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?

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