An interview with Lewis Crosley:
- View SourceRecorded April 18, 1975 by Mrs. Elva R. Adams, Museum Director, Warren County Historical Society Museum.
Mrs. Adams. Mr. Crosley, we are most happy to have you with us today. Could you tell us something of your background in Warren County?
Mr. Crosley. Well, Mrs. Adams, I'll be very happy to try to remember the stories that my father often told about this early life in Warren County.
His mother and father started housekeeping apparently on a small farm near Springboro of about 26 acres and their principal crop was tobacco. But going back to his earliest days that I recall, he told about living in a log cabin with three sides. That story was not too convincing with me - I could not see how they could build a house with three sides. But I believe it was built originally around a large fireplace; the fireplace had to be in such a position in connection with the house that a log and firewood could be brought in with a horse. My father told of the fact that when he was very small, perhaps about a year old, his father was holding him on his lap in front of the fire and my father's oldest brother, Marion Crosley, was then somewhere around 15 or 16 years old and he drove a horse into the house dragging a log. My father's father, my grandfather, attempted to reach forward to push the log into the fire and my father fell forward into the fireplace, into the live coals, with his hands and fingers spread out like this. Until he died, his hands, the palm of his hands, showed scars from this fire so he must have been burned pretty badly for a little guy that size.
My father told many stories about the life, remember they were out in the country by themselves - with neighbors, of course. Their principal crop was tobacco and he often said that his back ached some because they'd plant tobacco and carry these plants down a row and wouldn't raise up until he got to the end of the row. He often told other stories, for example I know that they told the same stories over and over again. In the early days of radio, we found that the early comedians did the same thing. They did not come up with new stories every time; they told what people laughed at so they told the same stories over again.
I know one of the stories he told was that the blacksmith wanted a helper but did not know how to pay the helper for he had very little money. So he said he would pay the helper one horseshoe nail the first day and two the second and four the third and eight the fourth and he did not realize that by the end of the month he was up to one million or two million horseshoe nails. He told that many, many times. He often told the story about the farmer who had a milk cow and he worried about feeding the cow so he thought he would put a little sawdust in with the feed for the milk cow. The first day he put a small handful in and the next day a little more and a little more until finally the cow was eating nothing but sawdust; but she died. Those are the kinds of stories they told repeatedly. They just laughed at them and thought it was fun. Then they played games, particularly checkers. He was a marvelous checker player. You couldn't beat him but he had an enormous amount of practice playing checkers. So their life was, of course, very primitive.
My father must have been very bright because he was raised and educated in a one-room schoolhouse. When he was about 17 or 18 years old, I don't know just what grade it was at the time, maybe through high school, he was given the job of schoolteacher. He taught school for a number of years until, I think, he was about 25. I know had had his problems. He said he was short and not too tall, about five, ten; he wasn't as tall as my brother. I was over six; both of us were over six. At any rate, he had trouble with the boys - so one of these boys he invited up and thrashed him right in front of the rest of the boys, and the rest of the school and they had no more trouble. He grew a mustache and a goatee to make himself look older. He apparently tired of this teaching job so he decided he wanted to be a lawyer. He went up to Ann Arbor, Michigan and took the law course. Of course, he was about 25 or 26 when he entered law school. He was older than the other boys were and he did very well. Then he went to Cincinnati and worked in the office of and was a law partner of Senator Butterworth which was quite a thing for a young man.
Mrs. Adams. About what year would that be, Mr. Crosley?
Mr. Crosley. Well, I would say that Dad was born in '49 and it was, well about 28 years later; it would be '49, '59, '69, '79, that would be in the late 70's. I know that at the time when they burned the courthouse in Cincinnati, he was a young lawyer. At the time they burned the courthouse, he slept through the riot and didn't see anything of the riot. That was quite an affair and they had to bring in the militia to stop it. They had some murderers in a jail back of the courthouse. As I remember the story, many people in town were afraid these fellows were going to get off and so they were going to get them. They broke into the courthouse and set the courthouse on fire. They didn't do anything for the prisoners, I don't believe, but they had a pretty good riot going and they had to bring in some soldiers and put a stop to it.
