Wednesday, October 12, 2016

East Market Street’s Garden of Delights

Back in the days before television, Akronites—like everybody else—liked to get out of the house. There were always movie theaters to visit, and vaudeville shows, both professional and amateur. Live music was enjoyed just about everywhere, and dancing to it was equally popular. Younger generations enjoyed lacing up their roller skates and gliding across the floor.

In the 1920s and 30s, L. Oscar Beck—who also built the Civic Theater—erected a huge dance hall at 264 East Market St., just west of the First Congregational Church.  This sprawling edifice, which stood on the site until 1984, was not only a popular recreation spot but was also host to some of America’s best-known musical acts, including Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Billie Holiday, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, and Harry James.

During the late 30s, the Garden was an especially popular spot for roller skating, as young people from all across town gathered to socialize, and display their skating technique and skill. My father would often take my mother there, demonstrating not only his skating prowess but his fancy skates, which featured battery-powered lights that twinkled as he rolled across the gleaming hardwood floor. He had rigged these up himself and liked to flick them on when they dimmed the rink lights at different times during the evening.

During World War II, the hall continued to be a popular spot, especially for many of the young women who took over men’s jobs at the rubber and aerospace factories. After the war, East Market Gardens was home to a number of other events as well, including the Children’s Hospital Charity Ball and The Greater Akron Trade Exposition.

The Greater Akron Trade Exposition - East Market Gardens, 1951

In later years, the hardwood floors would find another use, and the dance hall was eventually transformed into a bowling alley. Initially known as Garden Lanes, it was operated by Dick Behra until it was later sold to Barry and Sandy Keith and renamed Rubber City Lanes.

Bowling balls eventually gave way to the wrecking ball, when the big structure was torn down to make way for a Subway restaurant in 1984. As is so common in Akron, that building has already passed into oblivion and the site now is a vacant, concrete-paved lot.

From Bowling Balls to the Wrecking Ball - 1984

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Full Circle: Tallmadge's Namesake Leads the Way in AMC's TURN: Washington's Spies

It’s not every day you hear a familiar name on TV, but if you’ve ever watched AMC’s TURN:Washington’s Spies then you’ve certainly come across one of the show’s main characters, the dashing Colonel Benjamin Tallmadge, who helps maintain George Washington’s military intelligence operation during the Revolution.

If you’ve ever wondered whether there was a connection between this character and Akron’s neighbor to the northeast, the answer is absolutely YES.  Tallmadge (played on the show by actor Seth Numrich) was founded in 1806 by Rev. Davis Bacon, and Colonel Tallmadge was one of the first property owners. Bacon named the township after Tallmadge precisely because of his well-known, highly-respected name, which was known throughout New England.

While a major landowner and investor, Tallmadge was never a local resident. He maintained his home in Litchfield, Conn. and was happy to support Bacon, a missionary whose religious views he fully shared. Eventually, Bacon obtained a contract of purchase with Tallmadge and the other dozen or so investors in the settlement, which stipulated that whenever payment of any part was secured, a deed would be delivered for that part.

Tallmadge was leader of  the Second Regiment of Continental Light Dragoons, also
known as Tallmadge's Dragoons.

While much of Colonel Tallmadge’s notoriety comes from his espionage activities, he had an equally distinguished service in more conventional military activities, participating and leading forces in several important military actions against the British and their Tory sympathizers. After the war, Tallmadge flourished as a successful businessman, land speculator, and served several terms as a Federalist Congressman. He died in 1835.

It’s important to remember that years ago, a large section of east Akron was actually part of Tallmadge, which extended down across Chapel Hill and down through Goodyear Heights towards Middlebury, until it was eventually annexed by the city. Even today, if you look at a map of Akron, you can see that for the most part, there really is no “northeast Akron”—what would be is mostly Tallmadge, and Cuyahoga Falls.

