|By Barbara Miller Beem
Were he still alive, Harvey Samuel Firestone would have clicked over the big 1-5-0 on Dec. 20, 2018. Needless to say, the titan of industry did not live to see this milestone, but his hometown has not forgotten him, his birthday, or his legacy. And the memory of his personal accomplishments and industrial advancements are kept alive thanks in part to collectible artifacts associated with him, his company, and his products.
The favorite son of Columbiana, Ohio, Harvey Firestone was born in 1868 on his family’s farmstead, located east of town. The second of three boys born to Catherine and Benjamin Firestone, young Harvey worked on his family’s 800-acre farm and attended local schools before taking an advanced business course at the Spencerian Business College in Cleveland. Upon completion, he worked first as a salesman (and then manager) at the Columbiana Buggy Company in Detroit, where he demonstrated the first rubber-tired carriages.
A man on the move, Firestone soon relocated to Chicago and, with three other young men, formed the Victor Tire Company, the manufacturer of carriage tires. In 1900, Firestone founded the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company in Akron. Three years later, discouraged with the quality of the products he offered for sale, he purchased an old foundry building, hired 12 employees, and began manufacturing his own tires.
Firestone was at the right place at the right time, and he knew the right people: His friend, Henry Ford, agreed to equip his cars with Firestone’s tires. In 1906, Firestone shipped 2,000 sets of tires to the Ford Motor Company and posted tire sales that exceeded $1 million that first year.
Along with Ford, Firestone and Thomas Edison formed what was called the “Millionaires Club.” And the trio, along with John Burroughs, became known as the “Four Vagabonds,” known for their summer camping trips. Suffice it to say that Firestone traveled in the right circles. But the Ohioan never forgot his humble roots, by all accounts, and when he died from a coronary thrombosis in 1938 at the age of 69, he was returned home and buried in the city where he was born and raised.
“He had a wonderful mind,” according to Beverly Richardson of the Historical Society of Columbiana and Fairfield Township. And to this day, his name is everywhere in “the city with a small-town heart.” After the Firestone house and barn were removed and rebuilt at the Henry Ford Museum, the land was turned into Firestone Park, with a public pool, duck ponds, and the high school football stadium. The Harvey S. Firestone Festival of the Arts and Firestone Avenue are but a few other examples of how Firestone put his stamp on the city.
Thinking of the family’s impact on the area, Richardson recalled how the Firestone Dairy supplied daily milk and cookies to local schoolchildren. Last year, the historical society hosted a number of events to honor Firestone, and an exhibit remains on view in the society’s annex where visitors can view photographs, books, and memorabilia relating to the man and his work.
To this day, the name of a fourth-generation farmer remains in high esteem in the world of mobility and motorsports, as well as retail service, agriculture, and infrastructure. So with a résumé like that, all things Firestone must surely be collectible, right?
Well, yes and no. Many residents of Columbiana are devout collectors of all things Firestone, and the historical society continues to receive local collections. On the other hand, a lot of collectors of other things probably have a Firestone-related artifact in their inventory.
The branding of the name “Firestone” certainly was the result of a creative advertising genius. The enduring “Firestone” logo, sometimes the entire name, but also recognizable as the distinctive “F,” is certainly unforgettable. Based on a font style called “Bradley,” the iconic branding has survived, with very few modifications, for more than 100 years. And it is recognized as one of the most durable identities in America.
But the reach of Firestone items extends beyond tire-related wares. In addition to family photographs and company papers, collections of which are generally found in and around Columbiana, there are other items that are included in more generalized collections. Milk bottles from the dairy farm are an obvious example. For collectors of World’s Fair memorabilia, there are bound to be souvenirs with the name “Firestone” on them. Firestone die cast tractors are sought by toy collectors. Ashtrays in the shape of tires and bearing the company name are treasured by those specializing in tobacciana. Similarly, LP records, Christmas songbooks, and signs bearing the distinctive name are collectible.
It was Harvey Firestone’s vision and business acumen that took him on a life journey that began as a lad who had a way with horses and ended as an industrialist with an amassed fortune. And today, a century and a half later, Firestone is remembered as “Where the rubber meets the road.”