New Statue And Old Stories Celebrate Akron's Rubber Workers

Alan Cottrill's sculpture shows a rubber worker wearing a cap and a shop apron, hand-wrapping a tire.
Alan Cottrill's sculpture is based on a photo of a factory worker hand-wrapping a tire [Alan Cottrill]
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In its heyday, Akron was home to dozens of rubber companies, supplying tires and other products to customers around the globe. The city is now honoring the workers who made those factories hum with a new statue and oral history project.

Miriam Ray recalls the Akron of her youth as, shall we say, aromatic?

“Yeah, it was, it was pretty nasty. When you went out of town and came back, boy, it was strong,” she said with a chuckle. “There was like 110 companies at one time, you know, in Akron, and there's probably four left.”

But all those factories left behind more than dust and smoke. There's also a cultural legacy that Ray decided to pay tribute to. After reading a series of articles from 1996 on the rubber industry in the Akron Beacon Journal, which were eventually compiled into the book “Wheels of Fortune - The Story of Rubber in Akron,” her first thought was putting up some kind of a statue. But then, the idea evolved.

“So, I just started asking my friends, like people I saw all the time, ‘Hey, where did your family come from? What did what did your parents do? What did your grandparents do?’ And it was crazy, the stories I got right away,” she said.

And that led to an oral history component to the project, which has collected stories of rubber workers and their descendants, like Kevin Robinson, who described what the factory job meant to his grandfather.

“Pop would always talk about how it gave him an opportunity and a chance to really make something of his life because there weren’t no jobs, because he went through the Depression. He said, 'back then, in that that day, wasn't no Black or white. Everybody was poor.'”

Becky Woodruff recalled how her stoic grandparents transplanted old country traditions to the new home.

“They were both tremendous people, and I learned a lot of good on food dishes that were awesome. They never measured anything, but they would make all these wonderful meals and my family was extremely important to them.”

Miriam Ray said the project has involved a lot of improvisation and serendipity. For instance, she made a connection with Zanesville sculptor Alan Cottrill, because her mother lives in the same city. Ray paid a visit to Cottrill’s studio and tapped him to create the 12-foot statue of a rubber worker that’s due to be installed in downtown Akron towards the end of September.

"Sculpting the Statue" by Mac Love  [Art x Love]

The artist based the figure on a photo that Ray got from the University of Akron archives. Those archives will also be the repository of the oral history project, which is being coordinated by the Akron-based production company, Art x Love. Fifty stories have been collected so far, including the memories of Jack Hefner.

“Akron will survive. We lost thousands of excellent paying job of pensions and benefits. There's other towns that didn’t lose anywhere near the number of jobs we lost. We're survivors.”

And now Hefner's memories will survive, along with those of Becky Woodruff, Kevin Robinson and all the others who have - or will - record their pieces of this history.

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