As for Bacon, his plans for settlement did not offer much personal success; there was little hard cash available for new residents to buy land, and he was forced to return to New England after 1811. Bacon's idea was a good one, it just took longer to develop than he expected. Those who did stay here held on long enough to see the settlement prosper and grow into a successful town and today, their descendants can claim a prosperous city.

With that in mind, it seems appropriate that we take a moment to enjoy Colonel Tallmadge’s newfound posthumous fame. It makes the TV show that much more fun to watch.

Friday, September 09, 2016

The Day Akron had an NFL Team

When you think of Akron and football on Thanksgiving, you automatically think of the old tradition of “Turkey Day” games, when the City Series Championship would inevitably be decided at the Akron Rubber Bowl. But in 1952, Akron was treated to something extra—a double-header that not only included the high school championship, but an NFL game as well, featuring George Halas’ Chicago Bears vs Akron’s home team—The Dallas Texans.

Never heard of the Texans? Maybe you have – but those Texans are probably the 1960 AFL Team that later moved to Kansas City to become the Chiefs.

No, these Dallas Texans were the only NFL franchise to ever go belly up.

In this story, it’s important to point out that the post-WWII NFL was not the incredibly popular money machine it is today. The league was still struggling for fans and respect. So, after an unsuccessful 1951 season, New York Yanks owner Ted Collins decided that—after eight years of losing money—he’d sell his team back to the NFL. In January of 1952, a Dallas-based group led by a pair of young millionaires, Giles Miller and his brother, Connell, bought what was ostensibly a new franchise from the NFL—the first-ever major league team based in Texas.

At the time, Texas was totally dominated by college football, so there were a lot of skeptics when the team scheduled their first game in the 75,000 seat Cotton Bowl. As it turned out, the skeptics were right; in their brief stay in Dallas, the largest crowd the Texans managed to draw was 17,499 curious spectators on opening day.

1952 Texans uniform guide - courtesy NFL
Things got worse with each following week. With five games remaining and the Texans unable to meet their payroll, Miller was forced to return the franchise to the league. The NFL operated the team for the remainder of the season. Of the final three games, two were hosted by the Philadelphia Eagles and the Detroit Lions—this got the league off the hook as far as finding a place to play for the vagabond team. But what to do about the third and last game?

So the NFL decided that Akron would play host for Dallas’ last “home” game, serving as the second half of a special Thanksgiving double-header.

Can’t miss, right? The first game, a traditional high school matchup played between East and South was certainly a success, with East winning 26-19. NFL legend Art Donovan, who with fellow Texan team member Gino Marchetti would later be inducted into the Hall of Fame as Baltimore Colts, remembered the day well:

“In the morning they had a high school football game and they must have had about 20,000 people in the stands. When we went to warm up, there must have been about 3,000 people in the stands.”

In fact, Texans coach Jimmy Phelan thought there were so few fans in the stadium that he laughingly suggested the team should just “dispense with the usual introductions and just go into the stands and shake hands with each fan.”

As bad as it sounds, it wasn’t all bad.

In fact, the game at the Rubber Bowl turned out to be the only victory in franchise history. Chicago coach George Halas was so sure of winning, he started his second stringers. As a result, the Texans jumped out to a quick 20–2 lead and then managed to hang on for a 27–23 victory.

The Texans went on to lose their final game. The NFL was unable to find a buyer for them and folded the team right after the season ended.

Just a few months later, the league granted a new franchise—and all the remaining assets of the Texans (including the players)—to Baltimore-based group headed by Carroll Rosenbloom. Though it makes sense to argue that Rosenbloom just bought the Texans and moved them to Baltimore to become the Colts, that’s not how the Colts (who are now in Indianapolis) or the NFL see it.

Both see the 1953 Colts as an all-new expansion team. Because of this, the Texans officially remain the last NFL team to permanently cease operations and not be included in the lineage of any current team.

But they were Akron’s team—for a day.

