Middlebury is one of Akron’s most invisible neighborhoods. There are no signs that welcome you. People drive through Middlebury to get to downtown Akron from Tallmadge, Ellet and Goodyear Heights without realizing it. The boundaries of the neighborhood are roughly I-76 on the south, Route 8 on the west, North Adams and Forge Streets on the north and Goodyear Heights on the east. The former Goodyear Headquarters (now the East End project) in is Middlebury. Summa Health / Akron City Hospital is in Middlebury. Main streets are East Market, East Exchange and Arlington.
Middlebury was the first settlement in what is now Akron. In 1804 Joseph Hart, a former sea captain from Connecticut, came to Ohio in 1804 searching for property which had sufficient water flow for powering a mill. He purchased fifty-four acres of land in 1807 on the Little Cuyahoga River along what is now Case Avenue. At the site there was a twelve foot drop in the river. In partnership with Judge Aaron Norton, Hart built a grain mill and founded the Village of Middlebury. The mill produced better quality cornmeal and flour than the earlier mills in Hudson and Northampton. Farmers brought their grain from up to forty miles away.
The abundant water power attracted other businesses. The new factories included a woolen mill, a blast furnace, a distillery, a saw mill, saddle shops and blacksmith shops. Almost all items that were needed by the early settlers were manufactured in Middlebury. Industries sprang up to produce machinery, kettles, nails, plows, stoves, matches, furniture, soap, buttons, carriages and clothing. The wool cloth was said to be of such high quality that it shipped to New York City and re-labeled “Made in Europe”. Cattle drives bought herds to the Middlebury stockyard.
Middlebury became a boom town. By 1813 Middlebury had fifteen families and a school. The first schoolhouse, the town hall and the first church in Akron were built on the town square at the south-west corner of East Market and East Exchange. Middlebury was so prominent that Cleveland became known as the small village north of Middlebury. By 1825 Middlebury had many factories, hotels, a dozen stores, a doctor and three lawyers. Akron did not exist.
Middlebury had over 400 hundred residents in 1825 when the Ohio legislature approved the construction of the Ohio & Erie Canal to connect Lake Erie and the Ohio River. The canal was expected to run through Middlebury. Two influential landowners, General Simon Perkins and Paul Williams, created the village of Akron. Simon Perkins gave the State of Ohio one-hundred lots of his land near Main Street and West Market Street and convinced the Ohio canal commission to route the canal through his property. The route through Akron was much steeper and required many more locks than a route through Middlebury. Middlebury businesses and its workforce benefitted during the canal construction. When the canal was completed in 1832 Akron prospered while Middlebury declined.
Middlebury had its first rebirth in the middle of the century when a deposit of very high quality of clay was discovered near the Little Cuyahoga River. New clay factories replaced the earlier mills along Case Avenue. Clay smoking pipes, stoneware, pottery, sewer pipes and roof tiles were produced. As the United States grew and sanitation became more and more important, Akron became the clay pipe capitol of world. The Akron clay factories and offices prospered on Case Avenue, Kent Street, Market Street and Broad Street. The east end of East Exchange Street had many small pottery companies. Two of the giants of the clay industry were the Akron Sewer Pipe Company owned by David E. Hill and the Robinson Clay Product Company started by William Robinson Sr. The clay industry endured into the 1920’s when the clay deposits ran out.
On May 27, 1872 Middlebury merged into Akron and became Akron’s Six Ward. The Middlebury neighborhood had its second rebirth in the late 1800’s with the rubber industry. In 1898 the first Goodyear factory opened on Case Avenue in a building that Frank Seiberling purchased with a borrowed $3,500 down payment. The first products were bicycle tires, carriage tires, rubber horseshoe pads, and poker chips. David E. Hill invested $30,000 in Goodyear and was made the first president. The founding of a successful rubber company in Akron was amazing because the main raw material, rubber, had to be imported from the other side of the world. Furthermore, Akron was landlocked and did not have a good rail system. The development of the automobile resulted in rapid growth. By 1926 Goodyear was the largest rubber company in the world. Goodyear became Akron’s largest employer. Akron was the Rubber Capitol of the World. General Tire, Firestone, Goodrich and Mohawk also called Akron home.
The growth of the rubber industry caused rapid growth in Akron and the Middlebury neighborhood. The Hower Department Store at 974 East Market was in business from the 1890’s until the 1960’s. It is being repurposed into a community-service facility. Many of the original buildings on East Market Street, East Exchange, Buchtel, Arlington and Case were torn down. New brick buildings were constructed. In the 1920’s Akron was the fastest growing City in the country. This was due in no small part because of Middlebury-based rubber companies.
Every type of business imaginable was located in the Middlebury area. There were hotels, restaurants, grocery stores, furniture stores, hardware stores, Jewelers, barber shops and clothing stores.
Some of the structures from the 1900 to 1920 building boom still remain. Some like the Robinson Mansion at East Market and Buchtel Avenue are still there. Many of the other three and four story brick mansions that existed in the Middlebury section of Millionaires Row on Market Street are long gone. Others, like the David E. Hill Building at Market and Case and the New Royal Theatre on Case have been torn down within the last six months.
By the 1980’s tire production had almost ceased in Akron. Hard times came again to Middlebury. The Middlebury business district and the residential areas began a slow steady decline. Middlebury now has the lowest per capita income in the city, the biggest supply of pre-1940 houses, the largest rate of vacant houses, lowest education level, etc. The restaurants have all but disappeared. Used car lots dot the area. A nursing home, a pawn shop and the last bank in the neighborhood have closed recently.
What is left? Almost all of the old is gone. The Adams-Mason Funeral Home is a well kept former mansion from 1880.The previously mentioned Robinson Mansion was built in 1906. The most noticeable relic from historic Middlebury is part of the original town square. It was saved from use a parking lot in 1950. It now contains a millstone from an area mill and an antique water fountain with a young boy and a young girl under an umbrella. The names of many of the early settlers and leaders of industry live on as the names of Akron streets and schools.
All is not lost. Important developments since the decline are the Middlebury Plaza (especially Dave’s Supermarket), the Kohl Family Y.M.C.A. and the East End project (apartments, hotel and offices in the former Goodyear Headquarters). The Knight Foundation plus over forty community groups and local businesses care about Middlebury. There is plenty of love to go around for Middlebury. Two community festivals plus some free concerts were held in the summer of 2016. The first festival, Envision Akron: Middlebury, was powered by Rooted Akron, The W.O.M.B and The Big Love Network. The second festival, Middlebury Better Block, was a product of the Neighborhood Network and the Family of Faith United Methodist Church plus many others. Sage Lewis at 15 Broad Street has created an important community resource at a former clay products design office. The Neighborhood Network is a driving force behind many events and project in the area. One beautiful formerly-vacant old church beside a Burger King has been given new life as The Well Community Development Center. Community surveys have identified some needs: coffee shop, laundromat, restaurants, playgrounds and more.
With the help of the City of Akron, volunteers and community organizations we can see a better future for Middlebury.
Middlebury History Authored by Middlebury Resident Lyle Jenkins