Monday, July 27, 2015

Akron History: Ferdinand Schumacher: Not a Fan of Coats

The following essay first appeared in the June/issue #10 of The Devil Strip--our new, twice monthly, arts & culture newspaper in Akron. Issue #10 is now available--go out and pick up a copy or eventually read it on-line.  As many of you know, I love researching and writing about Akron history. I'm writing a regular column about Akron history for The Devil Strip.  If you have any suggestions or requests for particular topics, let me know.

Ferdinand Schumacher: Not a Fan of Coats
by Joanna Wilson

We all know Quaker Square on Broadway Street in downtown Akron--what is now The University of Akron residence hall was converted from grain silos. Many of us have visited the giant, red waterwheel sculpture along the Towpath Trail at Cascade Locks Park, located in the footprint of one of the former mills owned by Ferdinand Schumacher, the ‘Oatmeal King’ of Akron. Details of the oat, barley and flour company started by Schumacher can be found on display at the waterwheel as well as online. But what I find just as fascinating as the grand cereal empire that began in Akron is the colorful character of Schumacher himself.

Schumacher Waterwheel sculpture at Cascade Locks Park on North Street.

German immigrant Ferdinand Schumacher started his oat, barley, and flour business here becoming the wealthiest man in town after the Civil War. All this, despite being known as stubborn, a skinflint, and a strict advocate of temperance. I’m thinking his wallet may have been his best guarantee for party invitations. For example, the history books reveal that Schumacher was so frugal that although he was the richest man in town, he refused to buy an overcoat. Ferdinand instead preferred to walk Akron’s streets with a tattered shawl pulled up over his head and shoulders throughout our cold, long and bitter winters. According to a story shared by his sons, when they arranged an elaborate plan to trick Schumacher into purchasing an overcoat at a big discount, he was so delighted with the bargain that he sold the coat to another retailer, preferring a small profit over the warmth of the new coat. Schumacher was also so cheap he refused to purchase insurance. In 1886, when a fire (not his first) destroyed the entire complex of mills including the eight-story Jumbo Mill, Schumacher was unable to rebuild.

In order to raise funds to rebuild, Schumacher agreed to merge his cereal company with several of his competitors in order to fix prices and drive other businesses out of the market. The stubborn Schumacher wasn’t concerned with violating anti-trust laws--instead he resisted the business decisions of his new partners, especially wasting his money on advertising. So he mortgaged most of his holdings in an attempt to buy out his partners--which left him bankrupt.

Schumacher's legacy: Quaker Square Residence Hall.

Another contributing factor in his eventual bankruptcy was Schumacher’s investments in starting a temperance town in Tennessee. He was committed to developing a city that would give its citizens the opportunity to escape the temptation of John Barleycorn--thirty one years before Prohibition. We all know how well that turned out. Schumacher proudly had paid off all his debts before he died in his E. Market Street home in 1908.  However, the company he had started, officially became Quaker Oats in 1901 several years after he was forced out. I guess that’s how the oatmeal cookie crumbles.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

New Book: The Story of Archie the Talking Snowman

(Book cover)

Book Release: The Story of Archie the Talking Snowman
by Joanna Wilson

I don't just blog about my favorite Akron events, retailers, bands, and organizations.  I'm also a book author with an interest in Akron history/arts & culture.  I found a tremendous amount of support and had fun co-authoring A is for Akron last year.  So you can imagine my excitement with my new book project The Story of Archie the Talking Snowman

I too grew up visiting Archie the Snowman at Chapel Hill Mall.  My research into Archie's story led to a long and complex history of Christmas attractions in Akron.  From the back cover of the book:

"If your childhood Christmas memories include visiting a twenty-foot-tall talking snowman with flashing red eyes, then you undoubtedly grew up in Akron, Ohio.
The Story of Archie the Snowman is the story of the people who helped make Archie more than just a store Christmas attraction.
It’s also the surprising story of Akron’s hundred-year history of elegant, extravagant, and occasionally plain weird retail Christmas attractions--from the enchanting downtown windows of O’Neil’s and Polsky’s, to talking Christmas trees, trained animal acts, and Santa arriving by satellite. It’s the fascinating context for how and why Archie came to be."

(back cover)
Want to know more?  Let me share an excerpt from the book's introduction:

"Tom the Talking Horse? A nine foot-tall Raggedy Ann doll? A walk-through zeppelin “ride” to the North Pole? A Santa that arrives by helicopter to Polsky’s downtown parking deck? For nearly a century, young Akronites have witnessed these fantastic magical Christmas experiences. A giant talking snowman named Archie doesn’t seem that far fetched or even out of the ordinary.
Yet he is.

