OUR HERITAGE: THE STORY OF STARK COUNTY. 'Boss' Hoover's descendants still lament what became of their family's namesake company.
The Hoover Co. is gone, but the family name remains strong. It lives on in stories passed down from parents to children for generations. It exists on plaques and buildings and on causes championed by those who built the corporation and others who today still guide the charitable foundations created from the wealth the business provided this area.
"We really appreciate everything Hoover did for this community," said 91-year-old Nan DeMuesy, whose father, Adam, worked at the company for 50 years, beginning after World War I. "It's sad ... you want me to cry now or later? It lost leadership; it ran out of Hoovers."
Michael Hoover, a great grandson of founder William H. "Boss" Hoover who was willing to return from New York if the family wanted to take the company private again in the mid-1980s, said the old heyday stories get more dusty with each new generation.
"My (Hoover) name used to come up constantly in conversation, up until about 10 years ago," said the 63-year-old, whose career has been spent in international banking and finance. "They'd usually ask me if I was related to J. Edgar Hoover; then the next one was the vacuum cleaner company ... but it doesn't really come up anymore."
His sister, Catherine (Hoover) Petros, who lives in Colorado, remembers her father, Joseph Hoover, taking her on tours of the company factory in North Canton. The history remains important to her. She visits family gravesites and the former Hoover Farm whenever she gets back to the area.
"The whole thing with Chicago Pacific was a very tumultuous and sad time for all of us," Petros said of the 1985 corporate takeover.
The Hoover Co. roots dated to 1827 when Henry Hoover took possession of an 80-acre farm near New Berlin and opened a tannery business. It was passed on to his son, Daniel Hoover, who sold the business to two of his sons, William H. and Frank K. Hoover.
Enter James Murray Spangler.
A salesman, inventor, asthma-sufferer and, by 1907, a janitor at Zollinger Department Store in downtown Canton, Spangler came up with a machine that would clean the store carpets without kicking up dust, which sent him into coughing spells.
Early versions of his electric suction sweeper were made with a sewing machine motor, ceiling fan blades and a soap box. He eventually tidied up the design and applied for and received a U.S. patent — and his first sale was to his cousin, Susan Hoover, wife of William H. 'Boss' Hoover.
The machine cost $60, plus another $15 for attachments.
"One of the most important and overlooked pieces of that story is the fact she bought it without asking her husband," explained Tom Gasko, curator of the Vacuum Cleaner Museum and Factory Outlet in St. James, Mo. "Women didn't do things like that in those days."
Turns out, that single sale was probably the most important event that led to the creation of The Hoover Co. most came to know.
Spangler tried to make and sell his sweepers on his own. But his Electric Suction Sweeper Company struggled and he soon ran out of money. In the summer of 1908, T.F. Albee, a Hoover leather salesman and friend of Spangler, urged William H. "Boss" Hoover to consider rescuing Spangler's invention because Albee believed he could sell the machines.
It was a period when the Hoover family leather goods business faced impending transition. The automobile was arriving on the scene, which would eventually wipe out the mass need for horse saddles and collars.
"Susan Hoover told her husband she couldn't live without that sweeper," Gasko said.
So that same year, William H. 'Boss' Hoover purchased Spangler's fledgling business. The sweeper company began with an infusion of $36,000 in capital, mostly from Hoover himself, in a corner of the leather business shop. Spangler was paid $1,500 in salary, plus royalties.
In 1910, the company's name was changed to Hoover Suction Sweeper Co. The company devised a sales strategy that offered a free 10-day trial on the machine, spreading the word with a small ad in the Saturday Evening Post magazine. Anyone interested in the trial was directed to a nearby store, which had agreed to stock the machine in exchange for sales commission of $20 per unit.
Sales of the initial Model O swelled.
Hoover's company grew exponentially. He opened a factory in Canada in 1911, then one in England in 1919. In Europe, the 'Hoover' name eventually became a verb, as people there didn't vacuum their carpets and rugs, they 'hoovered' them. A research and development department was added. Engineers were hired in-house and on contract. New factory and office buildings were constructed, in North Canton, with the first completed by 1916.
