People who know the importance of the Crosley name to Cincinnati’s business history, and who have lived long enough to recall its entrepreneurial profile, sometimes point out that the company’s Arlington Street factory still stands. Drive west on Hopple Street over I-75, turn right on Colerain Avenue, and there, not quite a mile up, it looms beside the highway. It’s a ragged hulk, to be sure, with windows punched out, framings rusted, and graffiti prominent. Only a small, engraved “C” over the former entrance hints at the grandeur that once was.
The place is for sale now, as it has been off and on for decades. What possible fate could await it, apart from demolition, is hard to imagine.
And yet, when people reference the old factory, their nostalgia for what it once represented can be almost palpable. They like thinking back to its glory days, Cincinnati’s glory days. They like to fantasize that something like the Crosley story could happen again. That is, the story of Powel Crosley Jr., one of the greatest promoters and industrialists this city has ever known; his brother Lewis, who actually created the various products Powel sold; their WLW radio station; the Shelvador refrigerator; the Crosley television and car; Powel’s ownership of the Reds; and, well, so much more, including almost unimaginable family tragedies. Still, people like remembering it all.
Maybe that’s why, right up into the present, the Crosley myth, if you will, has never really died. It’s why there are modern reminders of the Crosleys here and in, of all places, Louisville and North Carolina, as well as in a lot of stores, both big-box and independent, across much of the U.S. Some are recent, some have been evolving for many years—but taken together, they make a strong case that the Crosley name will be with us for years to come. And that anyone who thinks otherwise just hasn’t been paying attention.
Thirteen years ago, Crosley, a book by Lewis Crosley’s grandson, Rusty McClure, was published to considerable acclaim and enthusiastic sales. Older local residents, who may not have thought about the Crosleys in decades, suddenly had reason to remember them. Younger people, who may have known vaguely that Great American Ball Park’s antecedent, two generations back, was something called Crosley Field, now had easy access to the storied history behind the name. The book is not short and is quite detailed, but for anyone who wants to make the investment it’s a fascinating glimpse into an era that reaffirmed Cincinnati’s eminent place in industry through the early to mid-20th century.
Not long after the publication of Crosley, Pinecroft, the restored Crosley estate in Mt. Airy, reopened to the public. For years it had served as a Franciscan retreat and holistic health center. Now it’s owned by the Cincinnati Preservation Association and is available to rent for parties and celebrations, its baronial splendor providing a backdrop of Gatsby-like elegance for 21st century brides and bar mitzvahs. Near Sarasota, Florida, Crosley’s winter mansion, Seagate, is available for similar purposes.
To the probable delight of bored passengers waiting for their luggage at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, two prominently displayed Crosley cars from 1951, a cream-colored Convertible Sedan and a lime-yellow Super Station Wagon, are on extended loan from the Geier Center of the Cincinnati Museum Center. Similarly, a bright yellow Crosley Super Hotshot (1950) is exhibited in Union Terminal itself. The tiny cars, which sold more than 40,000 units in one year at their peak, bear vivid testament to the imagination and ingenuity of our industrial past. They weighed fewer than 1,500 pounds, got 30 to 50 miles per gallon, and reached speeds around 60 m.p.h. The Crosley automobile did not survive the deluge of cheap gas and Detroit’s big clunkers after World War II, but Powel Crosley’s aspiration that they bring cost-efficient transportation to the masses lives on in these reconstituted antiques.
Meanwhile, at Walmart, Target, and numerous other retail outlets, you’ll find radios, jukeboxes, telephones, and record players carrying the Crosley name into the homes of contemporary consumers. Likewise, in 49 states, Crosley-branded kitchen and laundry appliances continue to be sold. Two companies, Crosley Brands (with a capital “B”) in Louisville and the Crosley Corporation in Concord, North Carolina, account for the various products (or brands with a small “b”) sold under the Crosley moniker today. Of the two, the Louisville company may be the more intriguing, possibly because of its geographical proximity, possibly because of what it sells, and possibly because its enigmatic CEO is anything but ordinary.
