The story of John Kropf’s childhood is best written with crayons. So is his family’s history. And perhaps a large part of Sandusky, Ohio’s tale of innovative industrial heritage.
Kropf, an attorney living in the Washington, D.C. area, is a descendant of one of the founders of The American Crayon Company, an anchor of industry in Sandusky for decades. Kropf presents the human story behind that history of manufacturing in the recently released “Color Capital of the World: Growing Up with the Legacy of a Crayon Company.”
Deftly weaving together the stories of his family, the company, and the city, Kropf creates a vivid portrait of the build-boom-bust of The American Crayon Company, and its impact in Sandusky and on residents — including his family — over the decades to today.
Kropf discusses the book — his story, his family’s, surprising (at least to me) early uses for crayons (e.g., a means of more humanely branding cattle), and more — in conversation with “Inside Our Towns” host and producer, Evan Sanford.
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The book was also featured on the front page of The Sandusky Register, which you can read online here. A valuable bonus: that writeup features an end-note “History Lesson,” courtesy of the Sandusky Library’s history blog that provides some further insights into the American Crayon factory, which was demolished in 2017 after having been vacant for years.
Kropf and Sanford discuss a bit of what’s happening in Sandusky now towards the end of the episode, and James Fallows reported a bit of that here, but the fuller picture of the future of what was once the Color Capital is still being written. As it is, taking a look back at yesterday’s innovators can help today’s in Sandusky and other places.
“History is transformative,” Kropf tells Sanford. “We’re looking at what’s next. And I think if you stop and look at these stories, it might inspire you to come up with your own idea about what’s next for your town or your area.”
“Color Capital of the World: Growing Up with the Legacy of a Crayon Company,” (134 pages with a 12-page color insert) is published by the University of Akron Press. It is a part of the Ohio History and Culture series.
Kropf’s debut book, “Unknown Sands: Journeys Around the World’s Most Isolated Country,” about Turkmenistan, was published in 2006. His writing has appeared in The Baltimore Sun, Florida Sun-Sentinel, The Washington Post, and elsewhere.
We provide the Otter.ai-generated transcript below mainly as a guide to listening to the actual discussion — and with awareness that it contains typos and will differ in some word-by-word details from what you may hear for yourself. The time-stamp numbers you see are roughly cued to the portions of the “Inside Our Towns” episode.
Evan Sanford 00:07
Hi there, and welcome to this edition of Inside Our Towns. My name is Evan Sanford. I’m a contributor for the Our Towns Civic Foundation, and also the executive director of the Chamber of Commerce in Redlands, California. Now to our guests today. John Kropf is the author of “Color Capital of the World: Growing Up with a Legacy of a Crayon Company,” and his previous book, “Unknown Sands: Journeys around the World’s Most Isolated Country.” His writing has appeared in the Baltimore Sun, Florida, Sun Sentinel, Washington Post and elsewhere. Kropf was born in Sandusky, and raised in Erie County, Ohio, and now he’s an attorney in the Washington DC area. John, thanks so much for joining us.
John Kropf 00:49
Well, Evan, I’m very, very thrilled to be here today. And I’m thrilled to be providing some input for the Our Towns organization I’ve been a big admirer of of the organization. I originally read the book that Jim and Deb Fallows wrote. And so it’s a thrill, actually, to connect with you and to be talking today.
Evan Sanford 01:11
Well, we feel exactly the same way about you. And that’s why you’re on today. So let’s start with a little bit more about your background and what it was like to grow up in your family as well as the family that was the American Crayon Company.
