Yellow Springs: 1928-1943
Installment 8: 1928 to 1943
Depression colored all parts of village life
Out-of-work men hanging around the potbellied stove at Deaton’s Hardware. Homeless “wayfarers” given a night’s free shelter at the local jail. A robbery at the Miami Deposit Bank.
While Yellow Springs’ diversified economy may have postponed the Great Depression’s effects, by 1930 the country’s hard economic times colored almost every aspect of village life. The Depression brought fear and hardship, but it also sparked a heightened sense of community spirit, of neighbors helping each other. And, true to Yellow Springs’ heritage, the village faced its economic crisis with a healthy dose of creativity and innovative ideas.
“Prospects are that this is going to be a very hard winter for many families and they will need outside help,” read a Nov. 18, 1930, Yellow Springs News article announcing a Community Chest drive. “Many men and women of the community have not been able to get work for weeks at a time.”
A few weeks later Mayor D.H. Fitts appealed in the News for men’s shoes and socks because “to date 70 wayfarers have been furnished lodging at the village jail.” Most were older men who had bare ankles and shoddy footwear.
The paper also carried news of bankruptcies, such as that of nearby resident A.U. Confer, whose assets were listed at $9,720 and debts at $16,351.
Crime increased, both small and large. The Dec. 19 News reported the theft of Christmas gifts from Mrs. B.R. Skinner. On February 26, 1931, the paper broke the news of robbers who made off with $1,395 from the Miami Deposit Bank. “While nothing has been given out it is said that some damaging evidence has been unearthed that may involve local talent in the holdup,” the News reported.
The Depression also rocked Antioch College. By 1932 the college had lost 50 students, mostly young men who needed to support their families, according to a paper written by former Antioch student Jan Oldt. Co-op jobs shrank and faculty voted to receive only 55 percent of their salaries rather than lay off colleagues.
Especially destitute Antioch students formed a “hard times group,” which was given a reduced tuition of $300 and expected to perform lawn mowing and baby-sitting duties for faculty members, according to Oldt’s paper.
In 1931 Yellow Springs businessmen tried to spur consumerism by sponsoring a “Prosperity Campaign,” in which retail stores offered “prosperity money,” which could be used to buy special items, such as an “Aladdin lamp” from Deaton’s Hardware, or the cleaning and pressing of a man’s suit from Joe Holly’s Tailoring and Dry Cleaners.
While the campaign generated initial excitement, it failed to spark the economy. By early 1932, local business leaders who seemed beaten by the Depression were taken to task for their lack of hope and community spirit by owner Ernest Morgan, owner of the Antioch Bookplate Company, in his News column, “The Citizen.”
“The first and least important reason for the slow progress is that the business men doubt whether anything can be done and, lacking the faith, they also lack the necessary push,” wrote Morgan. “This lack of faith arises in large part from lack of imagination. Too few of our leading citizens have formed the habit of thinking in community terms. Serious obstacles serve to discourage them rather than challenge them to greater effort.”
Never one to shrink from a challenge or suffer a shortage of hope and new ideas, Morgan, along with other village leaders, attempted to ease people’s woes by creating for Yellow Springs its own economy. While the yearlong economic experiment offered mixed results, it gained nationwide attention as a model of community independence.
The Yellow Springs Exchange was the idea of Ernest’s father, Antioch College President Arthur Morgan, who envisioned that small communities could become economically self-sufficient through a barter system, in which individuals exchange goods and services based on need. To allow for a wider variety of goods and services, he formed the Midwest Exchange as a regional clearinghouse.
The Yellow Springs Exchange’s first officers were Ernest and Arthur Morgan, Homer Corry, Walter Kahoe, Bessie Moore, C.A. Bock, A.G. Bookwalter, A.D. Henderson and C.O. Schaub, according to a research paper on the Exchange by former Antioch student Gardner Brown.
The Exchange opened for business Oct. 1, 1932, in a downtown building next to Antioch Bookplate that had been purchased by Arthur Morgan. Although organizers hoped for a large crowd, only five people attended the opening, Antioch student Anne Fildey wrote in a paper on the venture. In an interview with Fildey, Arthur Morgan said, “The people were interested but skeptical. They thought it might be a good idea but were not going to be the first to try the new idea out. It was just too radical.”
