The location was prime. The clientele was select. The product was choice.
Unfortunately, the business just didn’t cut it.
The Portage Packing Co. was a meat-processing plant at Merriman Road and Portage Path in what is now known as the Merriman Valley in Akron. Although the company didn’t last long, it left behind a landmark building that still stands. Few people would recognize it as a former slaughterhouse.
Company founders promoted the new business in 1917 as a lead-pipe cinch for stockholders, “a safe, conservative investment — the kind a man can honestly recommend to his best friend.”
Akron was a growing city of 150,000 voracious consumers who would always demand meat for three square meals a day, organizers explained. The business would cater to 300,000 people in a 30-mile radius around the city.
“You eat meat, your neighbor eats meat, practically everybody eats meat,” the company noted in its stock offering. “And when they do, they are increasing the demand of the packing company. If you have stock in a packing company, you don’t need to worry as to whether or not the public will support it. They must, if they expect to live.”
Capital stock sold for $25 a share (about $380 today). When the business opened in 1918, it would be “one of the best equipped and most modern packing plants in the country.”
The company’s officers, all “trained, practical men,” were John R. Bliss, president; Irvin R. Renner, vice president; Clyde S. Burgner, secretary; and W.C. Crow, treasurer. They predicted “a brilliantly successful future” with “handsome profits for all shareholders.”
Choosing a site
They selected a construction site on the outskirts of Akron along the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad near Old Portage, the north terminus of the ancient trail where Indians carried their canoes between the Cuyahoga and Tuscarawas rivers.
The three-story, brick-and-concrete building had 38,000 square feet of floor space and walls that were 2 feet thick plus 8 inches of cork insulation.
“We know positively that as soon as the ‘first pig squeals,’ it will be the signal for the stock to advance,” the company advertised.
Work began in earnest near the end of World War I. Portage Packing had the capacity to slaughter and dress 5,000 hogs, 1,200 cattle and “proportionate numbers” of sheep, lambs and calves each week. “Akron-killed in a modern plant,” the company boasted.
Byproducts included hide for leather, hair for upholstery and bones for fertilizer and glue. Poultry, eggs and dairy products also were handled using “the latest sanitary methods.”
Shareholders voted to increase the company’s capital stock from $250,000 to $500,000, and then doubled it again to $1 million.
For about three years, the plant produced fresh and cured meats for butcher shops in Summit County. Then a series of misfortunes struck.
In 1920, trade journal United States Investor published an item that questioned the value of the Akron company’s stock.
“Very little appears to be known about Portage Packing Co.,” the journal wrote. “It has marketed its own stock for some time past, in a rather, unsatisfactory manner, and we would advise leaving it alone.”
In 1921, the business became enmeshed in a fake securities plot in which a Chicago gang flooded the U.S. market with $10 million in bogus stocks, forged certificates and stolen bonds from more than 30 companies, including $50,000 in fake notes from Portage Packing. Investors fled the company in droves.
The timing was terrible, because the company already was reeling from the Depression of 1920-21. Wholesale prices plunged, and unemployment surged.
Portage Packing limped along for another year or so before falling into receivership, bringing an abrupt end to the former lead-pipe cinch. The assets were auctioned off for $309,000 in 1923.
Other uses for building
A Cuyahoga Falls farmer turned the former slaughterhouse into a mushroom-growing nursery in the late 1920s, but the enterprise failed. A potato dealer wanted to use the building as a spud warehouse, but the deal fell through.
For 15 years, the abandoned building stood dark and desolate, looking like an ancient ruin. Vandals smashed its windows and ripped down doors. Trees grew out of the roof.
Albert L. Denney, a driver for Jones Van & Storage, bought the old plant for $3,500 in 1946, cleaned up the debris, installed new windows and remodeled the structure as a warehouse. He leased the first floor to Aster Meats, stored furniture on the second floor and used the third floor for general storage.
In 1956, Denney sold the building for $75,000 to Dickson Moving & Storage, which operated the warehouse into the 1960s. Dream House Furniture later assumed ownership, but abandoned the place in the 1970s.
The building was vacant for a few years until developer Steve Botnick and his father, Irving, saw its true potential. In 1979, they decided to convert it into a health club.
The RiverParke office and recreation complex opened in 1981 following a $3.1 million renovation, which included the addition of a fourth floor. Vic Tanny International, a Detroit health-club chain, leased the building, which included a swimming pool, running track, racquetball courts, steam bath, dry sauna, whirlpool, showers, aerobic dancing rooms, exercise equipment and separate gymnasiums for men and women.
Vic Tanny sold out to Scandinavian Health Spa in the early 1980s. Besides being a place to work out, Scandinavian developed a reputation as a spot where singles could mingle. It was a popular spot to meet men or women. Some people jokingly called it “a meat market.” If they only knew the building’s origins!
Scandinavian gave way to Bally’s, which operated the spa for more than 20 years. Following another remodeling, RPFitness moved into the building in 2005, and it’s been there ever since.
The former Portage Packing Co. is still packing them in, tending to a select clientele at a prime location.
Customers prefer to order lean cuts.
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.