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.

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