The store featured hundreds of varieties of food, many kinds of dry goods and all manner of clothing, furniture and auto supplies.
The Exchange also offered work by skilled craftsmen, according to its newsletter. Doctors, nurses, dentists, accountants and engineers were also on call.
The currency of exchange used by the venture was scrip, which was designed and printed by Ernest Morgan.
Gradually, the Exchange organizers won over at least part of the village, according to Brown, and within three months became increasingly popular among Antioch students and townspeople. One organizer reported that “$1,000 passes over the counter weekly at the store.”
As well as offering products and services, the Yellow Springs Exchange promoted a philosophy of community-building.
“The heart and soul of The Exchange project is a spirit of responsibility and fair play among those who deal with it, and a willingness to put in goods and services before taking anything out,” Ernest Morgan wrote in the Exchange’s newsletter. “Whenever an exchange is made, it should, if possible, benefit both parties equally. It is contrary to the spirit of The Exchange for either party to try to get the better of a bargain.”
That spirit of community had already taken hold and many remember the Depression years as times of togetherness. Local historian Don Hutslar, who was a boy at the time, remembers social events when he went with his parents and their friends to catch frogs in a nearby stream, which were then cooked up and shared by all. On Jan. 18, 1932, the News reported that “the neighbors of the Corry and Grinnell locality gave a very fine demonstration of what is called neighborly helpfulness” when they got together and shucked all the corn of an ailing villager.
But in less than a year, the Yellow Springs Exchange folded. Its demise was linked to Arthur Morgan’s new position with the Tennessee Valley Authority, and with the Exchange’s inability to provide coal and gasoline, two items much in demand.
However, the Exchange provides part of the story of how Yellow Springs survived the Great Depression. Several years later, the village had not only survived but prospered, and a 1939 economic survey outlined the healthy state of local business. Local population in 1939 had grown to 1,595, according to the survey, compared to 1,264 in 1920.
The survey said: “Yellow Springs has shown the opposite trend from the surrounding country and Clifton, which have steadily declined.”
Vernet founded leading Yellow Springs company
In the mid-1930s a tall, dark-haired, gregarious man named Sergius Vernet cut a striking figure as he walked each morning from his home to his laboratory in the basement of the Antioch College Science Building. His makeshift lab formed the beginning of the Vernay Patents Company, a tiny operation that grew to become Vernay Laboratories, a leading Yellow Springs business for more than 70 years.
As much as any single person in Yellow Springs history, Sergius Vernet left his mark on village life. Described by Scott Sanders, the Antioch University archivist, as “very smart, very generous,” Vernet made Yellow Springs a better place with his intelligence, his philanthropy and his passion for equal rights.
Vernet’s tiny basement space housed a “Rube Goldberg” apparatus, according to an Antioch alumni bulletin article at the time, “a fantastic arrangement of tubes and spigots and wires and pipes that you put a solution in here and another mixture in here and out comes something called simply, ‘the chemical.’ ”
At the time, Vernet was working to develop a new type of thermostat. A man who already held 30 patents for new inventions when he came to Antioch in 1933, Vernet invented the Vernatherm, a thermostat designed to calibrate tiny changes in temperature. Initially used in automobiles, the device was later to appear in most tanks and airplanes during World War II.
For the Vernatherm, necessity was most definitely the mother of invention.
“On many occasions,” Vernet was quoted in a Springfield News article, “I have been faced with the necessity of using a thermostat which would be accurate, simple and powerful. No such thing existed although there were many thermostats which were satisfactory in cases where power was not necessary. I determined to make a thermostat for which there would unquestionably be a good market. There, in a nutshell, is why inventions are made.”
An inventor since the age of 19, Vernet was in his 30s and lived in Philadelphia when he was lured to the Antioch College campus by Arthur Morgan, who initiated the Antioch Industrial Research Institute to attract inventors to the college. Morgan envisioned offering research space and equipment to inventors in exchange for a share of profits, if there were any, and the opportunity for co-op jobs for students, Paul Graham, a former chemist at Vernay, wrote in a 1998 Yellow Springs News article.
A visionary about human rights as well as science, Vernet counted among his small group of employees women, African Americans and Japanese Americans. According to Graham, Vernet believed his employees should unionize, so, when he separated from Antioch and incorporated the business as Vernay Laboratories in 1946, he invited a union to be part of the organization.
