Powel Crosley, Jr. - A Man for All Seasons.
- View SourcePowel Crosley, Sr. was born in Warren County, Ohio, December 25, 1849. A sharp and curious child, he reached the pinnacle of the education available in Springboro.
The Crosley name can be traced to England in the thirteenth century. The first Crosley in Ohio was Moses (1764-1843), a Revolutionary War veteran from Maryland who settled in Warren County. His wife was Rachel Powel. Their son William (born 1785) had a farm on the Warren/Montgomery County border. He was a successful manufacturer of gunpowder. One of his descendants, Bertha, married Indiana resident Edmund Burle Ball of the fruit jar fortune. Powel, Sr. was eleven when the Civil War broke out, and, being a good reader, would oblige the neighboring farmers by reading newspaper accounts of the war to them. His two older brothers William J. and Luken S. Crosley served in the war. William was captured at the Battle of Fisher's Creek and was in Libby Prison.
Finances denied the senior Powel a college education so he started his own systematic self-education while teaching in local Warren County schools. He taught for about four years and left to go to St. Louis to accept a job as a bookkeeper in a department store chain. He flourished in his new career but in 1874 he left to attend law school at Michigan State University. After graduation in 1876 he settled in Cincinnati, working as a lawyer and land speculator. He was in charge of Pike's Opera House for many years, obtaining a perpetual lease from the Pike estate. This lease was taken over when the opera house burnt, was torn down and on this site the Sinton Hotel was built.
Crosley, Sr. was one of the developers of Norwood, and a street there is named after him. He also had an interest in radio, owning stock in Marconi's company.
Powel Crosley, Jr. was born in Walnut Hills, September 18, 1886. The family moved to College Hill where Powel, Jr., when he was seven, attended the O.M.I. and was captivated by racing cars. In 1898, at age 12, Crosley, Jr. built a four-wheeled wagon that ran on an electric motor.
A profile of the Crosley, Sr. household can be glimpsed in the 1910 Census. Powel Sr. was a lawyer and owned the house without a mortgage. In addition to his wife Charlotte, there were Powel Jr.,a sales manager in the automotive industry, and his siblings Edith (1897-1989) and Louis, attending school. There were no servants. Edith later married Albert B. C. Chatfield. She worked as one of her brother's first secretaries. The Chatfield name is part of Cincinnati's past. It is associated with both paper and the manufacture of coal tar and asphalt products.
For a time during their marriage Edythe and Albert lived in the Davey mansion. Louis Crosley married Lucy Johnson, a relative of the Henshaw's, and their daughter, Charlotte, married Bud Runck. Their son, Reno Runck, lived in and restored the Upson and Witherby houses.
The Crosley's other child, Ellen, married William McClure.
Powel Crosley, Jr. married Gwendolyn Aiken, daughter of Walter Aiken and Lucy Avery. He lived on Davey Avenue in the house next to the Cummings family. This was the house built by Newbold Pierson that he later sold after going bankrupt. Here is where Crosley Jr.'s first children were born, Powel Crosley III and Paige. Gwendolyn played the piano and organ and was an accomplished musician.
Powel's enthusiasm for auto racing was quenched by an automobile accident but he wasn't turned away from cars. He started to build his first car in 1908, the Marathon Six, in Connersville, Indiana but he couldn't raise the capital to go into production.
In 1916 he started his second try at car production. The venture failed. He marketed a gasoline additive called Gasatronic. He borrowed $500 from his father and purchased the American Automobile Accessory Company. Their products included a tire liner manufactured from old tires, a car starter, and an attachment to the radiator cap hood ornament of the Ford Model T's that would hold small flags. His timing was good, for patriotism surged during WWI and his flag holders made him his first million.
