Monday, March 4, 2013

Lockland and Seth Foster

- The seemingly bombed out Stearns and Foster factory in Lockland, Ohio. Cameron Knight

Let's start at the beginning. In 1830, the automobile hadn't been invented, steam locomotives were just taking hold on the East Coast, and the first electric motor was only ten years old. So presumably on a horse or on foot, a 16-year-old Seth Foster left Boone County, Kentucky to come to Cincinnati. In 1830, our fair city was home to around 24,000 people according the census and the population was exploding.

The next part of our story you've heard before, but there is an unexpected twist.

Foster got a job working at a general store. He was sweeping up and running errands, a blue collar job for a blue collar kid. Are you ready for him to pull himself up by his bootstraps? We're not quite ready for that yet.

- Much of the factory is fenced off. A development company owns has signs posted around the perimeter. The parts that aren't fenced have huge concrete blocks stationed in front of the doors. Cameron Knight

The other character in our story is Joseph Ray. In 1830, he was 23 and had just arrived in Cincinnati from West Virginia. He already had more eduction than most people at the time, and when he got here, he hit the ground running. Upon meeting Foster, he decided to start a night school. Foster recruited some of his blue collar friends to attend.

Ray taught them math skills in the Woodward School, a version of which still stands today in Over-the-Rhine and was home to School for Creative and Performing Arts until they moved to Central Parkway.

- The first Woodward School was located at 13th and Sycamore. The first public school in the region. Image via CincinnatiViews.

After running the first night school west of the Alleghenies for two years, Joseph Ray went on to revolutionize the world of mathematics education with his textbooks. He also became a long-standing educator at Woodward, which was called Woodward High School by the time he died.

Foster was a quick study and after learning bookkeeping from Ray, he got a job at a business on Main Street and met George Stearns. Together they went into the cotton goods business eventually opening a factory on the corner of Clay and Liberty. Stearns and Foster was born, a company name that would come synonymous with mattresses after they started landing contracts with hotels.

In need of more space, the company moved to Lockland in the 1880s and became the cornerstone business of the community.

This is really no surprise as Lockland loved industry. With the Miami-Eric Canal running through town and a 15-foot drop in the water table, they had plentiful water power. In the early days, mills ground their flour there.

- All versions of the skywalk must be doomed in Cincinnati. Cameron Knight

At it's peak, Stearns and Foster employeed over 1,200 people. It contributed to the economy of the Lockland community for over 100 years. There was more than one generation of people in Lockland who graduated high school and worked at the company until they retired. 

Unfortunately, Lockland was forever changed by the demise of American manufacturing in the late 1900s. Like Norwood, Hartwell, Middletown and so many other midwestern cities, it's unclear what the future holds for the community.

Whatever happens, Lockland is not only part of fantastic American dream story, it's success is the direct result of a visionary, generous educator.

In the US, we value rugged individualism. We value self-determination, the self-made man. The land Woodward School was built on was donated by a successful tanner. The story is one we all love, but I wonder how many of these justifiably inspirational people have in their background a version Joseph Ray. More specifically, I wonder how many Cincinnati success stories actually have Joseph Ray in them.

- Parts of the Miami-Erie Canal were eventually turned into 1-75, which now runs straight through Lockland in a recessed channel. The embankments can be seen in the bottom of this photo. Cameron Knight

To see photos of the inside of the factory from 2008, click here.

The research for this article can be credited to the book Cincinnati, the Queen City, 1788-1912 Vol. 3 by S.J. Clarke, the West Virginia Review article titled Joseph Ray, The Mathematician, and The Man by Raymond Grove Hughes, and the 2004 Cincinnati Enquirer story titled Stearns & Foster employed many in Lockland by Steve Kemme.


  1. Another great read with excellent photos! Always enjoy learning the back story to these discoveries. Thanks.

  2. I have always admired your work, Cameron, and I'm not anonymous. I am Larry Gross telling you this comment section needs to be less complicated.

  3. Thanks so much, Larry. The owner of the site and I were just talking about how convoluted it is. Thanks for the comment!

  4. I worked at Stearns and Foster in the late 60's. Ray Bauer hired me for the summers. The funds I earned helped me to get through college.

  5. Very interesting profile of one of the cornerstone businesses of Lockland, which is a wonderful little town. Stearns and Foster kept Lockland flush and helped make it one of the wealthiest little towns in the Midwest. The residents were workers, but the school system, the water plant, and the residents all benefited from the tax dollars provided by Stearns and Foster. I was sad to see the demise of Stearns and Foster. Sadly, Lockland is a village now, and the tax dollars are in decline after several large factories left Lockland. Thank you for keeping Lockland alive through this forum. I was very blessed to grow up in Lockland in the sixties and seventies.