A Lesson in Successful Failure
“Toledo… the germ of a second Buffalo.”
Pierre Irving, nephew of Washington Irving and an early Toledo land speculator, in an 1836 letter to a friend.
America’s exceptionalism lies not in its successes, but its failures.
For one thing, there’s the fact that we get to fail. America is a place of bountiful personal and economic freedom, which means we can try almost anything we can think of. And when we try almost anything we can think of… we fail. Not all the time, but pretty often.
It’s like me and fly-fishing. The tree branches over my local trout stream are festooned with Wooly Buggers, Pheasant Tail Nymphs, Muddler Minnows, Soft Hackles, and other oddly-named (and expensive) lures that once were attached to the line of my fishing pole. I’ve given up and gone back to catching bluegills with worms on a bobber.
But another thing is that American failure so often leads to… success.
It’s like AOL. What a flop! Once the dominant brand on the World Wide Web, it’s now a peripheral, antiquated subsidiary of Verizon… itself a bit of a communications dinosaur with slipping profit margins.
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But I knew AOL’s co-founder Jim Kimsey. He made piles of money and spent the last decades of his life being a great guy – a decorated combat vet working on behalf of his fellow veterans, an open-handed philanthropist, and a patron of the arts.
Of course, Jim got out of AOL at the right time (1991). Just like I got out of the trout stream. Which, incidentally, is full of big, healthy trout – not only because I don’t catch any but also because I still buy a fishing license every year helping to fund the state trout hatchery.
So Jim’s AOL and my fly-fishing are failures in the American sense. That is to say, they’re successful.
This is why I’m telling, in some detail, and begging the reader’s indulgence, the story of Toledo, Ohio.
I grew up there – well-fed, well-housed, happy, and prosperous by modest Midwestern industrial city standards. (Wildly prosperous by the standards of the world outside America, not to mention the standards of ordinary people all through history.) And Toledo is a failure of a city.
Toledo is located on the Maumee River in northwest Ohio at the far corner of Lake Erie – 59 miles south of Detroit, 116 miles west of Cleveland, and a million miles from Manhattan, Paris, and Rome. If you know it at all, it’s because of Klinger on M*A*S*H, his beloved Tony Packo’s kielbasa hotdogs, or the 1974 John Denver song “Saturday Night in Toledo, Ohio”…
Saturday night in Toledo, Ohio
Is like being nowhere at all.
All through the day how the hours rush by,
You sit in the park and you watch the grass die.
(Which has become a sort of spoof anthem for the city.)
Or maybe because of the Toledo Mud Hens Triple-A baseball team, 20 wins and 33 losses so far this season… but the best T-shirt in the league.
How the Mud Hens Got Their Name
Toledo was a failure even before it existed. The most prominent geological feature of this part of Ohio is mud. The land barely rises above the level of Lake Erie. What would become Toledo was blocked to the east and south by the Great Black Swamp – about 40 miles wide and 120 miles long and stretching from the lake along the Maumee River all the way to present-day Fort Wayne, Indiana.
One American soldier who crossed it during the War of 1812 called it “the home of Satan.” Tales of peril abounded… A pouncing cougar that measured nine feet from tip to tail. (Possible, maybe.) A six-foot blue racer snake that chased a pioneer for 100 yards. (Unlikely, the snake has a top speed of four-and-a-half miles per hour.) And another that “wound itself around the body” of a farmer “and a man working in the field had to cut it off with a knife.” (The blue racer is not a constrictor, not aggressive, and the longest one on record is 60 inches.)
Traversing the Black Swamp could take days. There was no road until 1827, and that was more of an in-line bog than a highway. Crushed stone and culverts wouldn’t come until the late 1830s. The swamp itself wasn’t fully drained until the 1870s.
Westward expansion of the newly formed United States may have been destiny but – manifest meet mudfest – it didn’t extend to Toledo. When Ohio became a state in 1803, there were fewer than 60 families of settlers in the Toledo region.
And they weren’t very happy. The place was nicknamed “Frogtown” and malaria was epidemic. In the early 19th century, an anonymous local poet wrote:
On Maumee, on Maumee,
‘Tis Ague in the Fall;
The fit will shake them so,
It rocks the house and all.
There’s a funeral every day,
Without a hearse or pall…
The First Boom… and Bust
Nonetheless, Toledo had a land boom or, rather, a bubble. It was the first in a long series of Toledo boom-and-bust bubbles, in which the booms never swelled to the size that Toledoans hoped and the busts came right in the snout.
After the War of 1812, the U.S. government was eager to sell federal land in Ohio. Northwest Ohio had been the site of repeated fighting with pro-British Indian tribes, and then several major battles with the British themselves. When the war was over, northwest Ohio was the place with federal land left to sell.
An auction was held in 1817 and speculators, in the manner of the legendary Great Black Swamp cougar, pounced.
Federal law guaranteed there’d be pouncing speculators. The Land Act of 1804 required settlers to buy at least 160 acres at a minimum price of $2 per acre. The $320 needed is $6,150 in modern money, a lot more than most pioneers had.