(from "Cincinnati's Powel Crosley, Jr.", Joseph M. Rice, 1976, privately published. )
It was on Davey Avenue that Powel Jr.'s son, in 1921, came to him and asked for a radio receiving set. At nine, he had read and heard about this invention and really wanted one. An average weekly salary at that time was $12, while the cost of a radio was about $130. Crosley thought the price was too much and decided to build one himself for his son. He bought "The ABC's of Radio" for a quarter and started tinkering with $35 worth of tubes, coils and assorted parts. The first station he received was Pittsburgh. He purchased a $200 radio for himselfand hired engineers to work with him, resulting in the "Harko", which retailed for $9.
This inexpensive crystal radio was an instant success. He started manufacturing radio components in his automobile accessory factory and renamed the plant The Crosley Radio Corporation in 1922. He was producing 500 sets a day, earning the moniker "The Henry Ford of Radio." Years later Crosley was said to joke that he had 50 jobs in 50 years. A key to these radios was the use of a new Cincinnati product, Formicar. Paper was treated with resin to produce a thin board that was a substitute for mica, used as a heat resistant circuit board in radios.
The 1928 Gembox radio cost $19.95. In 1934, The Fiver, a five tube radio, came out. The cabinet to house radios was also inventive; one unit looked like a corner table, another like a freestanding bookshelf.
In 1921 Crosley decided to start a radio station so people could have something to listen to. He built a radio studio in his second-floor bedroom. For an antenna, he ran a wire to the tower of Town Hall across the street. His first broadcast was in 1922, the tune "Song of India", using a 20 watt transmitter. He founded WLW-AM in 1922, broadcasting from his home with 50 watts of power. The "Nation's Station" featured live orchestra music.
The 500,000 watt tower was built in Mason twelve years after the station was founded and was so powerful that it affected the electric lights. Farmers could hear the station emanating from their wire fencing and drain pipes. The power needed to run the transmitters was so great that it could have lighted a community of 100,000 people. Initially, Crosley could not find a transmitter tower large enough, so he purchased two of the biggest he could find and turned one upside down during installation.
The station was inaugurated at 9:30 P. M., May 2, 1934, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt pressed a gold key on his White House desk and spoke into the microphone saying; "I have just pressed the key to formally open station WLW. It has been a pleasure to do this..." Unfortunately, the only people to hear these words were in the White House room as the transmitter was still warming up and the key was a prop.
Running at 500,000 watts, WLW drowned out all other broadcasting stations. It was heard throughout the states, Australia and Europe. At night, the station increased its power to 750,000 watts. They kept those levels of power until 1939 when Congress limited radio stations to 50,000 watts.
Radio played an important part in helping the nation through the Depression. It was the main source of news and entertainment for rich and poor alike. Familiar stars became a part of everyone's home: Rosemary and Betty Clooney, Bob Hope, Doris Day, Rod Serling, Roy Rogers, Lena Horne, Duke Ellington and Red Skelton are only a few. One of the most popular programs was "Moon River", a nightly poetry and organ music program. Hearing the broadcast in Georgia, songwriter Johnny Mercer later remembered the program as he wrote lyrics to an untitled melody by Henry Mancini which became the popular song of the same title.
WLW was also responsible for adding a new melodramatic genre called "soap operas."
In Mason, Crosley purchased a 385-acre dairy and poultry farm named "Everybody's Farm". He had a radio program developed around life on this farm and built a studio there for live broadcasts. He also experimented with FM wavelengths, beamed from Mason to Cincinnati in 1946.
The Roamio was one of the first radios built and installed in a car, by Crosley, of course. He experimented with television, broadcasting the first TV picture in 1939. In the early 1940s he sent news by an early fax machine, the Reado. He developed a 35mm camera, but that was never manufactured. He produced the Icyball gas refrigerator, water coolers, irons, clocks, fans, waffle irons, percolators, record players, lighters, canoes and ice crushers. The strangest device he manufactured was the Xervac head machine which used bursts of suction to stimulate blood circulation, and Crosley claimed it would retard baldness. When introduced in 1936, he felt certain that this would be a hit with the public. He was forced by the government to cease production over a conflict about its health claims, but Crosley used his throughout his life.
