Bouncing Around Akron, Rubber Capital of the World

By Peter Mandel
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, April 25, 2004

Steeltown, Coaltown, Motown, move over.

Rubbertown is on the rise.

Akron, Ohio, which bills itself as the "Rubber Capital of the World," is bouncing back from lean times caused by tire and other manufacturing companies leaving town. But Goodyear and Goodrich are still here, the center city is now alive at night, and Akron and neighboring Canton boast some of the best hands-on museums around: the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the National Inventors Hall of Fame, even a World of Rubber.

I like displays of artifacts, not art, and I've heard that these museums are like a good mechanic: They've got dirt under their nails. I'm going to see them all.

To round out all this flatland fun, I will be staying at what may be the world's only grain-silo-turned-hotel.

Along with the all-weather radial, this tinkering and milling town exported the idea of eating oatmeal for breakfast when Quaker Oats, at one time based in Akron, started mass-marketing its flakes in 1901. Quaker's mighty grain silos here are on the National Register of Historic Places and have been chopped up into a strangely shaped Crowne Plaza hotel.

When I check in, it's hard to miss the fact that my room is round. And I am lost the second I walk out of it into the dim, mysterious hallways that have been sawed out of the silo concrete.

Outside, I find that Akron is a nest of one-way streets, many without signs. Like Cleveland, less than an hour north, Akron has worked to revitalize a downtown that felt empty in the 1970s and '80s. I can find Canal Park, its Camden Yards-style Minor League Baseball stadium, since it's right on Main Street. And there is a nearby cluster of fixed-up buildings and funky restaurants and nightclubs. I can find those, too.

But beyond this, I drive around and around, and when I land by accident at the National Inventors Hall of Fame, I realize I could have walked: It is two circuitous blocks from the hotel.

I am excited to be in the museum, since I am a basement tinkerer. I've got my own invention ideas. When I ask the ticket clerk if there is anyone who might like to hear about dissolving honey capsules or glow-in-the-dark keys, she just stares. "You could look into a patent attorney," she suggests, although I can detect a smirk.

Constructed in 1995, thanks to a group of local boosters who thought it a perfect match for a city that makes things, the hall is as inside-out as Paris's Pompidou Center. All the pipes and struts are painted red and yellow instead of being hidden from view. This is a palace of technology, so even the circuitry behind the elevator button is visible. I'm expecting an electric shock when I push for the top floor.

No sparks in the elevator, but quite a few up here, where I take in intricate prototypes of inventions, such as the 1868 "Beer Cooler" (Patent No. 85,190) where, as far as I can figure out, beer is supposed to drop in temperature by getting squashed into a network of metal tubes. I'm glad I don't see patents for my honey capsules or glowing keys.

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