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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,281

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This is the grave of Benjamin Goodrich.

Born in 1841 in Ripley, New York, he spent his childhood years in that small town. But by the time he was 8, both of his parents had died and his uncle raised him, I think in Cleveland. In any case, he ended up there by the time he was a young man and became a doctor. In 1861, he received what passed for a medical degree for that time at the Cleveland Medical College, which is now part of Case Western University. He then went to the University of Pennsylvania for further study and then was thrown into the Civil War as a doctor. We all know the stories of Civil War medicine and its horrors. He was a captain in the medical corps. I imagine he got pretty practiced with the ol’ saw.

After the war, Goodrich worked as a doctor for a bit but had trouble succeeding in making a living and it was the Gilded Age, so the possibility of getting rich quick appealed more than being a country doctor accepting chickens as payment or whatever. So he went to the oil country of western Pennsylvania, worked in real estate, and then got involved in rubber. It was the latter where he found success. He got to know Charles Goodyear and came up with a licensing agreement to use his vulcanized rubber methods. He and a partner started a rubber company in the town of Melrose, New York 1869, but it didn’t succeed.

But Goodrich got the attention of the city of Akron, Ohio, which wanted to become an industrial center. Akron offered him $13,000 to start a company there in 1870. This is interesting to me because I was unaware of cities offering people money to open businesses there during this period. This is the first I’ve heard of this anyway. May be worth additional exploration. Evidently, it worked for both sides–the rubber industry in New York was fierce and the nation’s entire rubber industry was east of the Appalachian Mountains. So Akron intentionally went out and recruited him as a move to get some of that industry in their part of the world.

Well, the business did well. In 1880, Goodrich bought out his partners and it became the B.F. Goodrich Corporation. He was friends with a lot of the big industrialists and was a well-respected person in the Gilded Age capitalist elite. I am sure the conditions in his rubber factories were abysmal, but most of the labor histories I know of the Akron rubber industry come from after his death so I can’t provide a ton of details. I do know that the United Rubber Workers of the CIO was an extremely necessary development, but that’s a half-century past Goodrich. In any case, one of his innovations was using rubber for fire hoses, which had traditionally been made of leather and prone to cracking in cold weather. The story is that he came up with this while watching a house burn down in Akron when it was too cold for the hoses to work properly. Who knows, sounds apocryphal, but it’s not important enough to matter really. Point is, he came up with rubber fire hoses. That expanded quickly to garden hoses. Pretty quickly, with the invention of the bicycle, he was making bike tires too.

But Goodrich’s health was not good and his company, for all its success, was very on the edge financially. The Goodrich company would not become a powerhouse until after his death. In 1888, he was out in Manitou Springs, Colorado, a health resort in the mountains, when he died. He was only 46 years old. Not sure if it was tuberculosis or what, but it sounds like it to me.

It was really with the invention of the automobile that B.F. Goodrich became a corporate powerhouse, as it supplied many of the tires for cars. But again, that’s long after Goodrich had died. However, his children did very well, either working for the company themselves or, in the case of his daughter, marrying into the Breckinridge family of Kentucky so noted for their treason in defense of slavery.

B.F. Goodrich is buried in Lakeview Cemetery, Jamestown, New York. Took a little work and kicking snow off gravestones to hunt that one down!

If you would like this series to visit other Gilded Age capitalists, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Russell Sage is in Troy, New York and Henry Villard is in Sleepy Hollow, New York. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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