“Labor troubles? Employee turnover? Plant protection? The Vernay Laboratories have none of them,” the Antiochian reported. “All employees are members of the CIO United Electrical Radio and Machine Workers Local 768, and have won some renown for their model contract. There’s a suggestion box, a shop steward, a labor-management committee
. . . Employee turnover, except for the three-month co-op shift, doesn’t exist.”
A lively conversationalist, Vernet enjoyed entertaining, and the home he shared with his wife became known as the “Greenwich Village” of Yellow Springs, the Antiochian reported. The paper also said that Vernet was well-known for playing practical jokes, including the time he “planted Antioch students in the Glen dressed in various startling costumes by means of which he hoped to overawe several visiting Easterners.”
In 1953 Vernet and his wife, Suzanne, established the Vernay Foundation, for the purpose of benefitting the village they had grown to love. A year later, the Foundation provided most of the funding for the new Community Children’s Center, and in 1963 it contributed $100,000 in memory of President John F. Kennedy for the construction of a new library.
In 1968 Sergius Vernet died suddenly of a heart attack. At the time of his death, he held more than 100 patents for his inventions.
Antioch College receives ‘gift of nature’
As a student at Antioch College, Hugh Taylor Birch spent countless hours in the Glen. He went on scientific expeditions with Edward Orton, a professor, or sometimes wandered alone among the Glen’s natural features, even among the areas controlled by private landowners.
“He dreamed of a time when it should belong to the college, so that the students might go there at pleasure without danger of being ordered away,” Lucy Morgan wrote in her book The Story of Glen Helen, which was published in 1930. Birch even hoped that some day he could give the land to Antioch, Morgan said.
In 1929, Birch was able to do that, when, 60 years after he left Antioch, he donated about 800 acres of land to the college in memory of his daughter, Helen Birch Bartlett, who had died four years earlier.
In a sense, the tale of Birch’s generosity has taken on the status of myth. He had much help, and cooperation, in building this natural monument to Helen. Much of what today is called Glen Helen was divided among many owners before Birch consolidated the land. In fact, Birch did not own the Glen until the year he gave it to the college.
When he took over as the president of Antioch in 1920, Arthur Morgan was worried that the Glen, which was controlled by the estate of John Bryan, the wealthy landowner who died a few years earlier, would be sold and turned into an amusement park. Bryan’s estate refused to sell the land to Antioch, Morgan wrote in an undated manuscript titled, “How Antioch Acquired Glen Helen,” which the News published in 1979, so the land around the Yellow Spring was acquired as a water source.
For a brief time, the village received its water from the spring, but it was not an ideal source: the water’s high iron content turned everything it touched, including faucets, sinks and bath tubs, orange. Three years later, Antioch secured its first part of the Glen, from Bryan’s estate.
In the 1920s, Antioch “rediscovered” Birch, who had practiced law in Chicago and made his fortune in the real estate, in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. Birch’s father, Erastus Birch, brought his family to Yellow Springs in 1857 and was a trustee of the college in its early years. Arthur Morgan and his wife, Lucy, “cultivated” Birch’s interest in the college “to the point where he moved to Yellow Springs for his summer residence,” Algo D. Henderson, who succeeded Morgan as president of Antioch, wrote in a memo about Birch in 1976.
Morgan and Birch “obviously shared some common interests,” including a love of the outdoors and Antioch, said Bob Parker, former head of the Glen Outdoor Education Center, Antioch faculty member and an amateur historian. “Morgan recognized Birch had something to offer.” That included money, something that Antioch did not have much of.
Parker called Birch an “unusual guy” who “wants to help but he wants to be recognized.” Henderson described Birch as a “large, formal type of man,” whose full beard and moustache made him an imposing figure. He was “very conservative, an individualist,” as well as intelligent and a “good conversationalist” who was “at his best in talking about nature,” Henderson said.
As a student at Antioch, Birch was the pitcher on the college’s baseball team, which lost one of the first ever baseball games to the Cincinnati Red Stockings, and participated in the theater program. He enrolled in 1866 and tried to graduate in three years, but failed one class in what he planned to be his final. Though Birch is often listed as a member of the Antioch Class of 1869, he dropped out of Antioch after his third year and headed for Chicago to study law. He finally received an honorary degree in 1929.
