Sunday, June 03, 2001

Festival founded on revival of the washboard


Musicians, artisans find tool useful

By Jeff Louderback
Enquirer contributor

        LOGAN, Ohio — By mid-month, the streets of this southern Ohio town will be filled with visitors celebrating a relic that once was a staple of every American household.

        At the first International Washboard Festival June 15-17, vendors will sell washboard-related arts and crafts, and each band that performs will feature a member who plays a ridged instrument produced by only one company in the United States: the Columbus Washboard Co.

        The story behind the washboard's revival begins with George K. Richards, the president and CEO of a Columbus-based pharmaceuticals firm. Mr. Richards is part of an entrepreneurial group that believes the washboard can be a common household item again, like it was before being replaced by the washing machine.

IF YOU GO
   What: The first International Washboard Festival.
    Where: Downtown Logan, Ohio. From Greater Cincinnati, take Ohio 32 east. In Jackson, take Ohio 93 north to Logan. Driving time: 2 1/2 hours.
    When: June 15-17 in downtown Logan, home of the Columbus Washboard Company (CWC).
    Information: (800) 343-7967. A schedule of events and CWC product information is available at www.columbuswashboard.com.
        The group emptied its wallets to save the nation's only remaining washboard manufacturer from extinction. Today, officials at the Columbus Washboard Co. (CWC) are marketing their product as a musical instrument, a decoration, a home furnishing and, yes, even an appliance for washing clothes.

        In 1999, Mr. Richards saw an article in the Columbus Dispatch announcing the company's impending demise. Mike Taylor and his wife, Patricia, whose great uncle Frederic Martin Sr. founded CWC in 1895, had decided to sell the business after years of declining profits. A self-described nostalgia buff, Mr. Richards was so saddened by the news that he walked into the century-old factory and asked for a tour before it closed.

        “I was fascinated that the washboards were being made the same way they were 50 years ago (with foot-powered woodworking machines and presses),” the 50-year-old Mr. Richards says. “I saw something old, and I wanted to keep it from dying. I told Mike Taylor I would be back to buy the company.”

        Within two weeks, Mr. Richards formed a partnership with eight associates, including his father, George K. Richards Sr., and bought CWC for an undisclosed price. With creative marketing, the partners agreed, washboard manufacturing could again become a growth industry.

        To reduce expenses, the partnership moved CWC to Logan, a rural village of 7,000 about 50 miles southeast of Columbus where three partners, including president Jacqui Barnett, live and labor is easier to find. They signed a “cost effective lease” on a 120,000-square-foot building that once served as a shoe factory.

        Though it was founded in 1895, CWC did not produce significant profits until Frederic Martin Jr. and his wife, Margaret, purchased the business from the founder in 1925, when dozens of washboard manufacturers existed. In its best year, 1941, CWC sold 1.3 million units.

        As automatic washing machines became standard household appliances in the 1950s, washboard sales started a long and steady decline. In 1987, the company sold fewer than 110,000 units. The business had lost money for three consecutive years before the Taylors (who had bought it from Martin) sold it to Mr. Richards and his partners.

        Over the years, Mrs. Barnett says, CWC had made 23 washboard brands. But by the time the new ownership group arrived, it only was producing one model with a white pine frame and metal rubbing surface.

        To tap new markets and increase the company's customer base, Mr. Richards' group decided to expand the product line.

        For starters, CWC is turning a necessity into a novelty. Aiming at customers who favor a country home decor, CWC created models that feature a wood frame with the choice of a rubbing surface made from cork, chalkboard or mirror instead of metal. These items, Mrs. Barnett suggests, are ideal for bathroom medicine cabinet doors and kitchen decorations. CWC offers galvanized tin, brass, stainless steel and glass rubbing surfaces.

        Last year, CWC debuted a mini-washboard with a tiny rubbing surface of silver, gold or chalkboard intended for sale as a toy. Woodstock Percussion ordered 30,000 last year. The washboards bear Woodstock's logo and are featured in packages sold at Cracker Barrel Restaurants that include harmonicas, kazoos, jaw harps and drumsticks.

        Washboards are popular with blues, zydeco and country musicians, who scratch out rhythms by rubbing the metal ribs with thimbles, spoons and other devices. CWC added a washboard catering to these musicians. The model is made of a durable teak frame and a stainless steel rubbing surface which creates a better sound, Mrs. Barnett says.

        There are at least 380 washboard players worldwide, according to a list compiled by Mike Johnson, founder of a washboard musicians organization called Washboards International.

        This month's festival evolved from a meeting of downtown merchants who recommended that Logan have a festival to attract tourism. With CWC's presence in town, and the nostalgic product it makes, the merchants agreed that a washboard festival would provide Logan with a distinctive event.

        Nationally renowned washboard musicians will perform throughout the weekend, and they will arrive in style, riding in a classic car parade 6 p.m. June 15. Some of the musicians are washboard soloists while others play the washboard in jazz bands.

        Among the scheduled entertainers are Ralf Reynolds, who regularly appears at Disney World, and the Boondockers Skiffle Band, whose pianist is Bob Ringwald, father of actress Molly Ringwald.

        More than 60 vendors will sell arts and crafts, many which feature products made from CWC washboards. A children's area will offer face painting, yo-yos, hula hoops and supplies for youngsters to make cards for Father's Day, June 17.

        Instead of hosting a traditional beauty pageant, the International Washboard Festival will honor Mr. And Mrs. Grandpa and Grandma. There even will be a “Washboard Abs” event where judges will decide who has the most ripped stomach in town.

        Mrs. Barnett and her partners will lead tours of CWC's factory, where washboards are made much like they were in the early 1900s. Visitors will select a desired washboard from a catalog and watch it being made from start to finish.

        Though washboards are primarily used for arts and crafts purposes, and as musical instruments, a few people still use them for washing clothes. Ace Hardware and Tru-Serv Hardware now buy CWC washboards for their stores nationwide. The product is used by the Amish, who shun modern ways, but some owners of automatic washers use them for delicate lingerie or for prescrubbing stains, Mrs. Barnett says.

        CWC's pail size washboards retail for $10-$14 while family size models range $14-$24. Mini-washboards start at $8.

        In 2000, Mr. Richards says, the company sold 83,000 units through its Web site (www.columbuswashboard.com), catalogs (like Country Sampler and Home Trends) and wholesale accounts. He projects sales will top 100,000 units this year.

        “My neighbor lives in a $500,000 house, but she still uses a washboard for some of her laundry,” the elder Mr. Richards says. “She says that nothing else can remove grass stains from her children's baseball uniforms. That's the type of testimonial we like to hear.”
       



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