PORTAGE PATHWAYS: Oak Rubber rose from ashes of 1920 blaze that lit up Ravenna

By Roger J. Di Paolo | Record-Courier Editor Published:

The blaze that reduced the Oak Rubber Co. to smoldering ruins in March 1920 was, in the words of the Ravenna Republican, "one of the costliest, most spectacular and most lamentable fires in the history of the town."

At its height, the fire that raged on the evening of March 15, 1920, not only consumed the rubber factory but threatened several neighboring properties and, as sparks carried throughout the town, fears arose that it would spread to the downtown area.

"People flocked to the scene in masses that seemed to include all the citizens of the town," the Republican reported.

They watched an incredible spectacle as flames fueled by 5,000 gallons of gasoline and huge quantities of naphtha lit the sky and sparked two large explosions.

When the smoke finally cleared, the Oak Rubber Co. plant was charred rubble, with a loss estimated at $125,000 to $150,000 -- between $1.4 million and $1.7 million today.

A little more than six months later, the company reopened with 125 employees on the job in two new, fireproof buildings.

Oak Rubber Co. began operations in Ravenna in July 1917, moving there from Akron, where Paul Colette and John Shira Sr. had founded it a year earlier. It was one of several rubber firms that located in Ravenna during that period. Others included White Rubber Co., Pyramid Rubber Co., and McElrath Tire & Rubber Co.

Oak Rubber initially had "a payroll of scarcely a score of names," according to the Republican, but it rapidly outgrew its original location. It purchased a building Dan Hanna had constructed for the Portage County Farmers' Store, which extended from Sycamore Street to the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks. A large three-story addition was constructed to accommodate a growing workforce, which made a variety of products, but toy balloons were Oak Rubber's claim to fame.

The fire broke out in the mixing room of the plant, which was located in the basement. It was believed that static electricity sparked the blaze by igniting gases there.

Five men working in the dipping department on the second floor of the plant first detected the fire by the odor of burning gases. The men found the basement "a mass of flames," according to the Republican, and an alarm was sounded for the Ravenna Fire Department.

The fire spread rapidly and firefighters found "a situation hopeless from the start as far as saving the plant was concerned." Mayor Bert Redmond arrived on the scene and realized that the Ravenna force was overwhelmed; he summoned fire units from Kent, Alliance, Akron and other communities.

"As the fire progressed into the heart of the building there was a terrific explosion that shot a mass of flame several hundred feet in the air," the Republican reported, "creating a heat of intense and wide diffusion." A second, more violent explosion followed.

That sent "a solid column of flame and smoke high into the air," according to the Republican, "lighting the country for many miles around, the illumination being visible in Akron, Cuyahoga Falls, Garrettsville and other towns."

John Shira and his wife, who lived in Akron, saw the glowing sky while traveling. "The thought that it might come from the home plant (in Ravenna) flashed upon them," and they headed there.

"As they came into Ravenna it seemed as though the whole town was a mass of conflagration, so dense and so colossal were the smoke clouds that rolled their columns in whirling masses that seemed to reach down and envelop everything in their course," the Republican reported.

The heat from the gas-fueled blaze was felt in the downtown business district, five blocks away.

"It was one of the most spectacular sights imaginable," according to the newspaper. "The front and side walls fell in big sections, sending a canopy of sparks and brands into the air. It was very fortunate that no one was near enough to receive injury."

As morning dawned, it was apparent that the three-story factory was a total loss.

The blaze was "fairly well covered by insurance," and the firm decided to rebuild and reopen at the site in a fireproof facility as soon as possible.

Six months later, two new plants were nearing completion with 30,000 square feet of combined floor space. "The plant is one of the most up to date and efficient of its kind in the country," the Republican observed.

The new facility reopened in November 1920. The plant was built to produce 150,000 balloons per day, retailing for a penny to 25 cents. Red was the most popular color for toy balloons, according to the Republican, accounting for more than 50 percent of production.

The firm projected sales of $1 million in 1921, or roughly $12 million today, with customers all over the globe. By 1923, it was the second-largest producer of rubber balloons in the country.

Oak Rubber Co. was one of the city's leading employers until it closed in 1993. It continues to be remembered each year as Ravenna welcomes thousands of visitors to the Balloon A-Fair.

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