Thus speculators speculated, with plans to subdivide the land they bought. At least 15 unpopulated “paper towns” were plated in the region – “Utah,” “Vistula,” “Orleans,” “Mendota,” “Marengo,” “East Marengo,” “Austerlitz.”
Eventually these would be amalgamated into “Toledo.” It’s an absurd name for a place in the muddy middle of nowhere and very unlikely to be painted by El Greco. Local historians have never determined who chose the name or why – except that it was then the fashion to give new towns grand monikers and in Ohio Versailles, Troy, and Athens were already taken. It could have been worse. (Austerlitz.)
As speculative bubbles go, the frontier land bubble was almost sensible. It wasn’t a monopolistic foreign trade fantasy like the 1711-1720 South Sea Bubble in Great Britain. And it wasn’t a lunatic scheme like the 1719-1720 Mississippi Bubble, an attempt to fund the budget of France with utterly non-existent revenue from nearly non-existent New World colonies. And it wasn’t silly like the 1636-1637 Dutch Tulip Mania.
For poor Americans in the early 19th century, land was the only way up the economic ladder that they could comprehend.
For poor Americans in the early 19th century, land was the only way up the economic ladder that they could comprehend. Everyone lived on or near a farm, everyone understood farming, and most people knew how to do it.
And northwestern Ohio does have some of the nation’s most fertile land – if you’re willing to dig the ditches necessary to dry out the muck.
Better – and less back-breaking – routes to prosperity were available. But to be a merchant, even in a small way, meant raising more than $320 in capital, and to be a craftsman meant learning a craft in an era when education was scarce and ignorance was rife. “Blacksmith? I’m not black and my name is Jones.”
The westward pioneers weren’t fools… Although they could have used some wisdom about the economic direction America was already taking. Benjamin Franklin – typesetter, tinkerer, printer, publisher, author, inventor, and self-help guru 200 years before the term was coined – became a very wealthy man. Thomas Jefferson – with 16,000 acres at his magnificent Monticello estate – died in debt. His slaves were put on the auction block. Franklin died owing – and owning – no one.
The Toledo land bubble, sensible or not, burst anyway in the Panic of 1819. (A “panic” being what an economic panic was called before less panicky terms such as “depression,” “recession,” and “market correction” were invented.) It was the first major financial crisis in U.S. history.
The Panic of 1819 was caused partly by a global economic slump following the economic stimulus of the Napoleonic Wars. (Not so economically stimulating if you died in them, as 15,000 Americans did in our War of 1812 part of the hostilities.)
But mostly the Panic of 1819 was caused – as financial crises always are – by the government monkeying around with our money.
Initially the government monkeyed around by simply monkeying around doing nothing. The U.S. had a kind of proto-Federal Reserve, the First Bank of the United States, established in 1791, but its charter was allowed to lapse in 1811… leaving the country without anything resembling central banking.
This may sound like a libertarian ideal, but the result was an increase in state-chartered banks, which grew in number from 88 in 1811 to 205 in 1815. All of these were poorly regulated, most were undercapitalized, and many issued their own banknotes, which, given their trustworthiness, might as well have featured a portrait of Benedict Arnold.
Inflation and uncollateralized debt naturally prevailed. In an attempt to quell these, the Second Bank of the United States was chartered in 1816 and initiated a credit contraction, calling in the loans that had been made for federal land purchases.
Most Toledo land speculations made what pilots call a “ground loop,” going up into foreclosure and returning, with a crash, to the federal government. The panic lasted until 1821, ending just in time for another speculative bubble in still un-peopled Toledo.
The Erie Canal is to be blamed. Opening in 1825, the 363-mile waterway linked the Hudson River to the east end of Lake Erie at Buffalo. It was a fabulous success, cutting travel time between New York City and the Great Lakes to a mere 10 days and lowering freight costs by an astonishing 95%.
It was also a problematic success… The success looked repeatable. It set off a canal mania in the rest of the country. Ohio alone would dig 557 miles of canals. But the success wasn’t actually repeatable. The Erie was a singularity. Canals other than the Erie were, literally, money pits.
The need for a low-cost (if slow) freight route between the growing population of the old Northwest Territory and the Eastern Seaboard was a unique need. And the gradually sloping Mohawk River valley, running the length of New York State through the only gap in the Appalachians between Maine and Alabama, was the unique place to construct it. The Erie Canal was the one canal in the U.S. that ever made a profit.
Canals are ridiculously expensive to build – requiring impermeable channels, locks to navigate changes in elevation (the Erie had 88), and systems of dams and reservoirs to maintain water levels. The Erie Canal cost $180 million in 2019 dollars – although the inflation calculator doesn’t do that number justice. In the 1820s, laborers were paid $0.80 a day (plus a whiskey ration).
And canals are a ridiculous mode of transportation, as a trip to Venice shows. Imagine America crisscrossed by singing gondoliers.
And canals are a ridiculous mode of transportation, as a trip to Venice shows. Imagine America crisscrossed by singing gondoliers.
But before the Erie Canal had even opened, Benjamin Stickney, an early Toledo area land speculator who had survived the Panic of 1819, was writing effusive letters about canal projects to New York Gov. DeWitt Clinton, foremost promoter of the Erie Canal.
