Inventor Charles Goodyear, for whom Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. is named, may never have set foot in Akron, OH. Yet, his innovation — one of the most significant of the 19th century — would eventually lead Akron to become the “Rubber Capital of the World.” And although the city has since seen plenty of industries — from cereal to children’s toys — come and go, today, it’s in the midst of a vibrant revitalization spurred by diverse economic and cultural initiatives.
Akron’s name comes from a Greek word meaning “elevation” or “peak.” Akron and its county, Summit County, are both named so because they were the highest points on the Ohio and Erie Canal when the canal was in place, falling directly on the watershed line between Lake Erie to the north and the Ohio River to the south.
This location would go on to prove useful, as roughly a decade before Goodyear discovered how to vulcanize (or harden) rubber, the Ohio and Erie Canal constituted the city’s primary industry and identity. The construction of the canal in the 1820s attracted Irish immigrants to the region then known as the Western Reserve, where they were employed to dig the canal. The stretch of canal between Akron and Cleveland was finished in 1827, two years after surveyor, businessman and War of 1812 brigadier-general Simon Perkins founded the city of Akron with the help of Joshua Henshaw, a surveyor, and Paul Williams, a farmer who donated some of his land to help the city build the canal.
The canal enriched the town throughout the early 1800s. Farmers could bring their crops, especially wheat, to the mills powered by the flowing water, and the resulting flour could then be loaded directly into canal boats to be shipped elsewhere.
During the Civil War, Akron was instrumental in helping feed Union army troops. German immigrant and miller Ferdinand Schumacher began mass producing oatmeal in Akron in 1856. Demand for oats skyrocketed during the Civil War as a cheap and convenient alternative to meat or other high-calorie foods, and the canal and hub of railroads in Akron allowed for easy milling and shipping.
Schumacher’s oatmeal company eventually merged with several other large milling companies. In 1901, the Quaker Oats company was formed, and it continued to have a strong presence in Akron until 1970, when the company ceased production at its Akron plant.
Farming equipment and pottery were also leading industries in Akron during the 1800s. Large deposits of clay were found underground in Northeast Ohio, which led Akron to become the “sewer pipe manufacturing capital of the world” at the end of the 19th century. While maybe not as glamorous as rubber, Akron provided sewer pipe and clay tiles to many booming cities across the country. Tiles from Akron were used in the New York subway system.
Toy-making arose as a major industry in Akron in 1884, when Akronite Samuel C. Dyke opened a factory that mass-produced clay marbles, the first mass-produced toys manufactured in the U.S. Seven years later, he founded the American Marble and Toy Manufacturing Company, which became the largest American toy manufacturer to operate in the U.S. during the 19th century. Various toy companies still remain in Akron, with the famous toy brand Little Tikes located in nearby Hudson, OH.
“The Rubber Capital of the World”
The next industry to arise in Akron would be the one the city is still known for today.
“Akron was built, obviously, on the rubber industry,” Gregg Cramer, Vice President of Economic Development at the Greater Akron Chamber of Commerce, said. “It’s a unique city because you had Goodyear, Firestone, B.F. Goodrich, General, Mohawk and Seiberling, so you had six rubber companies all headquartered in the same location.”
Akron was a prime location; in the early 1900s, the by-then defunct canals provided water necessary to the vulcanization process, the labor force was highly experienced with manufacturing, and nearby coal mines provided easy access to high-quality coal.
When Dr. Benjamin Franklin Goodrich arrived in Akron in 1871, he was already familiar with the rubber industry — then located entirely on the east coast — due to his investments in the Hudson River Rubber Company. The newly-formed Akron Board of Trade was looking to attract entrepreneurs and new businesses to the area, and they assured Goodrich his business would be supported in Akron.
He started the Akron Rubber Works in March 1871, initially employing 20 workers at the first rubber manufacturing company west of the Appalachian Mountains. Goodrich wouldn’t live to see his company’s success, as he died in 1888. The company, renamed to B.F. Goodrich, struggled in its early years, primarily selling fire and garden hoses before beginning to sell newly-invented popular pneumatic bicycle tires in 1889.
In the 1890s, an economic depression led most of businessman John Seiberling’s companies to go under, according to “The Goodyear Story” by Maurice O’Reilly. When Seiberling’s son Frank founded the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company in 1898, the family was struggling financially, and the initial capital Frank Seiberling used to start the business came from a group of investors, most of whom were friends of the Seiberlings.
