Filed Under World War I

Making Rubber

Why did an Akron Rubber company grow cotton in the desert?

Over the span of 70 years Goodyear went from a Ohio based rubber company, to Arizona cotton producer, to pre-planned community developer.

In 1916, World War I and the boll weevil created a crisis for the international rubber industry. Lower demand coupled with insect infestation crippled the southern United States and Egyptian cotton industries. The diminished cotton supply hit tire manufacturers particularly hard because cotton served as the primary reinforcement for pneumatic tires until 1965 when it was replaced by steel cords. Rubber manufacturers from Michelin in France to Goodyear in the United States sought new sources for the Egyptian long-staple cotton that played such a significant role in their business.

In 1916, Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company (Goodyear) sent junior executive Paul Litchfield to Phoenix to assess the viability of climate and soil conditions for cotton production. At the same time Goodyear purchased the company’s first of many rubber plantations in Southeast Asia, and later South America. Litchfield confirmed that the desert climate and soil was quite similar to the conditions in Egypt, including having a lengthy nine month growing season. Additionally, Litchfield discovered that there was a new strand of cotton that thrived in the region: Pima Cotton, a modified strain of the Egyptian Long-Staple cotton that the company had been seeking to source.

Litchfield's scouting led Goodyear to purchase 16,000 acres of land located 16 miles west of Phoenix. The company bought the land from the original 1908 California settlers at a price of $25 per acre. In present-day currency (2019) that price is equivalent to approximately $610 per acre, for total of $9.7 million investment. The purchase provided Goodyear with vertical control over its supply chain--from raw materials to manufacturing--at the precise moment that Goodyear became the world’s largest tire company. Its primary international competitors followed suit. Michelin and B.F. Goodrich began purchasing rubber plantations in Southeast Asia and South America as well.

As it began producing Pima cotton, Goodyear established the Southwest Cotton Company as a subsidiary. It initially hired over 2,000 men, who use 1,200 mules to clear the desert for fields; they cleared about 3,500 acres per year. The workforce, as well as land under cultivation, increased steadily through the 1920s. By the end of the decade Goodyear farmed a 33,000-acre region in the west valley, which essentially operated as a company town. The first crops were planted in January of 1917, and were harvested in September of that year, yielding 1,500 bales of cotton that weighed 750,000 total pounds. Within three years of the initial land purchase, the fields yielded over six million pounds of cotton.

Mexican and Native Americans took most of the jobs in the fields, although Anglo migrants to Arizona also worked the land. At the behest of Goodyear, the United States Immigration Authority brought Mexican immigrants to work the fields. The majority stayed in Arizona and became citizens. Goodyear housed the workers and their families in tent-campsites located in the central region of the company town for the first year. Cotton production became a family effort as wives and children started to work the fields too. Laborers earned wages according to a piece rate--based on the weight (pounds) of cotton produced; under this system of labor, workers struggled to earn a living wage, worked long hours, and frequently had to bring members of their extended family, including their children into the fields.  In addition to working the fields, these laborers built roads, dug wells and irrigation ditches, and laid the utility infrastructures like gas lines and electrical grids. Goodyear later constructed small adobe houses as permanent employee dwellings as a way to keep their employees closer to their fields.

As the number of workers increased, Litchfield organized a company town to serve the growing population’s need in what was then a remote area of Phoenix. In fact, it took nearly a full day to travel from the Goodyear farms to central Phoenix. The company also established churches, schools, and stores in order to increase productivity and keep workers from traveling too far from the fields. Company areas were also built to facilitate operations and corporate demands. In 1918, Litchfield constructed The Organization House, later renamed the Wigwam Resort, as a guest house for traveling executives from the Akron main office. Additionally in 1918, the Southwest Cotton Company installed a six-stand cotton gin, but due to drastic yield increases the company had to install a 10-stand gin that had a daily capacity of 124 tons soon after.