Stickney had been a United States Indian agent at Fort Wayne during the War of 1812. He’d explored the Maumee River to Lake Erie and the Wabash River to its mouth on the Ohio River. He got very excited when he discovered that the headwaters of the two streams were only six miles apart in a prairie marsh approximately where Fort Wayne International Airport is today. (Connect through Chicago for flights on Air Canada.)
Stickney was fixated on the idea of a canal linking Toledo to the Ohio River. Gov. Clinton replied to Stickney’s letters with equal effusion: “I have found the way to get into Lake Erie,” wrote Clinton, “and you have shown me how to get out of it.”
After much political wrangling – involving other canal projects linking Dayton to Cincinnati, Youngstown to Cleveland, Cleveland to Marietta, etc. – the Wabash and Erie Canal, begun in 1832, was completed in 1843. Just in time for railroads to replace canals.
The first section of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad – connecting the port to the river – opened in 1830, powered by the first American-made steam locomotive, the Tom Thumb. By 1850, there were 9,000 miles of railroad tracks in the U.S.
(Almost) the Only Civil War Ever Fought in the United States
Meanwhile, Toledo had been founded in an 1833 merger of various paper towns left over from the Panic of 1819. The city was officially incorporated four years later… just in time for the Panic of 1837.
The prospect of a canal from Lake Erie “to get out of it” had caused a second land-buying frenzy. Jesup W. Scott was one of the most frenzied buyers. He called it, “That memorable speculation in wild lands and wild cities,” saying, “The whole Maumee Valley was filled with fortune-hunters… the shores of the river from Fort Wayne to the foot of the Maumee Bay were alive with city-builders… land was all that was considered necessary.”
Toledo land was considered so necessary (and the surveying of state borders was so haphazard) that in 1835, Michigan Territory laid claim to Toledo. Ohio mobilized 10,000 militiamen to defend the town but, because of the Great Black Swamp, they couldn’t get there.
Michigan’s 24-year-old acting territorial “Boy Governor,” Stevens T. Mason (his dad had political connections), mobilized 1,200 Michigan militiamen. There were various forays into Toledo with, according to a contemporary description, “the destruction of many lives of chickens and honey bees, and an occasional turkey.”
A Monroe County, Michigan, deputy sheriff attempted to arrest pro-Ohio Two Stickney, the younger son of canal zealot Benjamin Stickney. (Benjamin’s elder son was named One Stickney.) Two Stickney wounded the deputy sheriff slightly with a penknife. There were no other human casualties in the only civil war ever fought in the United States except from 1861 to 1865.
The Toledo War ended with a peace negotiated by a commission in Washington, which granted Toledo to Ohio and the Upper Peninsula to Michigan. There is still debate about who got the worst of the deal.
The Panic of 1837 interrupted Toledo land speculation, canal building, and happy hour in the 31 taverns lining the mucky track from the Maumee to the other side of the Great Black Swamp (a distance of 35 miles). The Panic brought, in the words of Scott, an “airy fabric into ruin.”
Jackson may have been the worst economic nincompoop to have ever occupied the White House. (Although we’ll have to see how the current trade war with China turns out.)
Again, the government was monkeying around with our money. Andrew Jackson ran for president on a platform of contempt for East Coast establishment elites, sympathy with hard-working regular people in the heartland, and a promise to Make America… You get the idea. (He carried Ohio in 1828 and again in 1832.) Jackson may have been the worst economic nincompoop to have ever occupied the White House. (Although we’ll have to see how the current trade war with China turns out.)
Jackson was convinced that East Coast establishment elites were making all their money by lending it to hard-working regular people in the heartland to buy land with loans from the Second Bank of the United States controlled by East Coast establishment elites.
In June 1832, Jackson vetoed the renewal of the Second Bank’s charter. In June 1836, he signed the Deposit Distribution Act, requiring all federal revenues to be deposited in state banks… which were under the same kind of loose and stupid management that they had been in 1819. This deprived the East Coast establishment elites of capital. They quit making loans for land, or anything else.
Then in August 1836, Jackson issued an executive order, the “Specie Circular,” to forestall any tricky “financial instruments” that elites might create to keep ripping off hard-working regular people with the elite’s land speculations. The Specie Circular demanded that federal land purchases be paid for in hard money, of which, among regular people, there was practically none. The economy – especially the economy of heartland Jackson supporters – collapsed.
Scott stubbornly held onto his Toledo land – and got rich. By the time he died in the 1870s, Toledo in fact had become something of a commercial center with a population of 31,500. Property Scott had bought for $12 an acre turned out to be where downtown Toledo was built and sold for $12,000 an acre.
Scott became Toledo’s preeminent citizen. He was the editor of the daily paper, The Toledo Blade. He laid plans for the University of Toledo and donated its campus (a rather soggy patch by Ten Mile Creek a few blocks from where I grew up).