Goodyear initially focused on manufacturing bicycle and carriage tires and began to produce automobile tires in 1901. Frank Seiberling brought on Paul Litchfield in 1900 and George M. Stadelman a year later, both of whom would eventually become presidents of the company, and under whose leadership Goodyear would become the number one seller of carriage tires in the country.
Litchfield foresaw that the auto industry would expand rapidly, and he realized durable, easily replaceable tires were a necessity. In addition to innovations like the straight-side tire and the universal rim, Litchfield and the workers at his factory developed the All-Weather Tread in 1908, and the diamond patterned-tread became a recognizable trademark of Goodyear tires.
Between 1900 and 1920, global rubber consumption increased from around 45,000 tons per year to almost 340,000. Not coincidentally, Akron’s population more than doubled from around 70,000 in 1910 to over 200,000 in 1920, making it the fastest-growing city in America at the time. Many of these new immigrants were from Appalachia, and they came to Akron to escape struggling farms and mines.
After acquiring the nearby Diamond Rubber Company in 1912, Goodyear became the largest tire company in the country. The automobile industry had cemented itself in Detroit, and the tire industry belonged to Akron.
As it thrived industrially however, the city experienced significant social unrest and inequality. The Ku Klux Klan was a powerful political force among Akron’s largely white Protestant population during the 1920s. During the Great Depression, unemployment reached as high as 60 percent in Akron, but the city’s population continued to grow. Conditions in rubber factories were often appalling, as the chemicals and machinery workers used were dangerous, and worker turnover rates were exceedingly high. One company that employed 18,000 workers had to hire 88,000 people over the course of a year because so many quit.
Rubber workers, unhappy with meager pay, poor conditions and nonexistent benefits, attempted traditional strikes with picket lines. These strikes, however, were often to no avail, as companies would hire “scab workers” to come and take the strikers’ place. Between 1934 and 1935, factory workers from multiple companies performed a sit-down strike, refusing to work but not leaving their stations, which prevented other workers from coming in and thus completely halted production. This method was more effective and led to the organization of the United Rubber Workers. The sit-down strike method would be used widely in labor conflicts throughout the country for decades.
World War II pulled the country out of the Great Depression and catapulted the rubber industry to the forefront of the war effort. Rubber was required for truck, airplane and Jeep tires, without which U.S. forces would be rendered immobile. During World War I, synthetic rubber had been developed and produced by German scientists when their supply of natural rubber was cut off. The U.S. faced the same fate during World War II when their supply of natural rubber, primarily from Asia, was cut off by Japan. Rubber companies in Akron came together and quickly shifted their production and development efforts to synthetic rubber and manufactured enough to supply the U.S. military throughout the war.
In 1951, Goodyear became the first rubber company to exceed $1 billion in annual sales. Continuous innovation and a strong auto industry made tire companies profitable, and the tire companies — four of the five largest in the U.S. were headquartered in Akron — made Akron profitable.
In the 1970s, American tire companies faced their first real competition from foreign markets when the French tire company Michelin began manufacturing the radial tire. The new tire was much more popular and longer-lasting than older styles, and American companies were forced to transition to producing radial tires. Because radial tires didn’t need to be replaced nearly as often as the old-fashioned tires, the consumer market for tires shrank, and American companies began to lose market share to foreign businesses.
General Tire sold its plants to Continental, a German company, in 1987. In 1989, Firestone was bought out by Bridgestone, a Japanese company. Finally, in 1990, Michelin acquired B.F. Goodrich’s tire holdings. Goodyear, though it remained headquartered in Akron, had outsourced its manufacturing, first to the South and then overseas. Between 1980 and 1990, employment in plastics and rubber manufacturing shrank from 26,000 jobs to 16,000. Another period of decline followed from 2000 to 2007, when jobs in rubber and plastics manufacturing fell from 14,400 to just over 7,000.
A concurrent loss of population occurred; between 1970 and 1980, Akron shed 14 percent of its population, primarily to neighboring suburbs. After this period of suburbanization, suburban growth slowed, but Akron’s population loss did not.
Although Akron lost most of its rubber manufacturing jobs, the rubber industry has evolved and continues to support the city’s economy, Cramer said. Many rubber companies, including international ones such as Continental, have research and development centers in Akron, and rubber and plastics companies employ around 31,000 people in the greater Akron area.