An avid sportsman, he had an animal preserve in Indiana. He also liked canoe trips. In "Playmates of the Tow Path", Powel recounted a canal trip: "Ah, those happy canal days!" he exclaimed as he recalled his canal experiences. "Years ago four of us boys made a memorable canoe trip. We put our two canoes in the canal above the locks at Lockland and paddled and pulled them up to Dayton, then journeyed on the Mad River and shot down the Big Miami River in our canoes on a freshet and completed our month's vacation at Venice - the total expenses for each of us being $1.85! My brother Lewis and I and our chief engineer, Charles Kilgour, and his brother composed our party of adventuring playmates. We found that it was easier to pull the canoe up the canal with ropes than to paddle against the stream. I shall never forget how a great burst of steam came out of a huge pipe in the canal and sent a wave of water into Kilgour's canoe that nearly swamped it. One of our treasures was an acetylene lamp that fell into the canal. We searched the canal bed for it and finally I clutched it between my feet and brought it to the surface while my friends lifted me out of the water and onto a bridge. We had to be acrobats to climb with our canoe out of some of the steep-walled canal lock approaches. I shall never forget the night we camped out on the canal bank and slept on the towpath, under a bridge - for there was no other place for us to go, as railroad, trolleys and highways lined both sides of the canal!"
Crosley built an eight-story plant at 1329 Arlington Street in Camp Washington in 1922. The radio station moved to this building, with the new factory output increased to 2,000 radios a day. His offices were on the top floor and he had an `open door' policy towards other inventors and tinkerers. One man brought him an idea which became the Shelvador refrigerator, the first refrigerator with shelves inside the door.
A story is told about that encounter. Crosley wanted the inventor to accept a quarter a unit as royalties. The inventor wanted $10,000 as a lump sum for an investment he was planning to make. He got his large check, but if he would have accepted the royalty at the unit price, he would have been a millionaire! Soon the radio station outgrew its space so Crosley converted an empty Elks Lodge building at Ninth and Elm Streets to a radio broadcasting studio, and later to a television studio, and named this building on a corner "Crosley Square" in 1942. The six-story building had at its center two two-story ballrooms that were perfect for studio spaces. There was even a bowling alley in the sub-basement. After 1948, the Square became the center for what has been named the Golden Age of Television. Developing new live daily broadcasts rather than relying on syndicated programming created a following for entertainers Ruth Lyons and the 50-50 Club, and Bob Braun and the Midwestern Hayride. And of course, live Cincinnati Reds ball games.
Channel 5 was not called WLW-T by Cincinnatians as much as it was simply referred to as Crosley. Many broadcasts were made in color, years before color TV was the norm.
Always a leader in new technology, the 1929 Crosley Moonbeam was an experimental airplane piloted by Edward Niemeyer. Crosley built the Crosley Airport in Sharonville where the Ford Motor Company plant now stands. He enjoyed baseball in College Hill while growing up. He would occasionally be the announcer for the Opening Day game, which was broadcast from the grandstand's roof. The first Opening Day on the radio was April 15, 1924. In 1929 regular Reds games started to be broadcast on WSAI, a station Crosley acquired. Reds owner Sidney Weil put the team up for sale in 1933. The Depression had hurt ticket sales and the team was the worst in the National League. It had been mentioned that the team would be purchased by interests outside of Cincinnati and moved away from the city, and that more salary money was needed to attract better players.
Crosley purchased the Reds in 1934 with his radio fortune, then he spent $175,000 in preferred stock and later bought 51% of the common stock. He changed the name from Redland Field to Crosley Field, adding a radio and refrigerator replica atop the scoreboard. The Field could hold slightly less than 30,000 fans. In 1934 WLW hired Walter `Red' Barber as announcer. On May 24, 1935, Roosevelt, from his White House office once again pushed a button, this time to light the first major league night game. The president touched a telegraph key and the signal was relayed by Western Union to Crosley Field. That game was carried by the Mutual Broadcasting System. Unfortunately, the game was rained out and was played the next day.I
In 1956 the Field was landlocked and parking was very tight. Crosley approached the city to supply more parking, which it did in several lots that opened in 1959. When Crosley died suddenly March 28, 1961 of a heart attack, his daughter, Paige (Crosley) Kess became the next owner.
