Part I: Before Barberton

1810 to 1890

Before Barberton was founded in 1891, the land on which the town was built was rural farmland in Norton and Coventry Townships. These two townships comprised the southern boundary line of the Connecticut Western Reserve, an area known for its fertile soil and unique topographical features, which was settled following the Treaty of Greenville in 1795. The land which was to become Barberton was watered by the Tuscarawas River, which followed a westerly course through Coventry Township before turning south to form the border between Coventry and Norton. Wolf Creek and Hudson Run were other important Norton Township tributaries which drained into the Tuscarawas river. Significant to the future development of the land was a spring-fed, 18-acre lake which was located in the southeastern part of Norton Township. This lake was often used for swimming in the years prior to Barberton's founding.

The land on which Barberton sits today was undeveloped farmland in 1890. This view shows Lake Anna in the background and the Cahow-Brotsman Farmhouse, still standing today on Wooster road North, in the foreground.


Early Settlers

Attracted by the topography and soil, early settlers from New England and New York State bought large tracts of land to farm. The first permanent settlers in Coventry Township arrived about 1805, and the first arrivals in Norton Township were a few years later, in 1810. It was not until after the War of 1812, however, that the numbers of settlers to this area began to increase. One of these was Ezra Way, who came from Connecticut in 1817 and settled on 280 acres in the vicinity of Barberton today. For many years, the sparkling lake was known as Way's Lake.

A rich agricultural district occupied both sides of the Tuscarawas River. As in other rural townships, early settlements began to spring up at crossroads and on waterways. These were influenced both by a community need for churches and schools and by an economic need to process raw materials or ship agricultural products to available markets. Two such settlements were established in Norton and Coventry Townships from an early day. Both New Portage and Johnson's Corners are today a part of the city of Barberton.

New Portage

An early Portage Path, one of three great portages in Ohio between Lake Erie and the Ohio River, was used by Indians and traders as a "carrying place" between the Cuyahoga and Tuscarawas Rivers. The eight-mile trail met the Tuscarawas to the west of Barberton in Coventry Township. At some point, likely after permanent white settlement of the area began, it became more practical from a commercial standpoint to divert from the original path to reach the place where the Tuscarawas River bends to head south. This "new portage" (located in the vicinity of Wooster Road North and State Street today) became the site of a village in 1817-18. The settlement of this site was largely influenced by William Laird when he established a primitive shipyard on the banks of the Tuscarawas in 1819. Laird had identified a need to ship surplus items, such as pork, salt, flour and whiskey, to outside market. His yard built flatboats on which products could be floated down the Tuscarawas, Muskingum, Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to New Orleans. In the days prior to the canal, this was a significant step in the development of the commerce of the area. For a short time, New Portage seemed destined to become an important town because of its great vocational advantages. A glass factory was established here in 1821, employing as many as eight, and the settlement also had a tavern, post office and general store.

After a few years, however, the glass factory failed and the opening of the Ohio and Erie Canal in 1827 marked the end of commercial portaging. The fate of the settlement was very nearly sealed when an epidemic swept New Portage during construction of the canal in 1826-1827. It was not until years later that a second New Portage was established a little further downriver.

Johnson's Corners

Two early routes through Norton Township formed the crossroads which created Johnson's Corners. The Cleveland-Massillon Road bisected the township from north to south, while the Wooster Road was an early stage coach route which connected Warren and Wooster. This early road does not precisely follow the route of Wooster Road in Barberton today, extending to the north rather than to the south of Lake Anna.

While New Portage developed as a result of its shipping advantages, Johnson's Corners was more typically a farming crossroads settlement. Originally settled in 1814, it was the location of the first school in Norton Township in 1818-19. The village was named for Thomas Johnson, who arrived here in 1822 and began building up the place. Using water power provided by Hudson Run, Johnson built a sawmill in 1823 and a gristmill in 1830, both first for the township. He also built a tavern and hotel on the northeast corner of the square in 1826-27. This was replaced by J.T. Price with a new hotel building in about 1890. This building, later owned by the Nash family for many years, still stands today on the site of the original 1827 tavern.

By 1874, when an atlas of Summit County was published, Johnson's Corners contained about 36 lots and extended both north and south on the Cleveland-Massillon Road (31st Street) and east and west on Wooster Road. Included in the village were the hotel, a blacksmith shop, two wagon shops, three general stores, a shoe store, a post office, printing office, two churches and a school. A steam saw mill was added in 1867 and the original grist mill continued to run.

Ohio & Erie Canal

An important event in the history of Summit County was the opening of the Ohio and Erie Canal in 1827. Providing a direct shipping route to Lake Erie and the Ohio River, the canal had a major effect on the state's economy, taking it from near bankruptcy in 1820 to the third most economically prosperous state in the Union by 1840. In Summit County, the opening of the canal "caused quite a revolution in the business of the place," according to historian Perrin, writing in 1881. For example, Akron's emergence as a major grain milling center was considered a direct result of the canal.

In Coventry and Norton Townships, the canal followed the banks of the Tuscarawas River, a reliable source of water for the channel. A system of locks along the length of the canal, which was completed to the Ohio river in 1832, controlled the water levels through changes in topography. One of these locks was constructed at the mouth of Wolf Creek prior to 1827, with the waters of the creek used to feed the canal below the lock. It probably was not long before enterprising merchants located stores carrying groceries and boatman's supplies adjacent to the lock. Johnson's Corners likely benefited from the canal, as products form the village could be hauled to Wolf Creek Lock along Hudson Run Road.