By 1919, Hoover was out of the leather business.
It was vacuum cleaners only. Through the next five decades, the company created and sold dozens of vacuum models, such as Model 63, which featured a wrap-around bumper; The Convertible; and The Constellation, which could "walk on air." The company also went on to manufacture washing machines and a variety of household appliances, such as toasters.
During World War II, however, the Hoover factories were hired by the government to produce everything from radio fuses to electric motors and helmet liners for the Army and Navy.
DeMuesy recalls wearing a white uniform and white hat to volunteer at the company cafeteria to feed workers during the war.
"I remember going home, smelling like fish," she said.
The only vacuum cleaner production work that went on during the war was to make parts that were needed to keep some of the 4 million Hoover vacuums already in U.S. homes functioning.
And early in the war, then company President H.W. Hoover Sr. helped organize an effort that would bring 84 children — whose parents worked for Hoover in England — to the U.S., so they would be safe. A few joined families in Canada and the Pacific Coast, but most lived with families in North Canton.
It was during the war, in 1943, that shares of Hoover Co., were first offered on the open market.
"In 1958, they started selling Hoover vacuums in department stores," said Gasko, the museum curator and vacuum cleaner history buff. "That probably was a turning point ... the Hoover was superior to everything out there. Before then, they only had one model out at a time. But once it went in stores, it was all about the price."
The door-to-door salesman was gone.
"There was no more Hoover man to turn to when you had a problem," Gasko said. "What mattered then was only that they could sell ... all they were interested in was making money."
By 1966, Herbert W. Hoover Jr., who had succeeded his father as the chief executive in 1954, also was gone. He was ousted in a proxy battle, at a time when the company was suffering stagnant sales and more competition. His successor, Felix Mansager, led the company into the small appliance business as a means to boost Hoover's sales. He also renewed the company's efforts on its U.S. vacuum sales, which by then lagged behind its overseas sales — and he launched a $20 million expansion, the company's last — in North Canton.
The vacuum business rebounded. But it was short-lived.
The company was in a tailspin by 1974. Earnings plunged from $33 million to less than $9 million. Mansager retired. Merle Rawson replaced him as chief executive and promptly sold the small appliance line, so the company could get back to focusing on vacuum cleaners again.
The strategy worked.
Maybe too well.
The conservative approach created an attractive balance sheet, which made Hoover ripe for a takeover attempt. First it was Fuqua, then Chicago Pacific, whose unsolicited $535 million offer was approved in October 1985.
Four years later, Maytag purchased Chicago Pacific (and with it, Hoover) for $1 billion. In 1994, Hoover Australia was sold to Southcorp Holding. The next year, Hoover Europe was sold to Candy S.p.A. All that remained of The Hoover Co. then was its North American operations.
"The appliance business had changed," said 86-year-old Frank Vaughn, who worked for Hoover, then headed Chicago Pacific's appliance group after the takeover. "The foreign companies got better ... better contracts ... bad decisions at the top and Maytag was going through its CEO of the month club."
In 2004, Maytag moved all corporate operations — including Hoover's North Canton white collar force — to Newton, Iowa. In April 2006, Whirlpool purchased Maytag. A year later, Techtronic Industries (TTI) purchased the Hoover unit from Whirlpool and ultimately moved all operations out of Stark County. The final piece, a distribution center in Jackson Township, closed last year.
The two great grandsons of William W. "Boss" Hoover who together wanted to save the company from Chicago Pacific's takeover, have regrets today, as they've watched the once proud corporation get dismantled.
John Hoover said he'd like to do it over again.
"I wish in 1985 that Mike and I had beaten down the doors," he said.
Michael Hoover said he's not sure what the result would have been.
"The moral of the story is you have to keep innovating," he said. "If you don't, then you die. It's rare for a company to survive for 100 years like that. Maybe this is just what happens."
Reach Tim at 330-580-8333 or email@example.com.
On Twitter: @tbotosREP