In the Highlands, a neighborhood well apart from downtown Louisville, Crosley Brands occupies a one-story building that’s unimposing on the exterior but all Crosley on the inside: big blow-ups of LP records with Crosley labels, shelves upon shelves of vintage Crosley radios, jukeboxes emblazoned with the Crosley logo, a poster-sized Crosley print ad from the 1920s, a black-and-white photo of the Crosley brothers and their board of directors. Clearly someone is preoccupied, if not obsessed, with the family’s roots.
Bo LeMastus—company founder and CEO as well as a NASCAR enthusiast and former racer—has collected the pictures, the mementos, and the several Crosley cars he showcases in his facilities, but they aren’t concerns he wishes to dwell on. “This is a business we developed over the last 30 years,” he says. “We have a long way to go, but there’s no reason to think it can’t continue. We’ve made a huge effort to keep the brand front and center in the marketplace.”
Crosley Brands sells two product lines, retro electronics and mid-market furniture, all branded “Crosley.” Among the retros are contemporary radios, most of them built to look old (remember the wooden “cathedral” model?); the aforementioned jukeboxes, each a dead ringer for something you might have seen in a sandwich shop 60 years ago but powered by modern technology; wall telephones; and turntable consoles that play vinyl records. “Vinyl is big again,” says Don Radebaugh, the company’s PR executive. “Manufacturers are popping up all over the United States. It’s become hip again.” So how many of any one of these things does the company sell annually? Crosley Brands is a private company, Radebaugh explains, and its sales figures are proprietary. “We sell nostalgia,” he says. And that has to be enough for interested outsiders.
While the furniture bears no relationship to the company’s Crosley roots, it’s a big seller. Much, but by no means all, of it is for outdoor use; for the interior are cabinets, kitchen islands, tables, chairs, and wine cupboards, all of a design common to goods in Kohl’s, Home Depot, Lowe’s, and Wayfair, where they’re sold.
Crosley Brands employs roughly 100 people, together handling everything from accounting and sales to product development and merchandising. On a hot day in early September, Tenille Novinger, a product manager in her early 30s, is opening a package from the day’s mail. It turns out to be a vintage analog radio she found on eBay. “We scan eBay, Pinterest, and other lifestyle blogs,” she says, “just to get inspiration.”
In Simpsonville, about 20 miles outside of Louisville, the company maintains two
giant distribution warehouses—a half-million square feet of inventory between them, with 100,000 square feet devoted to radios alone. Dave King, the warehouse manager and a 15-year employee, says they ship about 3,000 packages on Mondays, dropping down to about 1,000 on Fridays. Company products are manufactured overseas, mostly in China, and shipped to Simpsonville, from which orders around the U.S. are filled. “People buy to bring back memories,” says King, reiterating Radebaugh’s theme while pointing to the Crosley cars and the Shelvador that LeMastus has collected. “Bo buys for ideas.”
LeMastus is not unlike his apparent muse, Powel Crosley Jr., in pursuing ideas. In 1921, Crosley was 35 years old and a successful businessman in the growing field of aftermarket auto parts when he saw in a Cincinnati store one of the newly minted “wireless” radios rapidly sweeping the country. The price: $130. Crosley was dumbfounded. It was just a wooden box with some circuitry inside. Phonographs, he knew, came in nicer boxes and cost far less. “I could build that set for half the price,” he said once out of the store. And within a short time, he did.
Informed by a pamphlet entitled The A.B.C. of Radio, which he’d purchased for 25 cents from the store selling the wireless, Crosley went home with his son, Powel III, and cobbled together their own version of the new device. Cabinets followed, then improvements to the radio itself, and by mid-1922, Powel, with the help of his younger brother, Lewis, armed with a University of Cincinnati engineering degree, built 65 of the first prototype models, the Harkos. Named for the old English word “hark,” to listen, the new devices were soon rolling out on the assembly lines that Lewis organized. Orders exploded. Conceived as a radio for the masses, Harkos carried the slogan “Better – Costs Less,” and Powel was well on his way to becoming the Henry Ford of radio.
Almost simultaneous was Powel’s acquisition of amateur broadcast license 8XAA, courtesy of the U.S. Department of Commerce and its secretary, Herbert Hoover. Not unlike railroads building resorts to entice people to ride trains, Crosley wanted the license so that people would listen to his radio and hear promotions for the Harko. Programming was primitive, mostly record playing and civic lectures, but it sharply boosted Harko sales. Then, perhaps inevitably, chaos along the airwaves prompted the government to ban amateur broadcasting.