Just as the canal had followed the Tuscarawas River through this area when it was built in 1826-27, the first railroad line to enter Norton Township in 1852 followed the route of the canal. With the advent of year-round rail transportation, the canal's importance as a transportation route began to decline. Nevertheless, it remained watered and was still used for shipping purposes until about 1913.

The first line to be completed through the area was the Cleveland, Mt. Vernon and Columbus Railroad, built in 1852. Later known as the Cleveland, Akron and Columbus Railway, this line eventually became part of the Pennsylvania Railroad. The second line was the Atlantic and Great Western Railway, which was complete 12 years later in 1864. Known for many years as the New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio, this line became part of the Erie Railroad. Both railroads followed the same route from Akron to New Portage, where they diverged to the west (Atlantic and Great Western) and to the south along the canal (Cleveland, Mt. Vernon and Columbus).

Probably knowing of the projected railroad line through this site, Jacob Welsh built a pottery at New Portage in 1850. Welsh used the Ohio and Erie Canal to ship his ware until the railroad was completed. His investment was shortly followed by a tavern, stores, a school and churches. Both railroad lines constructed stations at this second New Portage to accommodate passengers and freight. A center of local activity was the Edwards Hotel, built at New Portage between 1850 and 1870 to cater to the railroad traffic. This hotel, which still stands, is said to be the site of meetings held by O.C. Barber and his associates regarding plans for the new town of Barberton. Even with this activity, however, New Portage remained a small village for many years, surrounded by farms.

Changes from the Railroad

Without a doubt, the railroad effected a greater change upon Norton and Coventry Townships than did the quieter canal with its towpaths and packet boats. While they may not have appreciated the noise and smoke, however, local farmers were likely pleased with the improved access to markets for their farm produce, which included wheat, oats, corn and livestock. In 1881, just ten years before Barberton was founded, the average farm in Norton Township was 72 acres. The 1874 Atlas shows several large farms, including a 125-acre cattle farm of Alvin D. Betz to the west of Wolf Creek and the 108-acre farm of Merwin Shaw on the Cleveland-Massillon Road. The Shaw Home, located on 31st Street, is an important survivor of the area's mid-19th century agricultural prosperity. A fine example of Western Reserve Creek Revival architecture, the house still retains many of its rural associations. Several other frame farmhouses from this period, typically with Italianate details, remain in the Johnson's Corners and New Portage areas. Originally occupying many acres, these homes are now part of later residential developments.

The Merwin Shaw Farm, today located on 31st Street Northwest in Barberton, as it appeared in the 1874 Atlas of Summit County.

Merwin Shaw Farm

During the early 1880s, the area that would soon be transformed into a new town was still predominantly rural, with large tracts of farmland, a pleasant spring-fed lake at its center, grist and saw mills operating at Johnson's Corners, and good access to canal and railroad transportation at New Portage. And it was only a short distance from Akron, which had grown to become an important Ohio city.

O.C. Barber

It was in this climate that Ohio Columbus Barber decided to locate a major new industry at New Portage in 1882. A well-known Akron industrialist, O.C. Barber had built his father's match company during the 1860s and 1870s into one of the largest match manufacturers in the United States. In 1881, his consolidation of a number of similar factories in the country under the Diamond Match Company name made him widely known as America's Match King. Interested in producing the boxes for his match business, Barber formed the Portage Strawboard Company, an enterprise which would have the Diamond Match Company as its major customer. From his vantage point, Barber could see the strategic advantages of locating his first factory five miles from Akron in the village of New Portage, with its location on the Ohio Canal and connection with the lines of the C, A and C and NY, P and O Railroads.

By 1882 Barber had purchased a portion of the former Van Hyning farm for construction of the New Portage Strawboard Company. The factory occupied 40 acres of land between the railroad lines in the vicinity of Wooster Road. By 1891, when the factory employed about 130, land to the south of Wooster Road was subdivided into 54 lots, most of which were owned by the Strawboard. North of Wooster Road, the 1891 Atlas shows that a neighborhood of more than 100 lots had been platted. (This residential area retains the name of Van Hyning today.) New Portage had been extended by 1891 to include the Strawboard factory and the residential plats associated with it.

Finding Salt Veins

Having become familiar with this area, Barber secured options on land further to the west of New Portage in 1888. His initial motive was a hope of finding natural gas that would make his strawboard factory more competitive. Finding not gas but extensive veins of salt beneath this land, he explored the possibility of a soda ash factory to be built on the site. But he was shortly forced to abandon this idea as his proposed methods for obtaining the salt had become outdated. This left Barber with approximately 550 acres of undeveloped farmland in Norton Township.

One of America's First Industrialists

O.C. Barber was one of America's first industrialists in a modern sense. He realized early the value of mass production, mechanization, innovation, and long-term planning. By 1890, Barber was president of the Diamond Match Company and the American Strawboard Company, two manufacturing concerns of national significance. A wealthy man, he also was director or president of a number of lesser concerns which contributed to his industrial success. He had established a successful strawboard factory at New Portage, a little-known settlement outside of Akron. He was aware of the attractive transportation advantages of the place. And, he already had options on a substantial amount of land. Thus, the stage was set for the founding of Barberton in 1891.