But Scott had had something more splendid in mind. He was the author of a pamphlet about Toledo wonderfully, if rather lengthily, called:
A Presentation of Causes Tending
to Fix the Position of the
FUTURE GREAT CITY OF THE WORLD
In the Central Plain of North America:
Showing That the Centre of the World’s Commerce, Now Represented by the City of London, Is Moving Westward to the City of New York, and Thence,
Within One Hundred Years, to the Best Position on the Great Lakes
Benjamin Stickney held onto his land, too. But there’s a reverse side to the American coin of success-in-failure. Stickney was almost 80 but he died too soon, in 1852. According to his obituary, “He was an extensive property holder, and a man generally esteemed… He could have disposed of his property in this valley, at one time, and been one of the wealthiest men of his day; he died on the verge of poverty, property-poor.”
The canals were never really important to Toledo. Or Ohio. They carried shipping, but not much was shipped to Toledo. And, little being grown or made there, even less was shipped from Toledo. In 1850, the town had a population of 3,870 and its only significant businesses were 12 freight-forwarding operations.
To build its canals, Ohio issued $16 million in bonds (over half a billion in 2019 dollars). Interest payments were $1 million a year. Fortunately for investors, the term “junk bonds” was not yet in use, or otherwise investors would have realized that that’s what these were. Receipts from Ohio canal tolls, from 1827 to 1903, totaled $17 million.
The fiasco was so great that more than a hundred years later we still hearing about it in the Ohio History class all Ohio eighth-graders had to take. “To this very day Ohio’s tax system, especially the sales tax, commemorates the lesson Ohio learned from the excessive burden of building her canals,” said Randolph C. Downes, the very boring author of the Ohio History textbook that was so boring our teacher used to doodle or stare aimlessly out the window or nod off while teaching it.
Undaunted by the unimportance of canals, Toledoans were also early railroad enthusiasts. Very early. Toledo’s Erie & Kalamazoo Railroad, with construction beginning in 1835, was the first railway completed west of the Appalachians. It ran from Toledo to… not as far as Kalamazoo. But 33 miles of track were laid to Adrian, Michigan.
The technological leap startled the inhabitants of the Toledo backwoods – and gave Native Americans a rare opportunity to do some European-style “mansplaining” to the yokels.
Dresden Howard – who’d come to the region as a child – was out riding with Ottawa tribesmen friends when, “Sounds reached us like distant thunder, and continued to approach… We saw a black object… rapidly passing through the trees… and could make out nothing definite about it until one of the Indians said it was an ‘iron horse,’ a ‘hot water horse, that spit hot water…’ After the ‘Chim-mi-chim-min-i-too’ (the devil of the woods) had passed, we all ventured forward and took a good look at two streaks of strap iron… but our ponies to a ‘man’ refused to cross this new invention.”
Other Toledoans understood railroads but misunderstood what they were good for. Railroads were conceived as being short lines with light-duty rail beds connecting local farms to lake and canal ports from which the real shipping would be done. And different railroads were deliberately constructed with different gauges… because you didn’t want some other railroad sneaking its caboose onto your railroad and getting a free ride.
By 1860, Toledo had become the hub of six railroads – Michigan Southern; Lakeshore & Michigan; Toledo, Wabash & Western; Cleveland & Toledo, and so on, all headed to where it sounds like they were headed.
There was a boom in shipping. Most Midwestern grain was transported down the Mississippi River. The Civil War closed the Mississippi, and grain transport shifted to the Great Lakes. Toledo saw its future as “Corn City.” Then the Mississippi opened again.
Also, by this time grain had begun to be shipped on long-haul rail lines. It came as a surprise to Toledo in 1867 when Commodore Vanderbilt’s New York Central began running heavy freight trains owned by a single railroad company straight through from Chicago to New York City. The New York Central did stop in Toledo – as briefly as possible.
Toledo’s port facilities shifted to coal. The city became the world’s largest coal-shipping port. Unfortunately, the coal being shipped was low-grade bituminous coal mined in the Midwest. What the new steel industries of Pittsburgh, Youngstown, and Cleveland needed to produce the extreme temperatures necessary for steel production was high-grade anthracite coal mined in Pennsylvania. Toledo became the largest coal-shipping port of the least-wanted (and dirtiest) kind of coal.
There was a “Panic of 1873” (the government monkeying around with our money – post Civil War inflation and demonetization of silver). Toledo, of course, was hard-hit. This time, I suppose, bringing a “sooty fabric into ruin.”
Civic leaders responded by launching a program of business incentives (in case you thought the bidding for Amazon HQ2 was something novel) to lure “innovative technology” to town.
The Milburn Wagon Company moved to Toledo from Mishawaka, Indiana. Milburn, with 65 different kinds of wagons, was the largest manufacturer of farm equipment in America. No Milburn products, however, were mechanized like the farm equipment being made by McCormick Harvesting Machine Company in Chicago or John Deere & Company in Moline, Illinois. Toledo, for a second time, in a second way, failed to become “Corn City.”
Toledo Gets Gassed
However, in 1884 a large natural gas field was discovered south of Toledo. The supply of gas was declared to be infinite. Drilling and pipeline promoters said the gas was self-generating. The gas field was in what had been, until the drainage system was dug, the Great Black Swamp. Gaseous swamp odors were well-remembered. The promoters may even have believed what they were saying.