Prior to his death, Crosley had sold off all of his other interests. During his twenty seven years of ownership, twice the Reds played in the World Series. Kess's interest was sold to Bill DeWitt, the Reds' General Manager. DeWitt sold the club in 1966 to Francis Dale, the publisher of the Cincinnati Enquirer. Negotiations that had started when Crosley was the owner about building a new stadium continued under DeWitt and Dale. Riverfront Stadium was opened June 30, 1970. "Peanut Jim" Sheldon, a familiar sight at Crosley Field, dressed in a top hat and tails, continued to sell his bags of warm peanuts to the crowds at the Stadium until his death. Parts of old Crosley Field were saved and reinstalled at the Blue Ash Sports Center.
Mrs. Page Kess became head of the charitable Crosley Foundation until her death in 1994. The Fund was a benefactor to many causes including the University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati Nature Center, WCET, and the Museum Center.
Gwendolyn Aiken, Powel's wife of 29 years, died unexpectedly in Sarasota, Florida, at age 48 on February 26, 1939. Crosley married three more times, the last to Eva Brokaw in 1955.
The Crosley automobile came in 1939. It had two cylinders and got 50 miles to the gallon, weighed 1,800 pounds and held 4 gallons of gas. They sold for around $300. By 1946, a light sheet-metal engine was produced in Cincinnati while the cars were built in Marion, Indiana. This engine was referred to as the COBRA (copper brazed) engine.
It developed leak problems because the welds would disintegrate and for a time Crosleys developed a poor reputation because of the problem. The car company needed a continual influx of cash from Crosley every few months to keep production running.
Production ceased during the war years. His car didn't boom until after the war, with the best sales occurring in 1948. The Crosley was offered in a variety of body styles: sedan, wagon, convertible, and pick-up truck. His cars now had a four-cylinder engine and he offered four-wheel disc brakes by 1949, after also switching to a cast-iron engine, but the reputation of his automobile had been sullied by the problems of the earlier engine. Production costs increased. Production ceased on July 3, 1952 after 72,000 were built. By 1957 Crosley had lost over a million dollars on his car production from correcting engine claims. Americans just weren't interested in small cars at that time, gasoline was inexpensive (20 cents a gallon), and an oil embargo wasn't in anyone's nightmares. When Crosley died in 1961, the Volkswagen Beetle was scurrying across the highways.
Crosley moved from College Hill in the late 1920s, building "Pinecroft" on seventy-three acres off of Kipling Road. He had been purchasing land there for several years while living on Davey Avenue. Built in a Tudor style, his mansion contained a 1929 Skinner organ that Gwendolyn would play. The organ was later moved to the Cincinnati Museum Center. Kipling was a country road back then and subdivisions now stand where the deer grazed. The Franciscan Sisters of the Poor purchased 43 acres of his estate and built Providence Hospital, opened in 1971. It is now owned by Mercy Hospital Mount Airy and has been opened for tours in conjunction with special events. The 13,300 sq. foot English Tudor mansion is being restored and was nominated to the National Register of Historic Places.
Across the street, 2341 Kipling is the house that Powel Crosley Jr. built for his son, Powel Crosley III. At the time of Powel Crosley Jr.'s death in 1961, the residence on a seven-acre site was inherited by his daughter, Martha Page Crosley Kess. The following year it was owned by her son Lewis Crosley and was his home until 1968. Like Pinecroft this house is a modified Norman Tudor style.