My father was a lawyer all his life and we thought that he was a very good one. He made money in his early life and then we had depressions. I know that he had owned some oil wells and gas wells up in the state and I know when they struck oil in different parts of the country, he went up in the northern states.
My brother (Powel Jr.) was ... let's get to my brother for a few moments if you don't mind. We were raised in the days when the automobile was just getting started. There was a tremendous amount of fascination in the whole country about automobiles. There were many makes and many people built automobiles, and assembled them, and contests were held as to naming automobiles. My brother was very much fascinated. In fact, he wanted to build an automobile when we were teenagers and we did. My father said he tried to discourage us a little bit. He said I do not think you can do that but if you run it down the block and back which was about a mile altogether, I'll give you $10.00. With the help of the blacksmith and mostly my brother's ingenuity, and at the time it was my money, we built an automobile powered by a small electric motor and battery and we earned the $10.00. My brother could never get over the idea of building an automobile. In fact, he had some as he was growing up and as a young businessman, he assembled a car and, I think, they called it the Marathon VI or something like that. But it takes a lot of money to get into the automobile business and it does not go far. So in 1916 my brother, Powel was the representative salesman for an advertising agency in Cincinnati. In school he was not a good student but he was a good writer. He could write short stories and his English work was excellent and he was a good reader. He'd have a client and he would write the copy for his clients. One of his clients was in the rubber business and in those days the tires on automobiles had a very short life. They were fabric with rubber on the outside and they had a life of about 3,000 miles. So people bought reliners and blowout patches and things like that and one of the big sellers was a reliner. My brother thought "well, I would like to start a mail order business", so he made arrangements with this company to supply him with some material on a credit basis, limited credit, and he employed a girl and had a desk and he started the American Accessories Company with one girl and no money in 1916. It grew rather rapidly and he moved out from town, Cincinnati, out to Northside and rented a room out there. At that time I was an employee in civil engineering work with the Engineer Corps on river work, mostly on the Ohio River. I was employed by the Cincinnati office. It was in 1917 that my brother wanted me to go with him. I had a reserve commission in the Engineer Corps and I said, well, I had to see this thing through - the war, I mean - and if I get through and come out of it, I'll be glad to come see you. So after the war in 1919, I went to him. The Engineer Corps wanted me because I had been on all-around assignment - I was their all-around man. Wisely, I chose to go with my brother, which I never regretted.
The business by that time had grown to over 100 people. He still had the idea that he wanted to build an automobile; but if he did, he was going to finance it with his own money. So about that time, I'm talking about the 20's, we could see the handwriting on the wall because the cord tire was introduced and the mileage of the tires immediately jumped from about 3,000 or 3,500 miles to 14,000 or 15,000 miles and that made a big difference and that stopped the reliner business. These reliners were called "inside tires." We sold them, of course, to anyone who would buy them. In that business, I'll go back a minute, we had a woodworking plant because we sold phonographs. We built the phonograph cabinets and bought the mechanism. Seeing that there was a limit to this reliner business, we had to look and search for other businesses.
We had a soap business that was called the United States Soap Company. We had a business of developing films and plate by mail order. These were all mail order businesses.
