Powel Crosley

Powel Crosley c. 1882. (Image: E. Bowyer)

Crosley Avenue in Lakeside sticks out as a bit of an incongruity. Unlike the rest of the streets in the neighborhood, it roughly parallels the lakeshore like Superior Street and London Road. In fact, if you view it in an aerial photographic, you can see that it fronts a neighborhood that is distinctly less developed than the rest of Lakeside. The streets are wider, and the space between them is greater.

This is because Crosley Avenue was once meant to be a key street in a “lost” neighborhood of Lakeside that was to be called Crosley Park, alongside the other two you’ve probably heard of: London Addition and Lester Park.

Crosley Park was platted in 1889 by Cincinnati lawyer and investor Powel Crosley Sr., who bought $40,000 worth of real estate in Lakeside in 1887—equivalent to more than a million dollars today.

Powel Crosley was born on Christmas Day, 1849. When he was less than two years old, his hitherto respectable and wealthy pork merchant father, Powell Crosley, caused a scandal by leaving his wife and family and running off with the wife of one of his clerks.

Crosley grew up and attended school in Springboro, Ohio, briefly became a schoolmaster, and then moved on to managing a commercial house in St. Joseph, Missouri. After studying law in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and graduating in 1876, he moved to Cincinnati, where his battles on various fronts regarding real estate and legal matters made newspaper headlines with regularity. He ran for Common Pleas Court Judge in 1891, and was also closely associated with Congressman Benjamin Butterworth.

In the 1880s, he became the president of the Crosley Land Company in partnership with another lawyer named Charles Haight and his father-in-law, Lewis H. Utz. They were big real estate investors in Ohio and West Virginia, as well as having interests in oil and gas wells in Indiana and Texas. But the promise of all that speculation came to a screeching halt in the Panic of 1893, when Crosley lost everything and had to move in with his father-in-law at the age of 44.

A July 27 Cincinnati Post article of that year detailing his “temporary embarrassment” also remarks that he dropped a “considerable amount” of money on Steele MacKaye’s massive Spectatorium, which was designed for the Chicago World’s Fair, and meant to become the world’s largest theater, capable of seating 10,000 people. (It was due to the Panic of 1893 that it was never built.)

Thus, all Crosley’s holdings were sold. Crosley Park in Lakeside fizzled before it had really begun, though Crosley Avenue remained.

Undaunted, Crosley got back on his feet with continued lawyering and new investments in real estate and mining. He was one of the first to get involved with telephone and wireless technologies. Though his only daughter died of scarlet fever in 1896, he and his wife Charlotte managed to raise two sons to adulthood.

He died in 1932, and a eulogy written by a fellow lawyer G. Albert Rummel noted that Crosley “ranked with and was recognized as one of the best lawyers in Ohio during the last half century. He had the genius to see ‘all around’ and the common sense to consider all sides of a question of the law, made him remarkably successful in trial work, as well as mediation in having adverse interests unite in harmonious action.”

If you happen to be interested in early radios, early compact cars, or baseball, the Crosley name might resonate, because it was Powel Crosley’s two sons, Powel Junior and Lewis, who went on to become truly famous.

Powel Jr. was born in 1886; Lewis in 1888. According to Powel Jr.’s 1961 obituary, he started out as a telephone repairman, worked as a chauffeur, auto salesman, advertising and PR man, and eventually got into radio manufacturing. In 1921, he made crystal radio sets that sold for $20 each, earning him the nickname, “The Henry Ford of Radio.” Crosley Radio Corporation eventually became the largest radio manufacturer in the world. Crosley also established a radio station, growing quickly to several TV and radio stations. (Lewis was an engineer, and tended to operate more in the background of these enterprises.)

In 1934, the brothers bought controlling interest in the Cincinnati Reds, at a time when there was a move to cart the team off to New York. The brothers pledged to keep the team in Cincinnati, which was widely perceived as a rescue. As a result, the long-time park where the Reds played was re-named Crosley Field. Though the park no longer exists, the new Reds’ park has a monument in front of it called Crosley Terrace.

Between 1939 and 1952, the Crosley brothers tried their hand at making automobiles. Aiming for the subcompact car market, they created cars like the 1949 Crosley Hotshot, which was well-known as a slow and dangerous little lightweight car. (Time Magazine has listed it as one of the fifty worst cars of all time.) The engine was a 750cc four-cylinder with dual overhead cams. It was also made with pieces of stamped tin instead of cast iron, and apparently the welds would often fall apart, causing the whole works to get noisy and hot. Some famous people thought it was worth owning, however, including Humphrey Bogart, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Nelson Rockefeller and, later, 1980s pop icon Boy George.

Some of the accomplishments credited to Powel Crosley Jr. include the first push button radio, the creation of the soap opera, the most powerful radio station ever at 500 kW (WLW), the first lights on a major league baseball field, and the first American car to have disc brakes.

So while there’s no evidence that any Crosley ever set foot in Duluth, their name still made its mark here as well as in baseball, radios, and obscure cars.

Story by Tony Dierckins. Originally published on Zenith City Online (2012–2017). Click here for more stories by Tony Dierckins.