I grew up as the bio says in Sandusky, Ohio. And we had a nice little tradition when I was young and growing up because we would go to my grandmother’s house for Sunday dinners and my grandmother was loaded with all kinds of family stories. And these stories were special. They were very special to me, because they were all about something I really liked as a kid — they’re all about crayons. And the unique thing was that my grandmother and that line of my mother’s family had had a very, very illustrious history in terms of pioneering the development of color crayons, and it happened right in my hometown where I grew up. And so it these Sunday dinners at my grandmother’s table, I got to hear these wonderful stories about how family several generations ago, were experimenting in the family kitchen. in Sandusky, they were mixing up all sorts of experimental formulas to create what was then they were working on was a a usable form of chalk that could be used in the schools. You know, it was an era where there was a lot of innovation going on, and people felt they could build or produce or invent anything, there was a great spirit of innovation. And so in the family kitchen, I had a great great grandfather who was mixing up raw chalk with local Sandusky Bay gypsum and they finally came up with a formula that really was the breakthrough in creating the first modern school chalk. And from there, they started to add pigment in it created colors. And it eventually led to the crayons. But I’ll I’ll, I’ll pause there.
Evan Sanford 03:27
What you’re telling us in terms of the story of competition must have been fierce. Can you tell us more a little bit about that competition, the other players in the field, and how the American Crayon Company came to be so successful.
So you’re you’re right. There was a lot of competition at the time. And you know, most people today, if you ask them about who they recognize a crayon brand, hands down the crayon brand is Crayola. And that was the brand of a company called Binney and Smith. And Binney and Smith has a very, very illustrious history, somewhat similar to the American Crayon Company. They were started in eastern Pennsylvania, and they had a very sort of a parallel history to American Crayon, in terms of their breakthroughs came in the early 1900s. And between American Crayon, Binney and Smith, and there were probably about six or seven other companies at the time that were all vying to create this, this usable, inexpensive, practical form of wax crayons for children in the schools. We’re we’re all in fierce competition to get involved. And I mean, if you if you think about it, I remember back in the late 70s, early 80s When I was in college that the computer companies like Apple and Dell and HP were all competing to get their brands adopted by the schools? Well, in 1903, the early 1900s, it was no different. These crayon companies were working to get their brand adopted by the schools and the kids to really be loyal to that brand early on and they staged coloring contests and they were constantly looking for ways to get an advantage over their, their competitors. So it was it was fiercely competitive.
Evan Sanford 05:40
And how did the American Crayon Company become the most successful?
Well, it at the time, I mean, it was the rivalry was was always very, very healthy. But I think American Crayon was step ahead in the beginning over their competition. And so they use that advantage to start distributing to schools and getting their their brand recognized and adopted into schools. And then they also put out a publication for teachers and instructors, to help give them ideas on how to use this new product, these new color crayons in the classroom. It was a publication called everyday art. And it came out every month. And it went to instructors, and it gave them all sorts of ideas on how to use crayons. And the other thing that had happened at the beginning of the 1900s was, you know, the kindergarten movement was really taking off and kindergarten, emphasized creativity in children. And so this, this was sort of the perfect storm of you had a movement to teach children to be creative early on in life, with the combination of inexpensive, easy to use practical crayons. So the two came together to make this really highly competitive. But I want to I want to also say there was there were a lot of other uses for crayons too at the time it was they were also used in industrial for industrial purposes, like the railroads were another big area where there was competition as well.
Evan Sanford 07:30
How would railroads use crayons?
So So actually, the very first product that came out of American Crayon was was something called the 888. And it was it was a black crayon that was used by railroad engineers and those that worked on the railroads to mark sightings to mark, boxcars, and so on. It had the property of being water resistant, so it wouldn’t wash off and rained, it was easy to use and inexpensive to make other what I call sort of working crayon areas where carpenters used crayons quite a bit in constructing buildings. Tailors use them for marking garments, there was even a line of crayons that were used that were offered as an alternative to branding livestock, they were called Brando, and they were meant to mark livestock as a more humane way of indicating ownership. That was quite, you know, quite a, I discovered quite a wide variety of, of uses when I was researching the book,
Evan Sanford 08:44
I’m sure. But let’s go back to your memories of the company and the factory. You’ve got to see the company towards the end of its life. But there were plenty of things that happen before I’m sure that you heard at the Sunday dinner table, what stands out to you as some of the highlights of the company’s achievements. And then tell us about what you saw towards the end and what happened at the factory in the company.