Forty wells were drilled. Four pipelines were built to the city. Toledo experienced its third real estate bubble. The Toledo Blade opined, “Toledo the queen city of the lakes, goes forth conquering, one hand bearing a torch with light for the world, with fire for a nation’s forges, with heat for a million looms, with fuel for thousands of factories.” The gas ran out in 1895.
Instead, Toledo became the queen city of the lakes on wheels. Local industrialist Peter Gendron invented the wire-spoke wheel and the ball-bearing hub. Employing the hometown Tubular Axle Company’s new lightweight hollow-steel tubing, he created the modern bicycle. By 1898 there were 22 bicycle manufacturers in the city. Toledo became the center of the American bicycle industry… just in time for the automobile.
(My grandfather was a mechanic at the Milburn Wagon Company. One day he saw an automobile rumble by. He became a car mechanic. He soon realized you could have cleaner hands and fuller pockets selling the things instead of fixing them. Thus I grew up well-fed, well-housed, happy, and prosperous as a scion of the O’Rourke Buick car dealership.)
Like Grandad, Toledo businessmen saw the socio-economic shift coming and this time they almost got the point. The Pope Motor Car Company began building cars in Toledo in the early 1900s.
Price of a 1909 Pope-Toledo: $6,000
Price of a 1909 Model T Ford: $825
The American Bicycle Company produced the Toledo Steamer. The old Milburn Wagon Company made the Milburn Electric. And Toledo’s Kirk Manufacturing Company offered the Yale Touring car with a two-cylinder engine, 16 horsepower, and weight of nearly a ton.
There was automotive achievement as well. From 1912 to 1918, Toledo’s Willys-Overland Motor Company, owned by John North Willys, was the second-largest U.S. automaker, after Ford.
Toledo, however, had a kind of success that Ford couldn’t match – successful labor unions. (Ford resisted unionization, often with “Thunderbird” tactics, until 1941.)
Toledo is, and remains, a union town. I haven’t found much academic research or evidence in the 184 years of The Toledo Blade’s microfilm morgue about why this is. Local historians mostly adhere to the Midwestern tradition of boosterism. They don’t shine light into corners of conflict.
I can guess. Toledo had labor problems as early as the 1830s when the Maumee Valley temperance movement curtailed the whiskey ration of Irish canal diggers. The Irish went on strike, and who can blame them? Toledo was a fledgling rail hub. The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers was one of America’s first effective labor unions – more effective than Toledo’s railroads. Toledo had a large immigrant population. In 1890, 65% of Toledoans were foreign-born or had at least one foreign-born parent. Many of these immigrants were from Central Europe, where a strong union movement dated back to the 1840s. Or maybe it was simpler. In a place where the economy was fluid, not to say a viscous mire, the firm ground of labor solidarity had appeal.
Toledo unions were successful, but American success – as with Benjamin Stickney’s Toledo land holdings – has teeter-totter aspects. In 1919, Willys-Overland offered its employees a profit-sharing plan.
It is a feature of human psychology that an opportunity can be as frightening as a threat. (Consider love.)
It is a feature of human psychology that an opportunity can be as frightening as a threat. (Consider love.) Willys-Overland’s union considered the love that John North Willys was offering to be a threat to hold down hourly wages and went on strike. According to Toledo Profile: A Sesquicentennial History (taking a break from boosterism), “Two men were killed and nineteen injured during a riot involving several thousand strikers, strike sympathizers, strike breakers, and former soldiers who were serving as police.”
Willys-Overland Motor Company was forced into reorganization and never completely recovered, and the popular Willys Six and Willys Knight models disappeared.
But Toledo got a piece of the action, so to speak, becoming not the Car Capital but the Car Parts Capital of America – Champion sparkplugs, Auto-Lite batteries, Monroe shock absorbers, AP mufflers, Libbey-Owens-Ford automotive glass, and Spicer driveshafts and transmissions.
Success Hit Toledo – Right in the Snout
The city grew – from a population of 168,497 in 1910 to 243,164 in 1920 to 290,718 in 1930. It grew fastest during World War I, a failure of geopolitics but a success for Toledo.
The war industry workforce was so short-handed that women were hired as streetcar motormen. Toledoans oversubscribed to the Liberty Loan campaign, buying almost $73 million in war bonds, exceeding their quota by more than 20%. And, out of the 200,000 Ohioans who served overseas, somehow (draft-exempt jobs? numerous German immigrants? one of just 50 House of Representatives votes against the war cast by Toledo’s congressman?) only 145 Toledoans died.
Along with industrial expansion came renewed interest in Toledo as a lake port – for bootlegging from Canada. The 1920s was an era of halcyon prosperity, if you don’t count such things as local folk hero bootlegger Jack Kennedy and most of his associates and his girlfriend being killed by Detroit’s Licavoli gang with the connivance of Toledo political fixer Jacob “Firetop” Sulkin. (But that’s another story.)
The 17-story Commodore Perry luxury hotel opened with Toledo’s first radio station broadcasting from its roof. F. Scott Fitzgerald set a short story in Toledo with its denouement at the exclusive Toledo Club. The U.S. Open was played at Inverness Club. The Mud Hens were managed by Casey Stengel. The Scott (named for Jesup) High School football team won the national high school championship with a score of 263 to 54 (not a misprint). The Maumee was spanned by one of the longest suspension bridges in the country. Ohio Savings and Trust Company erected an Art Deco skyscraper.