Thursday, September 08, 2016

Akron's "Other" Brewer: The George Renner Brewing Company

Everyone in Akron has heard of Burkhardt’s Brewery; located on Grant Street in Wolf Ledges, it is currently home to two current Akron breweries, Thirsty Dog and Aqueduct, who share space at the cavernous old brick building.

Up until recently, the former Akron Brewing Company, too, was highly visible—its large brick edifice overlooking the westbound lanes of I-77 where it crossed Broadway. Sadly, the building has recently been demolished due to reconstruction of the exit ramps there, near South Main St.

For the most part, only area brewers, long-time residents and brewerania collectors are familiar with Akron’s other major brewer, the George Renner Brewing Company, whose plant and ice house was located on North Forge St., just west of North Arlington, near Adams St. The facility is still there, spanning both sides of North Forge; most impressive is the ornate brick 1880’s-era boiler and bottling house on the north side of the street.

Renner's old brewery buildings still stand on North Forge St.
Born in Germany in 1835, George Renner was among a number of German immigrants who settled in the area during the 1800’s. He came with his parents to Cincinnati in 1849, where he learned the brewing business, then moved to Wooster in 1882, where he opened his first brewery. He stayed there for about four years, opened a brewery in Mansfield in 1886, and finally settled in Akron in 1888.

Old Cockney Ale. Seems highly sessionable, with only 3.2% " ABV. You can drink a LOT.
In Akron, he purchased an old brewery on N. Forge and began making substantial improvements and continued to enlarge the facilities. Soon, Renner’s operation became one of the largest breweries in Ohio, selling over 30,000 barrels annually with a capacity of over 50,000 by 1910.

Through the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Renner produced a wide range of popular beers, like the popular Grossvater (Grandfather), Old German, Lucky Shoe, Old Cockney Ale, Half and Half and Souvenir Bock. The Prohibition era was a tough time for all of Akron’s breweries. When it finally ended at 12:01 A.M., on April 7, 1933, a crowd of 2,000 people waited in line outside Renner's brewery in a cold rain to purchase some of the 5,000 cases of their Grossvater  brand beer that were available at $3.25 per case. By noon the next  day, 10,000 cases had been sold at the brewery and through  shipments all over northeast Ohio and western Pennsylvania.

Today, Brewerania collectors seek out old bottles, cans, labels and crates featuring this venerable old brewery’s name and products. Renner’s son, George Jr. was a successful brewer in his own right, moving to Youngstown and opening a very successful brewery there, marketing many of the same brands as the Akron plant.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

When the Goodyear Blimp Went Shopping

Most Akron residents have seen the Goodyear Blimp at one time or another, but one thing they have probably never seen is the blimp landing somewhere other than Wingfoot Lake or out near the Airdock.

That wasn’t always the case. Back in the 1920’s when the company was first getting its fleet off the ground, no clear strategy had been formed for exactly how the blimps were going to be used. Everyone felt they would be a great promotional tool, and would be helpful in supporting Goodyear’s image as an advanced technology company of the time, but the whole concept was still new and in its formative stage. Of course, the first item of business was to paint the Goodyear name on the side in big letters.

During the infancy of the airship industry, it was clear that they were seen as new mode of transportation. While the large, rigid-framed zeppelins of the day were huge and not easy to maneuver, blimps were much smaller, (much smaller than they are now) safer (filled with helium rather than hydrogen) and much easier to handle. They could be landed and secured almost anywhere you could install a mooring mast—which, for blimps—did not have to be that big.

To demonstrate this, someone in the Goodyear publicity department cooked up a scheme to land the company’s first commercial blimp, The Pilgrim, on the roof of O’Neil’s department store on Main Street. We don’t know how much advance notice the public had of the stunt, but it’s not hard to imagine the stunned faces of onlookers downtown as the blimp made its approach and finally—a landing.