“We’ve really kind of evolved to the polymer center of the Americas,” Cramer said. “Goodyear still has their world headquarters in Akron [and] Bridgestone’s […] R&D center is in Akron, so they have over a thousand jobs in Akron.”
Cramer said that many of the rubber manufacturing jobs in Akron today are engineering jobs anchored in rubber and polymer research, for tires or otherwise. The area’s long history with the rubber industry created an extensive research and education network surrounding rubber and other polymers, such as plastics used in packaging and automobile equipment. Goodyear’s Akron research and development facility and the CenTiRe consortium for tire research at the University of Akron highlight Akron’s evolution into a modernized Rubber City. The university also boasts the School of Polymer Science and Polymer Engineering, the only college in the world devoted to studying polymers.
While still important, the rubber industry no longer dominates Akron’s economy as it once did. The manufacturing sector in Akron is expected to shed around 2,000 jobs between 2018 and 2028, according to employment projections from the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services. Fortunately, this blow might be easier for the city to absorb now that its economy has diversified.
“We’re becoming very much a new economy as far as information technology [and] healthcare related jobs,” Cramer said. “There’s a large level of entrepreneurship [and] there are a number of logistics and distribution centers here.”
The Summa Health System and the Akron General, Akron City and Akron Children’s Hospitals, as well as nearby Cleveland Clinic, create a “biomedical corridor” in Northeast Ohio, Suzie Graham, president and CEO of Downtown Akron Partnership, said.
According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, as of 2019, the healthcare and social assistance sector employed around 56,000 people in the Akron metropolitan area, more than any other industry. The city has also leveraged its networks of highways and railroads to attract wholesale distributors and transportation companies, exemplified by the Amazon fulfillment center that opened in Akron in 2020.
The healthcare and social assistance sector is expected to gain around 6,000 jobs before 2028, while transportation and warehousing is projected to employ around 650 more people.
Various organizations in Akron are also working to ensure the city’s continued growth and modernization. The Greater Akron Chamber of Commerce, for example, hopes to use Akron’s long history with multinational corporations to draw foreign businesses to the Akron area through a domestic and international marketing initiative called Akron USA, Cramer said.
“Akron isn’t New York, Chicago or Los Angeles, but I would say for a smaller Midwestern city, [it] had an openness to international activity,” Cramer said.
As part of the initiative, Cramer said representatives from the Chamber and the mayor’s office travel to international trade shows to market the city to foreign companies. Trying to attract outside investment is a common method cities use to grow their economies, but research by collaborative economic development plan Elevate Greater Akron found that focusing too much attention outside the region harms development efforts.
With this finding in mind, the Greater Akron Chamber developed an initiative to support local businesses and education, called the Business Retention and Expansion program. Cramer said the program meets with individual local businesses and works to help these companies succeed, whether that be through funding assistance or simply providing information about the area.
“Small businesses add to the character of the neighborhood,” Graham said. “They make the neighborhood feel safe … They help bring arts and culture into the community and really make this … web of social connections and mental connections between place and community.”
Both Cramer and Graham recognize the importance of promoting minority-owned business growth. The Business Retention and Expansion program includes a directive to “expand the circle of opportunity,” Cramer said, and one of Elevate Greater Akron’s five strategies is Opportunity Akron, “an intentional focus on the Black population, to ensure they are positioned to engage in, and share in the benefits of, the regional economy.”
Outside of economic development, the city focuses on downtown redevelopment and infrastructure improvement projects. Since 2016, Akron has received two TIGER grants from the U.S. Department of Transportation to make Akron’s Main Street more accessible to its residents using various types of transportation, as well as more economically sustainable.
Graham said that the Downtown Akron Partnership enlists Clean and Safe ambassadors to clean up the city by removing litter and graffiti and help keep it safe by providing escorts and working with businesses to address safety concerns. The Partnership also works to improve public spaces and “run programs and events in the downtown area,” Graham said.
The canal that shaped the city continues to do so today; the various “locks” of the canal now act as guides and points of interest in the downtown walkways, parks and public spaces, outlining corridors for eating, chatting, shopping and recreating.
“When we integrate arts and culture into place-making, when we bring small businesses in to occupy storefronts, all of those things down the line are revitalizing the city,” Graham said.
And the city is indeed revitalizing. A modern, diversified economy is helping Akron to prosper in the 21st century. New infrastructure, investment in the downtown area and economic development initiatives are bolstering the city’s economy and social landscape. Akron’s history is one of innovation and reinvention; it stands to reason its future will be, too.