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.

Got Milk? When The Answer Was Always YES.

It may be hard for younger people to fathom why there ever was a time that milk and other dairy products were actually delivered right to your door, by a cheerful deliveryman—often wearing a uniform.

In fact, milk delivery was an old tradition that goes back to the days that local dairy farmers delivered their products locally by horse-drawn wagons. Deliveries were usually frequent and regular, since there was no way to keep the milk cold in storage for long. Later, when iceboxes became more common in homes, dairy farmers continued to deliver their products, along with the ice man and the coal truck.

Here in Akron, we had local dairies like Akron Pure Milk Company, Kesselring and Reiter & Harter—not to mention branches of larger dairies like Borden and Sealtest. Their handsome trucks plied through our neighborhoods, dropping milk and other dairy goods off to homes, usually depositing the glass jugs inside insulated aluminum boxes at the back door. Some people even had a special storage box built into their homes, with an access door in the outside for the milkman and another door on the inside so the homeowner could retrieve their milk.

Just leave the milk in this box. On the back porch.
Convenience was a factor, for sure; but milk and eggs were available at the grocery. So why have them delivered?

Well, you have to remember that in the pre-suburban age, most American neighborhoods were walkable, and most every neighborhood had one more or more grocery stores. In addition, it was not uncommon for women born before or during The Depression to have never learned how to drive. My mother was born in 1921; she and a few of her sisters never had a drivers license—it wasn’t that unusual.

That usually meant walking to the store, maybe with one or more children in tow. That also meant more frequent trips, rather than the weekend “load up” that’s so common in our own time.

Here’s the reality: Eggs are fragile. Glass bottles of milk are breakable. And more importantly—VERY HEAVY. Better not to lug that stuff home – just have the milkman drop it off every few days.

That's what I'm talkin' about. Milk. PURE milk from real COWS- none of this Almond-milk crap.
Even in 1962, well after Americans had started making the move to the suburbs, the Department of Agriculture reported that almost one third of homes were still having milk delivered. By 1975, that number had dropped below 7%. As time went on, almost everyone drove a car, and some families had more than one. Weekly expeditions to the local supermarket became the norm. Dairies found it hard to justify the extra cost of home delivery, and most consumers just didn’t require it anymore.

At the home where I grew up, the Reiter & Harter All Star Dairy delivery man showed up at least a couple of times a week, in his yellow truck, dropping off glass half-gallon jugs of whole milk and sometimes fruit juice, too.

What red blooded American kid wouldn't want his own toy milk truck?
This went on up until the late 1960’s. I’m not sure if we cancelled delivery, or if the dairy just ended the service on their own.

It didn’t matter. By that time, I was supposedly “diagnosed” as being somewhat allergic to cow’s milk, so I had to hike down to the Acme at Six Corners once a week to retrieve the two quarts of goat’s milk they kept on order in the back cooler for me. As a kid, it was kinda neat, being able to go in the back of the store, open the big walk-in storage cooler and retrieve MY milk.

I can still remember sauntering up to the check-out counter, with an air of self-satisfaction:

Yes. I see you looking, there. You’re probably thinking – “where did you get that goat’s milk?” I got it in the back of the store. They keep it special. Just for me—in these colorful little quart cartons. It’s delicious. It tastes a lot better than your common cow’s milk, too…

After a few years of this, my mother decided that the novelty had worn off and that I could survive (like the rest of our family) on 2% regular milk, which is what I have been drinking for the last 40+ years.

Akron. Pure. Milk. Delivered right to your door. Sounds pretty good to me.
Of course, with today’s focus on locally-sourced food, I have to wonder how long before we might see local milk delivery again. I mean, we make honey in Akron, and croissants, and hot sauce, and all kinds of tasty stuff. Today, timely delivery of just about anything you want is a phone app away. In some places, regular milk delivery is already a thing again.

But while I’d trust a drone to deliver a bag of Cheetos, I’m not so sure I want one toting heavy jugs of milk over my house.

Give me the guy in the uniform.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Built for Speed: The Arfons Brothers

Walt (left) and Art (right) Arfons.
It figures. Only a guy from Akron would have the ‘nads to strap a jet engine onto four wheels and go racing. But in this case, there were two guys, Art Arfons and his half-brother, Walt.

