Harvey Firestone’s Heart Stayed in His Hometown
COLUMBIANA, Ohio – You can’t talk about the history of Columbiana “and not talk about Harvey Firestone,” says Beverly Richardson from the Historical Society of Columbiana and Fairfield Township. “They’re so connected to each other.”
Firestone was born at the family farmstead northeast of town Dec. 20, 1868. Like the rest of his family, he worked the 800-acre farm and was educated in Columbiana schools before departing for Cleveland to attend Spencerian Business College.
“From the beginning, people knew he was gifted,” Richardson says. “They said he could train horses on the farm really well, better than anyone else in town.”
After his graduation, he took a position as a salesman for Columbus Buggy Co. in Detroit until the company shut its doors in 1895. The sudden unemployment set Firestone on the path to starting his tire empire.
The following year, Firestone bought a retail tire service in Chicago and changed the name to Firestone Rubber and Tire Co., which he operated three years before another tire company bought him out. Firestone remained in charge, but quit after disagreements with the new owners about their policies.
With $20,000 in his pocket, he departed for Akron in 1900 and on Aug. 3, established the Firestone Tire and Rubber Co. to sell tires made by other manufacturers. Unhappy with the performance of many of the products he was selling, Firestone developed the first double-tube tire and, as a test run, drove from his store in Akron to the family farm in Columbiana.
By 1906, Firestone’s relationship with auto magnate Henry Ford was a decade old. That year, Ford’s needs made up most of the sales for Firestone Tire, including 4,000 sets – 16,000 tires – in May and 2,000 sets in both April and June as sales passed the million-dollar mark.
“They got together early and decided that Firestone was going to be the one to make the tires for all [Ford’s] automobiles,” Richardson says. “That’s how all of it exploded.”
From the outset of Firestone Tire, the founder held annual picnics for all of his employees – a dozen employees the first year and hundreds by the 1930s – at Firestone Farms, which remained operational despite its out-of-town owner. Firestone himself returned frequently, often accompanied by guests such as Ford, Thomas Edison and writer John Burroughs. Over the years, other visitors were Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1917 and Calvin Coolidge during the 1920s.
A year after retiring from active management of his company, 1933, Firestone donated 52 acres to the village to establish a park. He hired Alling DeForest, a nationally renowned landscape architect, to design it. In the plans were two swimming pools, tennis courts, baseball fields, picnic grounds and pavilions. Construction on Firestone Park began in August 1934.
Firestone died five years after donating the land. By then, his tire company’s sales exceeded $100 million and covered a variety of industries that included rubber, steel and textiles. He is buried in Columbiana Cemetery, across the street from the park bearing his name.
In 1999, Firestone was inducted to the Columbiana County Agriculture Hall of Fame for the role his family homestead played in the history of the town. The farm had delivered milk in town for decades and each school day, milk and graham crackers were given to the children who attended, free of charge.
Half of the farm, 400 acres, was dedicated to potatoes, which were sold in Cleveland, along with corn. Strawberries were sent to Pittsburgh from Columbiana, while a stand on the edge of the farm sold tomatoes, green beans, corn, strawberries and potatoes. The first rubber tires for tractors were tested at the farm in 1932.
In the 1970s, the farmhouse and barn were opened to the public as a museum. Low attendance led its board to move the museum to Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Mich., in 1985, where it remains among the more popular attractions in the village.
Pictured: Harvey Firestone, center behind tractor, frequently hosted high-profile guests at his homestead, including Henry Ford, seated behind the wheel in this vintage photograph.
Copyright 2021 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.