Just in time for the Great Depression.
Ohio Savings and Trust failed. So did Toledo’s Commercial Bank, American Bank, Commerce Guardian Trust and Savings Bank, and Security-Home Trust Company – some of largest bank failures in America. A third of Toledoans’ $80 million in bank deposits vanished. Industry was dust, manufacture became post-factual, wholesale went down a hole, and retail’s tail was in the wringer. Toledo’s unemployment rate hit 50%.
By 1933, 30,000 people were on city poor relief and between 50,000 and 60,000 were receiving city food donations. The city government – with $1.4 million tied up in bank insolvencies and $6 million owed in back taxes – was broke. All of Toledo might have gone on the bankruptcy auction block the way it had in 1819 and 1837.
What rescued Toledo was… the government monkeying around with our money.
Oh What a Lovely Depression
What rescued Toledo was… the government monkeying around with our money. FDR’s Federal Emergency Relief Administration undertook the kind of federal interference in the economy that the capitalists who built Toledo, with their “memorable speculation in wild lands and wild cities,” deplored. (Although they were willing to make an exception to save their own necks. And aren’t we all?)
Toledo was provided with a large serving of the Roosevelt “alphabet soup” – Civil Works Administration (CWA), Works Progress Administration (WPA), Public Works Administration (PWA), and Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).
Using out-of-a-job Toledo craftsmen and salvaged materials from abandoned Toledo factories, the WPA built a magnificent Toledo Zoo.
Previously it had been a modest attraction, founded in 1900 with the donation of one woodchuck. By the end of the 1930s, it had the largest fresh-water aquarium in the world, an aviary that was the first building in America to use glass blocks for walls, a delightfully creepy reptile house, scary bear pit, entertaining seal pool, a museum of science, an amphitheater, and – my personal favorite as a kid – a sort of combined concrete alp and primate playpen called “Monkey Mountain.” It was the best possible example of the government monkeying around with our money. All these remain in use – the largest collection of WPA buildings still in place.
The WPA and other “Works” programs also built Toledo a vocational school, seven grade schools, two high school football stadiums, a tuberculosis hospital, an artificial lake at a Boy Scout camp, and (on Lake Erie, not the Boy Scout lake) a naval armory – lest Britain go soft and Canada end up siding with the Axis.
Federal make-work created a main library in an austerely beautiful Streamline Moderne style. It repaired the Fassett Street Bridge (not the previously mentioned suspension bridge, but an “un-suspension” bridge, half of which had fallen into the river). It improved facilities in public parks, installed new sewer systems, and overhauled the city’s waterworks to replace drinking water from the highly flavored Maumee. It filled and paved the stagnant, smelly remnant of Toledo’s canal, turning it into the “Anthony Wayne Trail,” a handsome four-lane parkway heading out of the city to… no place in particular, not even Kalamazoo. And it constructed one of the nation’s first public housing projects, a Mid-Century Modern gem of an urban development with townhouses that could be sold for a fortune to present-day hipsters if the housing project hadn’t been torn down in 2012.
The Great Depression was the best thing that ever happened to Toledo – aesthetically.
Yesterday’s Toledo Tomorrow
World War II was the next best thing. Not for Toledo’s war casualties… The city seemed more committed to actually fighting this world war, and 1,195 Toledoans died. But the rest of them went back to work.
Here is one more way that economics earns its title, “The Dismal Science.” Economists can’t grasp the idea that war is never an economic success. Those 1,195 dead would have been the parents of – with post-war average birthrates – some 3,000 children and hence about 7,500 grandchildren and thus by now 14,000 or 15,000 great-grandchildren for a total of more than 25,000 human beings who never had the chance to worry about Toledo being an economic failure. Economists don’t count them.
Toledo produced more than $3 billion in combat materiel including 300,000 military vehicles, 4 million high-explosive shells, and more than a billion rifle, pistol, and machine-gun bullets. Plus airplane wing sections, nose assemblies, gyroscopic stabilizers, and some of the electrical parts of the atomic bomb.
Toledo was well-positioned for the post-war economic boom. It didn’t quite come to Toledo.
This was a shame. Toledo had planned carefully for the economic boom’s arrival – knew right where to put it and just what that boom would look like.
The Toledo Blade’s publisher, Paul R. Block, Jr., was an almost Jesup W. Scott-worthy booster. During the final years of World War II, Block commissioned the celebrated industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes to create a scale model of “Toledo Tomorrow.” The model was revealed on July 4, 1945, at the zoo’s science museum. It was 61 feet in diameter.
Toledo Tomorrow embodied the happy innocence of the 20th century’s second half – back when “the future” had a future. Life magazine did a multi-page photo essay. Eleanor Roosevelt praised Toledo’s “foresight” in her weekly newspaper column. Toledo was labeled the “most planning conscious city in Ohio, perhaps in the nation.”
