Downtown Akron was the same old grind.
Horse-drawn wagons brimming with golden grain lined up along deeply rutted roads in the 19th century. Farmers from the distant countryside brought their harvest to town to have local mills turn it into flour or meal.
Powered by giant waterwheels, heavy millstones slowly pulverized the grain into thousands of barrels a day.
It seems strange today to think that cereal milling was Akron’s primary industry for decades. More than a dozen mills operated during that golden era, leading to lucrative spinoff industries such as the making of wood barrels, burlap sacks and paper containers.
Dr. Eliakim Crosby (1779-1854), a native of Litchfield, Conn., made it all possible with a daring idea to create an artificial waterway to supply hydraulic power. In 1831, he proposed cutting a channel from the Little Cuyahoga River near Bank Street and having water race downhill toward Lock 5 on the Ohio & Erie Canal.
According to Akron historian Samuel A. Lane: “It was said, with how much truth the writer cannot say, though with a strong shade of probability, that to prevent observation and the miscarriage of his designs, the doctor did much of his surveying and the running of his levels for his contemplated race by moonlight, as all of his movements had to be made on the sly, until after the control of the river bed had been secured by the purchase of contiguous lands on either side.”
Crosby established a village called Cascade, later platted as Akron, at the present-day intersection of Market and Main streets. His so-called Cascade Race sloshed down the center of today’s Main Street and veered west at present-day Mill Street into the canal.
It’s called Mill Street because Crosby built a five-story mill, one of the finest in Ohio, at the foot of the hill in 1832. The Stone Mill was the first in Akron and the largest building of its era, a bustling hub around which the village revolved. It stood for nearly 80 years — so long that its name unofficially became the Old Stone Mill.
In a 1929 interview with the Akron Times-Press, former wheat buyer John R. Pisel, a sage at the ripe age of 68, remembered seeing farmers line up wagons along “the whole length of Howard Street” for a chance to sell their harvest at the Stone Mill.
“After the farmers would unload and receive their pay for the wheat, they would drive over through the mud on Main Street to feed their teams and then go out and buy clothing and other things for the winter,” Pisel said. “Many is the time I have seen entire families seated on the grain wagons.”
In another interview, retired firefighter John G. Dietz, a wizened wizard at the age of 76, remembered the mill as “a great place in its day.”
“That’s where I used to go as a boy to buy feed for Father’s cows and pigs right here in Akron and most everybody did in those times,” he said. “It was nothing strange to see cows and pigs wandering around on the downtown streets. Nobody thought anything of it.”
The Stone Mill soon had competitors. Over the next decade, four more flour mills — Aetna, Center, Cascade and City — began to churn along the Cascade Race.
By the mid-1840s, as the town’s population topped 3,000, Akron’s mills produced 135,000 barrels of flour a year, consuming about 4,500 bushels of wheat every 24 hours. Canalboats transported the barrels to faraway places in the country.
Running day and night
“When I went to work, they were making about 1,500 barrels of flour a day at the Stone Mill,” Pisel recalled. “After a while, they raised the capacity to 2,200 barrels a day. The big mill ran night and day except Sundays. There were no holidays and we were on the jump all the time.”
Over the decades, most of Akron’s major mills suffered devastating fires. Sparks ignited dust from grain and flour, producing explosions that were difficult to extinguish because of low water pressure and inadequate equipment from yesteryear’s fire battalions. Mill owners either rebuilt or found new lines of work.
Crosby pioneered Akron’s cereal industry, but Ferdinand Schumacher revolutionized it.
Schumacher (1822-1908), a native of Hanover, Germany, moved to Akron in 1851 and opened a shop on South Howard Street. In 1856, he began milling cereal grains because he missed his favorite food.
According to Akron historian Karl H. Grismer: “Schumacher was fond of oatmeal. He had always eaten it for breakfast back in Germany and wanted to keep on eating it after he came to America. But he learned that the only oatmeal obtainable was imported — and expensive.
“Being a frugal individual, Schumacher refused to pay the prevailing high price for his favorite cereal. He decided to make some himself — he had watched it being manufactured in Germany and was familiar with the process.”
Schumacher opened the German Mill in 1859 at Howard and Market streets and won a lucrative contract to supply oatmeal to Union soldiers during the Civil War. As business expanded, he bought other mills (including Cascade) and built new ones (such as Empire and Jumbo), turning a small enterprise into a vast empire.
He consolidated his properties into the F. Schumacher Milling Co. In 1881, seven mill owners — including Schumacher — formed the American Cereal Co., which in 1901 changed its name to Quaker Oats. The company employed more than 1,000 people in downtown Akron.
The wheels of history turn slowly but grind exceedingly fine. As the cereal business became industrialized and automated, Akron’s mills lost their old-world charm.
Electric power made waterwheels obsolete. Canalboats gave way to railroad cars. Automobiles replaced horse-drawn wagons.
Old-timer Dietz feared that the quickening pace of society was detrimental to public health in the late 1920s.
“People often die young now days for the reason that life is now swift,” he said. “These are strenuous days. People don’t take time to live. There is a great nervous strain and then comes the breakdown. In the old days, we lived slower and we ate plain food.”
Today, we have Mill Street without a mill. We have Quaker Square without Quaker Oats. We have a canal without a boat.
“Now little if any flour is made here,” Pisel lamented in 1929. “The old mills have been changed and now breakfast foods are made. The old waterwheel no longer turns.”
Beacon Journal copy editor Mark J. Price is the author of The Rest Is History: True Tales From Akron’s Vibrant Past, a book from the University of Akron Press. He can be reached at 330-996-3850 or firstname.lastname@example.org.