Excursion 59, Part 1 (The Match King and his Magic City)

American royalty is an odd lot.  We have “Camelot” and the court of JFK, and we’ve seen the Flivver King (Henry Ford), the Mattress King (from the TV series “Friends”) and the King of the Road (courtesy of Roger Miller).  We’ve also had Queen Latifah and Prince.  Americans seem to have an odd need for royalty—just witness the lavish attention so many Americans pay to British royalty—but in our own country our de facto royalty seem to be celebrities and the incredibly wealthy.  “Commodore” Cornelius Vanderbilt was American royalty and so is Kanye West.  Sometimes our American royalty leave odd legacies. One descendent of Vanderbilt is news anchor Anderson Cooper.  And we’ll get to meet another American royal and his still-enduring legacy.

[Remember that you can click on each image below to see a larger, better image.  Also, the EXIF data for each image contains GPS coordinates that you can use to locate the exact place where the photograph was taken. Copyright information:  All of the text and images on this blog are the intellectual property of Mark Pitcavage.  Attributed, non-commercial (ONLY) usage is permitted under the Creative Commons License.]

On a bright August day in 2016, I decided to take an excursion into far northeastern Ohio, an area of the state I get to rather rarely. My plan was to drive north on I-71 a ways, then head east, threading the needle between Akron and Canton and coming out the other side into northeastern Ohio. This I managed to do fairly successfully, eventually getting within three miles or so of the Pennsylvania border. This blog entry details the first part of that trip.

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On my way up I-71, I had to stop for gas (and to get off the freeway to start heading east) and from the gas station, I saw that across the street Bear’s Towing had used an old tow truck crudely geared up as the character Towmater, from the Pixar movie Cars, as a sort of billboard. I did not care for the costume, though I suppose the likely alternative outcome for the vehicle would have been disposal rather than preservation. I had apparently not turned my GPS on yet, but this was at the Burbank, Ohio, exit, a bit south of the intersection of I-71 and I-76.

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As I headed east I very quickly came across a vehicle that had been much more well preserved than the tow-truck (and was for sale). This was an old Ford Model A from the late 1920s or the early 1930s.

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At first my attention was focused only on the classic car, but I gradually became aware that the house the car was parked in front of was festooned with Confederate flags, as well as other distasteful items, such as a black lawn jockey carrying a beer can instead of a lantern.  I decided not to linger amidst the racism and drove on.

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A few miles east of Burbank I drove into Rittman, Ohio, technically a city with a population of 6,491 (salute!), but a place that gives the impression of being much smaller. Here is a shot of Rittman’s city center, which could easily pass for the center of a place a third of the size of Rittman.  As is typical of many such places in Ohio, most of the commercial space here seems empty. H&R Block on the left is active, then we see several empty spots, followed by American Specialty Ammo, its front festooned by thick steel bars that are quite atypical for small town America. The reason for this is apparently that ASA is a class III firearms dealer, which means that it can buy and sell items such as fully automatic weapons.

To the right of the gun store is an office for the Morton Salt Credit Union. Rittman was originally home to a large salt company, the Ohio Salt Company, which was absorbed by Morton Salt not long after World War II.  Morton Salt is still a major employer in the town.

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Here is Rittman’s original train station, still extant, more or less.  A hundred years ago, this would have been a bustling place.

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On the outskirts of town is an American Legion Post and parked in front of it is a seemingly good condition World War II era Sherman tank. Based on the numbers and symbols stamped onto the front of the tank, it looks like much or all of this particular tank was manufactured by Union Steel Castings, a Pittsburgh company, and the Caterpillar Tractor Company.

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Just east of Rittman is the village of Doylestown, Ohio (population 3,051, salute!), a prosperous community that has seen fairly steady growth over the last century.  Here is an impressive building from the village center. I notice that two of its ground floor locations are currently empty—usually inescapable in such villages and towns. The windows are rather impressive and I suspect one reason for that is that this 1886 building appears to have been built by the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, the fraternal lodge popular in Ohio in the late 1800s and early 1900s.  I bet the 2nd floor of the building was originally reserved for the lodge, and they let out the locations in the ground floor.

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Doylestown is fairly close to Akron and soon I was approaching the city’s southwest suburb, the town of Barberton (population 26,550, salute!). On its outskirts, I saw a sign that was rather more relevant in the 1980s than now, advertising a company that installed the original huge satellite dishes so popular, for a while, in rural America.

In the early 1980s, advances in satellite dish technology allowed for the construction of smaller satellite dishes—though still giant compared to the ones used by many American homes today—that could be sold to consumers, allowing “direct to television” broadcasts from satellites. Here’s a history lesson for any millennials reading this:  before the development of these  satellite dishes, people living in rural areas either had no television, or had to erect huge aerial antennas in the hopes of receiving poor, snowy reception of broadcast television from the nearest urban area. These huge satellite dishes, which could cost several thousand dollars each, were finally a way many rural families could enjoy 1980s wonders such as the Cosby Show or Taxi.