Their father, a Greek immigrant, came to America at the age of 14 and settled in Akron, where he operated a feed mill. The brothers’ natural ingenuity and mechanical skills found an outlet in working on cars, and though Walt was ten years older than Art, they forged a common bond in their desire to go fast.

One of the Arfons Brothers' first Green Monster Drag Racers
In 1952, they built their first dragster, a three-wheeler with an Olds 6-cylinder engine, pained a hideous green shade that matched their old Oliver farm tractor. Dubbed “The Green Monster” by the track PA announcer, the name stuck for all of the brothers’ joint projects.

Using surplus aircraft piston engines at first, the brothers raced throughout the 1950’s. They were the first drag racers to hit 150 mph in a quarter mile, and continued to do so using subsequent versions of The Green Monster.

Around 1960, the brothers parted amicably and followed their separate paths, although they continued to compete with each other on a friendly basis. Art headed to Bonneville with an Allison aircraft engine powered car that hit over 313 mph in 1961.

Being no slouch, brother Walt became the first to introduce a jet-engine dragster in 1960, utilizing a parachute to slow the car down at the end of the run. In 1967, Chrysler Corporation gave Walt a Dodge Dart, Plymouth Barracuda and Dodge Charger to convert into dragsters. Walt simply strapped jet engines onto all three stock cars and went racing.

Need more speed? Just find a jet engine and strap it to the back of the family car.
During the 1960’s, both brothers returned to the Bonneville salt flats many times with new and innovative jet-powered cars they designed. During 1964 they went back-and-forth against record-holder Craig Breedlove and his Spirit of America, Art in a new Green Monster and Walt in the Wingfoot Express. Hitting record speeds of over 400mph (Walt) and 500mph (Art) the brothers battled across the salt flats with all comers for speed record supremacy.

Art Arfons with his 1966 edition of The Green Monster.
In later years, the brothers drove less and spent their time mostly designing cars, with Art enjoying great success in jet turbine powered tractor pulling competitions, and being named to the Motor Sports Hall of Fame in 1991. Art passed in 2007, and older brother Walt passed in 2013. Today, you can still see their Green Monster sign out on Pickle Road, north of Killian.

A little bit crazy? Maybe. What we can say for sure is that when it comes to “life in the fast lane” — no one showed the way better than the two brothers from Akron.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

The Story Behind This Web Site...

Little Big Town originated with a 2015 Medium post I wrote that outlined how our city’s landscape had changed so much over the past 150 years, and how the rapid expansion of the city—due to a series of “boom” periods—had caused it to be significantly transformed several times over.

The notion of Little Big Town also got its inspiration from Akron’s foremost historian, Dave Leiberth, who has referred to our city many times as “America’s Biggest Small Town” - as well as University of Akron professor George Knepper, who has often noted that “Akron has many accomplishments disproportionate to its size as a city.”

I would also be remiss if I did not give some credit to the creators of the great NYC history blog, The Bowery Boys, who have provided a lot of inspiration, if not the model, for how to produce and sustain an engaging and entertaining city history blog.

One of my favorite pastimes on Twitter has been digging up old images of Akron, posting them as a “PastBlast”—not only in an effort to inspire fond memories in older generations of Akronites—but also to inspire younger generations and make them understand that almost anything is possible here in our city. Rather than sending a message about “how great it used to be”, the goal is to show how creativity, hard work, smarts, and that peculiar Akron World View made our city such a special place. Today, I see many of the same skills are being put to work by a younger generation right now to shape Akron for an exciting and unpredictable future.

So many of the young people I come across see these historic images and hear these Akron stories, and the reaction is typically something along the lines of:

“What a great idea that was. Let’s do it again—but better.”

“Those people were a little bit crazy. Just like us.”

“Who would have thought you could do that here? But they did. So can we.”

“Some of those great ideas we hear about today? They were doing that in Akron 100 years ago.”

“They didn’t have much to start with. Neither do we. But look where they finished.”

While the city limits here may not stretch as far and wide as they do in America’s great metropolises, one thing people from Akron have proved again and again is that there is no limit to our imaginations—or our creativity. Perhaps somewhere in this collection—in this colorful Akron memory book—a new generation will find a spark of inspiration to create their own unique and remarkable history in this overgrown small town.

If you have any ideas or suggestions for stories, feel free to pass them along.