Goodyear airship attendants scramble to get The Pilgrim into position for landing.
Archival records seem to indicate this was about 1928; that sounds about right, since one of the photos shows that Polsky’s, which broke ground for its store in 1929, was not built yet. You can clearly see the Summit County Court House right behind the Pilgrim.

Whether anyone thought this had any practical use can’t really be determined. Company president Paul Litchfield did see a practical use for blimps as “airborne yachts”—and he stated that blimps could “serve a similar purpose for persons living inland as do yachts for those living along the seacoast”

A 1929 article in Flight magazine stated it thus:

“It is claimed that there is a great future for this type of and its mooring masts should be found at country clubs, private estates, etc., while the holding of airship regattas—in the same way that motor boat and yachting clubs now have similar events—can also be held with success. Personally, we think this small “blimp” type of airship possesses great possibilities from the sporting point of view, as is the case with ballooning—although, of course, ” blimping ” conies out a trifle more expensive.”

The portable mooring mast which was developed for use at any flat, level location.
To this end, the company even developed a portable mooring mast. The demonstration version of this was attached to a Ford, and used with some success. This portable mast would allow it to land in any flat level field of sufficient size; like a horse farm. Or a private estate. Or a country club. Unfortunately, the utility of taking “the lady of the household” shopping at her favorite department store was not demonstrated to a practical extent, either.

Friday, August 26, 2016

In The Details: Art Deco Designs at North High School

Colorful Art Deco terra cotta work above the Entry to North High School.
I didn’t attend North High School, but I have friends who did. My father graduated from North in 1939; he lived in a few different places nearby—not exactly “on The Hill” as old-timers would say—but just to the east, on Evans Ave. and later, on Independence Ave. As a teenager, he’d get up early in the morning and go hunting in the woods and fields where Chapel Hill Mall is now, before heading off to class.

The building itself is pretty impressive, though it would have looked much better before the smaller, energy-efficient windows were installed.
I think I’ve only been in North High School a couple of times, and I’m surprised that I never took more notice of the beautiful art deco terra cotta tile work on the building’s exterior, which is pretty interesting in itself and one of Akron’s better-looking school buildings from this era.

Early settlers: A Trapper, a Weaver and a Hunter.
The tile murals found around the building entrances are softly colored, depicting stylized flowers and humans from the pre-industrial age—including Native Americans and Pioneers—engaged in various types of activity.

Although the building was ready for students in 1931, it was not quite complete; the school auditorium, cafeteria and gym were delayed in construction due to The Depression and WWII. They weren’t added until 1955, and can be seen as you drive north on Gorge Blvd. A vocational wing was also added in 1970.

Another example of the magnificent terra cotta decoration. 
As the Akron City Schools debate the future of North, Kenmore and Garfield high schools (due to falling enrollment, not all can be rebuilt) It is hoped that all or some of this splendid ceramic work can be saved and reused…somewhere.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

When Monsters Prowled Goodyear Heights

This is what happens when you cross a streetcar, a bus and a truck with a 4X4.
Back in 1921, Goodyear had already established a worldwide reputation as an innovative manufacturer, not only of tires, but of a wide range of other products—including airships. The company had been at the forefront of industrial America in other ways too; Goodyear Heights, the suburban garden neighborhood that it had created for its workers, had been a model for similar developments both in Akron and all across the country.

So, when it came to getting those workers back-and-forth to the job, the company quickly realized that establishing a Goodyear Heights bus line was the sensible way to go. Of course, you couldn’t expect a company like Goodyear to use just any bus to serve the route, at least not for long. Soon enough, they came up with a novel way not only to move people, but also to demonstrate their technological prowess and demonstrate the performance and longevity of their most advanced pneumatic truck tires.
A lineup of Goodyear test vehicles. Though it's much larger, the bus at left uses the same chassis as the trucks.

The company had demonstrated the tires’ heavy payload capabilities through cross-country demonstrations, and they were looking for new ways to show off the product via the heavy demands of day-in, day-out 365-days-a-year transit usage. To do this, they created a Frankenstein of a vehicle that passengers would surely never forget.

