Let's Talk Rusty Iron

Farm Machinery Paved the Way for Tire Manufacturer

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Top left: The rear cover of a catalog showing the stylized J.F. Seiberling logo.Above: Cover of a catalog (circa 1890) put out by the J.F. Seiberling & Co.

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The Akron/Canton/Massillon area of Ohio, just west of where I live, was a hotbed of farm machinery invention and manufacture during the latter half of the 19th century. In the past, I've written about Canton's Cornelius Aultman and Akron's Lewis Miller, and the Russell Co. of Massillon is on my list of future projects.

After 1900, with the rising popularity of the automobile, Akron became more famous for its tires and rubber products than its farm machinery, and today Goodyear - which got its start in Akron - is one of the premier names in automobile tires. While some folks may think the Goodyear company was started by Charles Goodyear, the man who perfected the process of vulcanizing rubber in 1839, it ain't necessarily so, as we'll see later.

But first, a little about John F. Seiberling.

Michael Seuberlich came to America from Germany in 1741. He began farming in Lehigh County, Pa., and the family name eventually became Seiberling. Michael's great-great-grandson, Nathan, whose wife, Catherine, had just inherited $900 (a small fortune in those days) "went West" by covered wagon to Summit County, Ohio, in 1831. Although he was a shoemaker by trade, Nathan established a successful 200-acre farm and sawmill near Norton, a mile or so west of Akron. Nathan was not only a successful farmer, but was prolific as well, siring 15 children, one of whom was John Frederick Seiberling. John was born March 10, 1834, and attended the nearby Western Star Academy before going to work at an Akron drugstore from 1856 to 1858.

In 1859, young Seiberling returned to the farm, where he ran his father's sawmill and tinkered with farm machinery. During this time, John developed a mower-reaper with a dropper attachment that left the cut grain in gavels, from which it could easily be bound into sheaves.

Seiberling received a patent on the machine, which he called the Excelsior, in October 1861. He and a partner, John H. Hower, began manufacturing the Excelsior in nearby Doylestown, Ohio, that year. Due to the Civil War, farmers needed machinery and had the money to buy it, and Seiberling's little factory couldn't keep up with demand.

Seiberling and Hower raised enough money to build a large factory in Akron commonly known as the Excelsior Mower & Reaper Works. Business was good but stockholder dissension caused Seiberling to sell out his interest in the firm in 1869.

Seiberling then started the Akron Strawboard Co., which was successful. Meanwhile, he improved his original reaper design, took over the old Hawkins rake factory in Akron, and commenced construction of a new reaper, which he called the Empire.

During the financial panic of 1873, the Excelsior company went under and the factory was put up for sale. John Seiberling bought back his old factory and started a new J.F. Seiberling & Co. to build his Empire machine. By 1891, the Empire Mower & Reaper Works employed 300 men and turned out 7,000 machines a year, about half of which were grain binders in a new model the company developed.

On Dec. 31, 1886, a boiler exploded at the Empire Works, resulting in the death of one employee and injuries to several more, as well as a $13,000 loss, of which only about $4,500 was covered by insurance. The burned buildings were quickly rebuilt and business resumed.

Seiberling had many interests besides the strawboard company and the Empire firm. He ran the Seiberling Milling Co., a forerunner of Quaker Oats, and owned the Academy of Music, besides being heavily involved in the Akron Street Railway Co. Having survived the panic of 1893, Seiberling started the Akron India Rubber Co. in 1895 to make bicycle tires and other rubber goods. In all these ventures, Seiberling was ably assisted by his sons, Frank A. and Charles W.

Although he got through the 1893 panic, a relapse in 1896-97 hurt Seiberling badly. The Empire Mower & Reaper Works failed and he lost heavily in his other businesses, forcing him to sign over all his holdings to a receiver.

This left the Seiberling sons out in the cold, but not for long. In 1898, Frank learned of an empty factory in East Akron for sale for $50,000. Because of the then-current bicycle craze, bike tires were in big demand and Frank decided to start a rubber factory. He enlisted his brother, Charles (who was still working at Akron India Rubber), managed to buy the empty factory for $13,500 (mostly on credit) and set out to raise enough money to start the new venture.

After much difficulty, the Seiberling brothers came up with $43,000 in cash, enough to proceed. Then came the challenge of naming the new enterprise. The story goes that Frank Seiberling, while casting about for a name, thought of Charles Goodyear (the man who perfected the process of vulcanizing rubber), who had died deeply in debt in 1860. That was the name he wanted and the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. was incorporated on Aug. 29, 1898.

More cash was needed and after much begging and pleading, Seiberling managed to raise $93,000, barely enough to go into production. Although prospective investors were reluctant, if one had bought $10,000 worth of Goodyear stock in 1898, it would have been worth $1 million by 1920, and who knows how much today.

Meanwhile, the International Harvester Co. had taken over the Aultman, Miller & Co. of Akron, famous for its Buckeye line of mowers, reapers and binders, and was busily converting the factory for the manufacture of the International high-wheel Auto Buggy. By the time John F. Seiberling died on Sept. 6, 1903, the demise of the Empire Mower & Reaper Works and the Buckeye Mower & Reaper Works, along with the success of Goodyear, Firestone and other rubber companies, had completed the transformation of Akron from a farm machinery hub into Rubber City, USA.

- Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. Contact Sam by e-mail at letstalkrustyiron@yahoo.com