In the early 1990s, new satellites with more powerful transmitting abilities allowed companies to use much smaller satellite dishes, ushering in the modern era of satellite television and spelling eventual doom for the Neanderthal-like large dishes that preceded it.

Interestingly, those big old satellite dishes not only received satellite television broadcasts but also satellite radio broadcasts. There were actually satellite radio channels back in the 1980s and 1990s.  Air time on them was extremely cheap, because of the inherently limited audience, which made them affordable for a variety of white supremacist groups, anti-government extremists, weird religious sects, survivalists, and others to purchase air time and air their own shows to followers (they also did this with shortwave radio, too).

The Internet came along and killed off most of the extremist shortwave and satellite radio programs; now they use Internet radio. But believe it or not, some of those old satellite dishes are still in operation and some of those extremists still broadcast to them.  So the white supremacist Scriptures for America, for example, broadcasts on satellite radio from its Colorado location.  To listen, you need to be able to access the Galaxy 19 communications satellite and use Frequency 10750, Transponder 11836, Left Channel, Symbol Rate 20770, and Vertical Polarization.

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Closer to the center of Barberton, I happened upon this set of twins. The stone on the building on the right reads LING or LINC and the date 1916.  The stone on the building on the left is damaged but I think it reads LING or LINC and has the date 1920.  If so, then it seems that someone named Ling built the right building first, then a few years later added on a sister building.

I found an advertisement in a 1950 issue of the Akron Beacon-Journal that was selling a business located here, presumably on the ground flood.  The business was a “Grocery and Meat Market” described as a “good going business” by its owner. No price was listed.

Now the ground floor appears to be occupied by “Risen Warrior Ministries.”  This did not turn out to be what I had expected. It is actually a Christian biker group.  they claim not to be a motorcycle club, i.e., gang), though they have a biker club-like structure, complete with chapters and “nomads” and monickers (their founder is “Cowboy,” for example).  So many of the members certainly seem to come from the biker subculture.

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Just a couple of blocks up the road is a bar, the Whatchamacallit, with a rather impressive mural of—what else—bar patrons. This is the sort of neighborhood bar that has disappeared in many suburban areas, though still common in many urban ones (and even in some rural areas). Yelp, I notice, calls it a “gastropub.”  I have no idea what a “gastropub” is but I already hate the word. The Whatchamacallit, as of this writing, is only a year old, so it was only half a year old when I took this photo.  Other bars—not gastropubs, goddammit—preceded it.

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The unusual look of this Barberton residence caught my attention, though the reclining sunbather (?) next to it surely must have wondered if I was photographing him.

Now I was getting close to the city center of Barberton and it may be worth pausing for a moment to speak about Barberton, as it is a bit unusual among Ohio cities.  Essentially a suburb of Akron that blends seamlessly with the city itself, Barberton is one of Ohio’s youngest children, so to speak. Many Ohio villages, towns and cities got their start in the 1790s or the first couple of decades of the 19th century.  A second wave of town-building, especially for western Ohio, occurred in the mid-1800s. But some places were started even later.  Barberton is one of these city-come-latelies, having been founded only in 1891, long after most Ohio settlements had been, well, settled.

Barberton was the brainchild of one man, the oddly named Ohio Columbus Barber.  Luckily, everybody agreed to ignore those first two names and just call him O. C. Barber.  Barber (1841-1920) was the son of a matchmaker—his father literally made matches by hand.  O.C. and his brothers sold them door-to-door.  Charles Dickens would have been proud.  So, too, would Horatio Alger, as O.C. turned out to be one driven little kid, the Bill Gates of matches.  By age 21, O.C. was the general manager of his father’s match business.  Barber industrialized the process and the Barber Company became the biggest matchmaker in the United States.  Even this wasn’t enough, so in 1881 Barber got other match companies to merge with him into the Diamond Match Company, which practically monopolized the market for matches.  Barber got involved with many other business endeavors as well, from banking to sewer pipes, but he was always associated with matches and became known as the “Match King.”

If Barber was the Match King, his workers were the peasants, paid only $1.21 a day (women far less) for 11-hour work days. Working in a match factory was also extremely dangerous, as the phosphorus used in the matches could give workers a condition known as phosphorus necrosis.  Medical hint:  if you ever see the word “necrosis,” it ain’t good. The disease caused the tissue in the jaws of workers to rot (thus its slang name “phossy jaw.”  It was quite horrible and was only eliminated in the early 1900s after public pressure (especially by the Salvation Army) caused people to eventually develop phosphorus-free matches.

