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Akron, how I hate to love you, but when I think about your rustbelt smile and shaggy demeanor, my heart just skips a beat.
It’s easy to complain about Akron (and NE Ohio!) but when it comes right down to it, Akron is an eclectic city with a great big heart that grew from humble beginnings into a major municipality.
Just how much do you know about Akron and its contributions? We’re all familiar with the obvious and the infamous, but there’s a whole lot more, if you know where to look.
With that in mind, I present to you, nine things most locals don’t know about Akron.
1. Who the devil owns this grass?
We’ve all heard the term “devil’s strip,” but what does it mean? I didn’t learn until my sophomore year of college that not everyone uses this term for the thin strip of grass that separates the sidewalk from the street. According to Joan Hall, director of the American Dictionary of Regionalisms, “devil’s strip” is only used in Northern Summit County, Ohio.
Apparently (so the story goes), when the city was putting in sidewalks, the strip of grass between the sidewalk and street was to be owned by the city — but taxed to and cared for by the homeowner. This announcement incited some anger from the masses, who were left pondering: “If it’s not the city’s strip, and it’s not the homeowner’s strip, whose strip is it?”
Because the city can plant trees or dig up the strip without permission from the resident who pays tax on the land, the “devil” is likely derived from the area being a no-man’s land between public and private property — or a vague reference to government itself.
FYI: The “devil’s strip” is known elsewhere as a tree lawn, verge, sidewalk buffer, nature strip, tree belt, utility strip, planting strip or city grass.
2. Vera Wang bridal couture made in Akron
Flying under the radar in a warehouse space in downtown Akron is Vera Wang Luxe, the high-end division of New York-based Vera Wang Bridal House Ltd. Vera Wang and Nancy Haber — VP of Vera Wang Luxe and former children’s dress designer — opened the division in Akron in 1995 and ran it out of Haber’s home in West Akron until 1996. “Fifteen years ago, we had three people in my basement,” says Haber.
The current space is 14,000 square feet, with much of it taken up by gowns. “They have to be spread out on these huge, long tables because the trains are so long,” says Haber, explaining that the Luxe division of Vera Wang Bridal is the most expensive of the three divisions and features the most handwork and lace.
“The gowns are much more complicated technically,” says Haber. “It takes on average 60 hours per dress, but sometimes longer — like the 380 hours we put into the beaded dress we made for Billy Crystal’s daughter.”
And while we’re name dropping … “I did Ivanka Trump’s dress last year, and I did the dress for the girl who married one of the Jonas Brothers,” says Haber. “Vera did the dress for Chelsea Clinton, and it was a made-to-order version of one of the styles we manufacture here.”
The Akron division employs about 40 people, whom Haber recruits from Akron organizations like The Job Center and International Institute. Cutters and seamstresses at Luxe have come from Russia, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Korea, Vietnam, Yugoslavia and the United States; currently, more than half are from Laos.
“They’re expert seamstresses, but we retrain every single person who works for us from the beginning. It’s a special kind of work since it’s a bridal gown,” says Haber. “These are people who are all very smart and artistic, but because of their English, were having limitations in terms of work they could do. Now here they are, getting paid very well, earning very good benefits and having the joy of doing something really beautiful.”
But don’t show up to the warehouse with your maid of honor and hard-earned cash — the Akron division isn’t open to the public. The gowns are manufactured in this facility, but are sold in the Madison Avenue showroom in New York City, where they retail for $5,500 to $12,000.
3. N.E.R.D.S. are us!
Michael Buckley, New York Times best-selling children’s book author (Sisters Grimm and N.E.R.D.S.) and cartoon creator (Robotomy) is from Akron. In fact, he’s one of my old-school peeps. We went to Garfield High School together, still make each other laugh and generally harass each other about our gray hairs.
After graduating college in 1996, he moved to New York City to be an intern on the “Late Show with David Letterman.” To pay the rent, he also worked as a pasta maker, hamburger flipper, personal assistant, stand-up comic and singer in a punk rock band (not all at the same time, of course). His parents worried that he might be shiftless, but he assured them he was actually acquiring valuable life experience.
Turns out, he was. Eventually, he found work in television production and has developed programming for MTV, MTV Animation, Discovery Networks and Klasky Csupo (producers of Nickelodeon’s “Rugrats”). The Sisters Grimm series was Buckley’s first venture into the world of children’s book writing.
Buckley now lives in New York City with his wife Alison — but is still an Akronite at heart.
