Carol Biliczky

The Rubber Bowl was the vision of community leaders bent on bolstering the city of Akron after the Great Depression.

Beacon Journal sports editor James Schlemmer and B.E. “Shorty” Fulton, director of Akron Municipal Airport, led a grass-roots campaign in 1939 to coax 30,000 residents to give $1 each.

They made it easy to give. Checks simply had to be mailed to Akron Stadium, Akron, Ohio. Proponents went door to door. High school bands marched in downtown Akron while organizers solicited money from passers-by.

It worked. The donations unlocked hundreds of thousands of dollars from the federal Works Progress Administration to build a 37,600-seat, horseshoe-shaped stadium near the All-American Soap Box Derby.

Workers toiled round the clock to finish the facility in a little more than a year. It was the WPA’s 80th stadium in Ohio, with total construction costs reaching $1 million.

The Beacon Journal was wildly enthusiastic about what the stadium would mean for the community: that it would include a 100-yard rifle, pistol and archery range; that its surface was sealed with asphalt so could be flooded for winter sports; that the seats were carved from redwood trees; that the shower floor “was treated with a copper solution to guard against the spreading of athletes’ foot,” which, according to the Beacon Journal, was a “contagious disease common to athletes.”

There was seemingly no end to uses for the stadium, proponents said — everything from Easter sunrise services, pageants, light operas, musicals, conventions, track meets, bicycle races, midget auto races, boxing and wrestling matches, softball tournaments, exhibition tennis tournaments, rodeos, Mardi Gras festivals, winter carnivals and ice hockey.

The inaugural event was a crowd-pleaser: a state music and drill competition sponsored by the Veterans of Foreign Wars in June 1940. “Nearly 10,000 Akronites, shivering with cold and overwhelming pride, sat beaming and possessive on the new seats,” the Beacon Journal reported.

Just two months later, more than 2,000 people, including 700 youngsters, took part in dedication ceremonies that featured clowns, magicians, concerts and fireworks. A crowd estimated at 36,000 to 40,000 attended this event on the eve of the seventh annual Soap Box Derby at nearby Derby Downs. Enthusiasm was high.

“This dream that Akronites have cherished has come true. ... It has come true in the handsomest, most beautiful, most functional and well-appointed stadium in the world,” the Beacon Journal raved.

Detroit Free Press columnist Malcolm W. Bingay was equally effusive as he wished his hometown could be a little bit more like Akron.

“To sense the energy, courage, imagination, esprit de corps, of the rubber town is like taking a spiritual bath,” he wrote after attending the dedication.

The stadium’s primary tenant was UA, which played six home football games that fall in the new venue. The games draw a total of 55,589 fans in what the ABJ huffed was a “distinct mediocre season.” But that was the largest attendance in the history of collegiate football in Akron to date.

Then came other attractions: high school games, Browns exhibitions for the All-American Football Conference and the National Football League, a rodeo, midget-car racing, the circus and rock concerts, starting with Three Dog Night in June 1972 and followed by the Rolling Stones, Black Sabbath, Rod Stewart, Simon and Garfunkel, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and many more.

In 1970, UA acquired the Rubber Bowl from the city of Akron for a mere $1. The “purchase” included the stadium, the land it’s on and a 1-foot perimeter beyond that. Parking remained in the control of the city. Over the next 38 years, the university spent tens of thousands to update the facility with new artificial turf and new seating, to repair sanitary sewers and to repaint and other improvements.

An effort to put a clear plastic dome on the stadium in 1986 and rename it the Polydome — a nod to the city’s emerging prominence in polymers — fizzled.

By 1991, UA officials were openly concerned about cracking and loose concrete and complaining the facility was too far — seven miles — from campus.

The bloom was off the rose.

While the Rubber Bowl had been an improvement over the university’s original football stadium, the 7,000-seat Buchtel Field, built around 1923, it was aging, expensive to maintain and too far from campus to be practical, UA officials said.

Momentum built to construct an on-campus stadium. The university did a feasibility study in 2003, moving slowly to buy blocks of modest housing between campus and state Route 8 for the $61.5 million InfoCision Stadium on East Exchange Street.

Since the Rubber Bowl was mothballed in 2008, UA had been seeking buyers.

Carol Biliczky can be reached at 330-996-3729 or cbiliczky@thebeaconjournal.com.