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Analysis: Rising From Rust

A look at our Rust Belt history

  • 8 min to read
A look at our Rust Belt history

Editor’s Note: Richland Source reporters Tracy Geibel and Brittany Schock have launched a 2018 Solutions Journalism project titled Rising from Rust, studying how Richland County fights its way out of the Rust Belt. Today we look at the community's industrial past and how we got here.

MANSFIELD – Richland County wasn’t always this way.

The abandoned, multi-story eyesores in Mansfield were once bustling factories that provided thousands of jobs, and contrary to today, the area's dwindling population was on the rise.

Decades ago, hundreds of area residents would funnel in and out of factories like Westinghouse, Ohio Brass and the Tappan Stove Company. Employees worked from dawn to dusk manufacturing refrigerators, microwaves and bronze valves, among other items. It was a labor-intensive process, but thousands of products were made and distributed thousands of miles via boxcars from local railroad yards.

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Westinghouse, at the peak of its production, employed nearly a quarter of Mansfield's population, according to local historian Scott Schaut. He recalls watching films of the factories at shift change.

“It looked like New York City,” he said.

Mansfield’s economic development director Tim Bowersock called Mansfield a “vibrant place.” Many of the city's major employers like Westinghouse, Tappan and Ohio Brass were known worldwide.

“Before I graduated in the mid-70s, pretty much, if you walked out of one because you didn’t like the work, you could walk across the street,” Bowersock said. “And if you did get laid off, it was more of a vacation.”

The options were plentiful.

“If you didn’t like your boss or if you had problems or you didn’t think this job that you had fit you, you could literally walk down streets and in a day or two, you’d be working again,” Schaut said.

According to the Mansfield historian, companies weren’t very competitive regarding the products they made. He grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin (also a Rust Belt city). But since planting his roots in Mansfield, he’s learned about the area’s past and gained insight into the community via oral interviews.

“The CEOs lived here. They knew each other. They all worked together,” he said. “Very different from today when it’s very cutthroat.”

Reasons behind the Rust

The "Rust Belt," the region stretching from Western New York and Pennsylvania through Ohio and Indiana into portions of Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin, didn’t form overnight.

While many cities began seeing deindustrialization in the late 1970s, one theory indicates that the "rusting" process began at least two decades earlier in the 1950s, while Rust Belt cities still had a stronghold on manufacturing.

Headlines at the News Journal still boasted about more jobs and expansions at Mansfield manufacturers at this time. And neighboring Ontario welcomed a General Motors plant in November 1956.

Although Richland County representatives, including Schaut and Bowersock, say Mansfield entered the Rust Belt era a little later than other cities, the community couldn’t hold off the inevitable.

A December 2014 paper titled Competition and the Decline of the Rust Belt by Lee Ohanian, explains with the minimal product and labor competition in the 1950s, companies weren’t incentivized to increase productivity or to innovate. It suggests lack of competitive pressure “accounts for about two-thirds of the Rust Belt’s decline in employment share.”

As Schaut explained, companies weren’t concerned with competition at home or abroad in the 1950s. Europe was focused on cleaning up the aftermath of World War II, and furthermore, there was “enough to go around.”

“You had other companies that made manufacturing items that I have to look at the name to see who made it because it’s so similar to another manufacturer. And they never crushed each other, and they never sued each other,” Schaut said.

He described instances when a small company would develop a product and share that idea with one of the larger companies in the same industry. In turn, the larger of the two would “turn a blind eye” when the smaller one was working on a similar product. Few felt threatened. 

Schaut also recalled stories about CEOs gathering for card games or drinks. They were friends and neighbors.

So, when competition arrived, Mansfield and other Rust Belt cities weren’t ready for not-so-friendly challengers. The playing field shifted in favor of foreign countries and the "Sunbelt," a region including Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Texas, Arizona and California.

“As their plants aged, times changed as far as production demands, competitiveness and the plants became somewhat obsolete,” Bowersock said of Mansfield factories.

He also noted many shops were set up in multistory buildings, which weren’t designed for premium productivity.

To save money, companies cut labor costs by relocating. Ohio History Central reports Ford Motor Company and General Motors workers in Ohio were earning $20 per hour in 1980, compared to workers in Mexico who were earning about $16 per week.

In the Sunbelt, labor expenses would also decrease because unions were less popular and had more favorable economic policies.

A January 2017 article by Forbes suggests warmer weather also contributed to the shift south. Though Ohioans may lament the cold weather each year at the first snowfall, the idea that a wave of manufacturers left the Rust Belt for this reason seems far-fetched.

In fact, a 2007 paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research says the rise of the Sunbelt and the associated fall of the Rust Belt regions has “little to do with the sun.” It instead focuses on the increased housing availability, which led housing prices to drop. This – not warmer weather – likely spiked interest in moving south.

Ultimately, businesses moved south because fresh opportunities bloomed there. Those companies that didn’t relocate were suddenly at a competitive disadvantage.

The Rust Belt wasn’t prepared, hadn’t trained to beat the competition it now faced. The region didn’t become deindustrialized because of what it did, but rather because of what it failed to do.

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Results of the Rust 

The Rust Belt region, once characterized by its booming industries, has long since been known for its literal rust.

Abandoned and neglected ramshackle structures litter the downtown landscape in Mansfield. In nearby Ontario, an overgrown empty lot and a golf league may be all that’s left of the former General Motors plant, which closed in 2009. They serve as skeletons that weren’t well-hidden in the closet for those former employees who remain in Richland County.