Crosley was frustrated, but not for long. In just a few months, he procured a commercial license, again granted by the Department of Commerce, with call letters WLW. It went live on March 23, 1922, at 710 on the AM dial. Considering the station’s subsequent history, the print announcement of its opening was more than a little prescient: “WLW, Cincinnati’s Great Radio Broadcasting Station, Erected and Located at the Crosley Manufacturing Co. (Radio Division)…Inaugurates a Regular Broadcasting Program Schedule of News, Lectures, Information and Music, And All Forms of Audible Entertainment.”
By June 1922, the Crosley plant on Colerain Avenue was turning out 500 Harkos a day—there were now three models—and the Golden Age of Radio was in full flower. When interference caused by too many broadcasters threatened to kill the Golden Goose, Crosley and several of his industry peers went to Washington for a meeting with President Warren G. Harding to sort things out. The happy result, for Powel at least, was an increased broadcast wavelength of 400 meters and a Class B station rating with a minimum transmitter power of 500 watts.
With enhanced technological capacity soon to follow, WLW relocated to 700 on the AM dial and finally could broadcast without having to share a frequency. In short order, Lewis would experimentally broadcast from Redland Field, where the Cincinnati Reds played, to demonstrate what he could do; a year later, he was granted permission to broadcast the team’s Opening Day game. In 1928, the Crosley Radio Company sold $18 million worth of radios. In May that same year, the Federal Radio Commission gave the Crosleys approval to take WLW to 50,000 watts. By 1929, Crosley employed 5,000 people and was the largest employer in the city. Four years later, his Shelvador refrigerator, innovatively equipped with shelves on its doors, hit the market at $99.50 (“Better – Costs Less”), and two years after that it accounted for fully 50 percent of Crosley Radio Company’s sales. On average, 2,000 of this latest cash cow rolled off the assembly lines daily.
In 1934, after a series of money-losing seasons, Crosley bought a controlling interest in the Reds, quickly renaming Redland Field Crosley Field and placing a giant model of a Shelvador above the scoreboard. He secured permission for Lewis to put up lights around the field, the first in the major leagues to do so, enabling night baseball for the first time. By now, Crosley was also operating with a 500,000-watt transmitter. The FRC had granted him the right to an experimental license in 1932; two years later, Franklin Roosevelt pressed a golden telegraph key in the White House and turned on the new transmitter. WLW, nicknamed “the nation’s station,” was now the most powerful broadcaster in the world, notable for many hit shows, not least Ma Perkins, the series sponsored by Procter & Gamble’s Oxydol Soap; it was P&G’s first “soap opera.”
Success and momentum were the order of Crosley’s day. In addition to the many headline-making events, he became fascinated with airplanes and, together with Lewis, developed prototypes for models of their own. He bought 193 acres in Sharonville and built a Crosley airport. They devised a car radio (brand name Roamio), an ice cube tray with a removable aluminum grid, a washing machine, a Temperator space heater, and a Crosley television. Powel built his mansion in Mt. Airy and another in Florida, and bought several yachts. Had an objective onlooker at the time called Powel Crosley Jr. unstoppable, he would have been given a pass for his hyperbole.
Except that nothing lasts forever, and in 1939 Crosley’s beloved wife Gwendolyn died after a long struggle with tuberculosis. It was to be the first of several personal tragedies. Nine years later, son Powel III was stung by a bee at their Florida home and died within hours. Another two years later, grandson Powel IV was killed in action in Korea. Powel married for what would be the third of four marriages, but happiness was short-lived. His newest bride, Eve Brokaw, contracted cancer, and within a few months she was dead as well.
The Crosley brothers passed the bulk of the war years making weapons for the Allied cause, converting their factories from radios, appliances, and tiny Crosley autos to wartime production. Also in 1939, the Federal Communications Commission ordered the company to reduce its transmission back to 50,000 watts except after midnight. About the same time, the government chose WLW to be the dedicated broadcast facility for its first official radio station, the now famous “Voice of America.”