In addition to Antioch, others controlled parts of the Glen in the 1920s, including Mrs. Jessie Armstrong and Mrs. Orlo G. Price, Arthur Morgan wrote. Birch purchased land from both women. Armstrong used her proceeds to help fund Antioch’s power plant, which went on-line in 1930, while Price used her profit to establish a “faculty fund” for the college.
“Little by little,” Birch was able to acquire and then consolidate most of modern Glen Helen. The college even turned what it owned over to Birch, so he could give it back to Antioch as part of his memorial. “Then he gave the college the whole bloody thing,” Parker said.
Helen Birch Bartlett, who died in 1925, “could not be better honored than by the lovely stretch of well-watered woodland that her father has given in her name to the young people of Antioch College,” Lucy Morgan wrote.
In addition, Hugh T. Birch saw the Glen as an extension of campus, a place of study for Antioch students. “For all the students of Antioch College Mr. Birch wished to make available the opportunity of knowing nature, which meant so much to him in his college days,” Robert Straker, the Antioch historian, wrote in 1937.
“After moving to Yellow Springs, Birch devoted his summers to the Glen,” Henderson wrote. “Almost every day he was in the woods, affectionately patting the trees, and hunting for new specimens of shrubs and wildflowers.”
Birch continued to support Antioch and the Glen. In 1937, Birch gave Antioch a statue of Horace Mann, the college’s first president. When he died in ’43 at the age of 94, Birch gave Antioch an endowment of $1 million and another $500,000 to maintain the Glen.
Birch built a summer home in the South Glen, and in 1930, he started working with Carmelo Ricciardi to build trails and bridges, plant trees and create ponds in the Glen. A stone mason who worked for Birch as his chauffeur in Massachusetts, Ricciardi also did all the stone work in the Glen, including the Inman Steps.
“They wanted it to be absolutely natural, and they wanted it to be that way forever,” said Jo Dunphy, Ricciardi’s daughter.
As Henderson wrote: “The Glen is a gift of nature. Antioch is not only its owner, but also its Trustee.”
By ‘militant approach to racial problems’—
Theatre integrated in 1942In 1942, when racial discrimination was practiced in much of Yellow Springs, a group of students and faculty at Antioch College and Wilberforce University worked quickly and quietly to end the practice of racial segregation at the Little Theatre, the local movie house.
The theatre, which today is called the Little Art Theatre, forced African Americans to sit in the back two rows, in a separate section that was roped off from the rest of the theatre’s seats. “As a student, if you wanted to go to the theatre with some of your schoolmates you couldn’t sit together,” said local historian Phyllis Lawson Jackson, who was a student at Bryan High School during the period.
The movie theatre’s practice of discrimination was normal for Yellow Springs during the early 1940s. Jackson, who is black, described the village during this period as having “two separate communities.”
“There was very little integration other than in the public schools,” she said. “Social life was segregated. Religious life was segregated.”
Because of the Little Theatre’s segregation policy, Jackson said, a lot of black residents never went to the movie house. Instead they went to the black movie theaters in Springfield or Dayton, she said. Jackson’s parents would not give her money to go to movies at the Little Theatre, and when she did get enough money to see a movie there, “it was not with my parents’ blessing,” she said.
On Feb. 19, 1942, just a few weeks after Ernest and Elizabeth Morgan purchased the Yellow Springs News and took over its management, the paper ran an editorial commenting on race relations in town: “We all know that much discrimination is practiced in Yellow Springs. The corn project, theatre, restaurants, even the Churches, find themselves doing it.” The editorial said that the practice could be challenged through “steady education” and by people working together “in a friendly way.”
Antioch students and Wilberforce faculty took this kind of approach when they successfully got the owner of the Little Theatre, Dick Denison, to change its seating policy.
Dean S. Yarbrough, who was a professor at Wilberforce at the time, said in a letter to Ellinor Salinger, an Antioch student who in 1955 wrote a paper on the incident, that it may have been his idea to challenge the movie house. Yarbrough, who advocated a “militant approach to racial problems,” wrote that during a meeting of a campus group, he suggested the group test his approach at the Little Theatre.