John Kropf 09:08
I think when when I was growing up, what I witnessed was really the the end of the story. They’d had the boom time in the early 1900s through up to World War Two. But by the time I was I was coming of age and growing up. The company had been sold out of the family and to a larger concern called Dixon crucible was a company that they’re most known for making the Dixon Ticonderoga number two pencil the yellow pencil I think most people would know that. And you know about the time I left for college and then move moved away, the company was really on the wane. The factory had not been been necessarily kept up with the times and NAFTA came along. And with NAFTA, that’s that was really sort of the I think the final straw and what what broke the the factory there is that the the current company owners decided that they would remove all of the machinery from the Sandusky Ohio plant and move it down to Mexico. I was I was reading in the paper, you know, while I was living in Washington DC about all of this happening to the factory. And it was just a very sad sort of period. To hear about all that. And then finally, it was around 2014, that you had this empty factory building that had stood like, kind of a it was really a community icon, it would it been the longest employer in the town for for many, many years, over 100 years. It was finally demolished and torn down. And it was at that moment that I really thought I had heard all these stories and I wanted a way to share them and to share the legacy of this this great local crayon company in Ohio.
Evan Sanford 11:16
And I want to come back to where you just left off. But when did you move away from your hometown? And how was it that you kept tabs as you left and moved on with your life about what was continuing to happen.
John Kropf 11:29
So I graduated from high school in 1980. I went to college in Ohio, so I was still in the area. And then after that law school, but it was I think the the late 80s that I pretty much was living full time in Washington DC, I had really lost touch with you know, a lot of my connection to Sandusky and my family had my immediate family had all moved away by by the early 90s. And, you know, so I spent a couple of decades, just here in Washington not really thinking about it, I had these stories in the back of my head. But you know, as I as I said, you know, sitting sitting here in Washington reading these stories about the factory being demolished in 2014. And I also lost both my sister and my mother, about the same time. So it brought me back to Sandusky, actually to the to the cemetery where the founders of this company are all all buried in the local cemetery. And this, this combination of factors just really revived the stories in me to the point where I felt probably more more Midwestern than I had ever felt coming back. And I’d been away for decades. I mean, I had been living in Washington for over 30 years and yet, I still identified even more strongly with my roots in Ohio and Sandusky.
Evan Sanford 13:13
And what was the process of doing all of the research how much was based on your personal recollection? How much did you have to learn from other resources? And how long did it take you to write this incredible book?
John Kropf 13:26
Well, it was a period of some years, I think from from 2015 on. I was very, very fortunate to have a lot of family records a lot of company records that you know with with the loss of my mother, they came down to me and so I spent a lot of time sorting through company documents and correspondence and I had some some good research help also from the local Sandusky library. Two people I would name is Ron Davidson as the local historian there who helped me with fact checking and I had met a fascinating guy online. His name is Ed Welter, who I call him the king of crayons. He had an amazing encyclopedia knowledge of crayons. And so he was a great resource. What what I had a hard time doing was really trying to find people that had worked in in the factory. And a lot of them had died off. It was it was hard finding some of those sources, but I did find a few. There are some very strong social media groups that are out there that that share their recollections. And I will tell you after after the book came out I I did a reading at the Sandusky library. And I had a full house and I had probably a dozen people come up to me afterwards who had worked in the factory and started to share their stories. And I’m only wishing I had had been able to make those connections before the book. So I took down a lot more stories and thought, well, maybe one day, I’ll have a second edition with it with the new information. During the pandemic, it kind of helped me I was I was inside a lot and sort of forced to do my project.
Evan Sanford 15:34
Well, that’s a perfect segue back to where we left off about the demolition of the factory and what happened to the town in the years of the downturn of the company’s legacy. So what has happened in the years since then? And has the city done anything to embrace the former legacy of the American Crayon Company?