Akron was an extremely competitive marketplace at Christmas each year as downtown stores, and eventually plazas and suburban malls joined the contest. The unique competition over the attention of Akron’s shoppers benefited us all with an ever escalating build up of Christmas enchantment and entertainment. During our city’s long history, luxury shopping in the downtown city center rivaled that in other large cities including Chicago, Baltimore, St. Louis and Denver. The shopping was at a level with larger cities, and the windows were extremely good too. Although New York City has been considereddeservedly so—the source of the highest quality in Christmas window displays, I’ve found that Akron also created incredibly extravagant window displays and utilized nationally known window display designs that were available in New York and throughout the country, including markets much larger than ours. Many people in Akron still remember the fantasy and magic of O’Neil’s and Polsky’s Christmas window displays. 
Akron’s retailers didn’t just create awe-inspiring Christmas window displays, the competition for shoppers’ attention also included in-store attractions with fanciful Santa Land walk-through experiences, live clowns, organ grinders, and TV celebrity appearances. Holiday parades with giant balloons marched down Main Street, puppet shows by nationally touring troupes entertained the crowds, and Santa Claus’ arrival at downtown stores became a special event worthy of front page coverage in the local newspaper." 

Newspaper ad for holiday windows--with marionettes--for the Akron downtown retailer Polsky's in 1946.

The book is due for release on Saturday, July 25th--a Christmas in July treat!  You can order the book online through the publisher 1701 Press at this link.   If you live in the greater Akron area, you are invited to the book release party on Sat. July 25th, 6-9pm, on the 3rd floor of Summit Artspace (140 E. Market St.) in downtown Akron.  The party will be the first chance for anyone to get a peek at the new book!  I'll also be there signing books, if you like.  

For more information, check out the following links:

Facebook page for the book: Story of Archie the Talking Snowman
Event details: Book Release Party for the Story of Archie
Book website:

Monday, July 13, 2015

Akron History: Summer Reading: Akron History's History

The following essay first appeared in the June/issue #9 of The Devil Strip--our new, twice monthly, arts & culture newspaper in Akron. Issue #9 is now available--go out and pick up a copy or eventually read it on-line.  As many of you know, I love researching and writing about Akron history. I'm writing a regular column about Akron history for The Devil Strip.  If you have any suggestions or requests for particular topics, let me know.

Summer Reading: Akron History’s History
by Joanna Wilson

    Looking for something new to read this summer?  Perhaps a book that’s not exactly new but new-to-you? I recommend finding a copy of The Akron Story penned by Sara Klippert in 1959, a fourth grade supplemental textbook published by the board of education.  Hardbound copies of the book are floating around online and available at the Akron-Summit County Public Library.  It’s become a cult favorite to those interested in local history and quaint mid-century children’s books.

Book cover

The structure of the storytelling in The Akron Story is not only charming but clever.  Twins Diana and David have recently moved to Akron and their new classroom lessons include an Akron history course taught by Miss Alexander.  Their teacher shares fictional stories about Akron children living in various eras of our past, detailing what life was like for young people, for example as early settlers, along the Ohio canal, and during the Civil War. There are also profiles of outstanding Akron residents such as city founder General Simon Perkins, the oatmeal businessman Ferdinand Schumacher, and Dr. B.F. Goodrich, the first man to open a rubber factory in Akron. What’s shrewd about the narrative of The Akron Story is that Diana, David, and the other students in the classroom ask questions and comment on the stories and profiles presented by Miss Alexander. So the discussion is kept relevant to children and the dry facts of the history lessons come alive through student oral reports, costumed presentations, and even a pretend TV news program/quiz show.  The information in this textbook is presented in a smart and interactive way for the characters as well as its readers! 

Although the book was written more than fifty years ago, Akron’s past doesn’t change.  I did catch a few obsolete references to locations including the intersection of Market Street and Howard Street--which was demolished in the 1970s. There’s also an example of our sexist past: the teacher says girls can’t race in the Soap Box Derby. Of course, Akron is no longer known as The Rubber Capital of the World either but it is fun to read about our city’s perspective on that title at its height.  The simplified version of history is also a good overview for those looking for a place to start to learn our city’s past. And, the 1950s illustration style adds a sense of nostalgia.

Illustrations in the book by Ethel Frost.

My favorite parts include the fictional stories told by Miss Alexander including a mystery story about counterfeit money carried a stranger arriving in Akron on a canalboat. I also learned a couple things: U.S. President James Garfield worked on the towpath of the Ohio Canal as a child, and Akron’s Quaker Oats was a frontrunner in food packaging. I nearly dropped the book when I read that the students in Miss Alexander’s classroom (which also included a character named Joanna) played an alphabet game they called A is for Akron.  I had no idea of this reference when I co-authored a local history/nostalgia book in 2014 entitled A is for Akron.  Another favorite chapter in The Akron Story is a club the students form called Norka Wonki where they can express their passion for local history. Can you figure out the meaning behind the name?  Want to join Norka Wonki with me?

Monday, July 6, 2015

Akron History: Burkhardt Brewing Company

The following essay first appeared in the June/issue #8 of The Devil Strip--our new, twice monthly, arts & culture newspaper in Akron. Issue #8 is now available--go out and pick up a copy or eventually read it on-line.  As many of you know, I love researching and writing about Akron history. I'm writing a regular column about Akron history for The Devil Strip.  If you have any suggestions or requests for particular topics, let me know.

A Burkhardt's newspaper ad from 1911.

