Current Issue

Wacky World of Rubber: Blimp's home getting its due

Comments Email
Photo by Goodyear Wingfoot One flies over the company's airship hangar at Wingfoot Lake in Suffield, Ohio.

History is tucked into unlikely places.

I grew up in Canton, Ohio, a city that pays tribute to history as the home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, President William McKinley presidential library and monument and National First Ladies' Library.

Likewise, my family valued history, and I was taught at an early age to appreciate the stories that shaped our communities or our own family connections to it. We'd take Saturday drives to unlikely places, visit small museums or local libraries just to learn more about the town we'd driven through.

History's funny like that. It's so easy to drive right by it without noticing it at all.

Goodyear's Wingfoot Lake Hangar may be one of those places that is wrapped in history, but often taken for granted. Now, 100 years after the hangar's construction, that is going to change in one small way. On Aug. 16, Goodyear will unveil an Ohio Historical Marker at the Wingfoot Lake Hangar in Suffield, bringing official recognition as a prominent Ohio landmark.

In 1910, Goodyear established its aeronautics department, which was tasked with "marketing rubber-infused fabrics and coatings for airplanes and lighter-than-air craft," according to the blimp's official website. Two years later, the company began building and competitively flying balloons in 1913.

The hangar began to take shape four years after that.

Goodyear, in 1916, purchased 720 acres of land in Suffield with the intention of using it as a flying field and airship manufacturing site. The property included a lake, then called Fritch's Lake, which provided water power for the grist mill and was a reserve source of water for the factories located a few miles away.

Photo by Goodyear Goodyear's original Akron-based blimp fleet launched from Wingfoot Lake on Nov. 4, 1930, and flew in formation over Akron and the Goodyear Airdock. The aerial blimp parade included the Pilgrim, Neponset, Vigilant, Mayflower, Defender and Puritan.

Construction on the facility began in 1917, the same time the lake was renamed Wingfoot Lake, a reference to the tire maker's logo, which pays homage to Mercury, the Roman god of travelers, shopkeepers and merchants.

Goodyear began making airships for the U.S. Navy in March 1917, but the hangar in Suffield was not yet complete so the first airship prototype was constructed within a large amusement park building in Chicago. Once completed, the ship was brought to Wingfoot Lake where test flights were conducted. A second airship, also constructed in Chicago, soon joined the first in the skies over Akron.

By the next year, the Navy had ordered 15 Goodyear-built airships.

The tire maker began operating its own airships in 1919.

And the hangar, now set to receive historical site designation, bore witness to nearly all of it.

Throughout its 100 years, it has seen significant changes in the design of the airships and the technologies they carry. From lighted panels that share warm greetings and marketing messages to the cameras that have captured bird's eye views of significant sporting events, the hangar has been there.

The hangar also was there during the bustle and commotion in the 1940s when Goodyear constructed airships and conducted training that would help support the Allies' efforts in World War II.

In all, since 1917, Goodyear designed and built more than 300 blimps for public relations and defense applications. Many of those were constructed at the Wingfoot Lake Hangar.

Photo by Goodyear Four Goodyear blimps fly in formation over the company's Wingfoot Lake airship hangar near Suffield, Ohio following the christening of the Spirit of America in 2002.

The story of the tire maker's famous aircraft is rich and intriguing. Even simply scratching the surface of the story unearths beautiful black-and-white photographs of famous people christening blimps and seemingly improbable tales of math and science helping big dreams become reality.

Just about anyone living in Northeast Ohio has stories of their own that add to the rich history of the airships and the hangar. Akron-area residents tell stories of looking up on sunny, summer days and seeing the blimp lazily floating its way through the skies.

And that's historic, too.

All of the memories made with children, parents and grandparents craning their necks and shielding their eyes from the sun in an effort to catch the blimp—that's part of the hangar's history. For those people, being in the moment, feeling the sun shine warm on their cheeks and seeing the blimp fly overhead with a soft and lazy hum, that's something they don't forget.

All that history—the big and the small—adds up to make the blimp and its home hangar a special part of the Northeast Ohio landscape.

And while time has changed the blimp—designs and airships have come and gone—Wingfoot Lake Hangar has remained the constant.

For more than 100 years, it's been a consistent, quiet part of history.

It's time the hangar got some of its own recognition. And during the facility's 100th year, just ahead of plans to christen Goodyear's newest blimp, seems as good a time as any.

Erin Pustay Beaven is the online content editor for Rubber & Plastics News. She is an appreciator of life's littlest treasures, a reader of great books and supporter of the Green Bay Packers and Cleveland Indians. Erin is an advocate for libraries, arts education and PBS. Follow her on Twitter at @EBeavenCrain.