Hebert: Sparks of history: Saving a ChampionWritten by Guest Author | | GuestAuthor@toledofreepress.com
When West Toledoan Jeff Schneider began working for Champion Spark Plug in 1970, he was doing what so many other young men and women of the area had done before him: securing a job and paycheck at a successful Toledo factory that promised good wages, a pension and a future.
And like so many others, Schneider followed other family members into the Champion family of workers. In Schneider’s case, his father had worked for Champion for decades before him and his mother had also worked there for a time.
Schneider’s story is not unusual. For Toledo was a city that flourished with industry and opportunity for over a century. Those in need of a paycheck could usually find one among the long list of the big smokestack companies that called Toledo home: Willys-Overland, Doehler-Jarvis, Sheller-Globe, DeVilbiss, Libbey-Owens-Ford, Libbey Glass, Auto-Lite, Buckeye Brewing, Toledo Scales, Chevrolet, Mather Spring, Questor, Interlake Steel, American Ship and Champion, just to name a few.
But as many of these industrial giants fell to the winds of economic change over the years, the list shortened considerably. Some of the names remain. Most do not. What were once proud temples of American industry and productivity have closed their gates forever, their workers and legacies furloughed to fate. As factories closed down or moved out of town, they were erased from the local landscape, their bricks and steel and dreams reduced to piles of rubble.
And so it was for Champion Spark Plug in the 900 block of Upton, between Dorr Street and Nebraska Avenue. Felled by wrecking machines more than a decade ago, the buildings’ remains still lie in broken pieces.
For Schneider and others who spent much of their lives in that factory, the rubble is a bittersweet reminder of what Toledo used to be. In some ways, it’s an insult to thousands of men and women who devoted their lives to a company and product once synonymous with the city’s proud industrial heritage.
Champion moved to Toledo in 1910 from Boston, when owners Robert and Frank Stranahan cut a deal to provide all of the spark plugs for Willys-Overland in Toledo, and later for Ford in Detroit. Over nine decades, Champion employed thousands of Toledo workers and produced millions of spark plugs used in vehicles around the world. The Champion badge and brand were as famous as Jeep.
By the 1990s though, the Stranahan family had sold the company to Cooper Industries, where it was then spun off to Federal-Mogul, which moved its operations completely out of Toledo. Soon after, the buildings were reduced to heaps of brick and steel.
On a recent urban expedition back to the ignoble brick pile at Upton and Nebraska, Schneider and a fellow former Champion worker Tim Lohman went looking for the coveted symbol of that one-time industrial icon, namely the 1916 cornerstone. They had been told it was still there, but weren’t sure where it might be amid the jumble of junk. Eventually, they spotted it.
“It was just lying in the debris,” Schneider said. “It was exciting. I started jumping up and down and couldn’t believe we had actually found it.”
The granite stone was intact. The only thing missing was the time capsule of green glass. Only a few shards were left in the hollowed-out compartment where it must have been placed. It’s not certain what might have been inside or who took it.
What Schneider and Lohman were certain of was that they had to get the stone out of the debris field. Within a few months, including a call to Rep. Marcy Kaptur’s office, the former co-workers hatched a plan to rescue the 500-pound block of stone from the grip of the ruins. Kaptur was eager to help in the effort, as her mother Anastasia was an early and longtime worker at Champion and Kaptur herself had worked there during her summer breaks from college.
Last fall, the plan turned to action. With a front-end loader from A.A. Boos construction, the big stone was lifted from the dirt and debris and set onto a rental trailer. Within minutes, the iconic block was whisked away from an uncertain fate. It now sits in an undisclosed location ready for a new future.
What that future may be is still undecided. Schneider hopes it will be one that helps tell the story of Champion Spark Plug and the thousands of workers who made it a “champion” among Toledo companies. He’s hoping the stone can be displayed in a public park or venue somewhere in the city, perhaps set on a pedestal of original brick from the factory, as a monument to the workers and company.
“That’s what it’s all about,” said Schneider, who said he has contacted numerous agencies and groups and has found considerable interest. “A lot more people are interested than I had expected.”
He thinks Wildwood Preserve Metropark would be an ideal place to showcase the stone and the story of Champion, given its background as the Stranahan Estate and the hundreds of thousands of visitors every year who would see it there.
In the meantime, Schneider and a group of other like-minded former Champion workers are working on assembling hundreds of photographs and other historic documents for a commemorative book about Champion and its workers. It’s a work in progress and a labor of love for Schneider, who said he enjoys all of this research because not only is he a history buff, but he “grew up with Champion.”
It was a big part of his family’s life and he feels a sense of duty to memorialize the history, adding, “If I don’t do it, I don’t know who else will.”
Email Toledo Free Press columnist Lou Hebert at email@example.com.