It wasn’t so long ago when almost every town had a Ben Franklin Five and Dime store where counters stretched from front to back displaying household goods for sale, from oil cloth, spatulas, curtains, and toiletries to records, pliers, nails, and fans. There would be counters of playthings such as rubber cap pistols, farm animals, tractors, toy soldiers, and vehicles of every make and model. Nothing was packaged in plastic, and youngsters could finger the vehicles or roll them along the counter. Most of these small-scale cars, sports figures, planes, motorcycles, wagons, horses, and barnyard animals were manufactured in the small city of Auburn located in the northeast corner of Indiana. It was a venture that catapulted the Auburn Rubber Company into the international toy market between 1935 and 1955.
Prior to that time, toy vehicles generally had been made of tin, cast iron, and lead. Celluloid toys existed, but they were too fragile for ordinary play. Auburn Rubber Company toys were brightly colored, four to eight inches in length, cast in a variety of molds, and made of hard rubber. The vehicles, tractors, and motorcycles featured details such as hitches, fenders, windshield wipers, door handles, and steering wheels.
The toys were inexpensive, durable, practical, and fun, treasured equally by children in rural farmhouses in Missouri and fancy California mansions. Children played with them in the dirt and sand, chewed them, and left them outside in the rain. Moreover, the toys were safe because the company used non-toxic paint.
Today there is a brisk market for Auburn Rubber toys. Internet sites and antique and flea markets offer a wide array of the old-fashioned rubber and vinyl toys for which collectors pay top dollar
The Auburn Rubber Company started out manufacturing tires in 1913, as the Double Fabric Tire Company. The company later changed its name to Auburn Rubber and in the mid-1930s, started making rubber toys. It was an economically lucrative move. By 1950, the Auburn Rubber Company was the largest producer of rubber toys in the world,
It was a shock to all its employees and to the dismay of Auburn, in 1957, when the company was sold to the city of Deming, New Mexico. By 1969, the company had declared bankruptcy and was out of business. The “fairy-tale” success story and the unfortunate ending of the Auburn Rubber Company reads like a well-written script.
The grand point about the reunion was to sit with people who had worked at the company and hear them discuss the toys they made, the collections they had, and the memories they shared.
Why was I invited? I wrote an article about the Auburn Rubber Company for TRACES of Indiana & Midwestern History that was published in 2009. Since that time, I have been invited to their reunions. The number of former employees has dwindled, but I love hearing their stories. Dave F. worked for four years as a “stock boy,” which entitled him to be paid by the hour, which in 1955, was $1.15. During the 1930s, his mother worked at Auburn Rubber for forty cents an hour. Betty W. said, “I worked there for nine years and loved every minute of it. I gave them the best years of my life. I was in my early twenties, and with my earnings, my husband-- he farmed-- and I were able to pay off our farm in seven years. We had been told we could never do that, but with my job and with the sale of wheat, we did it.”
Writers are always alert for stories, and every company has a story to tell.