While the seemingly never-ending construction continues on Main Street, a new landmark is making downtown a sight to see.
In a new roundabout constructed at Main and Mill Streets stands a 12 foot statue of a rubber worker. Cars slow down and the drivers stop to stare in awe.
Across from the statue stands a tall black kiosk surrounded by engraved bricks. Passerbys scan the bricks, searching for a familiar name or stop to listen to the kiosk sharing stories. The rubber worker statue, created by Zanesville artist Alan Cottrill, was unveiled on May 13. It’s modeled after a 1917 photo of an unidentified man preparing a tire for the vulcanization process. The photo is best known for serving as the cover photo of Steve Love and David Giffels’ book, Wheels of Fortune: The Story of Rubber in Akron.
Miriam Ray, a life-long Akron area resident and instigator of the project, was inspired by a 2016 article in The Akron Beacon Journal. A reader wrote to Bob Dyer asking why Akron did not have any memorials dedicated to the city’s rubber workers.
Miriam wanted to see a memorial happen. Although she had no experience in projects like this, her husband encouraged her to go for it.
Miriam set up an email, email@example.com, where people could reach out to her and share their rubber industry stories.
Bob wrote a few more articles for the paper and mentioned Miriam’s work. “Any time someone responded to an article, I would get those emails and then call them to pick [their] brains,” Miriam says.
Slowly, Miriam’s project gained traction. She also created a Facebook page, Rubber Worker Statue & Stories Project, that amassed a small following. But Miriam cites Beth Becker as the catalyst that really got things going.
In 2017, the team approached the city with the statue proposal. Mayor Horrigan was immediately on board and the city took financial responsibility for the statue. The statue was originally scheduled to debut in September 2020, but it was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic. The May 13 ceremony was also invite-only due to the pandemic.
Beth later introduced Miriam to Mac Love from ArtxLove to work on the oral history side of the project, as she thought Mac’s background in unique creative projects would be beneficial.
Akron Stories was created as a branch of the project in order to fund the stories that play at the kiosk as part of the oral history project.
“The story aspect to me was just as important [as the statue] because I heard amazing stories,” Miriam says.
The oral history recordings were originally scheduled to take place at various Akron-Summit County Library branches last year but were cancelled due to the pandemic. Instead, interviews were conducted over the phone or virtually. Interviewees were also asked to submit photos or memorabilia that would help bring their stories to life.
The interviews generally start with some set questions, which vary slightly for rubber workers or family members of rubber workers. However, interviewees are able to talk about whatever they like. All of the stories touch on similar themes of people and identity, industry, culture, life in Akron, or history itself.
“I don’t try to stop [them]. I let them go as long as they’re comfortable,” Mac explains. “You can see it happen as they recall the stories, you see this pride and warmth come over them because I think in telling the stories, they kind of return to that identity.”
When asked for a favorite or notable story, both Miriam and Mac say that they can’t name just one because all of the stories that they’ve heard are incredible.
Mac and the team then work to create videos for each interview. They use small audio clips from the interview, ranging from 30 seconds to two minutes, then pair it with submitted photos. So far the team has completed 50 of these short videos and are working on more. They plan to periodically release several at a time on the Akron Stories website.
These stories will also play on the kiosk located across from the statue. The outdoor kiosk was specially designed to withstand the elements. Eventually it will also be touchscreen enabled for visitors to scroll through the stories.
To date, Mac says that Akron Stories has completed about 100 interviews, with another 100 or so people interested in being interviewed. Nearly 1,200 commemorative bricks have been sold by the Akron Stories project.
“We thought it would be so cool if the power of people’s stories could fund public art for the people,” Mac says.
And it is something they have been able to accomplish. The sale of the bricks alone has paid for the kiosk and all of the costs for the oral histories. Mac mentions that no grants or other forms of funding have been utilized for the oral history portion of the project.
Both Miriam and Mac point out that it is not just the two of them making this project happen, there is a team of people that have greatly contributed. Josy Jones, Malik Hudson, and a handful of others have worked hard to make this project become reality.
Akron Stories also received support and guidance from the Akron-Summit County Library and the University of Akron’s Archival Services rubber industry collection. The full audio recordings of the interviews will be stored at the University of Akron’s Archival Services later this year.
For now, the Akron Stories project does not have an end date. Miriam and Mac figure they will eventually reach a point where they have recorded and collected all of the stories that are willing to be told. It is ultimately up to Miriam if she would like to continue or end the project.
While May’s unveiling event was invite-only, Miriam and Mac anticipate a public unveiling of the space once the remaining commemorative bricks are installed later this summer.
Both Miriam and Mac have been humbled by the community support and the countless stories they’ve heard. They hope this project will serve as an example for others wishing to pursue a similar grassroots-led initiative.
“People’s stories are important. People want to be seen, they want to be known,” she says.
The rubber worker statue is located at the roundabout at Main and Mill Streets in downtown Akron. You can listen to snippets of stories, locate a brick and learn more about the project at akronstories.com.
Melanie Mohler is a West Hill resident with a love for baking, cross-stitch and local history.
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