Our Changing Gears team has been on the road this week traveling to some of our company towns in the Midwest.
Changing Gears is a Michigan Radio project looking at the economic transformation of the industrial Midwest.
Our final stop is Orrville, Ohio: A place that seems like a company town, but there’s long been a whole lot more going on in Orrville.
If you know anything about Orrville, it’s probably from those ubiquitous Smucker’s ads on TV. Two young Smucker brothers are portrayed in an idyllic, rural Orrville of yesteryear.
“I think that the Smucker’s ads are true to the company and the family and are a pretty fair picture of Orrville as well,” says Jenni Reusser of the Orrville Area Chamber of Commerce. She’s lived in town most of her life.
It’s in a rural part of Northeast Ohio. There are fewer than 9000 residents. Smucker’s is by far the biggest employer. However, this is a community that’s had a diverse economy way before diverse was a buzzword. It’s a place of entrepreneurs.
“We’re third generation Smith Dairy,” says John Schmid, a vice president at Smith Dairy.
The family adopted the business name Smith before World War I—a time when the German-sounding Schmid was not an asset. Other than that, the company’s founding sounds like it’s out of a Smucker’s ad. It starts in 1909.
“Grandpa and his brother borrowed like $600 dollars from a neighbor and bought a milk wagon and a couple horses and they had a route right here in town,” Schmid says.
Today, the company’s bustling Orrville plant has about 300 employees, and is one of the few family-owned dairies to survive competition from the huge corporate milk companies that have taken over much of the market.
About a mile away, there’s another venerable business: The Schantz Organ Company. It’s about 136 years old and Victor Schantz is the third generation in his family to run the company. Yes, they make pipe organs in Orrville: found in churches and concert halls from Cleveland to Australia. A large one can cost as much as a million dollars.
Smuckers, Smith, Schantz—those are just three Orrville examples. There are more. So, how have so many companies managed to survive and thrive for over a century in this one Ohio town? Victor Schantz thinks it comes down to two things: steam and the Swiss.
“Almost the entire population of Swiss Anabaptists moved to this country en masse,” Schantz says.
Religious persecution, a bad economy, there were a number of reasons so many Swiss moved to the United States in the mid-19th century. When they did, many settled in the Midwest, and in the area that is now home to Orrville.
It was these Swiss immigrants, and their descendants, who created local companies like Smuckers, Smith Dairy, and Schantz Organ. They were industrious and entrepreneurial and Schantz says they seized another opportunity in the late 1800s: the railroad. Orrville became an early rail hub.
“Having that connection to the national railroad and also having these businesses come to town and take advantage of that, you begin to see the connection between the dairy, and Schantz Organ, and Smuckers and very many companies that came,” he says.
For the last 100 years, this town has adjusted to technology. Computers now help build Schantz’s pipe organs. Trucks—not trains—cart Smith’s milk around the Midwest. And, the town put a fiber optic line down its main street, hoping to attract high tech businesses with superfast internet. New companies have joined the old ones. Maybe they’ll be the 100 year old businesses in the future.
But at Smith Dairy, John Schmid doesn’t know what will happen when his generation moves on.
“I’m definitely proud of the family tradition of three generations, and I’d love to see the fourth generation, and it’s nothing I lose sleep over, but it’s something I’d be mighty proud of if we make it to that,” Schmid says.