Likewise, as industries left the area, the population has decreased in Richland County. According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, Richland County’s 2016 estimated population (121,107) is only a few thousand more than its population in 1960 (117,761). The population was on the rise until it fell sharply from 131,205 in 1980 to 126,137 in 1990. It saw a small increase in 2000, but then dropped again.

Mansfield’s population has seen a steadier decline since 1980. While the city’s population surged from 37,154 in 1940 to 55,047 in 1970 - growing by nearly 18,000 people - in the same span of four decades from 1980 to 2010, the population has seen a slow decrease.

In 1980, Mansfield’s population was 53,927, but by 2010, it was only 47,821. The most recent estimate, in 2016, shows the city’s population at 46,678.

Mansfield's population data especially corresponds with the loss of many of the city's major manufacturers.

Ohio Brass ceased production in October 1990. The April 2, 1990, article that ran in the News Journal read, “Ohio Brass Transit Products will close, pending the sale of the 102-year-old Mansfield Company to Westinghouse Air Brake Co." 

The Mansfield division of Westinghouse also closed in 1990. It would have celebrated its 100th birthday in 2018.

Tappan was bought out in 1992 by Electrolux and closed, according to Richland Source columnist Timothy Brian McKee. Mansfield lost other factories, too, but these three were known on a world-wide scale.

Now, it wasn’t anything like a vacation to be out-of-work. A News Journal story from Nov. 25, 1990 with the headline “Ohio Brass Workers at Bitter End” tells the story of a man who filled out 23 applications and still hadn’t found a new job when the factory closed.

Though he expected to receive a $4,000 severance check, four months of medical insurance and monthly pension checks after that, it would hardly be enough to cover the insurance he’d have to now buy on his own beginning in month five. His dreams of retirement – where he’d visit his sons or buy a new car – were shattered.

Bowersock was teaching remedial reading courses at this time. He recalls the youngest person in the class was 40 years old.

“One guy couldn’t read,” Bowersock said.

He asked the man how he functioned at the factory.

The man responded, “I never had a problem.”

Bowersock asked how the man was able to read instructions. The man would look at the pictures. And how he paid the bills? The man’s wife handled that.

“How do you know your paycheck is right?” he asked.

“Trust me, you just know,” the man answered.

He’d been there so long that the factory was his second home. He never intended to leave, so there was no need to know anything else.

Richland County took another hit in 2009, when Ontario’s General Motors (GM) plant closed. Ontario’s population decreased in 1980 and 1990 but rose in 2000 and again 2010. The estimated 2016 population shows a decrease of slightly more than 100 people.

While nothing has replaced General Motors, Ontario has seen noteworthy growth in retail, and is now bringing in approximately the same amount of income tax as it was when GM was around. This is with a half-percent income tax increase that was implemented when GM closed. At that time, the finance committee cut $3.8 million from its budget.

Perhaps the impact wasn’t Ontario specific though. Richland County’s population was up from 126,137 to 128,852 in 2000 but dropped in 2010 to 124,475. That decline seems to have continued into 2016, when the estimated population was 121,107.

Rising from the Rust 

Richland County must be willing to scrub, if it wants to wash away its rust.

As part of the Rust Belt, Richland County still needs to catch up before it can get ahead. There’s no going back to the “good old days.” The manufacturing ways of the past are gone forever.

The idea that the former General Motors property or another former plot of land will be filled by a manufacturer bringing back the same number of jobs GM or Westinghouse once provided is improbable.

Innovation is key to making a comeback. Though machines may take some jobs away, without them industries will struggle to keep pace with competitors who are embracing technology.

Bowersock said it’s sometimes difficult to explain why incentives should be provided to companies that want to spend millions on their equipment in projects that will add only a few jobs.   But it’s essential to be productive and competitive in the global market.  

“If they don’t make the investment, they’re going to lose 20 (jobs) … and eventually they’ll be gone,” Bowersock offered in one example.

He explained that stronger companies will more likely still be here in 10 years. Generally, a diverse mix of businesses will also help an area to better weather economic downturns.

That seems true of Richland County's past, too. The diverse industries that populated the community may have held off the inevitable deindustrialization for a decade. Richland County saw the loss of many manufacturers in 1990 instead of the late 1970s like many other communities.

Local ownership may be an additional factor. When companies are owned by Richland County residents and their headquarters are in the area, the company is more likely to stay. The management becomes a part of the community.

But perhaps the most important piece to rising from the rust is actually removing the rusty remains of former industries.

Bowersock would like to see redevelopment.

“I think that (Rust Belt) is a term that needs to die. But we have reminders of it – the vacant property where Westinghouse used to stand, where Tappan used to be, GM,” he said.

On the contrary, the Ohio Brass building still stands along North Main Street, where it houses Central Star Home Health Services. 

“To get rid of the image, you kind of have to get rid of the infrastructure, the buildings. If we would see redevelopment on those sites, people could stop, and we could get the Rust Belt image out of their heads when they think of Mansfield,” Bowersock said. 

Over the course of 2018, Richland Source will be researching, identifying and writing about how Richland County is working its way out of the Rust Belt, what solutions other communities have implemented to get rid of their dying manufacturing legacies and how Richland County can move forward, and Rise from the Rust.

Read more about why we're writing about this topic, in the Sunday, Feb. 4 column by editor Larry Phillips. 

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