Ohio Brass Builds a City: 1888-1990

Ohio Brass is one of those great American success stories that literally built the cities of our nation. It certainly built our city.

The story of the company parallels the tale of Mansfield and embodies in many ways the awakening of a modest Midwestern town to a thriving dynamic city.  The small enterprise begun by sons of an Irish immigrant emerged humbly as a simple bud on the vine, and expanded to see the full flowering of Mansfield’s vitality.  And by the time it was finished a century later, it had seeded the city with all the necessary components of society that make for a vital balanced culture.

Hometown Venture

Frank Black graduated from Mansfield High School and then a New York business college, and then tried a number of jobs around town before he decided he needed to be his own boss.  So he borrowed five thousand dollars from relatives when he was 23, and opened up a brass foundry on North Main Street.

This was 1888 in the horse-drawn era when everyone needed all kinds of harness rigs to hook their horses to carriages, wagons and plows.  Each of those leather contraptions required a kit full of small brass buckles, hooks, rings and cinches to hold the straps in place, and the Ohio Brass Company made that their business as Mansfield’s harness works.

Within a couple years they bought out a local plating factory, which added a new line of brass valves and plumbing fixtures to their foundry works.

Look closely at these horses and you’ll see all of that leather in each of their harness rigs has at least 30 clips, buckles, rings, terrets and cinches holding it together. That’s only what you can see from this angle, and that’s not counting all the studs, brads and rivets, and the spinners, tongues and snaffles. All of those pieces are made out of brass, made by the Ohio Brass Company.

The iconic OB maker’s mark originally cast into their buckles is what became their business logo: even after the company went on to rule the electric streetcar market, and eventually lead the way in facilitating high powered electrical systems around the nation.

At the height of their industrial power, their logo still bore a resemblance to those original brass buckles.

A typical brass valve fitting can be identified as made in Mansfield by the cast OB brand.Here also is a pattern from the Ohio Brass foundry. The foundrymen at OB learned to store their patterns in a separate fire-proof building after a disastrous fire in 1905 wiped out the casting works.

The company’s first huge breakthrough came in 1896 when it was granted a contract to provide all the valves, brass and bronze hardware for two new US Navy battleships: the USS Kentucky and the USS Kearsarge.

The Ohio Brass Company was originally located on the west side of North Main Street between Fifth & Sixth Streets. Notable in this 1895 office shot are Frank Black (farthest left), and his father, Moses Black who came to America from Ireland (on the right wearing a black derby.)

The Brass started with ten men, and soon there were twenty of them sweating away at this enterprise and making good headway in business, until 1893 when the famous Panic severely damaged the US economy and yanked the market to a sudden halt.

That was when one of the OB board members stepped in and made Mansfield history.  Reid Carpenter recognized the need for the small company to expand its horizons, so he found a young engineer who could retool the brass foundry to make parts for the hottest transportation industry of the day: electric streetcars.

The engineer was Charles K. King, whose dynamic business imagination launched the OB industry to whole new levels of vital innovation until it reached a national scale.  Within three decades he propelled the Brass into such novel markets the factory complex had to expand many times, employing 1,100 Mansfielders, encompassing factories in other cities, and doing powerful business coast to coast.

It’s not difficult to see why streetcars quickly became the most popular way to get around our city, and between cities. It looks like a pleasant ride at an amusement park.

As is evident from this page in an OB catalog, there were no fewer than 290 pages worth of intricately designed parts and pieces that went into every streetcar. Mansfield-made technology was being shipped out to cities all over the U.S. where the age of trolley cars ruled the nation for three decades.

Mansfield News December 21, 1901.

The Spark

Once the plant had expanded to manufacture whole catalogues full of pieces for assembling streetcars, they naturally began to explore the electrical components that made the trollies run.  With intensive research and a new experimental laboratory, OB plugged into the field of electronics and within only a few years they were intricately involved in creating electrical systems around the country that powered the whole nation.

In fact, when scientists decided to harness the power of Niagara Falls into practical public electricity, it was Ohio Brass who engineered a whole new generation of high powered bushings and insulators for transistors and transformers to move the super currents safely through the grid.

Then a generation later when scientists began building atomic power plants along the Ohio River, they turned once again to OB for an entirely new approach to whole mega levels of high voltage lines.

