Let’s look at the American economy over the last thirteen decades, and see if we can’t empathize with the anger of blue-collar workers. Two Ohio cities – Rittman and Wadsworth – are microcosms of what has happened to American workers and the factories that provided them livelihoods.
I was born in Wadsworth/Rittman Hospital. When still a kid, my family lived in Wadsworth – from 1955-57 and from 1965-68. My maternal grandparents lived in the neighboring town of Rittman. When learning to drive in the late 1960s, I’d sometimes get to drive from our Wadsworth home on Mount Eaton Road to my grandparent’s Rittman house on Fourth Street.
Remember this name… E.J. Young, born in 1857 in Loyal Oak, just six miles from Wadsworth. Young and other investors provided more than 2,200 jobs in Wadsworth and Rittman for more than half a century.
In his early adulthood, Young had several jobs including schoolteacher, Akron clothing store clerk, and laborer at a Wadsworth flour mill and a local lumber yard. Then he took a job at the Garfield Injector Company as an engineer – and Wadsworth and Rittman would never be the same.
At Garfield, Young improved the design of the steam-locomotive injector valves the company sold. Soon, he and other investors bought the company. Not satisfied, he formed another company in 1883, one that would offer a larger selection of industrial valves. He built the Ohio Injector Company factory on Main Street south of the Wadsworth town square. My dad’s Aunt Avis worked there until her retirement.
Ten years later Young invented a machine to mass produce wooden safety matches. He didn’t sell the idea to another company, but built the machines and the factory that housed them. He called his new company The Ohio Match Company, and located it in Wadsworth near the injector company.
Next, Young turned his eyes to Rittman, my mother’s hometown. He began mining salt in the small town, and then built a factory that used a salt extraction process that employed clean water to extract the salt solution out of the well. Heat was then applied to the solution to evaporate the water, leaving salt. For many years, my Grandpa Frog helped oversee the Ohio Salt Company’s boiler/smokestack operation.
Young got tired of paying contractors to do his packaging for his matches and salt, so decided to establish another company, the Ohio Boxboard Company, in 1903. So instead of packaging the matches and salt in bulk, he bought the equipment to parcel them in consumer-sized containers. He developed the familiar sliding safety matchbox as well as the equally famous cylinder salt box. My Grandma Mid worked at the boxboard in her younger days. I have a photo of her and her pal Pearl in front of the Rittman factory.
Young built a mansion in Wadsworth. He lived in the same town as his factory workers. He wasn’t an absentee CEO, working at his gold-plated desk in a skyscraper in New York City. This early 20th-century industrialist had a stake in the lives of the factory workers in Wadsworth and Rittman; they were his neighbors.
But Ohio industrialists grow old. Young’s companies were all sold near the middle of the 20th Century.The new owners of the Ohio Injector Company closed the Wadsworth plant in 1982. The Ohio Match Company folded in 1987. The Packaging Corporation of America purchased the Ohio Boxboard in 1965. Later, the name Caraustar replaced the PCA. Soon, it followed the fate of its sister companies in Wadsworth, and closed in 2006. The building was demolished in late 2013. In its glory days, the boxboard employed more than 1,200 workers. Only the salt company remains. Owned by Morton Salt since 1948, it employs 300 workers.
It’s been a familiar refrain in America over the last several decades. Big companies swallow the smaller companies, and those bigger companies are soon gobbled up by even larger corporations.
Remember the Great Recession mantra? Too big to fail. The board rooms and CEO offices in faraway places didn’t care about the workers in these small-town factories. They were just ledger statistics for them. Unlike E.J. Young, they weren’t walking the streets of Wadsworth and Rittman and seeing the faces of the men and women who worked in the factories. They weren’t doing their Christmas shopping in the same department stores as the workers they employed. Nowadays, the CEOs of multinational mega-corporations would rather move production overseas to take advantage of cheaper labor rather than renovate an older American factory.
Over the last several decades the CEOs of these mega-corporations have gotten into the political game via super-PACs and are pushing a philosophy that casts liberal politicians and unions as the cause of America’s disappearing blue-collar jobs. It’s ironic, considering these are the folks who are choosing to close the factories and shift production to foreign lands.
My Grandpa Frog, one of the salt company’s boiler/smokestack technicians, had another important responsibility. Sometimes he was the salt works’ union president. He retired in 1964 and died in 1987, but I’m sure if he had the chance he’d criticize us for letting our unions wither away at a time they were needed to fight to keep our jobs here.
All across the USA you can see the results of all the plant closings in cities and towns. A dwindling municipal tax base, empty downtown stores, a decaying infrastructure, men and women – most with graying hair – forced to take part-time jobs. The CEOs? They still have their golden parachutes.
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Mike Staton is the author of a fantasy trilogy, The Emperor’s Mistress, Thief’s Coin and Assassins’ Lair. They can be purchased at various bookstore websites including Amazon and Barnes & Noble. He’s also hard at work on a Civil War novel.