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Arts & Culture

Statue Will Pay Tribute to Rubber Workers Who Built Akron Industry

a photo of the rubber statue
The 12 foot statue will sit on a base shaped like the city of Akron. The bottom is in the shape of Summit County.

Akron’s history as the rubber capital of the world has been celebrated in books and a documentary. Now the city has a plan to recognize the thousands of workers who made that happen.

It started with a suggestion from a man who worked at B.F. Goodrich in the late 1970s.

“There’s still a rubber pulse in Akron. It’s still beating," said Joel Neilsen of Broadview Heights. He first felt that pulse when he started his career as a 20-something tire development engineer. He recalls interacting with the workers.

“We mixed all the race tire rubber in one place in the bowels of BF Goodrich and it was really dirty and awful but these guys y’know they were good jobs.”   

Neilsen recalled those workers when he saw the photo on the cover of the 1999 book “Wheels of Fortune,” about the city’s rubber history. It’s a picture of a rubber worker preparing a finished tire for shipping. It got him thinking. “Why doesn’t Akron have some kind of physical memorial to the tire industry, which really put Akron on the map.”   

The cover photo from the book "Wheels of Fortune" by David Giffels and Steve Love.

He suggested that photo would make a great statue. Three years later, thanks to the efforts of community volunteer Miriam Ray, the idea is happening. Sculptor Alan Cottrill of Zanesville is creating in bronze a 12 foot piece based on the photo. 

“It was kind of an aha moment for a lot of people as we were talking about it," said Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan. "It's very satisfying to be able to put that right there.” The piece will be the focal point of the new roundabout being constructed at Main and Mill Streets downtown. 

“This is when we made a lot of things in this town--hundreds of thousands of tires a day," Horrigan said. "With their hands and their brains, invented things and were entrepreneurs and took great ideas. It’s a good tribute to their legacy of what they gave to us.”  

The statue that will be mounted on a two-tiered base. The bottom tier will be in the shape of Summit County. The statue will rest on the shape of the city of Akron. Several local businesses are helping to pay for the piece and a grassroots organization, Akron Stories, will sell commemorative bricks.

“You don’t run from your history you embrace it and try to build upon it," Horrigan said. Akron Stories is also collecting stories to include in an interactive element at the site. Plans call for a ribbon cutting next summer. “Everybody wants to see it right away," Horrigan said. "We’ve created a lot of anticipation, and I think excitement, around this permanent fixture to Akron’s history.”  

Joel Neilsen first suggested the cover photo from the book "Wheels of Fortune" would make a great statue.

Joel Neilsen is excited. He still works in the rubber industry. And though it’s different now he’s pleased to see Akron recognize the past.

“I just cannot wait to see it. I’ll be there when they unveil it. There’s no doubt about it. I will be there.”

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to indicate the commemorative bricks are being sold by the grassroots group, Akron Stories, and not the city of Akron itself.