The description of life at the Crosley estate was written by Greta H. Kappes, daughter of Walter A. Harry, superintendent of the estate for seventeen years: "There was a courtyard on the Crosley estate that was bordered by a five-car garage and three greenhouses with their adjoining work shed. There was a small building across the courtyard from the main garage that also housed cars--usually two small Crosley cars... My Dad grew gardenias, orchids, and an assortment of other plants and flowers in the greenhouses. For summer show, he skillfully planted formal gardens on the grounds. Most of the large trees visible on the estate today were planted by my father or members of his crew. The hundreds of daffodils which are so prominent in the spring were also planted during his tenure... There were other employees who also lived on the estate. The chauffeur was not only a good driver, but also an excellent mechanic, for it was his task to keep all the cars cleaned and in good running order so that they would be ready upon call. When a call came, a car was driven around to the front door ready for Mr. Crosley to step into. The little Crosley car was prominent on the estate; Mr. Crosley was usually the person who drove one, and he did so frequently.
"In the foyer of the home was a large pipe organ; the pipes were located in the attic... On the lower level of the mansion was a Baldwin concert grand piano. It was situated in the room adjoining the rathskeller. The walls of most of the rooms on the first floor were wood paneling. In the house there was an upstairs maid, a cook, and a downstairs maid... Each had one day a week off, her own living quarters, and worked a multitude of hours. On their day off, the chauffeur would drive them to the bus stop. He would also pick them up if a call came before his day ended. The swimming pool on the estate was lined with pale blue ceramic tile. It was located just off the rear entrance to the foyer of the house.
"The mansion was fashioned from a traditional English Tudor home. The stones on the outside were shipped from England to give the building its authentic appearance. The `guard houses' at the entrance to the estate off Kipling Road were built to emphasize the copy of a typical lord's estate in England, but they were never meant to be functional.
"Many prominent Cincinnatians were guests at Mr. Crosley's elegant parties. But most notable in my mind were the annual opening day celebrations he would hold in which the entire Cincinnati Reds team was invited to the mansion. The acreage of the Crosley Estate did extend down to Banning Road. A tenant farmer and his family occupied a farm house near Banning. It was very rare for Mr. Crosley to drive down through that portion of the property."
During W.W. II Crosley accepted the contract to build the Voice of America radio station in Mason. VOA sent news and music around the world in the time of the Cold War. On a site one mile square and covered with 300 foot high radio towers, it started transmission in 1944 and ceased in 1994. The six transmitters put out 250,000 watts of power apiece. The government chose the site due to its high elevation. The towers are no longer standing, taken down in 1997, and an area there is now the Voice of America Park. The small switching station building still remains and has become a museum.
The Crosley Corporation did top secret work in developing a vacuum tube fuse for the Navy. It was so secret that the laboratory was across the street from the main Crosley plant and Powel Crosley Jr. himself didn't have access. Radio equipment for use in the field was also manufactured. That the company assembled `radar-sensitive proximity fuses was revealed in a recent article. The fuses were disguised en route to Lunken Airport by being packed in milk crates loaded in a milk truck.
The Crosley Corporation was resurrected in North Carolina by a small, private label company. Once again Crosley radios are available, along with Shelvadors, freezers, ranges, dishwashers, and microwaves. The Crosley name was bought from AVCO, which had purchased the Crosley product name and line in 1946. Crosley products are still sold by small, independent distributors rather than to large store chains. An extensive line of reproduction radios are available, from the 1930's mirrored, round Bluebird to the 1946 Truetone.
A bit of Crosley history is at Sarasota Bay, Florida. Overlooking the Bay, Powel and his first wife, Gwendolyn, built "Seagate," a 21-room winter house. The estate and Mediterranean Revival-style mansion was built by Crosley in 1929, costing $350,000. It was used by the family until 1939 when Mrs. Crosley died there. A preservation effort is being made to restore the mansion and save the surrounding ecologically-sensitive wetland.
Cincinnati Enquirer, This is Crosley Square...Signing Off, June 6, 1999.