Five days later the group took action. Different accounts of what happened at the theatre exist. According to Yarbrough, people from Antioch and Wilberforce started entering the theatre around 7 p.m. for a 7:30 movie. The Wilberforceans sat in the black section, and the Antiochians sat in the white section. Shortly after the movie started, two African American students entered the theatre and sat in the front row, Yarbrough wrote.
An article on African Americans in Yellow Springs in the December 1961 Antioch Record reported that some African Americans students upon entering the theatre sat in the front row, while others sat behind the ropes. Jackson recalled that black students moved to the white area and white students moved to the black area.
All three versions stated that when Denison told the students to move, those behind the roped-off section moved throughout the theatre, defying the rules of the house. Denison could not do a thing.
“It was beyond the management’s control, with so many students moving,” Jackson said.
Denison was “infuriated,” the Record reported. Both the Record and Yarbrough said that Denison called the police, the Yellow Springs mayor, Lowell Fess, and even a Greene County court judge. All three refused to help the theatre owner because no one was breaking the law.
That night Denison took down the rope at the Little Theatre.
It appears that the accomplishment received little media coverage. The News did not cover it, though Ernest Morgan wrote an editorial on Dec. 3 commenting on Denison’s action and race relations in town. The editorial, titled “Progress,” said, “We commend Dick Denison for ‘removing the rope’ in the Little Theatre. Knowing his views on the question, we understand his reluctancy to take this step. The Ohio Law is perfectly clear in the matter of race discrimination, however, and any individual or group which has the will and the means to do so can call for its enforcement.” Morgan encouraged African Americans to ensure that the theatre remain desegregated by exercising “the privilege of sitting where they wish.”
Jackson called the desegregation of the theatre an “important part of the history of Yellow Springs,” but she was not sure if “it improved race relations at that time.”
Local resident Isabel Newman said it was “another step in breaking down barriers which were nationwide.”
Indeed, throughout the next two decades the civil rights movement would increase its activities in Yellow Springs. In December 1942, Antioch students staged a boycott of the popular Glen Cafe after the proprietor, Frank DeWine, refused to serve a black man. A number of committees were formed during and after World War II to improve race relations in town.
The Glen Cafe and Ye Olde Trail Tavern were the target of a number of lawsuits seeking to desegregate the restaurants. The owner of the Tavern opened his doors to African Americans in the late 1940s, but the Glen Cafe fought the suits, and reportedly did not serve blacks regularly until it changed ownership in the ’50s.
Local residents and students picketed Gegner’s Barber Shop for more than 10 years after the owner, Lewis Gegner, refused to cut the hair of African Americans. After a massive demonstration in 1964 that included over 100 arrests, Gegner closed his shop.
Activism brought war effort to Yellow Springs and Antioch College
Even though the United States was not yet involved, at the onset of World War II in the fall of 1939, Yellow Springs and Antioch College were looking ahead and speculating on the role Americans would and should play in the growing conflict.
Commentary on the subject appeared regularly in the weekly editions of the Record, the student newspaper at Antioch. In the fall of ’39, the Record took an informal poll asking male students if they would fight if the U.S. declared war on Germany. The response was mixed.
One student, Jack Booher, was poised to resist the fight. “There are going to be two guys missing on M-day: me and the guy they send after me,” he said.
Still others resigned themselves to the inevitable. “I’d be scared, but when the bands began to play, I guess I’d go,” Bill Harris said.
Antioch College President Algo Henderson said in the Record that the U.S. should “throw the full force of our moral support behind the Allied powers, selling them materials and munitions and helping them in whatever way possible short of actual participation.”
The student activism that had been fostered at Antioch during Arthur Morgan’s presidency in the 1920s and ’30s led to the formation of Socialist Party groups, which in the early 1940s rallied around the call for peace, according to a student paper on Antioch and WWII by David Wilson.
The Antioch Liberal Club formed to defend civil liberties, reject “war-fever” and support labor unions and federal welfare. The group organized a peace march through the village in November 1939 and later that winter sent a delegation of students to Washington, D.C., to protest the war.
Even while strong antiwar sentiment swept through Antioch, many students and faculty members were preparing for war.