There are binders from the OB vaults with photographic documentation of power lines—high tension, high capacity, fantastically futuristic energy suppliers—in nearly every state of the union.  They created science fiction technology long before its time from a futuristic research lab named for Frank Black.  By the middle of the century, there were Ohio Brass fixtures from the top of the Alps in Switzerland to the subterranea of South African mines; from Poland to India; from China to South America.

It was a long way from saddle brass.

In the 1960s, long after Frank Black and C.K. King had moved on to the next world, the President of Ohio Brass said he always carried in his pocket a brass buckle from the original foundry on Main Street, to remind him to be ever vigilant for opportunities in creative new markets.

Ohio Brass Scrapbook:

It was in the Ohio Brass laboratory where most of OB’s national prominence began, as engineers stared down innumerable challenges in the emerging world of the American power grid. After the company attained the highest respect among power companies around the world, a new research facility was established in Wadsworth, known today as the Frank B. Black Research Center, as a high voltage test laboratory.

The company that began on two floors of a Main Street address eventually expanded to encompass 73 acres between railroad lines in the Flats, and utilize 17 acres of floor space.

By 1910, Ohio Brass had made itself so vital in the industry of power transmission that it acquired a new factory in Barberton to produce the porcelain elements of OB insulators. These small samples are collectors items today. By 1954, the last time somebody took count, Ohio Brass had produced more than 40 million porcelain insulators.

Assembling an OB transformer for the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1932.

 An OB bushing–one of several about to be mounted in a massive transformer in San Francisco for the Pacific Power Co. in 1925.

The extensive documentation that Ohio Brass left behind includes not only historic undertakings for major power distribution, but also photos of every job accomplished along every byway: like this shot in Ashland County along the Lincoln Highway.

In the earliest decades of the 20th century, Ohio Brass was Mansfield’s largest employer. By 1906 they had 600 workers. The company peaked in 1954 when there were 1,100 in Mansfield, and 1,400 more in other cities.

Even during the leanest decades of economic stress, jobs at Ohio Brass did not have much turnover because folks who worked there loved the working conditions and company environment. OB began as a family business and even when it was stretching the seams of living space, every employee was considered family.

Portrait of Ohio Brass in 1940.

Ohio Brass Builds a City

Here on Main Street, and in their other factories in Barberton and Niagara Falls, the OB works were turning out millions of components and parts, but the true product of Ohio Brass was a massive power grid across thousands of miles of America, powering millions of homes and jobs.

The really remarkable thing about Ohio Brass is that once they turned off the electricity at the Mansfield plant, the power of the company has gone on still to our current day.

The industry was built by people whose reach went to the farthest corners of the planet, yet they were always firmly rooted at home in Mansfield.  It was integral to their success that as they built their company’s fortunes they built their city as well, so from the very beginning the top brass in the biggest offices continually directed funding into new local ventures, and into the city’s cultural infrastructure: driving health, welfare and careers.

If you ever met any of them they were courteous and thoughtful people.  They brought to town the most brilliant minds they could find, who subsequently left a generation of brilliant children so the town could grow continually brighter.

Frank Black personally drove the campaign to build Mansfield General Hospital in 1918.  He and his brother sat very publically on the boards of dozens of industries and banks, and privately helped dozens of small businesses from shoe shine boys to linen tablecloth restaurants.

To this day, dig deep enough into the origins of numerous institutions and you’ll find Ohio Brass: from the Art Center and Mansfield Symphony and the Renaissance Theatre, to the Richland County Foundation, the Friendly House, Discovery School, and the Raemelton Therapeutic Equestrian Center to name only a few.

The first directors of Ohio Brass expressed their creed in one word: respect.  They dedicated themselves to evince respect for their customers, for their employees, for their competitors, for their science.  To them we owe much of our city, and our gratitude in every respect.

One measure of the dignity with which employees of Ohio Brass were treated comes to us as relics left from the OB cafeteria: all of the cups, plates and silverware were integral to the family setting.

Franklin Blymyer Black (1865-1937) at his desk in the new office building 1928. He wouldn’t let them put his name on the door: he had always been an unpretentious man even as President of the company and Chairman of the Board. It was simply room 122.

Charles Kelley King (1867-1952) left his home –Kingwood Hall– in trust so the City of Mansfield can enjoy it today as Kingwood Center Gardens.

Post Script

In 1978 the Ohio Brass Company merged with Hubbell Inc., and within six years the Barberton and Niagara Falls plants were closed. Hubbell sold the Mansfield operation in 1987 to a Texas firm, who sold it to an English firm. An employee-driven company was formed to keep it going, but in 1990 the plant on Main Street shut down.