The six-wheel version, with entry/exit at curb side.

The first version was a six-wheel transport, built upon a newly-designed truck frame and driveline—topped with a Peter Witt–bodied streetcar. To gain the needed clearance for the streetcar’s relatively low wheel wells, the entire body had to be hoisted up high enough to make any of today’s 4X4 crowd proud; entry was gained through a low-slung passenger door on the curb side of the vehicle. Since the bus used a water-cooled internal combustion engine instead of electricity, a large radiator was mounted onto the front of the huge streetcar body.

It didn’t take long for Goodyear’s new vehicle to get noticed. Paul Litchfield, the VP and factory manager for the company, and later to become its president, won much praise for the concept, as noted in a 1922 article in Automotive Industries:

“His conviction that the ultimate motor vehicle would be multiple-wheeled, taking the same evolution as the freight car, led to P.W. Litchfield’s working out plans for the first six-wheeled vehicles ever put into practical use in America several years ago.”

Since the six-wheel version was deemed a success, Goodyear decided to go one better in 1922, by building an eight-wheel version, with full four-wheel steering at the front. At the time, it was considered a marvel of modern engineering, though we are not so sure about how the vehicle’s looks were received by the people of Akron. Perhaps the best gauge of that is the fact that there were no successors to the eight-wheeled leviathan, and that later service routes were handled by more conventional forms of bus transport.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Akron Street Names: Melvin Vaniman and His Pal, Kiddo.

Melvin Vaniman and his adventurous pal, Kiddo.
Truth be told, Melvin Vaniman wasn’t even from Akron, though he has a street named after him in Goodyear Heights. Born in Virden, Illinois in 1866, he started out as a photographer — but wedding portraits were simply not his thing.

No, Melvin gained a worldwide reputation as an innovative panoramic photographer, creating promotional images in far off places like Hawaii, New Zealand and Australia. Many of his beautiful images were shot from hot air balloons, using his own “swing-lens” camera design to capture full 360×180 degree panoramic images.

This is the type of panoramic photography Vaniman became noted for - taken from a balloon.
Around 1904, Melvin grew bored with photography and took up exploration, including two attempts at crossing the North Pole, the first in an airship named America. In 1910, his first trip across the Atlantic in the same airship was unsuccessful when the engines failed and his crew had to be rescued by a Royal Mail steamship. 

Through almost all of his adventures, Vaniman was accompanied by a faithful friend and traveling mascot, Kiddo — a tabby that came to be well-known as “The Airship Cat.” During his initial attempt to cross the ocean, Kiddo (who had been a stowaway in the airship's lifeboat) ecame quite disruptive inside the airship’s gondola, causing Vaniman to radio his launch boat to “come and get this goddam cat!” Fortunately, the tabby was among the crew later rescued.

Melvin Vaniman named his second airship Akron at the request of Frank Seiberling, who agreed to have Goodyear manufacture the craft's giant gas bag. Airship development was still in its infancy; Goodyear was just getting started in its lighter-than-air efforts, and it would be a few years before Goodyear’s airships and zeppelins became well known around the world.

A promotional post card for Vanima's Trans-Atlantic expedition.
Melvin made his second bold attempt at an Atlantic crossing in 1912. Just off the Jersey shore near Atlantic City, the Akron, which was of advanced design and filled with over 11,000 cubic meters of hydrogen, burst into flames and exploded — plunging the ship’s gondola over 750 meters to an inlet. Neither Vaniman nor his four crewmen survived.

Vaniman's airship "Akron" - a photo taken as it left on its final journey.
Two years later, when Goodyear Heights was laid out, Vaniman’s brave effort would be forever memorialized by one of the neighborhood’s streets. Thankfully, no street would be named to memorialize Kiddo; Melvin’s feline friend retired from flying for good after the 1910 trip.