We had worked several things and the radio was one of them and radio broke very, very rapidly in 1920, '21, and '22. We started broadcasting WLW in 1922. Our business grew so rapidly it was fantastic and we acquired property from time to time. In the late 20's the radio business became a tough business - became very competitive. The broadcasting business in the meantime kept growing because we increased the power from time to time. We were really the leaders in increasing power. In the late 20's we felt that the manufacturing business in radio was very seasonable. It would slack off in the spring and summer. The radio actually seemed to be better in those days in the fall and winter than it was when the static conditions of summer were very great. So we played with the idea of refrigeration and we had different engineers come in on an experimental basis. One man came from Canada and he said, "You know, I can build a nonautomatic refrigerator." In those days household refrigerators were complicated things. The people would buy an icebox like a Monroe icebox, a real nice icebox, and put it in their kitchen or serving pantry and then the unit would be put in the basement because it was a belt and pulley job and made a great deal of noise. The brass tubing would be brought up to the evaporator which would be in the ice compartment, so instead of a block of ice, you would have an evaporator in there. Kelvinator and Frigidaire, the principal makers of refrigeration in those days, would sell these units to the installer and his job would be to install it. This chap by the name of Keith came in and he said, "You know, I can build a nonautomatic refrigerator." So to make a long story short, he built them in production. We built thousands of refrigerators that were called "Icy Balls." You would cook this unit just like a big dumbbell. We would supply a cabinet and a stove, a little burner and a big tub that you put water in and you would have to heat this gadget every day, once a day. It had a tube in it for an ice tray. You'd be surprised how many we sold. They had wider distribution to islands in Africa and everywhere than anything we ever built. We got up to a production of about 400 or 450 a day. I think we built nearly 100,000 Icy Balls before the modern electric refrigerator appeared. Then people wouldn't bother with all this monkey business of handling an Icy Ball. We went from the Icy Ball to a more modern refrigerator completely encased in a cabinet like they are today. The first year we built, I think, about 15 or 18 thousand. We wanted something to supplement the radio business which, as I said, was seasonable. The winter after we started building (this was in the early 30's), the first year of refrigeration, an engineer came from Detroit. He was an engineer with the Kelvinator Company and his name was West. He had a patent on a refrigerator door with shelves in the door. He had been around to see all the different manufacturers and refrigerators and they had all turned him down. He offered it to us and I remember the conversation in my brother's office. He had been in before and sold us a patent on a running seal which was used before the hermetically sealed units were built and manufacturers were mindful of hermetic units where the motor and everything is encased in the unit. This patent which he sold us, I think for about $10,000, did not prove out practically, so when he came back with another patent, he wanted $25,000 for this patent. It was in the name of his wife, Constant Lane West. She had come up with an idea and they had it patented in her name. So my brother said, "Offer him so much a unit," but he said, "No, I want just so much money and that is it." So my brother said, "I bought a patent from you for $10,000 and it's no good so we'll just take the $10,000 off the $25,000 and give you $15,000 for this one." We started working on our production. That just turned the refrigerator business around. The thing was that they were used to a flat door, you know, and here we had a concave door and shelves in that door. The first year we had our tooling all started on the next year's model [unreadable] you [unreadable] we'd bring out a new model every year. At that time all we could do was to dish out the door and it was a little bit of thing with some shelves in it. We jumped from 15,000 or 18,000 to 65,000 units in just one year. We stirred them all up with these doors. The next year we had shelves in the door that really worked, and that was a big boom to our refrigeration business.
Mrs. Adams. This would be about the same time that General Electric was making refrigerators with the monitor on the top?
Mr. Crosley. They were bragging about their unit on top: they came out with a hermetically sealed unit. Everybody else had a belt and pulley job and then they had a running seal. In those days when you'd go off on a vacation, you'd have to turn all these valves off or you would lose all your charge while you were gone because it would work while it was running; but when it stopped, you would lose your seal, you'd lose your charge.
So as the radio business got tough, we had refrigeration to help us out and then our broadcasting business with the high power was a tremendous thing. We had one of the finest broadcasting businesses in the United States in the late 20's and the 30's with WLW with the high power, with 500,000 watts; we had the only station in the country with 500,000 watts. We were pioneers and we built up a tremendous marketing business. We had live talent. Most of the radio stations you listen to today don't have live talent like we had in those days. We had audition teams in New York and Chicago picking up talent and sending them in. We weren't playing canned music such as they do now, nothing like that. So our business was held together when people like Atwater Kent went out of business because they stuck to the radio and they couldn't make money on it.
My brother was thinking of new things all the time. Somewhere along about 1939, he started building Crosley cars. He still wanted to build an automobile. He thought if he could build new refrigeration and we could build radios, we can bring out new models all the time so why not bring out an automobile. We had a factory big enough to do it so we got an engineering department going in a little building that he owned and we developed a car. We bought many of the parts for it. We bought the engine from Waukesha, a little two-cylinder air-cooled engine and most of the elements. It was largely an assembled car but we put the body together. We had the stampings come in and so on. We set up the line at our plant in Richmond, down the side of our plant. We built about 30 cars a day until we got into World War II and then we had to phase out all the activities such as radios, refrigerators and automobiles. We were given a date, five or six months time, to clean out our commitments and our pipeline of parts and convert over to war work. I 'd been in government service, as I said, for several years and I thought I knew a little about it; at least I could talk to them. So at that time I spent a whole lot of my time going to Wright Field where the Air Force did most of its purchasing and other purchasing locations such as the Quartermaster Corps down at Jeffersonville Barracks, across the river from Louisville. Then we had the Ordinance Department in Cincinnati and we had some departments in Washington. We had other people we called on for subcontracts. So during that period of converting over to war work, we actually picked up volume for the Armed Forces and we got a lot of credit for doing it.