John Kropf 15:58
Yeah, thank you for asking that. I deal with that in the the last chapter of the book. But I mean, to just to summarize, the city really started to turn around and I’m going to say they had a fantastic city manager by the name of Eric Loubser, who was there. And I think he had a vision to revive Sandusky, and it wasn’t, it wasn’t that we wanted to go back to the the old days of it. You met people in factories working and smokestack industries. What he did is he really wanted to capitalize on Sandusky is a wonderful location, which is it’s right on the water on Lake Erie on Sandusky bay with access to beaches, and islands. And so I think they, they turn their focus on that, but they also did quite a bit at on their 200th anniversary in 2018. To honor the heritage of all of the industry and industrial heritage that that had gone before. And while the factory the American crown and company factory is no longer there, it’s it is just an empty field there is been reading that there is there plans to build a recreation center on that site and possibly even to do a crayon themed fountain that would be in different colors with colored cylinders of water to really pay homage to the the city’s crayon company title that they had they were they were known as the crown, the color capital of the world because at one time, they did produce more grants than anywhere else. So I think it’s a, it’s a nice way to acknowledge that heritage while still looking forward. My other hope is that the town may sponsor looking into whether they can sponsor a request to the state of Ohio to place a historical marker there on this site of where the factory was to acknowledge that the factory was here once before.
Evan Sanford 18:27
And all of the materials and resources that you gathered during your time writing this book. Do you have a vision for what will become of all of those? And how could that go? To this
John Kropf 18:38
level? Yeah. Great, great question. So I have both physical artifacts, I probably have over 200 plus physical artifacts. You know, this is a box of crayons, I think of everything from beginning to end that I have displayed in my home. And then I had a lot of the printed records that I had kept. I’ve been able to donate a lot of the printed material to the library, which they’re reviewing impossible accession to their, to their historical archives. The next step then would be to find the right time in place to donate those physical artifacts, the crayons and the paints. My my wish would be that they could be displayed in some way. Sandusky has started to do some of that with some of their past industry. It’s just finding the right the right moment for them to take custody of it because I really want to share it with the rest of the world to see just what wonderful products that they made.
Evan Sanford 19:56
But I also want to turn to a connection that you have with the West coast as well where Redlands California is and not too far away Pasadena were in a call before where you and I were chatting, you talk to me about a road trip that you took. And if you can tell everyone about that that would be great.
John Kropf 20:15
Sure. So these these crayon stories in these crayon memories had such a firm hold on me even even when I had moved away and I was finishing law school this. This is an example of how firm A hold they had on me. My Great Grand Father who was really sort of one of the founders of the company, John Wentworth, was his name looked West when the company became successful. And there was a group of Midwest industrialists who had decided Pasadena California was a great place to go for the winter, you would escape all of the sort of the gray Midwest, cold winters, and you would you would go out in the wintertime to Pasadena, and about the early 1900s There were hundreds of homes that were being built by these these Midwestern industrialists. And John Wentworth was no exception. He built a beautiful arts and crafts style bungalow in what was I think it was then considered Altadena. It’s now Pasadena. But he was among among this group that were they were building houses in this arts and crafts style. But the tragedy was, he finished the house in 1907. And he died the same year, he never got to enjoy his home. But his his widow live there with my grandfather and his sisters to connect it to to. To me at the age of 26, I decided before I started my first job, I was going to retrace a trip that my grandfather took when he drove from Sandusky to Pasadena in 1919, in a car with three of his of his friends. across country at a time when there were no highways, there were really no markers. It was almost basically still wagon trails. And he kept a logbook much as you might when you’re on a when you’re on a ship at sea, any the logbook was entering the names of the towns, the mileage, the people, they met all of the mechanical challenges that they had, and they they seem to have to change a tire about twice a day. The roads were just they were they called them wagon trails, they were just caked in mud. And they made it it was a it took them 30 days and they sometimes slept in haystacks, they sometimes had to make spare parts in a blacksmith shop, you know, just it’s an amazing journal to read. But I kept that journal, and and then I retraced that trip, at the very same age when my grandfather did it when he was 26. I did it when I was 26. And I, I finished my trip in Pasadena to see the house. But there’s this wonderful Pasadena connection of this house was built from the money made by crayons, and I hope to come out and visit it again. And maybe who knows, maybe even do a do a reading at the Pasadena library. Perhaps
Evan Sanford 23:38
I just wonder how many stacks of hay you slept in when you did the drive?