An Ohio Brass landscape in 1933.

For more background on Frank Black’s legacy, check out Polo at Raemelton Farm: 1934

for more background on Charles Kelly King’s gift to Mansfield, check out Kingwood in the ’20s: Part 1 Multidimensional Postcard Views

Thank You

Images, photos, and relics in this homage are assembled from many sources: the Mark Hertzler Collection, Margery Ott Schuster, John Baxter Black, Brett Douglas Dunbar, Phil Stoodt, Gordon Black, Kingwood Center Gardens, Richland County Chapter Ohio Genealogical Society, and North Central Ohio Industrial Museum.


  1. Was A Great Place To Work Until The Merger With Hubbell. Hubbell Literally Destroyed The Ohio Brass Company For Their Own Greed. To This Day Whenever I Hear The Name Harvey Hubbell It Sickens Me!


  2. What a wonderful history. I have never read anything like this about Ohio Brass. Before 1980 my father worked there…never heard him complain about it. He seemed proud of the work he did there.If I remember, he tested capacitors…it’s so interesting to hear how humble the owner was and how he didn’t even want his name on his door. My father was a humble man too, so I understand that. Thank you for sharing this great history. My father probably already would have known its history but I don’t think many Mansfielders ever knew it. Young people would benefit from this history.


  3. I am so happy to have read this story. I am a almost 75 yr old resident of Mansfield. I hadn’t known all these very interesting facts of OB!!Nancy


  4. I went to work at Ohio Brass Company in June, 1980, my first job after graduation from the University of Cincinnati with B.S. in Metallugical Engineering. I was excited to be working at a company with using so many materials and processes! I worked in the Factory Office building as a Manufacturing Engineer, with responsibilities in Galvanizing, pattern procurement and approval, the Brass Foundry, heat treating, production of ductile iron, you name it, there was always something interesting to contribute. The people were very nice to work with.

    My wife and I had moved there and our two sons were born at Mansfield General Hospital.

    We really liked the area, but things changed rapidly after the roll out of the Hi-Lite insulator. The country and most of the world had been connected by the huge electric grid, with over 100 million suspension caps made with iron poured in Mansfield, Forgings made in Mansfield with both galvanized there. The OB Barberton insulator plant made and assembled the product. Once HiLite was revealed the company tent was moved south by Hubbell. It was sad to leave but this spelled the end.

    I will always remember my time there fondly, from some amazing people with whom I worked.


  5. A great place to work with dedicated, interesting people. Joined in 1969 in marketing in the Mining ,& Transit division. Worked under Bud Gowing & Bob Cress was President at that time. The ‘Brass’ was very community driven. Was one of a dozen who transferred to WABCO in 1990 in South Carolina, who purchased the transportation products from ‘OB’. This included train & trolley parts, such as couplers, collectors, chime whistle, trolley bases, & more. These items still in production today in SC. Many lasting friendships were made while in Mansfield. OB was well managed, and respectful to employees. The 5 story brick building still stands and is a great reminder to all those who worked there & the community of the history and contributions to Mansfield and worldwide.


  6. My Aunt ..Mary J Knapp work and retired from there. She did secretary work. I remembered seeing inside what her job was. Does anybody remember her?


    • Hi Jeffrey, I remember your aunt well. She and her parents lived on Bartley Avenue, just two doors from my childhood home. Mary was my favorite babysitter and a lovely friend.


  7. My father worked and retired from OB. Jack B Heston Sr. They were very good to him and our family during the loss of his son my brother at he age of 7.
    I loved reading this article very informative


  8. My family including my father, my sister, my uncle, my aunts, my brother-in-law, and yes myself (summer work during my college years) worked at OB. I’m pretty sure that combined we total more than 100 years. Thank you for the article, it brings back many memories. Whenever our families got together stories about working at OB was discussed.


  9. My father (Max Spayde) worked there prior to WWII and returned after the war. During the war my mother worked there. I worked there during the summers while going to college. Also had several uncles and cousins work there. So over time it was truly a family affair. A great place to work with lots of good memories


  10. My grandfather Allen Bond stepped off a train in Mansfield in 1910, shortly after receiving a degree in electrical engineering from Ohio State, and spent the next 50 years working at Ohio Brass. It was a great sense of pride for him and our family.


  11. My father, Robert William Finley (1915-1990), worked there in the late 1930’s or early 40’s. I was wondering if you had any record of his employment.


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