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Arts & Culture

Stories of Workers Who Built Akron Rubber Industry Will Accompany New Display

Historic photo of Filomene Riccilli.jpg
Provided by the Akron Stories project with permission from Lucille Esposito
Lucille Esposito recorded a story about her mother, Filomene "Mae" Riccilli, shown at right in this photo, who worked at BF Goodrich from 1933-1976.

At one time the rubber industry employed more than 72,000 workers in Akron. Many Akronites have ancestors who worked in the industry. And it attracted one population in particular.

As the city unveils a new statue Thursday in tribute to those workers, we hear some of the stories that visitors will be able to listen to at an accompanying interactive kiosk.

“He heard that there was work up in Akron and he came up to Akron.”

photo of Akron Stories kiosk in downtown Akron
Sarah Taylor
The kiosk will allow visitors to play portions of the stories people have shared about their experiences and connections to Akron's rubber industry. Commemorative bricks, whose purchase has funded the kiosk, line the ground in front of it.

Kevin Robinson tells the story of his grandfather Otis Spurling’s migration north from Alabama to what would become known as the rubber city. This recollection will be part of the kiosk near the new rubber statue downtown, a permanent remembrance of the industry that provided for families like Spurling’s.

“It gave him an opportunity and a chance to really make something out of his life because there weren’t no jobs because he went through the depression," Robinson said.

Royle Corrigan was born in Akron in 1933. His father worked for Goodyear as an oiler from 1935-1950. “And you had to have a ration card even to buy clothing or shoes," Corrigan recalled lean times growing up near the rubber factories.
“Cinder ash...would be all over your porch every morning you’d have to clean it off.”

The industry was not only dirty, it was physically demanding. Lucille Esposito’s mother Filomene "Mae" Riccilli got a job at BF Goodrich in 1933 and worked there until 1976. “I said ‘Why did you get the job mom?’ She said ‘Look at me. I’m built.’ She was strongly built and strong.”

Historic photo with Filomene Riccilli.jpg
Lucille Esposito's mother, Filomene "Mae" Riccilii, right, worked at BF Goodrich from 1933-1976.

Esposito and others have shared their stories with a team led by Akron artist Mac Love and community volunteer Miriam Ray. They’ve recorded hundreds of them which will be archived in full at the University of Akron. Portions will be playable at the kiosk. “People can click on it and actually hear the stories in the voices of those telling them," Ray said.

Lucille Esposito speaks humorously but reverently of her mother, a woman committed to helping co-workers as a union rep and providing for her children. “It would be almost every day ‘Y’know I get up at 4:30!’ We would mimic her behind her back. 'You better do your best.' Every day, ‘Y’know I get up at 4:30 so you can have a good education.’”

Work in the rubber factories could be dangerous as Becky Woodruff recalls in a story about her maternal grandfather Henry Baker of Kenmore who worked at BF Goodrich from 1929-1969.

“Henry worked in the mill room and was trained as a calender operator. This was a loud and dangerous piece of equipment that used huge rollers...to press rubber into sheets with fabric backing of varied thicknesses,” Woodruff says in her recorded story.

Because the work was loud, the tire industry attracted employees who the companies found had an unusual asset. They were deaf.

“Nancy, you have to remember the way they used to talk on their hands," Mogadore attorney Tom Kot said as he reminisced with his cousin Nancy Bauer in the backyard of her Akron home where Mac Love recorded the story of their grandparents, Philip and Julia Heupel.

“Our grandfather, Philip Alfred Heupel, Sr., a 1918 graduate of Gallaudet College in Washington, DC—then the only college in the world for the deaf—worked almost 40 years in a rubber factory in Akron...”

Philip had been working in Minnesota when deaf friends encouraged him to move to Akron, which was known then as the city of opportunity. It also earned the moniker 'crossroads of the deaf' because it had the largest deaf population in the country in 1918, most of them employed in the rubber industry.

“P.W. Litchfield, Goodyear’s vice-president and factory manager, stated in The Wingfoot Clan, Goodyear’s newsletter, that the deaf workers were both industrious and efficient," Kot said in his recorded story.

Philip Heupel first worked at Firestone and lived in an apartment in Goodyear Heights. Three months later he took a job at Goodyear where he would remain until he retired in 1959.

“He was trained with the Silent Squadron, a group of deaf who learned all the departments of Goodyear. This was part of Litchfield’s corporate educational plan to foster a better workforce,” Kot said.

Philip and Julia’s story is documented in a memoir, "Out of Their Silence" written by Nancy Bauer’s late mother, Louella Heupel Cordier, who’d been the editor of the Record-Courier and kept all the letters her parents wrote.

“They had incredible handwriting.”

Their story and the story of so many others, will help visitors who explore the statue and the kiosk better understand the people who made Akron what it is today—a city with a rich history that has endured the loss of much of the industry that built it, but as union president and rubber worker Jack Hefner says in the story he recorded, “Akron’s a survivor.”

The Heupels' story
Tom Kot reads the story of his grandparents, Philip & Julia Heupel
Heupels.jpg