Once the war was over, however, the brothers faced a more competitive market for their mainstay products, and delved into new interests as well. Powel was determined to create a car for the masses, just as he’d created an affordable radio more than two decades prior. It was, he said, “his lifelong ambition to build a small car within the means of the average wage earner.” To focus on that, he and Lewis decided to sell the Crosley Corporation, excepting the auto manufacturing, to AVCO, a conglomerate producer of airplanes, buses, furnaces, and appliances that fit well with Crosley’s products.
The sale was consummated in 1945, and by 1948 the Crosleys were making coupes, sedans, convertibles, pick-ups, station wagons, and the first ever sports utility vehicle. The year marked a high-water mark for vehicles produced: 42,794. Even then, though, Powel’s dream was fragmenting. Corrosion issues with his engines were causing them to overheat, leading to cracked blocks; the price of gas was negligible, and Americans wanted big cars anyway. Losses mounted until, by 1952, his options were to shut down Crosley Motors, Inc., or sell. He sold to General Tire & Rubber, which never produced a Crosley car but wanted the rights to its newly devised COBRA engine, Lewis’s solution to the earlier mechanical problems.
Powel Crosley died in 1961. Lewis Crosley lived another 17 years. They’re buried next to one another at Spring Grove Cemetery. In 1956, AVCO shut down the Crosley division, and the story might have ended there—except it didn’t.
Rusty McClure, author of Crosley, talked with Bo LeMastus, CEO of Crosley Brands, at the time he wrote his book. He came away thinking that LeMastus had a big ego. “He wanted more prominence in the epilogue,” McClure recalls, “but I had to tell him the book was not about him or me. It was about the brothers.” Nevertheless, McClure says, he thought it was “kind of neat” that this outfit in Louisville was keeping the Crosley name alive.
The story of why LeMastus acquired the Crosley name, as he relates it in a telephone conversation, is rich. “I went to Crosley Field as a kid,” he says, “so I had a little bit of history with the brand. Out of college, I was a manufacturer’s rep, and one of the things we were selling was vintage radios under the brand name Thomas. When Thomas went out of business in the early ’90s, we picked up the product line and, looking for a brand name to help market it, I was introduced to Brown Rogers Dixson, which owned the Crosley trademark.”
When AVCO bought out Crosley at the end of World War II, it combined Crosley’s products with those of Bendix, another appliance manufacturer of the period, into a single division and operated that way until 1956, when the division closed. For the next 20 years, nothing happened. In 1976, Buddy Dixson Sr., a wholesale appliance distributor who, along with many industry peers, was falling victim to the emerging trend of manufacturers selling directly to retailers, went looking for a new gig. With two others, he formed Brown Rogers Dixson in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and set about selling various electronic products and appliances across the Southeast. To give them an identity, BRD bought the Crosley trademark from AVCO.
“BRD was, and still is, doing white goods [appliances like washing machines and refrigerators],” says LeMastus. “We showed them our vintage line of radios, jukeboxes, pay phones, and turntables. Eventually, in the early ’90s, we acquired the trademark for a certain class of trade. We also bought the romance of the name, and it’s helped our marketing in a lot of ways. It gives a kind of authentic twist to what we’re selling. Who ever made it better than Crosley? The name establishes a positive, logical relationship to the era we’re selling.”
Brown Rogers Dixson went out of business five or six years ago but spawned a successor of its own, the Crosley Corporation of Concord, North Carolina. It’s the current dealer in “white goods” that LeMastus refers to. Concord has retained the Crosley brand and sells both kitchen and laundry appliances, for the most part manufactured by General Electric and Whirlpool. The products are sold exclusively to independent dealers and rent-to-own stores—no “big box” retail chains. There are more than 2,500 active dealers and 3,000 storefronts in the U.S., in all states except Hawaii; a distributor in Miami sells throughout the Caribbean and Central and South America.
In his epilogue to Crosley, McClure says, “There is no Crosley legacy.” There is some truth to that sentiment. There are no more Powel or Lewis Crosleys searching for new ideas to titillate the marketplace; there is no dynamic local manufacturer turning out streams of new and ambitious products. People like that come along rarely.
But there are the branded successors to remind us of a remarkably rich chapter in Cincinnati’s history. Renovated mansions and occasional artifacts are fascinating to look upon and intriguing to contemplate, as the past teases us about a possible future. The Crosley brothers would likely be grateful.