Akron Municipal Airport exit, there is the Goodyear Air Dock—not quite visible from the interstate—where the Goodyear blimps once were maintained. It’s a building so huge that local folklore claims clouds form inside, and it sometimes rains. Maybe that’s not precisely true, but it is a structure big enough to have its own atmosphere. 

    Today, Akron has had to adapt itself to a post-industrial economy. The old factories are gone, and a new generation of employment opportunities were established. In recent years Akron has become a center of polymer research, and the University of Akron has grown from a small municipal college to a university of national standing—you’ll see signs for the University of Akron from the interstate. Akron has changed, rebuilt, diversified as it has positioned itself for a future that looks quite different than its past. 

    Those missing odors represent a paradox of life in post-industrial northeast Ohio. The companies that built this region and made it prosperous are largely gone and replaced, often with service industries. This has brought economic hard times to the region but it has also improved the quality of life: the air is clear, and the most pungent odors are gone. It’s probably nicer to live here than it was during the region’s industrial prime. It just takes more effort to make ends meet.

For more about Akron and its surrounding communities, see the tape or CD for I-77 South: Cleveland to New Philadelphia.

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