The Antioch Foundry, which was sold by Antioch to General Motors in 1940, was manufacturing and selling military aircraft parts to the Lockheed company in California.
“Campus Frontiers,” a promotional film made by the college in 1942, reported that many students were contributing to the war effort through their co-op jobs. An article in the Christian Science Monitor a year later reported that 80 percent of Antioch’s co-op jobs were related to the war and that the Vernay Patents Company, started at an Antioch industrial institute, produced thermostats used in warplane engines.
When the U.S. joined the war at the end of 1941, student activism on campus turned toward supporting the troops for the quickest means to ending the war.
Although students on campus were busy sorting out their feelings and expressing their views, Yellow Springs may have been more anxious before the war started.
By February 1941, Ohio had called its third draft summoning Yellow Springs boys to training camps around the country. In April a group of local residents appealed to the community for donations on behalf of a local family, Fritz and Marie Treuer, who had a sister in Vienna who needed fare to escape the Nazi death camps in Poland.
By summer, Yellow Springs had become a member of the Patterson Field Defense area. And soon Miami Township Red Cross volunteers began collecting war relief clothing for Allied troops.
Four days after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the News published an announcement accounting for the local residents who had been on the island that morning. Everyone from Yellow Springs survived the attack, but local residents immediately started shoring up resources, and making emergency plans to secure life and property in case of an attack at home.
Henry J. Grote and James Ian were appointed co-coordinators of civilian defense activities under the 46 member Yellow Springs Council of Defense. The group gathered auxiliary police and fire personnel, trained first aid teams and organized air raid and bomb squads. The council also coordinated emergency response with the college, mapping out victim transport vehicles and locations and lining up makeshift hospital supplies and accommodations in case of a disaster.
On Feb. 18, 1942, Yellow Springs ran its first air raid drill. The same week, the News reported that 212 men had signed up to serve in the war.
Meanwhile, local businesses started advertising their products and services by associating them with the war effort. The post office sold defense stamps, the beauty salons boasted saving on aluminum and even the lumber company urged people to conserve wood, all in the name of “Defense!”
Rubber was also a precious commodity during the war, and Mayor Lowell Fess set up a commodity distribution committee to ration automobile tires.
A committee was collecting rubber by the summer, and residents soon found that sugar and gas were being rationed as well. Many scrap metal drives were also being held throughout the war.
By this time Antioch students had formed war relief committees to assist with correspondence with student service members, organize war relief suppers and plan for disaster through the campus war council.
In 1942 through the federal War Relocation Authority and with help from the American Friends Service Committee, the college also accepted a small group of Japanese American students whose families were imprisoned in internment camps. Alice Kozaki, Lois Noda, Nao Okuda, Mari Sabusawa (Michener), Fumiko Shitamae and Earl Yonehiro were among those who came to the college that year.
Antioch’s enrollment dropped severely when the U.S. entered the war, and the loss in tuition put the college in grave need of assistance. In November 1942, the U.S. government organized the Army Specialized Training Program, designed to educate Army and Navy enlisted men and save small schools that might otherwise have folded from low enrollment.
In the fall of 1943, 400 ASTP soldiers and seven administrators came to Antioch, nearly doubling the student body. To make room for the incoming servicemen, many civilian students had to find housing off campus. The college’s cafeteria was converted into an Army mess hall for ASTP students only; all others had to eat in the Tea Room.
The program had only been going a month and a half when Army commanders complained that the village sanitary system was spreading dysentery on campus. They said that if the situation was not immediately remediated the ASTP program would be shut down.
Though the Village fixed the sewage system, the army abandoned what was supposed to be at least a yearlong program at Antioch, forcing the school to take legal measures to recover the $60,000 it spent on improvements and extra faculty to accommodate the program for the semester.
President Henderson argued that the withdrawal was politically motivated and that Antioch was the victim of wartime hysteria.
Rumors soon surfaced that the army had been using the health issue as an excuse to withdraw from its contract after a former Antioch affiliate spread word that the college was “radical and that Antioch faculty were largely Communists who advocated complete, legal equality for Negroes,” David Wilson wrote in his student paper.
Not only did Antioch’s reputation suffer from the withdrawal, but the college was forced to reduce its staff, cut faculty salaries and temporarily close the cafeteria until the government settled and paid in full.
