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Saturday, February 14, 2009

Firestone Tire & Rubber Company

Posted By on Sat, Feb 14, 2009 at 3:46 PM

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One of the Mid-South’s largest manufacturers opened here in 1936, moving into a massive factory in North Memphis vacated by a wood-products company, and greatly expanding it. Over time, Firestone Tire & Rubber Company’s huge, ultra-modern facility would cover almost 40 acres, and its soaring white smokestack was visible for miles.

Run by Raymond Firestone, the son of company founder Harvey Firestone, the Memphis plant served more than 25,000 tire dealers in a marketing region that stretched from Key West to southern Illinois. During World War II, the plant even produced rubber life rafts, gas masks, and raincoats for servicemen.

By the late 1960s, Firestone was rolling out more than 20,000 car and truck tires a day. On July 1, 1963, the company celebrated a remarkable milestone — the production of its 100 millionth tire in Memphis. That’s right: ONE HUNDRED MILLION TIRES. Beginning with just a few hundred employees, Firestone had grown into the biggest industrial employer here, with a work force exceeding 3,000. The Memphis plant, in fact, was the largest tire manufacturer in the company’s entire worldwide operation.

But then the new radial-ply tires hit the market, and everybody wanted them for their cars because they handled better. I could explain WHY they performed so well, but it would require complicated charts and diagrams showing cross-sections of tires, and layers of rubber, and all sorts of things, so just take my word for it. Radial tires were better tires, and that’s what every car owner wanted.

Well, that was a death blow to Firestone. The Memphis plant had indeed produced radial tires for a while, but the company decided — wrongly, as it turned out — to specialize in producing the older bias-ply tires, and Firestone saw its market dwindle and disappear. I don’t know why the company couldn’t retool, or bring in new equipment, or do whatever it would take to produce the new tires, but they didn’t. In 1983, just one month after another industrial powerhouse here, International Harvester, shut down its huge farm equipment operation in Frayser, Firestone officials announced they were closing the Memphis factory.

For years and years, acres of empty shops and warehouses filled an entire block off North Thomas Street, a lone smokestack still standing tall over one of this city’s great industrial ruins. In the mid-1990s, the vacant buildings were bulldozed, and I recall that a developer announced he was going to turn the property into a golf course, of all things, preserving the company’s old power plant as the club house.

That never happened, and unless somebody else steps forward with plenty of imagination and money — lots and LOTS of money — the old Firestone site will probably remain vacant for years to come.

PHOTOS COURTESY SPECIAL COLLECTIONS, UNIVERSITY OF MEMPHIS LIBRARIES

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