Crowell-Collier closing brought depression before demolition

Ticket information

The May 29 Crowell-Collier stage reading will begin at 7 p.m. with complimentary hors d’oeuvres and refreshments celebrating the unveiling of a display on Crowell-Collier. The play will follow, and the evening will conclude with beverages and desert with the author and cast members.

General admission tickets for Friday are $25 to the public, $20 to Clark County Historical Society members. Those planning to attend Friday’s performance are asked to make their purchases by Friday. Admission to Saturday’s 8 p.m. performance will be $10, either in advance or at the door.

Tickets are available from 10 a.m. Tuesdays through Fridays at the Heritage Center business office, 117 S. Fountain Ave., or by calling 937-324-0657.

“The roll of the presses in Crowell-Collier’s Springfield plant is like the throb of a giant heart. Behind that heartbeat, whose strength and vigor keep Crowell-Collier at the top among the world’s outstanding magazine publishers, are 2,725 employees.”

— “This is Crowell-Collier,” 1947

In the 36 years I’ve lived in Springfield, the brick buildings that stand shoulder-to-shoulder in the block bounded by Wittenberg and Lowry avenues and Main and High streets have slumped into industrial ruins.

Windows within reach of someone with a strong arm have been shattered.

Barrels filled with toxic chemicals have been stored there and removed.

Bricks have fallen out like rotted teeth and smashed on the sidewalk below.

Firefighters’ families have worried — and still do — that another plume of black smoke will summon their loved ones to hazardous duty there once again.

More than that, to an older generation, the deterioration points to a deeper problem: The structural damage done not just to the city’s economy but its confidence in December of 1956 when Crowell-Collier Publishing Co. announced it would immediately suspend publication of three magazines and close the doors of a plant that had provided a steady source of both employment and community pride since the late 19th century.

If the closing just before Christmas seemed cruel, things turned for the worse when those grieving their loss found it impossible to reach closure in the shadow of the lifeless complex that continued to dominate the downtown — so much that many wondered whether the “Springfield Spirit” another building urged them to catch was a virus to be avoided.

This spring, as crews started the decades-delayed demolition of one of the Crowell-Collier buildings, I began digging through the Heritage Center archives to research a play about the Crowell-Collier Publishing Co. Much of what I found along the paper trail back to 1887 has found its way into “Before the Bricks Fell: The Glory Days of Crowell-Collier Publishing.”

Staged readings of the play are scheduled for May 29 and 30 at the Heritage Center, with proceeds to benefit the Clark County Historical Society and Springfield StageWorks, whose actors will be featured.

I learned quite a few things while researching the play.

According to the 1881 Beers History of Springfield and Clark County, any county history that did not adequately mention the role played by Phineas P. Mast, whose manufacturing slogan was “energy, courtesy and laudable resolution,” would be like the play “Hamlet” with Hamlet removed.

Along with his nephew, Thomas J. Kirkpatrick, Mast founded “Farm & Fireside” with Kentucky printer John Crowell in 1887. Their publication’s two-word title announced their business strategy: To provide news and advertisements to appeal to the man tending the farm and the woman tending the hearth or fireside.

Kirkpatrick, by the way, invented a bicycle seat named for him and was a leader among those who rode the big-wheeled bicycles of the day.

As it turns out, the female consumer is largely responsible for turning Mast, Crowell & Kirkpatrick Co. into a success. The company’s purchase and management of what first became “Ladies’ Home Companion,” then “Woman’s Home Companion,” provided the money that paid for the first building on the Crowell-Collier complex, the section at the corner of Wittenberg and High streets.

Before Crowell acquired it, the magazine had been “a waif on the troubled sea of western journalism,” according to the 1897 Crowell booklet, “Story of a Great Woman’s Magazine.”

Fortunately, “discerning eyes foresaw that the little wanderer represented in its way something that the refinement of every eastern and western home would ultimately require and demand.”

By 1906, Crowell, who had bought out his partners, was himself bought out by gravure printing expert “Old Joe Knapp,” who leveraged the power of the printing plant Crowell had built with the polish of New York writers and advertisers to muscle his way into a new era of mass magazine distribution.

After selling out, Crowell became a leader at the Kelly-Springfield Motor Truck Co., which built trucks Gen. John Pershing used in trying to track down Mexican revolutionary Poncho Villa. Although Pershing never caught Villa, the venture did give the general his first experience with the military uses of trucks, experience that helped him when he led the American Expeditionary Force to Europe in World War I.

Not only did Knapp keep the Crowell name and keep people employed in Springfield, in 1920, flowers grown in what then was known as “The Rose City” were offered as premiums to subscribers renewing their subscriptions to “Woman’s Home Companion.”

One of the ferns offered was the Springfieldii, described as being of “Ostrich plume type, the fronds luxuriant and feathery, of a rich, dark green – an ideal fern for window boxes.” How all this is related to the woman’s role in fighting Communism is revealed in the play.

By 1920, Knapp had added Collier’s magazines and books to his growing business, although he didn’t give Collier’s equal billing with Crowell for some years. His publishing house did, however, put out a magazine called The Mentor. A magazine with an educational mission, its advertisements offered its readers some rare book offerings, including “The 10 Commandments in the Animal World.”

In the 1930s, The American, another magazine printed in Springfield, carried hard news stories about deficit spending in the New Deal Era, concerns over the fate of Jews in Europe, and the Tennessee Valley Authority, mentioning former Antioch president and Dayton flood fighter Arthur Morgan.

It also carried an interesting ad for Lucky Tiger Hair Tonic. The mention that the company made Lucky Tiger Magic Shampoo and Lucky Tiger Hair Dressing for Dry Scalp seemed fine. Less appealing was the mention of Lucky Tiger Antiseptic Ointment for Ringworm, Athlete’s Foot and Skin Infections.

All that advertising and editorial activity effectively sheltered Springfield’s then Crowell-Collier employees from the Depression, because Old Joe Knapp’s magazines experienced an increase, not decrease, is circulation during those times.

Leading the way was Woman’s Home Companion with a circulation of 3.9 million magazines a month, a reputation for women’ writers of the highest literary caliber, and ably managed by Gertrude Lane, whom Old Joe called “the best man in the business.”

There was much more, of course, before the sudden, chaotic closing of Crowell-Collier brought a depression of multiple dimensions to Springfield — all of it before the bricks began to fall.

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