CLEVELAND - When Alexander Winton pushed forward on the throttle, giving his small car the gas on what would be a 9-day Cleveland-to-New York City trip, he drove into the history books. In 1987, his was the first such car-driving trip over such a distance in the U.S.
At the Crawford Auto Aviation Collection of the Western Reserve Historical Society, Winton and other pioneers in Cleveland auto and aviation ranks are now better highlighted with changes made at the Society. There is a greater emphasis on the role Cleveland played in putting the world on wheels and wings. Between 1897 and the early 1920s, Cleveland was the automobile capital of the world.
"We were really Detroit before Detroit," said Gainor Davis, president of the Western Reserve Historical Society.
At the museum at 10825 East Boulevard in Cleveland's University Circle neighborhood, Cleveland-made cars are in abundance. At one time, 80 car manufacturers were headquartered in Cleveland. Eight of them were sizeable businesses that made the Winton, the Chandler, the Baker and the Jordan automobiles.
The vintage cars are represented on the floor of the Crawford collection. Ed Pershey, vice president of the WRHS, beams as he walks among the old cars, which have been restored and polished. Both he and Davis beam at the newly-renovated area housing the car collection.
"In the 1890s, there were electric cars, magnetic cars, steam cars and all sorts of alternative energy cars," noted Davis.
Hanging from the ceiling of the room are several airplanes that were made in Cleveland. On video screens, there are films showing the role the city played in its automobile and aviation industries. Among the eye-catching films are those of the Cleveland National Air Races, which were the premier aviation events of the 1930s.
Pershey draws connecting lines between those days and today. "If you think about it, NASA Glenn, which is out at Cleveland Hopkins Airport, is knee-deep in research on aeronautics, and aviation, and space," he said.
Automobiles and airplanes have been in Cleveland's bloodline since the turn of the last century when the city was hailed as the sixth largest in the country and hope to one-sixth of America's millionaires. Pershey said the millionaire businessmen had a vision to increase the city's footprint in their industries, which spawned companies which dealt with lubricants, auto parts, and airplane parts.
The business leaders believed in Cleveland so much, they were the brains and dollars between the Great Lakes Exposition of 1936 and '37. The Exposition, held on the Cleveland Lakefront adjacent to the old Cleveland Municipal Stadium and on the civic mall next to City Hall, was basically a world's fair. Three million visitors from outside the city attended the Exposition, which highlighted Cleveland's industrial muscle.
Although there is still auto parts manufacturing in northeast Ohio, the heavy-duty footprint in the city is not as it was decades ago when tens of thousands of workers were employed in various industries. Pershey suggested business, industrial, political and civic leaders should study Cleveland's historic past for ideas on how the community should push into the future.
"Of course, education plays a key part," said Pershey, contending city schools have to be upgraded in order to provide a well-skilled workforce for any jobs today.
With vintage cars on its floor and airplanes hanging from its rafters, the Crawford Auto Aviation Collection of the Western Reserve Historical Society provides a good view of the Cleveland past in automobile and aviation history. As well, it provides thought on how Cleveland can better position itself for the future.
Sweeping his arm in a way to point to the entire collection, Pershey spoke of the historical significance of the cars and airplanes. "This is a reminder of what was done and what can be done through investment and a 'can-do' attitude," he said.
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