Sunday, January 24, 2016

Cooperages in Sandusky

Throughout much of the world, wooden barrels have been the primary method for storing and transporting bulk materials for centuries. Those who make and repair casks, barrels and other containers are known as coopers, and a cooperage is their business place. (A famous cooper from the past was John Alden, hired as the ship’s cooper on the Mayflower.) Though no cooperages are listed in today’s Sandusky telephone directory, they were an important business in Sandusky, Ohio in the 19th and early 20th centuries.  In the 1867 Sandusky City Directory, there were over fifty listings for coopers, many who worked from their own home or barn.

At the Elks’ Fair in 1909, President William Howard Taft won a barrel of sauerkraut. The barrel holding the sauerkraut had been made by the Michel Cooperage Company of Sandusky. Hewson Peeke wrote in his book A Standard History of Erie County, Ohio (Lewis Publishing Co., 1916), that barrels made in Sandusky were found all over the U.S. as well as in foreign countries.  Lumber was shipped to Sandusky lumberyards via the Great Lakes. Local cooperages then made barrels and kegs that were filled with goods and products made in Erie County. The railway system enabled efficient delivery of the filled barrels and kegs to other cities in Ohio and across the United States.

An article from the September, 1921 issue of The National Coopers’ Journal reported on a manufacturers’ display at Cedar Point, which included several cooperages from Sandusky. At that time the Michel Cooperage Company manufactured containers for wine, pickles, beer and oil. The Brumm brothers were known for their fruit barrels, while the Kilbourn Cooperage made primarily fish kegs at that time. 

As packaging and shipping innovations developed in the twentieth century, the number of cooperages in Sandusky began to decline. In 1912, only five cooper shops were listed in the Sandusky City Directory. And to compound matters, the 1924 tornado did severe damage to both the Michel and the Kilbourn Cooperages.

The Sandusky Register of May 6, 1934 reported that only one cooperage remained in Sandusky, the cooper shop operated by Fred Schwab at 317 Perry Street. Besides technological advances, other factors leading to the decline in the cooperage manufacturing in our location included Prohibition, the disappearance of thousands of acres of forests, as well as the lack of laborers skilled in the art of cooperage. Today there are still a number of cooperages throughout the United States. The Associated Cooperage Industries of America, Inc. is a trade association which is located in the state of Delaware. To read a general history of barrels, you can borrow the book Wood, Whiskey and Wine, by Henry Work, (Reakton Books, 2014), available for loan through the ClevNet system.

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