Mrs. Adams. Did they dictate what you should manufacture?
Mr. Crosley. Oh, yes. We bid on most of these jobs and we were a volume producer; we sliced the prices that we bid on. At Wright Field, for example, I remember a bomber release mechanism that they had been buying for about $28.00 apiece and we started out with them at a price of $9.00. They thought we had lost our minds. But of course, we had production methods that the small people that they had been dealing with in Dayton did not know about. As a consequence, we went back with the next order and shaved our price. This was before renegotiation contracts came in. If we'd make 30 or 40 percent, which we often did, we would submit a ship-to-shore cost and 10 percent profit and give them a check back, which was unheard of in those days. Even then we cut the price so low because of the methods we used. These units not only had to be built to specifications, but they had to work. The trigger mechanisms and all those things were very tricky-things to build. So we could build quality into our products that they weren't used to. We also picked up a lot of default orders. They'd place an order with some firm and in 90 days they'd find they hadn't even started. They'd frantically get hold of us and I'd say "well, I'll start giving them to you in a week and put them in the tool room." They could not understand how we could work so fast.
We built several products that were fantastic in my opinion. We built two items that revolutionized the manufacture of shells so they shut down shell plants all over the country on account of the work that we did. We built what was called a Mark XIV sight for the Navy that had gyros in it and it was so set that all they had to do was aim this gun or maybe four guns at a plane. The plane would be going across like this and automatically the gun would be firing out this way and the plane would be going this way and the shells would meet the plane and the plane would come down, instead of just shooting all around and wondering where they were going to hit it.
We built something else right on schedule and, I think, when we got the order, MIT had developed this idea on a breadboard. Now, people know that Atwater Kent started building radio sets on a breadboard. They just put the different parts on a breadboard and wired them up instead of having them in a box like you are familiar with. They were just laid out on a board and you'd put the various parts that go in a radio set and wire them up and that would be your radio set. So this thing came to us in a breadboard model and we had to put it in production. I think it was either 60 or 90 days we had to turn out the first 30; we had to turn out 60 the next 30 days. They said there wasn't any company in the country that could do it. We had nearly all the watch manufacturers and repair men and oculists in Cincinnati working for us. We had 10,000 people working for us. Of course, we ran the plant seven days a week, 24 hours a day. That was the Mark XIV sight; the proximity fuse was a theory that they'd have fuses and they'd have to estimate where the plane was, how high the plane was, maybe 10,000 feet, with range finders. Then they'd have to set a fuse and then fire and by that time that plane wouldn't be anywhere near. They'd just guess at it. This proximity fuse was the idea that you'd have a radio; this would all be in a fuse now, the inside not much bigger than my finger. The radio would send out a signal and if the signal hit the plane, the signal would bounce back and fire the shell. It's an antiaircraft and had a tremendous impact in firing. It's not like a howitzer when they just lob things over. You just shoot up there four or five miles in the air and it takes a lot of push. It took us a year, I think, before we had one that would work. Everyone that was tested was taken out with live Marines all the time. Finally we had them approved; you see, they had batteries in them, they had electric tubes in them and all sorts of things. The battery wouldn't go to work until it was fired because you had them on shipboard. You had them on shipboard rolling around and they had to stand all the tests of any shells on shipboard because, you know, they don't want these shells to roll around and explode on a ship. So we got up to l6,500 a day of these shells, made them all, machined the parts and everything ourselves. It was absolutely fantastic! The girls and fellows didn't know what they were working on; they were all divided up in little rooms. So we built a lot of fine things - no automobiles during the war, of course, no radios except for the government.
