Mark J. Price

When the refrigerated truck arrived in the park, it was like a mirage appearing in the desert.

Children hopped off bicycles, jumped off swings and threw down baseball mitts.

Kids of all ages — some barefoot, some shirtless — lined up in the blazing sun, chattering excitedly while waiting to quench their parched throats.

Cold milk never tasted as good as it did on a summer playground.

The Akron Junior Chamber of Commerce, better known as the Akron Jaycees, dispensed free cartons of milk in the summer of 1947 as part of Operation Gumball, a fundraising effort financed by the proceeds from gum machines.

The white truck made unannounced visits to all 38 playgrounds in the city, including Reservoir, Forest Lodge, Grace, Thornton, Waters, Joy, Mason, Elizabeth and Perkins Woods parks. Girls in cotton dresses, boys in baseball uniforms and toddlers in knee pants were among the grateful recipients of the postwar giveaway 65 years ago.

Kids were thrilled to receive cold refreshments after whooping it up all afternoon on hot playgrounds. In those days, public water fountains were notoriously fickle, delivering warm liquid at barely a trickle — if they worked at all.

The Akron Milk Dealers Association supplied fresh, wholesome goodness with the assistance of local dairies such as Borden, Reiter and Akron Pure Milk.

With straws to lips, more than 5,000 children cheerfully drained half-pint cartons that sweltering June and July.

The Akron Jaycees launched Operation Gumball under the leadership of President George Brittain, who won state and national honors for his work. Other members instrumental in the project’s success were Cornel Chima, Walter Hay, Oscar A. Hunsicker Jr., Dr. Jack T. Keith, Paul Laurenson, Robert Maxwell, Harold Neiman, John Rozko, James Tarlson, Lowell Weaver, George E. Wilson and Clifford Zimmerman.

Pennies collected

In a project hailed by Mayor Charles E. Slusser as an outstanding example of civic welfare, the Jaycees sponsored more than 200 gum vending machines in stores, factories and offices throughout the city.

“Merchants donated the space for the machines,” the Beacon Journal reported on July 8, 1947. “Generous Akron donates the pennies.”

Within the first seven months, the project raised $2,070 in wheat-back pennies. The milk giveaway was only one of many projects to receive funding.

The Jaycees also donated $832 to the Eye Bank Donor Program, $300 to the Kate Waller Barrett home, $250 to a mobile dental unit for rural Ohio, $150 to the Wounded Yanks Christmas Fund, $150 to the C.W. Seiberling Memorial Fund and $150 to the Greater Akron Baseball Federation.

Operation Gumball ran without a hitch for two years until it accidentally became entangled in one of the oddest vice cases in Akron history.

Competing vending companies began to infiltrate local stores with gum-ball machines that offered tiny prizes. A penny in the slot could yield a gum ball, a trinket, both or nothing.

Parents complained that their children were squandering money in pursuit of worthless junk — and sometimes not even receiving a gum ball.

In 1949, Akron Law Director Roy Browne declared the take-a-chance machines “illegal gambling devices.”

Capt. Stephen McGowan, leader of the vice squad, announced: “We will wait a reasonable time then to see if the machines aren’t withdrawn.”

If the vendors didn’t comply, McGowan said, “we will seize the machines.”

Damage control

The Akron Jaycees found themselves doing damage control, even though their fundraising machines had nothing to do with the scandal.

“There are no free giveaways in these machines, just a ball of gum,” project chairman Harold Neiman explained. “But all the net proceeds go directly into youth welfare here.”

Oscar Hunsicker reiterated that there were no trinkets in Jaycees’ gum machines.

Every penny was honest.

“Most of this money goes directly into youth welfare work such as the equipping of two new baseball diamonds for the recreation department and city schools, which Jaycees provided at Old Forge Field last summer,” Hunsicker told the Beacon Journal in 1949.

“Thanks to the business firms that have let us place our machines on their premises, we were able to provide free movies to the youngsters at the Children’s Home all last winter.

“Just recently, we were able to hire buses to provide transportation for 75 of the Children’s Home residents so they might attend the Beacon Journal-Red Cross swim lessons at Summit Beach Park.”

Withstanding the crisis, Operation Gumball continued to raise money in the 1950s and 1960s. The Akron Jaycees halted the milk giveaways at local parks but collected pennies for other worthy causes in civic welfare.

Society has changed a great deal in 65 years, and not necessarily for the better.

This summer, count the number of children you see frolicking on a hot day in a city playground.

Then imagine kids lining up to receive a free drink from a mysterious truck operated by total strangers.

Cold milk never tasted as good as it did on a summer playground in 1947 — and probably never will again.

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 send email to mjprice@thebeaconjournal.com.