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The works of classic author Charles Dickens often include a strong theme of characters rising from rags to riches. Years of toil are rewarded for characters with the right amount of determination to truly accomplish something great with their lives. This theme may have run through Ohio Columbus Barber’s mind as he stood looking over his elegant Anna Dean Farm in Barberton, the city he created out of farmland. Walking the halls of his mansion, he might have thought back to a youth of hard work. Perhaps he wondered how it could have turned out differently. Regardless, O.C. Barber’s career was an impactful one full of innovation and creation. He was more than just an industrialist or a founder of a city—he was a man of many trades and talents that pushed himself to greatness.
An Early Family Business
Ohio Columbus Barber was born into not only a large family, but an industrious one. His father, George Barber, had moved to the Akron area from Connecticut. He had been a cooper—crafting barrels—before taking on the role of postmaster in the community of Middlebury. The neighborhood is now a part of the city of Akron, just east of downtown; however, in Barber’s day it was independent. George Barber served as the postmaster for a while until he grew restless for a different challenge. At the time, matches were a necessity of the culture. Barber latched onto this and began crafting matches at home—with help from the entire family. Sitting in their kitchen, the Barber family all worked on creating the matches by hand. They worked hard and were rewarded with the expansion of the enterprise. “They had to move out of the kitchen of the house, and they went into an old barn. [When] they outgrew the barn, [they] built a factory where the Goodyear plant is today on East Market Street,” says Bernie Gnap, a local historian and long-time researcher of O.C. Barber.
As the family match business grew, O.C. Barber embraced it fully. At 15 years old, he quit school to work full-time for the family. “He got a horse and a wagon, and he started selling these stick matches,” says Gnap. “He really built the business up—branching out of Ohio, he went into Indiana, Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Michigan.” Though a young man, O.C. was already becoming a large presence. He was tall—six foot six and a half inches according to Gnap—and had the confidence to match. Apart from his substantial frame, he had a truly unique name that sticks in your memory. Ohio Columbus Barber was named in honor of the state of Ohio and its capitol. His father, George, planned to name more of his children in this fashion, but after O.C., he changed his mind.
During O.C.’s early 20s, the nation was fractured by the Civil War. This conflict between previously united states touched Barber in several ways. His brother, Herschel—whom he was very close to—died of dysentery while serving. Barber himself volunteered to fight when the infamous Confederate group, Morgan’s Raiders, attempted to take Ohio via Cincinnati. Barber was involved in the defense of the state, which was ultimately successful.
After the war, his attention narrowed in once again on his business and life at home. With his best friend, John Kelly Robinson—who was also his brother-in-law through marriage to Barber’s sister, Eleanor—by his side, the match company grew. In 1881, Barber combined the Barber Match Company with many other match companies in America and several in Europe. This became the Diamond Match Corporation. The name came from the shape of the matches themselves. Starting with a block of wood, the individual splints were cut into the shape of a diamond. This became the logo for the corporation. At Diamond Match, Barber was the president, and John Kelly Robinson was the treasurer.
On October 10, 1866, Barber married Laura Brown. Their first child, Anna, was born in 1867. The couple also had a son named Charles Herschel. His middle name was in honor of Barber’s favorite brother who had perished during the war. Sadly, their son died after only 18 months of life.
Expanding Beyond City Limits
While Barber’s family was growing, so too was his business and the city of Akron itself. At the turn of the century, Akron was a rapidly expanding city. Industry boomed and brought newcomers by the droves. It was in this economically boisterous climate that Barber decided to do something with the large tract of land he owned outside of the city. In 1891, Barber built the city of Barberton. For him, it was prime time to expand outwards, and he went for it with gusto.
The new city featured not only a new Barberton plant for the Diamond Match Company, but also the Sterling Boiler Company, PPG Columbia Chemical and Barber’s National Sewer Pipe Company. The Belt Line Railroad encircled the town—which was situated near the canal as well—providing ready transportation for goods and supplies.
A rumor circulated that Barber’s motive for the creation of Barberton was actually an attempt to flee Summit County taxes. Gnap says this simply wasn’t the case. “He was running out of room in Akron. [The city] was growing by leaps and bounds, and he needed more room to bring in more factories and expand the ones that were here.”
With the lovely Lake Anna—named after his daughter—at its heart, the new community was designed to attract industry. Barber constructed the large Barberton Inn in the city’s downtown to impress prospective businessmen. This lavish building was a point of pride for Barber. When his daughter, Anna, married Arthur Dean Bevan in 1896 in Chicago, Barber insisted that the couple have a second celebration in Barberton at the inn. “Barber rented a Pullman car so the big shots from Akron could come down for the wedding,” says Gnap.
A man in motion, Barber was constantly driven forward to take on new challenges. In 1894, he branched out into the rubber industry—founding the Diamond Rubber Company. Once again operating on the forefront of history, he brought in a rubber chemist named Arthur Marks to assist him in this new endeavor. However, Barber had sharp instincts, Gnap says, and a talent for knowing when to move on to his next venture. When Barber sold his company to BF Goodrich in 1912, he became a multi-millionaire. “He could sense the trends.”
Barber’s instincts also drove him to search for solutions to problems in his factories. Identifying a potential issue, he hunted down a solution in one form or another. This trait is easily seen within the professional sphere of his life. Some of his businesses involved highly flammable materials, so he worked with others to develop fire extinguishers. The match factory utilized phosphorus, which caused a horrible disease called Phosphorus Necrosis, or Phossy Jaw. In response, Barber created dental labs for his employees working with the matches to treat the disease. He even was the first president of the Akron Chamber of Commerce in support of business itself.