Mrs. Adams. Was this done mostly in Cincinnati?
Mr. Crosley. In Cincinnati and at Richmond; we had a big plant in Richmond. We took, as I said, some subcontract work. The job that lasted the longest - we built half-tracks. We machined and supplied the metal parts for half-tracks, and they're tough. That lasted longer than anything that we had; I mean a lot more months, more tons or more anything you want. We made them for B. F. Goodrich, I think, subcontract.
Mrs. Adams. What's a half-track?
Mr. Crosley. A half-track is a gadget. You know what a caterpillar tractor is - it lays its track. A half-track has wheels in front and in the back part is a track. There are lots of vehicles like that. They could go over the sand and mud and go through water and everything better than an entirely-wheeled vehicle and it had more power, you see, and a lot more pep. They had to have metal parts; they were very tough to stand this thing and they had to have rubber on top of these. We built them for a rubber company - they supplied the rubber and we supplied the metal parts.
So during the period when we were struggling, I'd say the late 20's and the early 30's, we lost money on radios; but the broadcasting was so fantastic and the refrigeration was so good that we kept going. The broadcasting was particularly good because we had the power and then we had a very fine merchandising setup. You have heard of Ralph Corbett in Cincinnati with his philanthropic work? Well, he was with us and he did contract work with us on merchandising. He did a fantastic job and that is where he got his start. We brought him to Cincinnati, We had a manager of the broadcasting department by the name of John Clark who did a fantastic job and he introduced a lot of things in the way of talent and the way of merchandising all that. It was a huge department. We had, I think, three arrangers in the music department. We had more musicians than anybody in Cincinnati, more actors than anything in Cincinnati. We really had an open session.
Mrs. Adams. How did you compare with Pittsburgh?
Mr. Crosley. Well, I don't think they were anywhere near us. They were a little earlier than we were - they got started a little earlier. But you got back to that sort of thing. In the early days of radio, I'm talking about the early days when we first started, circuits were simple. We employed an engineering student by the name of Dorman Israel; he was a cooperative engineering student at the University of Cincinnati; he was a specialist in radio circuits. He came with us and he designed our radio sets for us. I'm talking about the early days way back in the 1920's. My brother wanted to broadcast and so he hired a chap by the name of Ham Fordyce. There were little radio stores that made their own radios in Cincinnati and I suppose in other places in those days. Radios were not commercially built like they are today.
Mrs. Adams. Did they call those crystal sets?
Mr. Crosley. Well, the very first were and the first set we built was a crystal set. You are going back aways now - do you remember that?
Mrs. Adams. I was a little girl.
Mr. Crosley. We had this woodworking plant. We built phonographs, as I said. A chap came to my brother, he lived right in the neighborhood with my brother, and said, "I have an idea." He had written something he brought out on a piece of paper. My brother called in our patent attorneys. We made it and designed it, what he called a "Go-Bye-Bye." My brother was a great namer of things; if he got out a product, he had to put a name on it, you know. So this was a little gadget with a couple of wheels and a little axle in back and a ring, a little seat for a child to sit on and a couple of casters in the front and a little ring. You'd put a child that could not walk into this thing. We had two girls, the other daughter younger than this one - they were ten years apart. She was on this thing kicking herself all over the floor at five months old. She could do anything; she was a little redhead; she just didn't want to stop. We built those things out of scrap in the woodworking plant, largely scrap and we sold them. We'd have a mail-order business and like these people do, we'd get lists of mothers, you know. When the kid was five months or six months, we'd circularize her and sell her a Bye-Bye. We built a lot of them and sold them. Well, there was a fellow that we knew a friend of ours, he thought, "I'm a salesman, a salesman for the Jackson Box Company." They were way back then; they made boxes. This fellow cleaned out his coal bin in the cellar and started a mail-order business and he bought things from us and sold them. So he bought these things and after a year or so, he thought, "Heck, I'll make those myself. So he brought out the Taylor Tot. Do you remember the Taylor Tot?
Mrs. Adams. I do.
Mr. Crosley. You do remember the Taylor Tot. We had to sue him because he was infringing on our business; he was infringing on our patents. He lost the suit; he had to either quit or buy us out. So he bought us out, bought our patents and quit making Bye-byes.
