In the earliest decades of the 20th century, more than twenty-eight million men and women—black and white—began “The Great Migration” north from the Deep South and Appalachia, lured by high wages and the opportunity to make a better life for themselves and their families. Among the white southerners who left their homes, literally hundreds of thousands came to work in the rubber factories of Ohio during the teens and twenties, forever changing its culture, history and politics. Who were they? Other than the throwaway term of “hillbillies,” the astonishing fact is that historians really haven’t had any idea at all. They tell us that no records, no memoirs, no photographs, no letters home exist for these workers during this defining period of northeast Ohio’s history. However, there was one archive that none of these historians knew existed. Based on over 50 hours of previously unpublished oral histories and dozens of family photos, On A Burning Deck, The Road to Akron, offers the only complete portrait of one family’s origins in rural Kentucky, migration to Akron in 1917, and work in the rubber factories. The second volume of this work, Return to Akron (to be released in late 2017), continues their story as the head of the family struggles to support a family during recession, depression and strike only to eventually take his place in local government, personally establishing a modern police department and shepherding his community’s growth in the years following World War II. Meticulously researched, rich in detail, thoroughly referenced for historical perspective, and completely indexed with hundreds of names (in the print version), this contextual oral history offers the only first-hand account of industrial Ohio’s boom years. A must-read for anyone interested in 20th century history, Kentucky or Ohio history, industrial relations, local governance or genealogy, On A Burning Deck is a tale well-told with wry humor and deep insight into the people, the “hillbillies,” who built modern industrial Ohio.
Recollections of a rubber worker
Despite seminal works like The Devil’s Milk: A Social History of Rubber by Australian academic John Tully and Wheels of Fortune: The Story of Rubber in Akron by former Beacon Journal writers Steve Love and David Giffels, Akron native Tom Jones maintains that there are no written accounts of the rubber workers themselves, those who migrated north during the during Akron’s boom in the first two decades of the twentieth century.
Jones means to change that with On a Burning Deck: The Road to Akron – An Oral History of the Great Migration. Using more than 50 hours of recorded reminiscences of his grandparents, Haskell and Florence Jones, the author illustrates Haskell’s life in rural Kentucky and in Akron as one of many thousands of “hillbillies” on the tire shop floors.
About two-thirds of the book is taken up with Haskell’s memories of southwestern Kentucky, where his family had no pump for water but collected rainwater for everyday use, and many families had not even an outhouse but used their barns or chicken coops as toilet facilities.
Education was spotty at best, and many children contracted diseases from a common drinking cup. Jones describes the painstaking and labor-intensive work of tobacco growing using ornery mules, and the violence and corruption of the political system, including the notorious lynching of a man convicted of housebreaking.
The last third of the book tells of the migration to Akron, where dozens of rubber companies employed more than 75,000 laborers, tripling the city’s population between 1910 and 1920. Working conditions were filthy and hazardous, causing tremendous turnover (in addition to those who returned south out of homesickness).
Haskell talks about his roommates in houses on Miller and Ira avenues, where he was lucky to board because of the housing shortage. There was no shortage of entertainment, both legal and not, and ways to spend money (Haskell recalls buying a silk shirt from sales clerk Clark Gable).
Recollections of the Spanish Flu epidemic, World War I and Haskell and Florence’s marriage conclude Volume 1.
On a Burning Deck: The Road to Akron (277 pages, softcover) costs $18.95 from Ingram. The second volume, On a Burning Deck: Return to Akron, is in process. Tom Jones lives in New Braunfels, Texas, and also is the author of Waldo Maccabees: In the Footsteps of Christ.
Speaking of local books (which I hardly ever do, because Barbara McIntyre writes a regular column in our Sunday Life section on that topic), an advance copy of another fine Akron history accompanied me on my summer vacation.
Officially released two days ago, On a Burning Deck, the Road to Akron is a fascinating oral history of the Great Migration.
Akron native Tom Jones, who now lives just north of San Antonio, has filled in a big gap in the voluminous narratives of Akron’s rubber age. He writes about the largest group of people who poured into town during the earliest years of the boom, “the white hillbillies” who came from Appalachia.
Jones can call them whatever he wants because his family was among them, migrating from Kentucky in search of fatter wallets and better lives.
Years ago he grabbed a tape recorder and captured hours and hours of stories told by his paternal grandparents, who headed north with hundreds of thousands of others during the first two decades of the 1900s.
But this is not just a family tale. The Jones gang provides a peephole to the larger realities of the era, supplemented by Jones’ original reporting and extensive research of existing literature.
