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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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
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.