John Kropf 23:43
Well, nothing, nothing quite that
Evan Sanford 23:47
so clearly, as you tell us your story. You’re still a Midwesternern at heart. What inspired you to start a blog? Have those kinds of stories, memoirs, essays? And how did you start to contribute to those as well,
John Kropf 24:02
I think in doing the book, I was tapping into something deep within me. And I think we all have these identities of where we grow up. And the more I researched the book, and learned about the spirit of innovation that was occurring, particularly in Ohio. At that time, the more strongly I just identified. As I said, I identify with being a Midwestern er, and then I began to read about other scholars in the field. There, there was one scholar in particular, his name is John lauch. He’s just written a fantastic book called The Good Country, and it’s about the Midwest from 1800 to 1900. And I began to just start to catalogue just about Ohio in the Midwest and a lot of them are now you know, memoirs about the rust belt there. The boom and the bust. And I had a blog that I started over 10 years ago, without any real direction, but, but lately, I’ve started to really focus in on those Midwestern books, those Midwestern memoirs. And I recently published a piece on innovation in Ohio cities in in the Middle West Review, which is just edited by this, this professor John Locke. And I’m hoping to do another piece in the fall on Rust Belt memoirs. But the sort of the, the raw material, if you will, is on my blog. Blog is called compulsively aimless. And it’s, it focuses on these bugs, but it also you can see pictures of different prey on products, I try to keep refreshing it with different features about the products that came out of the factory.
Evan Sanford 26:07
Before we go, Are there any other things you’d like to share with us about the things that you’re working on or you’d like to see happen?
John Kropf 26:15
Guess I really want to say I’m so excited when I when I read about the work that Our Towns is doing. And so I really continue to follow it. And I’m also heartened when I see other other groups that are out there that are looking to revive and reclaim that, that spirit of innovation, that Midwest spirit, I talked to so many people in researching the book that it’s helped build that awareness for me and made some great connections I, I if it’s okay to mention another group, I connected with a group called Mid Story. And they’re based in Toledo, Ohio, and they’re doing they do quite a bit of writing about that. There’s, there’s there’s countless other organizations, but it’s very heartening to see that and it’s very exciting to see it and I continue to sort of root for the success of all of these Midwest Cities. And you know, there’s there’s a lot of potential there. And so I’m just glad I’m able to contribute a story which I hope, draw some attention on the the spirit of innovation and in the Midwest,
Evan Sanford 27:32
for those that are listening, and they’re inspired by your story, what would you give to them in terms of advice to do something about revitalization or embracing a legacy of, of a family or a company and helping them to bring their community into the future in a positive way,
John Kropf 27:52
everybody has a great family story in them, and you don’t even not necessarily being from the Midwest, but but you can. I think if you if you talk to your, your parents or your grandparents and collect those stories, I think you can feel more connected to being a part of the history and to our part of America’s legacy of this industrial innovation. And there are many, many sad stories, but I think a lot of positives that can come out of this. There’s, you know, history is, is transformative. We’re looking at what’s next. And I think if you if you stop and look at these stories, it might inspire you to come up with your own idea about what’s next for your town or your area. You’re and move on from there.
Evan Sanford 28:51
A link to John’s blog and an article reviewing his book are available on our website, OurTownsFoundation.org Thank you so much, John, for spending some time with us today.
John Kropf 29:02
Well, Evan, it’s been a great pleasure. And I wish you all the best of luck and will continue to follow Our Towns with great interest.
Evan Sanford 29:11
Thank you, John, and thank you to our listeners for joining us as well. Until next time, I’m Evan Sanford and this is Inside Our Towns.