We sold the phonographs by mail - $5.00 down or $1.00 a week or something like that and had quite a business going. Then we started in this radio thing and in the building that we built the phonographs, we built these crystal sets. They were little things about this long. That was the first set and we called them "Harko Juniors." Then we started making one-tube sets and so on. First thing you know these sets all began coming back on us because in the wintertime you could get KDKA and all those different stations, you know, Detroit, WWJ, and Atlanta, Georgia and all the rest of them. So we were worried, this was about '22 or '23. My sister got married and her new husband's brother - they were all friends of ours in college, you know - he said to Powel "I think you can buy the Precision Equipment Company." That was a company in Cincinnati that owned WMH - now that's the station as early or earlier than KDKA and that was earlier than we were. It was over at Perlate's Corner. You know where Perlate Corner was in Cincinnati. They were manufacturing radio sets, making them by hand. You know, three or four guys sitting at a bench making sets by hand. You could buy a set but it was pretty expensive. They had this radio station going; they had a few people working there - 15 or 20 people. So to make a long story short, they had one of the original 17 Armstrong licenses. Now that was a radio circuit patent that had to do with regeneration and when they regenerated a circuit, it made it much more sensitive. So they had something we didn't have. You couldn't go buy an Armstrong license - that was ahead of RCA licenses and Hazeltine and all that stuff. So my brother bought this company. We had WLW; this was before commercial broadcasting and it was costing us money every month to run the station. So we just shut WMH down. I went over there and moved what we wanted, all the stuff over to our factory. I talked to the people and I took about half the people employed, about half of them. One of them was Grace Rains; she was the vocal coach in our broadcasting. She's the one who developed the Mills Brothers and all those others. You know, the Mills Brothers are still on. They were at our station. They were up here from Piqua. They sang out on the street as little kids with a tin cup, before we got them. Grace Rains was their coach. She coached a lot of them. We had a lot of them. We could sit here and name all or a few of them.
Mrs. Adams. You hired them on a steady basis?
Mr. Crosley. Oh, yes, they were right on our payroll. We had Ramona and we had Salt and Peanuts - I don't know, you could just go down the line. We had a fantastic setup of talent and we had Ralph Corbett selling our stuff. We had a coffee company who wanted to get into Cincinnati and we'd find a distributor for them and line up their dealers and everything else, do all their selling for them. If you'd go in a drug store, you'd fall over all the products we put in that drug store. That's how Ralph got started.
When we got out of this thing and when he wanted to do something else, he was doing it as an outside contractor, Ralph was. He wasn't on our pay roll. He was working for us. He heard of NuTone, door chimes, you know. It was a little outfit with about three people working for them. He bought NuTone and built NuTone up to that fantastic thing and made all those millions. That's how smart he was. He was in business for himself.
Mrs. Adams. And how wisely he has used his money - beautifully.
Mr. Crosley. He was smart as a whip. He has given $18 million, that I know of, away. He probably has more money now than he knows what to do with. He reinvested it in a lot of things.
Mrs. Adams. And his business is still as.
Mr. Crosley. No he sold his business and retired. But he has been a tremendous help to the Symphony.
Mrs. Adams. I should say he has.
Mr. Crosley. And a lot of things. And out there at the University. They've helped the University fantastically.
Mrs. Adams. I read in the paper just the other day that he had given, I think it was $52,000 to the Dayton Symphony also. This has been a wonderful hour. I hope you are not too tired. Thank you so very much.
(Mr. Crosley was 89 when this interview took place.)
Posted here with permission.
Warren County Historical Society
105 S. Broadway, Lebanon, OH 45036
Phone: 513-932-1817 Office
Web Site: www.wchsmuseum.org
From the book "Oral History of Warren County, Ohio, 1895 - 1950, pages 27 through 35, compiled by Miriam H. Lukens, Chairman, Oral History Program under the direction of Mrs. Elva R. Adams, Director, Warren Co. Historical Society Museum 1876-1981. An oral history recrod of life in Warren County from the late 1800's to about 1950, as recalled by senior citizens who lived here during this period.
Copied by Mary A. Crosley McGill in Lebanon Ohio Library, September 24, 1996.