In any case, Barber, the business magnate, got the notion of creating his own town, not a company town, per se, but a town at a location ideally suited for his business and manufacturing interests, as well as those of others.  He chose the future site of Barberton—no need to guess how that name ended up there—because of its closeness to transportation routes such as canals and railroads.  He relocated his masssive match factory there and established many of his other factory and business interests there as well.  Barberton began, then, very explicitly as an industrial town.

Barberton grew so quickly that its growth seemed “magical,” thus its nickname as The Magic City. Barberton soon had many of the largest factories that existed for various products.  In the early 1900s its downtown flourished.  Barberton was also a city of immigrants, many of its residents having recently come to the United States from southern and especially eastern Europe, including Poles, Jews, Ukrainians, and others. About half of these and other residents became out of work during the Great Depression, which hit manufacturing particularly severely, but the city prospered again after World War II.

By the 1970s, however, northeastern Ohio found itself part of the developing “rust belt,” with manufacturing jobs increasingly leaving the region. Between then and now, Barberton lost about a quarter of its population and much (though not all) of its manufacturing base.

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Because of Barberton’s Rust Belt heritage, I had a feeling that driving through downtown Barberton would be rather depressing and I would see many of the vacant buildings and offices that I see so often throughout Ohio.  However, I was pleasantly surprised by a downtown that seemed, at least as far as its storefront locations were concerned, to be relatively thriving.  Among the businesses I saw was the Snowball Bookshop, started in 1995, which bills itself as the “largest used and out-of-print bookstore in Northeast Ohio.”

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I couldn’t help but notice the cat in the window.  I will forgive their sin of displaying Reader’s Digest Condensed Editions because they also displayed the novel The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K. dick.

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Downtown Barberton also seemed rather arty, with several art galleries such as the Nine Muses gallery depicted here. Bookshops, art galleries, even theater companies—Barberton is clearly not merely the remnant of an industrial city.

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A few years ago, this was an empty storefront. Now there’s an art dealer there.

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Now, I should note that one doesn’t have to go too far outside this area of high culture to see a less renewed area of the city center.

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But this area of Barberton allows the nickname “Magic City” not to ring hollow.  This is something residents themselves seem aware of, as witnessed by The Magical Theater Company.  To the left of the Magical Theater Company is ACOT, which stands for The Art Center on Tusc(arawas). ACOT itself has two art galleries, a dozen resident artists, and all sorts of other awesome stuff.

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You want to know how arty Barberton is?  So arty that they even have art just looking out from the upstairs windows. That’s arty, my friend. ACOT only opened in 2014, so you can see how rapidly Barberton is changing its city center.  Bravo to Barberton, I say.

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Just one of the many paintings on display (and for sale) at ACOT.

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But you can still see Barberton’s industrial side, or its past industrial side, as well.  This building currently housing a stream cleaning and pressure washer business, was something more industrial in previous decades.

In fact, I subsequently learned that this address, 27 4th Street, NW, was actually once one of the buildings of the Diamond Match Factory itself.  This was the location of the “Fourth Machine Shop,” which was built in 1894 (only a couple years after Barberton was founded) and added to in 1896.  There was also a blacksmith shop attached to the building, presumably for all the horses still used to cart things around.

when looked at from above, i.e., via satellite imagery, one can see its nearby sister buildings which are also survivors of the original match factory (the factory itself closed in 1960).

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Sometimes companies can have strange evolutions.  This factory, with its massive brick (and bricked-in) building and other old aspects, seems rather forlorn. This is the Babcock & Wilson property.  Way back in the 1860s, Babcock & Wilson were boilermakers.  They opened their Barberton plant in 1906 as part of the city’s industrial boom. According to the 1907 publication The Iron Trade Review, the Barberton plant was “a modern gray iron foundry” with “novel features of design and construction.”

Today, more than a century later, Babcock & Wilson is no longer an independent company, having gone through various acquisitions and business evolutions, which eventually changed it into an energy-oriented company—both power generation as well as manufacture of heavy equipment for power generation (including nuclear power).  Indeed, on the far side of this property is located what is called the BWXT Nuclear Operations Group, which specializes in the design and manufacture of large heavy components for nuclear power plants. It currently has about 540 strong union jobs.

So Barberton can have culture and manufacturing both.

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I eventually departed Barberton (let us say “for now”) and headed east, skirting along the southern edge of Akron.  Along the way, I chanced upon an odd little place—a collection of small living units that did not seem to be any sort of motel or, for that matter, anything particularly recognizable at all.  I assumed once I returned I could try to research the place, but the coordinates given by my unreliable camera GPS are clearly wrong (they place me on the entrance ramp to a freeway) and, as a result, I cannot even determine where this damn place actually is.

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It is very strange.  It currently seems unoccupied, and windows are closed.  I really am at a loss to understand its purpose.

I think I will have to end things here, and take up the 2nd half of my journey next time.  I hate to end with a mystery but I don’t have an answer.  Perhaps someone from the Akron area can help us out.

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