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Akron: The Rubber Capital of the World

Founded by early settlers Paul Williams and Simon Perkins in 1825 (along the Little Cuyahoga River), at a time when Ohio's development was in its infancy, the American city of Akron is known as the rubber capital of the world.

Connecticut-born Perkins learned how to become a surveyor at a young age. In 1797, when he was 26, he became Ohio land agent for the Erie Land Company. Establishing his base in Warren, he was one of Ohio's biggest land owners.

Rubber company

© Vladimir Melnik / Adobe Stock

 

Birth of Akron

In March 1815, he bought 1,298 acres of land, at $2.08 an acre, from Samuel Parkman. This was to become Akron a decade later. Perkins and Williams established the settlement and it became popular and prosperous very quickly, as a result of its proximity to the river and the newly-developing canal system.

Perkins' oldest son, Simon Jnr, moved to Akron in 1834 to oversee his father's holdings in the area. He ran a sheep farm and wool factory, along with many other business concerns. His mansion house, called the Perkins Stone Mansion, dating from 1837, is a museum run by the Summit County Historical Society of Akron today.

In the late 19th century, Ohio became the most prolific rubber-producing state in the US. Numerous rubber companies began operating in, or around, Akron. Those with factories in the area included the Goodyear Tyre and Rubber Company, the BF Goodrich Company and the Firestone Tyre and Rubber Company.

 

Booming business

Initially, they made tyres for bicycles, but the advent of automobiles meant the tyre business took off in a big way and the companies became extremely wealthy. Goodrich set up its base in Akron in 1869, Goodyear in 1898 and Firestone in 1900.

The title of the Rubber Capital of the World began in around 1900. Akron continued to attract rubber producers when another major manufacturer, General Tyre, set up a factory there in 1915. With the influx of workers, the rubber companies responded by building affordable housing.

Frank Seiberling, the president of Goodyear, built a new neighbourhood, Goodyear Heights, especially for his employees. Firestone founder Harvey Firestone built a similar community, Firestone Park, for his workforce. In the early 20th century, particularly during the 1920s, Akron became a boomtown.

It was the fastest-growing city in America, experiencing a 201% population growth. There were 208,000 citizens recorded as living there and almost 33% were immigrants.

 

Hollywood actor

One of Akron's most famous citizens, the movie star Clark Gable, was the son of a farmer from nearby Ravenna. His father, William, wanted Clark to work on the family farm, but the teenager had no intention of becoming a farmer.

In his youth, he moved to Akron and worked for the Firestone Tyre and Rubber Company, before turning to acting at 21. He had inherited a small sum of money, which enabled him to join a touring theatre company.

With the booming rubber industry, it was a good life for the workers of Akron and their families. Goodyear in particular was thriving. In 1929, its subsidiary company, Goodyear-Zeppelin, was commissioned to manufacture airships for the US Navy, the USS Akron ZRS-4. In 1931, it was commissioned to build a second navy airship, the USS Macon ZRS-5.

Goodyear also built several "blimps" or small airships for the navy during the second world war. The company later built them as a medium for advertising.

Goodyear merged with the Kelly-Springfield Tyre Company in 1935 to become America's top tyre manufacturer.

 

Rubber roads

The first known rubber road was constructed in Akron in the 1940s. A pilot scheme for the new road-building material was launched on 7th September 1948, on Exchange Street, when a one-mile section of the road was paved with a rubber-asphalt compound.

Experiments had begun as long ago as the 1840s to create a crack-resistant, durable road surface that would repel water. Goodyear CEO Paul Litchfield reportedly visited the Netherlands, where he learned of a pilot scheme to build roads with a rubber-asphalt compound. He returned to the US and launched his own scheme in Akron.

He was so keen to see the new road surface take off that he donated the rubber, as he wished to pioneer the innovation. His road in Akron was the first real test in the world for new rubber roads. A sign was erected at the end of Exchange Street, which said: "Here ends the first rubber street in America."

The idea took off and asphalt mixtures containing rubber were used across the US following his experiment in Akron. Rubber roads were constructed in Phoenix, Arizona, in the 1960s. They were then built in California, Florida and Texas.

 

Mid-20th century

As the use of the automobile rocketed in the 1950s and 1960s, so did rubber tyre production. In the 1950s, there were more than 130 companies manufacturing rubber across Ohio, keeping around 85,000 workers in employment. The state produced more than one-third of all the tyres used in the US and around 30% of all other rubber products in America.

The corporate offices of five major tyre companies based in Akron and surrounding districts, such as Ashland and Ravenna, were also involved in the rubber industry. They produced 80% of the rubber used in balloons, while another plant in the community of Bucyrus was the world's largest manufacturer of hoses.

Towards the end of the 20th century, Ohio's rubber industry began to decline, compared to its boom days of the 1950s and '60s. While Akron continues to produce tyres, some companies have relocated their factories to other parts of the US.

 

Goodyear's F1 racing

By the early 1990s, the last major tyre manufacturer to have its headquarters in Akron was Goodyear. The company is still based there today and has become the most successful supplier of tyres in Formula 1 history. F1 cars, equipped with Goodyear tyres, have had more wins and constructors' championship titles than cars with any other tyre supplier.

Goodyear is also the sole supplier for the NASCAR motorsport series. In 2013, it opened its new international headquarters building in Akron. In 2018, Goodyear and Bridgestone announced the launch of TireHub, a joint wholesale distribution network across America.

Coruba is one of the UK's leading providers of top-quality rubber matting and other rubber products. For enquiries, please give us a ring on 01702 560194.



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