Life on The Farm
Despite all of his success, Barber came to a point where he had to face the inevitable fact of life—that it eventually ends. The death of his close friend and brother-in-law, Robinson, opened his eyes to his own mortality. Barber was passionate about health, even having a personal trainer long before that was trendy. He believed that he would live to be 100 years old and was shocked when his beloved friend passed away. “When [Robinson] died in 1908, Barber realized that time waits for no man,” says Gnap. He had lived in Akron on East Market Street among many of Akron’s other rich and powerful individuals. Building a large home of his own, away from downtown Akron, had long been a dream of his. However, as time and business concerns constantly pressed on, he delayed starting in on that endeavor. “When his best friend died, he realized [he had] better get going if [he was] going to build a big place. So in 1909, he started building the Anna Dean Farm,” says Gnap.
Barber did his research before any foundations found their way into place. He travelled to many of the major cities of Europe seeking inspiration. Paris, Vienna, Berlin and Rome all provided elements of his future home. With him travelled Anna, her husband Dean, and an architect from the firm building his home—the famous Harpster and Bliss. Combining Roman, Prussian, Parisian and English styles of architecture, Barber created his own style for the Anna Dean Farm in Barberton. Unique in the world, Barber got carried away in construction, adding more and more throughout the process.
The Anna Dean Farm was expansive in its prime. There were 35 buildings, all matching in style and quite ornate for their purposes. Christine Kelleher of the Barberton Historical Society says that the construction of the farm and mansion bring to life an intangible part of Barber’s character—he was a forward-thinking
individual. “He set up this farm as an experiment in agricultural farming,” she says. “He knew that as the country grew and the population grew, that [a more traditional] type of farming wouldn’t sustain them. So, he had the most modern of everything.” Barber’s farm featured modern-day machines that would have been out of place for the time. His cows, for example, were milked by machine in giant state-of-the-art barns.
In direct contrast to the opulence of the Anna Dean Farm, though, were the living conditions of immigrants coming to Barberton for new opportunities. “Poor immigrants were coming into town, and Barber’s animals were living in these palatial barns,” says Gnap. “His [livestock] lived more comfortably than a lot of these poor people. It was conspicuous consumption.” The lavish nature of the farm inspired a great deal of resentment and jealousy from those with less in the community.
However, Barber did create many opportunities. Gnap’s connection to Barber is personal. His father was a Slovak immigrant. In the summers of 1918 and 1919, his father was an employee of the Anna Dean Farm. “My dad’s job was to pick the yellow raspberries; they were the sweetest,” says Gnap. Barber had row upon row of raspberries that were fertilized from prize-winning manure. The men working in that section of the farm were tasked with picking the berries and filling quart baskets to be sent to Cleveland. In 1919, some of the workers began to cheat, filling the baskets with leaves and only covering the tops with berries. When Barber learned about this, he fired all the workers in the raspberry section—regardless of their guilt. Gnap’s father maintained his innocence for decades. “Interestingly enough, before my dad died, he admitted to me that he had been cheating O.C. Barber, too.”
A Mercurial Heart
Barber was left a widower when his first wife—Laura—died in 1894. He would go on to marry again, but first, he developed a relationship that would ultimately benefit the people of Akron. “He developed a love affair with the head of the school of nursing at Akron City Hospital. He loved her so much [that] Barber built the original Akron City Hospital,” says Gnap. Unfortunately for the lady, Marie Lawson, and to the surprise of many in the community, Barber did not marry her. Instead, he wed his secretary, Mary Orr. “She was very intelligent, and she helped him run his businesses and develop them. In 1909, when he started to build the Anna Dean Farm, she pretty much could run his businesses for him and he could play out here,” says Gnap. There was an age difference between the two of more than 30 years.
Living in his grand home on the Anna Dean Farm, Barber would play host to many. He could be very generous—sometimes. “If he liked you, he’d have you come out to the mansion and stay for days on end. He’d wine and dine you. But if you crossed him, look out,” says Gnap. He participated in community events, like judging victory gardens during World War I, and would even take children from the orphanage to Summit Beach Park for a day of summer fun. Barber seemed to have a desire to be involved on many fronts within the area, and he worked to do just that.
A Legacy to Last
In the autumn days of his life, Barber made plans for the Anna Dean Farm to outlive him. He wanted it to be an agricultural college, so he willed it to Western Reserve University for just that purpose. However, after his death in 1920, it was sold off and his dream was never fulfilled. Many of the buildings, including the mansion itself, did not survive to current day.
Like many of the other movers and shakers of the age, Barber was not always the hero of the story. Viewed through the lens of modern day, various aspects of his ventures would most likely be thoroughly questioned. But, like the other great names of his day, his part of history cannot be seen in black and white. “You have to accept them in context of the times in which they lived,” says Gnap.
Barber’s legacy does not live on through similarly named descendants—he only had one daughter, and she had no children—but through the city to which he gave his name. Driving into Barberton today, you see his name hidden throughout the city. Monograms etched in stone, metal signs with screened on letters and lakes named for his beloved daughter all remind the current populous of what came before. The man lovingly named after his home state rose from obscurity to live in prominence above the city he created. Ohio Columbus Barber built a part of The 330 that outlived him as an individual—reaching into future generations.