This book would go nicely alongside a copy of Wheels of Fortune, the 1999 triumph that documented just about everything else that happened when Akron was the Rubber Capital.
For more information or to order Jones’ book, go to http://www.onaburningdeck.com or Amazon.
The author interviewed his grandparents about their experiences growing up in rural Kentucky and in migrating to Akron to take advantage of the plethora of rubber factory jobs. The result is a fascinating glimpse of history seldom, if ever seen: life from the point of view of the not-so famous. Tom Jones combines historical notes and news clippings with transcripts from his interviews with his grandparents, particularly Haskell Jones. The latter, who would serve as police chief and on city council, had an incredibly sharp memory. The resulting book is a treasure for anyone wanting to learn more about Akron's rubber age. More than half of the first volume deals more with Kentucky; I imagine the second book will deal more with the family history in the Akron area. The second part of the book gets a bit disjointed at times but this is an engaging read. Pouring over the transcripts gives a taste of actually listening to Haskell, and it's easy to envision listening to him on a porch, lemonade in hand. And what an interesting, eventful life both he and his wife Florence led! I'm glad the author and the foresight to get these wonderful accounts. I hope I can get the second book too, which is supposed to come out at the end of the year.
In March 1917, Haskell Jones was nineteen years old when he stepped off a train in Akron. He had traveled from Mayfield, Kentucky, traveling north on the news that a good-paying job would be waiting for him when he arrived. After paying $16 for the train ticket, he had six dollars in his pocket. The rubber industry was booming in those weeks before America entered World War I and with employment agents riding the trains, jobs in the tire factories were easy to come by. This proved especially handy for thousands of young migrating Kentuckians who were quick to show insubordination and equally quick to pick a fight.
Late in life, Haskell Jones sat down with his grandson, Tom Jones, and recorded his memories of growing up in Kentucky and working in the Akron rubber mills. On a Burning Deck: The Road to Akron weaves a tapestry out of those recordings, capturing an intimate history of the first great migration. Historians have written extensively about African American migration out of the rural south, and Jones seeks to round out the story by including the voices of white Appalachians who also came north for industrial jobs. Of his grandparents, Jones writes “Their lives are not …. any more special than those of anyone else. They are just documented.” Weaving his grandfather’s story with passages providing historical context, Jones has crafted a compelling narrative that left me wanting to know more of the family story.
After working for Firestone and graduating from Kent State University, Tom Jones left Akron and established a successful career as an advertising copywriter. He lives in Texas where he is working on a second volume of On a Burning Deck. I’m looking forward to learning the rest of the family story. More information can be found at www.OnABurningDeck.com.
Today's tire manufacturing industry is nothing like it was a century ago, when it was in its infancy. Back then health and safety weren't a consideration and violence was common.
But while there are numbers documenting the number of citizens from states such as West Virginia and Kentucky who migrated north to work in Akron as it became the Rubber Capital of the World, there was no real personal accounts of what went on inside those sprawling tire and rubber plants.
That is no longer the case, as author Tom Jones has published "On a Burning Deck: The Road to Akron," an oral history based on dozens of hours of interviews, much of those with his grandfather Haskell Jones.
Haskell moved to Akron in 1917 and worked in many of the town's tire shops. He seems like quite the character, and the tales he tells aren't necessarily for the faint of heart. But they do give a picture of what it was like to work in the tire industry's version of the "Wild West."
Here are a few of the gems from Haskell Jones:
• Finding a job was easy. He arrived in Akron on a Saturday and got a job at Miller Rubber on Monday. Pay was about 55 cents an hour, much better than the 50 cents a day he made back in Kentucky.
• Besides Miller Rubber and Goodyear, Haskell worked at Firestone on at least seven separate occasions. One time he was a supervisor there making $110 a month. But workers under him made $10 to $12 a day on piece work. So he walked out, went to another person in the Labor Department who hired him back to work in the tread room. He got fired from that job, only to have the same person hire him again the next day for yet another position.
• Violence was the norm. Haskell tells of a fight he had with a much bigger worker who pinned him against a post that had bolt in it. Haskell hit him several times to no avail. "I stuck my thumb in his eyes and I lifted his eyeball out of his socket. … They had to take him to the hospital and put his eye back in." And no, Haskell didn't get fired, but his supervisor taught him a lesson to "let me know there was a lot of people I couldn't lick."
The modern tire factory has indeed come a long way. You can order the book through Amazon or at www.onaburningdeck.com. The work is the first of a two-volume story, with Return to Akron expected later this year, as Haskell Jones eventually becomes a policeman and councilman in nearby Tallmadge, Ohio.