The Antioch, Yellow Springs power plant
By Scott Sanders
How Antioch College got its own central power plant may not seem the most interesting tale in the world, but it shows the industriousness and vision of Arthur Morgan, the Antioch president who in 1928 launched a building campaign that resulted in the college’s Science Building and the power plant.
After a reorganization in 1921, Morgan’s Antioch grew steadily in most all respects. This naturally led to an increasingly crowded campus that had virtually not changed since 1853. The more poorly equipped departments, namely the sciences, required immediate attention. Many agreed, especially two notables: Professor Clyde S. “Doc” Adams and Charles F. Kettering. Adams chaired the chemistry department and had a very personal interest in getting new science labs and classrooms. As vice president of General Motors, Kettering was the biggest of all big shots, and thanks to his friendship with Morgan, interested in Antioch as well.
The story, told several years ago by Adams, goes like this: He and physics instructor John Frayne drew up plans for a science building on the Adams’ dining room table, then hid them behind the cash register in the old Antioch Tea Room. During lunch there with Morgan, Kettering and others, the topic of new buildings came up. “Boss Ket,” as he was known, asked what they had in mind, so Adams produced the hidden plans along with cost estimates, and the Science Building was born. Kettering agreed to fund the entire project.
As proposed, the Science Building would be the largest on campus, and would require an immense furnace, one sure to take up valuable academic space. The construction of an outbuilding to provide heat became the best alternative. Adams found the most economical heating system generated electricity, and produced steam as a waste product. The wheels in Morgan’s mind whirred; why not centralize the entire college heating and electricity on a single power plant? In fact, he intended to power all of Yellow Springs through Antioch.
This was just the kind of exercise in self-reliance that Morgan lived for. Yellow Springs had drawn its electricity from Dayton Power & Light since 1920, an arrangement fraught with problems. Power lines from Dayton traversed heavily wooded country, and often came down in bad weather. DP&L customer service to the village had been less than desirable, and its contract expired in 1930.
The new power plant had to be finished by that time in order for Antioch to bid for the Village power contract.
Antioch located the structure in an old limestone quarry in Glen Helen just across Corry Street. To determine what machinery should be installed, the college placed a demand meter on the DP&L power line to gauge the village’s electrical usage. Antioch learned what Yellow Springs’ peak demand was, but an even more fascinating discovery was made: the power company had been overcharging the village for years.
DP&L’s dirty pool did not end there. Not wishing to lose such a lucrative contract, the company leaned on the principals involved in the power plant. The power company’s president informed Morgan that DP&L considered the college’s bid on the Yellow Springs contract “an unfriendly act.” The company obviously knew very little about Morgan, who could not be discouraged from anything he felt strongly about.
Evidence of DP&L’s tampering continued to mount. Delivery of control equipment supplied by General Electric experienced persistent delays. When Doc Adams questioned their sales rep, he found out the power company, one of GE’s best customers, was pressuring GE not to supply Antioch with its power plant equipment.
When Tom Lloyd, an electrical engineering instructor and the plant’s first director, gave a lecture in Xenia about independent power supply, DP&L responded by paying another visit to Morgan. This time, the vice president flatly stated there would be no more of this power plant talk, and that Morgan and the college could be “embarrassed.”
Fortunately, Antioch had a big brother to turn to in Boss Kettering. Outraged, he called a meeting of all the involved parties a few days before the power contract bidding, sharply criticized DP&L for its unethical practices, and that was that. DP&L gave no more trouble to Antioch after this meeting, and even adopted a conciliatory position on the power plant, indicating rather dramatically the level of Kettering’s influence.
Thereafter the only delays resulted from mechanical problems, not the meddling of unscrupulous business types. Antioch won the Village power contract in December 1929 and began supplying electricity to Yellow Springs in February, an arrangement that lasted over 15 years.
The college’s equipment proved more than adequate until World War II, when power usage overtaxed its boiler, two steam and one diesel generator. The greatest strain likely came from the Antioch Foundry, a manufacturer of war material that ran day and night casting aircraft parts.
Antioch subsequently gave up its role as a power broker in 1947, and soon after stopped producing electricity altogether.
• Scott Sanders is the archivist of Antioch University.
A version of this article originally appeared in the Antioch Record.