The close, fussy, and crowded old grid of Toledo streets would be supplanted by wide, calm, lovely curving avenues. Never mind that closeness, crowds, and fuss are what make a city. The avenues would be crisscrossed by congestion-proof “super” highways. Big business would rise in airy spires set midst civic-minded greenspace. (Where small business would go doesn’t seem to have been considered.) Low, dirty slums would be replaced by clean bright apartment towers because no one had figured out that it’s a bad idea to stack poor people.
And right in the middle of downtown Toledo Tomorrow, within walking distance of tomorrow’s boardrooms and corner offices, there’d be a vast “Union Terminal” with underground roadways and a railroad station paved over with runways long enough to “bring the largest of tomorrow’s air liners into the heart of the city.”
Toledoans could go to a single downtown location and catch a plane, train, or bus to anywhere in the world. Like they cared… They were driving their new cars.
The only part of Union Terminal (in fact the only part of Toledo Tomorrow) to be built was the train station, in 1956. Just in time for – or, rather, a little late for – the 1955 opening of the Ohio Turnpike.
Geddes should have known better. He was born in Adrian, Michigan – as far as the 1835 Erie & Kalamazoo Railroad ever got.
A City That Never Should Have Been There Goes Away
What happened to Toledo in the 1950s and 1960s was another sort of success-in-failure. Toledo prospered well enough. Weekly wages in manufacturing jobs were among the highest… in American cities relying on manufacturing, of which there weren’t as many as there had been. Toledo’s per capita income was among the highest… in Ohio. The St. Lawrence Seaway was completed in 1959, opening Toledo’s freighter traffic to the world… except when the St. Lawrence River froze.
However, as with most American metropolises, the city – as a city – began to dematerialize. People moved into the “suburban sprawl” that is an anathema to city planners. The planners see suburbia as a human weakness for too many nice homes and good places to work and shop. The planners lament the loss of a countryside full of birds that crap on our cars and raccoons that get into our garbage. And sprawl simply sprawls. There’s nothing for planners to plan.
They kept planning anyway. In 1969, roughly 12 acres of Toledo’s old downtown, including more than 20 handsome and substantial late-19th-century buildings, were leveled. The “urban renewal” was done with 1960’s box-it-came-in architecture rather than the Geddes kind – jetsam, not Jetsons.
By 1972, Toledo had 34 miles of expressways leading to a downtown where no one went anymore. Downtown retail sales declined 35% between 1958 and 1972. By 1980, 40 suburban shopping centers accounted for 90% of shopping. To build the expressway system, 4,000 houses and stores were torn down and 25,000 Toledoans were displaced. They were probably going to move to the suburbs anyway…
Toledo’s largest theater, the Paramount, was razed in 1965 to make way for a parking lot… Just in time for empty parking spaces on downtown streets. A new civic auditorium was built in the ‘burbs. The downtown cafeteria that had been the city’s most popular restaurant for 35 years closed in 1971. So did Toledo’s last burlesque house.
Then came a failure beyond what even 140 years of living in Toledo would lead you to expect. The 1970s “stagflation” recession wasn’t caused by the government monkeying around with our money. Although the government certainly was doing that, abolishing dollar convertibility into gold and running the Bureau of Engraving printing presses night and day. But now the government was monkeying around with everything – wage and price freezes, import surtaxes, and gas shortages.
The industrial Midwest lost the adjective “industrial” forever. Between 1973 and 1975, 2.3 million jobs disappeared. It seemed to Toledoans that all 2.3 million had disappeared from Toledo.
In 1976, Toledo’s public schools closed briefly for lack of funds. A teachers’ strike followed. Teachers who kept working were assaulted. The unionized police did not intervene. In 1979, the police themselves went on strike. All the municipal unions went on strike, something that had never happened in an American city. Looting and rioting followed. Firemen were on strike too. Fifteen buildings were burned in a single block, and an apartment building under construction without a union contract was bombed by union members.
Toledo never recovered. The city’s population dropped from 383,818 in 1970 to 276,491 now. (And Pierre Irving’s prediction was fulfilled. The current population of Buffalo is only 258,612.) In 1930 Toledo was the 27th-largest city in America. Today it’s ranked 74th, well below Plano, Texas (69th) and just above Durham, North Carolina.
Our Junkyard – More Magnificent Than Your Palaces
Toledo is a failure… But what a magnificent failure it’s been. Over the course of three centuries, hundreds of thousands of people deliberately came to an obscure and unpromising corner of Ohio from everywhere – hardscrabble New England farms, eastern city tenements, Germany, Poland, Ireland, Italy, Russia, the Balkans, the Near East, Appalachia, and the segregated South. There’s a Bulgarian community, a Slovenian community, a Lebanese community. One of the most striking mosques in America rises from the cornfields of what was the Great Black Swamp. And there’s Tony Packo’s. (This is actually a failure of Toledo’s Polish population – Tony was Hungarian.)
Toledo is a failure… But what a magnificent failure it’s been.
Toledo is a junkyard of capitalism. But what splendid junk!
In this humble place people led a better life or had a chance to lead a better life or at least were – “‘Tis Ague in the Fall” notwithstanding – alive. Not reaped for cannon fodder by the Kaiser, persecuted by the Ottomans, murdered by Hitler, crushed by Stalin, shot by the Hatfields and McCoys, or lynched by white trash.