The Backstory on Burkhardt Brewing Company
by Joanna Wilson 

Beer and brewing have deep roots in Akron. One of the leading breweries, Burkhardt Brewing Company, was one with lasting import as well as an interesting story.  German immigrant Wilhelm Burkhardt first came to the area to work at a brewery in Cleveland.  In 1874, he arrived in Akron to become brewmaster and eventually part owner (with Frederick Gaessler) at the already established Wolf Ledge Brewery in South Akron.  A fire destroyed the wooden buildings of the brewery five years later.  Gaessler sold his interests to Burkhardt, leaving Wilhelm to re-build Wolf Ledge Brewery by himself.  Three years later, in 1882, Wilhelm died leaving behind a widow and three young children.

In a story that makes me proud to be an Akronite, Wilhelm’s widow took over her husband’s business, rolling up her sleeves to build a company that would support her family for the next 74 years. One of the first things Margaretha did was change the name to Burkhardt’s Brewery.  In 1903 the company incorporated as M. Burkhardt Brewing Company and she raised her sons in the business.  Margaretha was the head of the brewery for 27 years (1882-1909) until her son Gus took over.  However, she continued to work for the company as director for another 16 years, until her death in 1925.

Burkhardt's 1933 ad.
Burkhardt Brewing Company survived prohibition by brewing near beer, making soft drinks, manufacturing ice and by the strength of their other diversified holdings.  After the end of prohibition, Burkhardts returned to brewing beer and benefited from the loyalty of rubber workers.  The brewery continued to grow into one of the area’s leading regional beers.  Unfortunately, in the post-WWII era, national breweries began to dominate the market and force smaller companies out.  Margaretha’s grandson William was president of the company in 1956 when it was sold to the larger regional, Burger Brewing of Cincinnati. By 1964, Burger closed due to bankruptcy.
But that’s not the end of the story.  Some of the large complex of buildings formerly known as Burkhardts still stands.  When you go to Grant Street to visit Thirsty Dog Brewing and Aqueduct Brewing, you’re standing in the old Burkhardt's brewery building.  The blonde brick building next door labeled The M. Burkhardt Brewing Company with the gorgeous ornamental horse-head keystones over the doorways is actually the former stables and ice house facility.  Can you imagine a time when horses pulled wagons filled with kegs of beer around Akron’s streets?  Another cool connection: one of Burkhardts’ former brewmasters brought his nephew, Jacob Paquin, to Akron from Alsace-Lorraine.  Paquin ended up starting the original Norka Beverage Company which was in business from 1924-1962.  We might not be enjoying NORKA today if it weren’t for the Burkhardt Brewing Company.

Newspaper ad--year unknown.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Balance and Brews at Thirsty Dog

Balance & Brews at Thirsty Dog
by Brit Charek

Some partnerships just seem natural (peanut butter and jelly, macaroni and cheese, Hall and Oates, etc.) and then there are perfect pairings that take some time to warm up to before you realize they were meant to be together. (Think Harold and Maude or sea salt and caramel.) Yoga and beer might seem to fall into that latter category, but hear me out-- I think there's something to this.

"Yoga and beer ARE traditionally seen as two different lifestyles, and that's precisely why I like pairing them," says Balance & Brews founder Melissa Klimo-Major. "I don't think things have to be 'labeled' or fit neatly into only one box. I get the most out of my yoga practice when I back off and surrender a bit. When enjoyed responsibly, our guards come down and we are open to chat with the person sitting next to us at a brewery bar. We know at the very least we have that beer in common. It helps bridge a connection. And then you start to see that these two things actually are not that different... they're both creating unity, they're creating a like-minded tribe."

Balance & Brews events offer all-levels yoga in an unassuming environment (typically a brewery or a tasting room) so that anyone can feel welcome. After 60 minutes of practice, participants enjoy beers and a group brewery tour. Their next event is Wednesday, July 8th at Thirsty Dog Brewing Company.

From B&B's last event at Thirsty Dog
This class will be taught by Kara Sullivan, an Akron native who developed a love for yoga on the West Coast which she brought home to share with others. With her day job being the Northeast Ohio Sales Specialist for Deschutes Brewery, she's more than excited to combine her love of yoga with her love of craft beer.

Instructor Kara (left) and Assistant Sarah
You might wonder how this full-fledged business came to be. 

"B&B's original business plan was to be a supplemental side job to compliment my studio teaching but it grew into something really big really quick," says Klimo-Major. 

"Everyone working with me in any capacity now is there because they came to an event and we realized we have some sort of yoga and beer connection, and then they had the guts and smarts to say 'Hey, I like this vision, I also love these two things, and I would have this to offer to a team, if you are interested.' It's been super organic in how it's grown."

Do you want to help B&B grow? Start by joining them at Thirsty Dog next Wednesday at 6:30pm! You can buy tickets here. These events tend to sell out, so you might want to get tickets in advance!

And what should you order after your hour of practice?

Klimo-Major recommends Citra Dog. "[It's] a current favorite staple! I normally prefer a piney hop over citrus but this one is perfectly brewed and I really love it."