Editor’s note: There was once a Transcontinental Highway that crossed right through Barberton, starting in New Jersey and ending in San Francisco. Information is as rare as hens’ teeth but since I first discovered the highway, I had made it a mission to uncover the who, what and why of The Benjamin Franklin Highway. So hard is it to mine the information that if you google it you will probably only see my name since I have given lectures and wrote articles patching together as much knowledge that is commonly available.
Of course, the story, beginning around 1926, could not be told if I only include Barberton since we were just a section of the nearly three thousand miles of cement ribbon. Much of this story will include towns to the west of us. Why? Well, unlike Barberton, the highway was part of their main streets, while Barberton’s downtown area was around Tuscarawas and Second Street. The Benjamin Franklin Highway covered mostly the northern section of Barberton, but that did not shortchange The Magic City as much commerce and tourism travelled right through town.
While the automobile in of itself was not a new concept in 1926, the idea of both motoring tours along with commercial shipments was becoming more of a standard year to year. People with means started motoring west and several companies like the Ohio Match was very interested in shipping product by truck.
The people who put a pencil to the most favored route found most of the roads to be a mess. From Peoria, Illinois to Burlington, Iowa the section was a mud road. Indiana’s share was a winding gravel road but was being straightened and widened to the Ohio line and was soon to be paved. The road was already paved from the Indiana line to Philadelphia but was not uniform by any standards.
At Omaha the Benjamin Franklin Highway joined Route 40 and headed west, therefore a brand-new transcontinental route to carry both industrial goods and tourists was taking shape.
So, as you can imagine every town along a line from Youngstown to Indiana, including Akron and Barberton wanted to be cut in. In 1926 more than a hundred citizens gathered in Tiffin to further the interest of the highway. Among the local leaders was Dr. H.A. Baldwin, named vice-president for Medina, R.R. Richard, and county commissioner from Wadsworth, John Ewing, Honorable C.E. Knapp, C.W. Parmelee, Mayor W. Boley and numerous others. The day was filled with speeches and thoughts about the highway. John Williamson of Findley said, “The aim of the Ben Franklin Highway is to establish a transcontinental highway route with one name and one number.”
Wadsworth was enthusiastic about the prospects of a highway that would come through town. In 1926 seventy-five men, mostly area industrialist gathered at the Temple Restaurant to just join in fellowship. No speeches about the highway lines were given, but Joe Bender, Wadsworth businessman and poet laureate, offered a wonderful speech about Wadsworth, from blacksmith to the present factories known across the world. He ended with a poem entitled, “The Old Country Store.”
The crowd then adjourned to the Wadsworth High School auditorium. There a dozen or more officials, too numerous to mention on this article discussed the Benjamin Franklin Highway coming through the town and benefits thereof. It was agreed there and then Wadsworth was ready to go to the limits to help in any way to bring in the BF Highway.
Mr. Gus Seiberling, former Barberton councilman, who passed away in October 1938, told area industrialists that his family along with other prominent families in this area made the quest here to Ohio with oxcarts by following eastern terminal of the Shenango Valley starting at New Castle. That section of the Benjamin Franklin Highway, because of the lack of steep grades and deep rivers became Rt. 422. Seiberling also added also added that there are other paved roads to the north and south of our area this route has special meaning to others but wants to see the local paving start as soon as possible.
Even though autos have been touring the area since Andy Auble drove the first horseless carriage, a one lung Oldsmobile, from Cleveland to Wadsworth in 1901 and starting the first auto dealership in the country, later moving to Akron in 1937, many of our roads were little better than stage coach trails. Horses were still a common method of travel especially in the spring when local streets became so bad that autos often got stuck clear to the axle.
Auble and two other dealers blazed a trail in the famous Glidden tours. He made it from Akron to Daytona in 16 days. Even in the 1920s many of the roads were gravel and if you went west of Wadsworth on Rt. 17 (224) you might get stuck as you climbed Acme Hill. Brave perhaps for auto drivers but the roads were hardly commercially viable. Great for railroads, which O.C. Barber was highly vested in. But rails were of little good for local or Interstate hauling.
By December of 1929 Ohio started to bring our roads up to national standards along with the rest of the Benjamin Franklin Highway, so from Philly to Omaha, Nebraska the highway began to be birthed. Soon the route was laid out and branded Rt. 17 which ran directly east and west through Akron, Barberton and Wadsworth. Route 17 started at the east line of Ohio at Youngstown and moved west through Tiffin and Van Wert.
On June 26, 1930 State Highway Commissioner Robert M. Vail made it final, Rt 17 would be called the Ben Franklin Highway. Barberton, Wadsworth along to Lodi received $1,237,133 for road improvements, which was comprised of the Springfield Airport Road, later named Waterloo Rd. The Benjamin Franklin then crossed the railroad, past Wooster Rd and joined Rt. 17 and headed west.
It did not take long before realtors made hay out of property along the Ben Franklin Highway and all property for sale along 17 between Wadsworth, Western Star and Barberton was now hot stuff. Wadsworth named gas stations and restaurants after the road.
In January of 1934 the government decided to rebrand many highways turning them into federal roads and the BFH was changed to US Rt.224 Harry Neal, traffic engineer of the state highway department said dual markers would be set up across Rt 17, marking it both as The Benjamin Franklin Highway and 224. Neal said the markers would stay in place for a while to avoid confusion. Even during the changeover colorful maps of the Benjamin Franklin Highway pointing out places of interest through our area.
In 1936 John H. Williamson founder of the Benjamin Franklin Highway toured the area with the Rotary Club. He later recounted to the club what he and others endured as they worked together to create the highway. His speech in part is quoted here.
“I want to remind you of the loyalty of this little city of Wadsworth and the whole of Medina County to the proposition. It has been a little more than ten years since I appeared here once before. A parade came down the street headed by Dr. H.A. Baldwin, who has gone to his reward. I remember a lot of names, Hilliard, Keller, Mench, Auble, Houglan, Kerr, Nicodemus, Edwards, Fetzer, Knapp and Hoover, who passed on to the last roll call; and others who have been loyal throughout the years and who are loyal now in the effort to make the Benjamin Franklin Highway a great national artery of traffic.
Nor would I be unmindful of the cooperation and assistance that the newspapers along the line have given us. I would not have you forget the loyalty of your own local press.
When we linked together this route into the state system more than one hundred miles in Ohio mud, from Galesburg, Illinois to Omaha Nebraska mud! Today you can come out of Omaha, across the states of Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana on concrete; and you will find wonderful pavement from New Castle to Philadelphia, Pa.”
You can change the names, change the cities, but the speech by John Williamson covers a long distance of hard-working Americans with a vision. Research showed he gave similar speeches across the Midwest.
To summarize this article the roads came, the names changed, and superhighways took their places in the late 1950s, but across Rt 422 in Pennsylvania the road is still called the Benjamin Franklin Highway. Certain places in eastern Ohio still call Rt. 224 the Benjamin Franklin Highway. But here in this area where the highway changed the economy forever and where the people worked so hard to create the vision, the tale has long been forgotten.
The Benjamin Franklin Highway kept its name until World War II. Most of the named highway slowly fell back to its original routes when government turned much of it into a federal road. The stories of roads throughout our area have interesting tales but this is one I hope you as a reader will remember.