Throughout the 1920s and the Great Depression the Southwest Cotton Company produced all of the cotton required for Goodyear’s manufacturing demands. In 1926 Paul Litchfield became president of Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, and in 1930 he was named company chairman, positions he led until 1956 and 1958, respectively.

During World War II the conflict’s needs redirected Goodyear’s manufacturing to weapons, aircrafts, and other necessities of war. Of course cotton production remained high due to government contracts to produce tires for military vehicles. After the war Goodyear returned to unrestricted civilian production. Through the 1950s and early 1960s Goodyear remained the largest tire manufacturer in the world.

However, the importance of cotton and Goodyear's farming operations began a precipitous decline that eventually led to the suburban development of the region around Litchfield Park. Critically, in 1958 Goodyear stopped using cotton cord in its tires, replacing them with a new innovation--radial-ply tires woven with steel cording. During the 1960s Goodyear shifted its Arizona operational focus from cotton production to real estate development.

Goodyear closed the Southwest Cotton Company and transferred the remaining acreage to its new subsidiary, Litchfield Park Land and Development Company. This new company’s mission focused on designing several pre-planned communities for public sale. By 1986 Goodyear maintained control of only a few thousand acres and the Wigwam Resort which it sold off to a development company for $220 million.

Over the span of 70 years Goodyear went from a Ohio based rubber company, to Arizona cotton producer, to pre-planned community developer. Ultimately ending with the final sale of its remaining Arizona assets in 1986.

edited 12/15/19: mtt

Images

White Gold Goodyear, Arizona developed as a company town to supply cotton to the Akron, Ohio-based Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company. Farmers grew Pima Long Staple Cotton year round from 1917 through the late 1960s. Source: “Cotton Farm, Goodyear, Arizona (10620),” Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company Records, Identifier: 10620_20, University of Akron Archives.  Creator: Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company Date: January 14, 1920
Rubber Meets The Road Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company owned and operated a massive fleet of test vehicles, located across the nation. The fleet’s primary responsibility centered around testing prototype tires in different climates and on varying terrain. The company stationed a regional fleet at Litchfield Park with the cotton company because of the hot, arid climate and easy access to desert terrain. Source: “Test Cars Arizona (670b),” Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company Records, Identifier: 670b_35, University of Akron Archives.  Creator: Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company Date: July 8, 1935
Inside The Gin The Southwest Cotton Company’s relatively remote location in the 1920s forced the company to establish a self-sustaining operation. It constructed freight lines, built roads and warehouses, and the cotton gin facility. George Busey, the former General Manager for Southwest Cotton Company, inspects operations in 1968. Source: “George Busy at Cotton Gin,” Litchfield Park Collection, 1900-1990 (Bulk 1917-1987). Collection #: MSS 117, Arizona State University Archives. Creator: Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company Date: November 1968
Diverting Water to The Desert In 1916, the Southwest Cotton Company hired over 2,000 Mexican Immigrants to strip the desert. dig irrigation canals, and work the cotton fields. The company operated for over 70 years, and during that time the workers cleared over 32,000 acres of desert, and dug many miles of irrigation trenches. Source: “Mexican Laborers Digging Irrigation Canals to Irrigate Cotton Crops," Contain 1:82, José B. Villela Photographs, 1890-1975, MP SPC 313. Arizona State University Library: Chicano Research Collection. Date: 1917
Cotton Ready to Ship The town of Litchfield Park centered around Goodyear’s cotton operations. Beyond the fields, the cotton gin stood as the most important facility for cotton production. By locating the gin centrally, Goodyear maximized operational efficiency. Likewise, laborers lived within close proximity to the fields in order to optimize production, volume, and increase time management. Source: “Workers Processing Bales of Cotton (1:85).” José B. Villela Photographs circa 1890-1975 1920-1975, Collection #: MP SPC 313, Arizona State University Archives.  Creator: José B. Villela Date: Circa 1940

Location

Metadata

Trevor Shackleton, “Making Rubber,” Salt River Stories, accessed October 1, 2023, https://saltriverstories.org/items/show/379.