Toledo is a junkyard of capitalism. But what splendid junk! Canal boats, railroad trains, lake freighters, bicycles, and lumbering Yale Touring Cars – they weren’t laden with treasure perhaps, but they carried enough of the good things in life to feed, clothe, and shelter Toledoans.
Cheap natural gas lured New England’s glass companies to Toledo. By the time the infinite supply of gas proved finite, glassmakers – Libbey-Owens-Ford, Owens-Illinois, Owens-Corning – had built so many factories in Toledo that they couldn’t leave.
The repetitive “Owens” in the corporate names was Michael J. Owens, a peripatetic glass blower with little formal education and great mechanical genius. He developed a process to make bottles with machinery instead of by hand and another to produce sheets of glass in continuous flow. Hoist a beer, look out your picture window, and toast Michael J. Owens.
Libbey-Owens-Ford invented auto-safety glass in Toledo and Owens-Corning invented fiberglass. If you hoisted too many beers, looked out your picture window at your Corvette, crashed it, and survived, toast one more Toledo booster nickname, “Glass City.”
A Toledo physician, nose and throat specialist Allen DeVilbiss, was trying to make a throat atomizer for his patients and tried so hard that he invented the paint spray gun. DeVilbiss paint sprayers are available in better automotive-supply stores everywhere… You can touch up that crashed ‘Vette.
The doctor’s son, Allen DeVilbiss Jr., invented a portable pendulum-operated weighing device and founded Toledo Scale. Its products were so ubiquitous when I was young that I thought Toledo’s city motto was “No Springs.”
And when the need came to invent the Jeep and win World War II, it was Toledo’s always-on-the-tip-of-bankruptcy Willys-Overland Motor Company that invented it. Jeeps continue to be made in Toledo (and are a more appropriate vehicle for a man my age than that Corvette).
Toledo is still home to four Fortune 500 companies – Marathon Petroleum, Owens-Illinois, Dana, and Owens Corning. Paris is home to none. (Of course, Fortune doesn’t count French companies. But who does?)
Per capita income in Toledo is $28,584. That isn’t as much as the $31,786 American average, but it’s a lot more than the $13,812 in Poland.
Lake Erie and the Maumee River – the largest river flowing into the Great Lakes, a mile wide at its mouth – have been cleaned up. There are 29 marinas and nine beaches. Rome has no beaches. And the Toledo area has 46 golf courses, while Manhattan doesn’t have any at all.
The Toledo Museum of Art was a 1901 gift from glass magnate Edward Drummond Libbey. It’s a perfection of neo-classicism with a graceful sweep of an addition by Frank Gehry and a 1,750-seat concert hall whose acoustics are perfect for a symphony orchestra. And Toledo has a symphony orchestra.
The museum’s collection contains works by Rubens, Rembrandt, El Greco (who may not have painted Toledo, Ohio, but his painting wound up there), van Gogh, Degas, Monet, Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso, and Edmund Osthaus (1858-1928) “the world’s greatest painter of hunting dogs.” (My kind of art.)
And the Toledo Zoo now has 10,000 animals belonging to 720 species (some obviously more prolific than others).
Now click on Zillow and see the five-bedroom, four-bathroom, 1907 stately home in Toledo’s Old West End two blocks from the art museum on a half-acre lot with a carriage house – that you can buy for $260,000.
The junkyard of capitalism makes the Seven Wonders of the World look like curbside trash. All the success of the rest of mankind sucks by comparison to America’s failures.
Toledo Bibliographical Notes
I am – as perhaps you can tell – fascinated by Toledo, Ohio. Partly because I’m from there and partly because, just as I was leaving in 1969, one of my oldest friends, John Fedderke, returned and stayed and kept me updated on the town’s continually checkered history. My story of Toledo’s economic adventures spins off John’s “Letter From Toledo,” published in the June 2018 issue of American Consequences.
In addition to John, I’ve relied on two excellent and entertaining books, Gateway to the Great Lakes by Morgan Barclay and Charles N. Glaab, published by Continental Heritage Press in 1982 and Toledo Profile, A Sesquicentennial History, by Tana Mosier Porter, published by the Toledo Sesquicentennial Commission in 1987.
I’ve also relied on the less entertaining four-volume Lucas County Historical Series by Dr. Randolph C. Downes, published by in 1948 by The Historical Society of Northwestern Ohio – of which region Downes was the most august and preeminent historian. These are, as I note in my article, what put me into a coma in 8th grade. But they too are excellent in their own way – a great marshalling of facts and figures, even if presented in a way that bludgeoned middle schoolers.
To return to the entertaining (as well as the excellent), I have also consulted the archives of the Toledo Blade, a newspaper that has been in print without interruption since 1835; The Great Black Swamp and The Great Black Swamp II by Jim Mollenkopf, published by Lake of the Cat Publishing in 1999 and 2000 respectively; Nothing Personal Just Business, tales of Toledo during Prohibition, by Kenneth R. Dickson, published by Lesher Printing, 2006; and The East Side, Past and Present by Isaac Wright, originally printed in 1894 by the 2nd Congregational Church in East Toledo.