4. Behold the ice cream cone!
According to the Library of Congress, the ice cream cone was invented on July 23, 1904, at the St. Louis World’s Fair by Akronites/concessionaires Charles and Frank Menches. The story goes that Charles was attempting to make waffle cups to hold ice cream but was unable to shape them before the waffle became hard. Charles got an idea when he saw Frank using a sailor’s fid, a conical tool used to splice thick tent ropes. Charles used the fid to roll up his waffles directly on the griddle — and the ice cream cone was born.
Charles and Frank also claimed to have invented the hamburger at the 1885 Erie County Fair in Hamburg, NY (although this claim doesn’t go undisputed). And at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, Charles and Frank sold caramel-coated peanuts and popcorn with a prize in the pack called Gee-Whiz — the supposed predecessor to Cracker Jack; Frito Lay, however, credits F.W. Rueckheim and Brother with creating the snack at the 1893 event.
5. Santa Claus is a local
Santa may now reside at the North Pole, but it turns out that he’s originally from Akron. Oh … and he’s blue! During winter 2001-02, an archaeological team led by Brian Graham, president of the American Toy and Marble Museum, unearthed a tiny ceramic figurine. “It was a curious little man with a sweet face and long white beard, wearing a blue hooded coat,” says Graham. When thoroughly cleaned and examined, they discovered the little fellow was Santa. The real Santa. According to Graham, the figurine was manufactured in the mid-1890s, making it the first and most likely oldest three-dimensional figurine of Santa. Santa is now in a display case at the museum at Lock 3 Park.
6. Burma refugees resettled in Akron
Ever wondered about your North Hill neighbors? I see them walking everywhere, wearing the most beautiful clothing. They’re the Karen (pronounced: cor-IN) people of Burma — many of whom fled to refugee camps in Thailand to escape cultural persecution and atrocities committed by the military regime that had taken over their country.
According to Sunday Moo, chairperson of Karen Community of Akron Inc., the International Institute has been resettling Karen families (more than 500 to date) here in Akron since 2006. And most heads of household have been able to find employment and prosper. They work hard to maintain their traditional cultural customs (many of the women still weave their own clothing), while, at the same time, working to assimilate.
7. Rubber City's ties to rubbers
By 1905, Akron native John R. Gammeter was head of B.F. Goodrich’s experimental department. Among his inventions were a machine that manufactured inner tubes for bicycle tires and the first winding machine for the modern rubber-thread golf ball. He also found a way to mass-produce rubber bands.
During his career, Gammeter was responsible for more than 300 inventions, including one that probably made him the most money but got him the least amount of publicity in his day: an improved latex condom — for which he’s been dubbed, “The King of the Condom.”
The world thanks you, Mr. Gammeter.
8. The Earth shook for Judy Resnick
We all know that Akronite Judy Resnick was killed when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded on Jan. 28, 1986. What you may not know is that on Jan. 31, 1986 — during the memorial service — an earthquake shook Akron. (Most Akronites who felt it assumed the tremble was caused by the Air Force jets flying overhead during the service.)
Though earthquakes aren’t that uncommon in Northeastern Ohio (more than 200 of at least a 2.0 magnitude have occurred since 1776), what is a bit strange is that the strongest one ever recorded here was the Jan. 31, 1986 quake — which measured 5.0 on the Richter Scale.
9. "Pretty Boy" Floyd captured Akron
Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd was a gangster famous for a series of daring bank robberies, shootouts and escapes at the height of the Great Depression. According to legend, he routinely sprinkled cash from his car window as he and his gang sped away from the scene of their crimes, and he occasionally attended church, even while on the run. Still, he was a cold-blooded killer who carried a .45 automatic and filed a notch in his pocket-watch for everyone he killed.
But on March 8, 1930, his luck soured in Akron, when two of his gang members had a shoot out with Akron police. The police captured one of the gang members, and that afternoon, Akron-area detectives broke down the front door of the gang’s hideout and captured three outlaws, including Pretty Boy.
Floyd was tried, convicted and sentenced to 15 years for his Ohio robbery spree. En route to the Ohio Penitentiary, Floyd talked his guards into uncuffing him so he could go to the bathroom, where he jumped out of the train window near Kenton, Ohio. (Floyd was later gunned down by FBI agents in a cornfield in East Liverpool.)
Special thanks to Larry Pentecost, owner of Northeast Ohio Tours and Conventions, for sharing his knowledge on everything Akron.