With the county fair season fast approaching, fair managers, supervisors and their legions of volunteers are sorting through and assigning the many ribbons, and numerous printed signs and numbers that are part of an agricultural fair.
Daunting task. Multiply all of those ribbons, awards and signs and banners by the number of county fairs in Ohio, and around the country, and in at least 13 foreign countries that order awards every year from the ribbon factory in Ashley, and you have an idea of the mind boggling task they perform at the R.B. Powers Co., manufacturers of fair supplies in Ashley, Ohio.
About 1.25 million yards (over 700 miles) of ribbon are used annually to make the ribbon awards. And although many are similar, printing requires individual attention and handling.
Those printed in foreign languages, such as Japanese, require special scrutiny and the help can only guess what sort of events they are for.
A business is born. What started out as a small business in Rollins Powers’ cobbler shop around 1907 developed into a full-time business by 1923 when Powers started making ribbons for the Ashley Junior Fair, believed to be the first of its kind in the nation.
The business survived the economic crash of 1929 and in the late 30s, and when Tony Powers joined the company it was moved to its present location, a former schoolhouse.
At the time most of the employees had attended the school and many spent most of their working years in the two-story brick building, a town landmark with many ghosts.
With the experience in the newspaper business and accounting Tony Powers brought to the business, and through innovation, trial and error the fledgling ribbon award industry evolved in the old school house.
Making progress. The business went from simple lengths of ribbon cut from a roll to the different award color designations and even more elaborate rosettes that require the efforts of over a dozen workers.
A few years back the work crew built the ultimate rosette, a 3.5 foot wide monster that was 42 feet long. It contained 170 yards of seven different colored ribbons and hung next to the company name from the second floor of the factory.
They then challenged the Guinness Book of World Records to beat it. It hangs today, unchallenged, in the factory stairwell where it undergoes periodic changes to reflect the seasons and various holidays.
Mass production. With sewing machines and other equipment from the clothing and textile industries, altered to meet their special needs, they were soon mass producing ribbons, badges and other materials needed by fairs and countless shows across the continent and overseas.
Printing on the ribbons in the 30s was real gold. Micro-thin films of gold leaf were used in gas heated presses and the slightest breeze from an open window or fan could tear or blow the gold leaf off the press.
In warm weather, before air conditioning, the workers would come to work in the cool, wee hours of the morning before the day got too hot.
No high-tech equipment. From the printing industry came linotype machines altered to the ribbon industry’s needs, and various modes of silk screen printing was introduced as the company grew in production capacity and became more efficient.
Much of the equipment they use today is considered obsolete and replacement parts for it are no longer made.
Too small and specialized to use the huge automated machines now used in industry, the Powers Co. has to scour the country for parts and used equipment that they can cannibalize for replacement parts.
Many out of production parts have to be duplicated in local machine shops. However, the small computer and computerized imaging machines have been a blessing to their small business.
In the mid-1970s Ed Powers, Tony’s son, rejoined the company where he had grown up and now owns and manages it.
Product line expands. The product line was expanded to include plaques, trophies and those delicate tiaras that young ladies can keep for mementos of the day when they were crowned fair queens.
The alumnus of the school, the first generation to work in the Powers ribbon factory, have been replaced by their children over and again until some workers can trace back several generations in their family who have worked at R.B. Powers.
Ed Powers, the present owner, is a third generation Powers to manage the business. A sister, who helped put herself through college working in the shop and has since retired from a teaching career, still has strong emotional ties to the place and likes to come in and help out when needed.
In the office a young niece, Joann Osborn, helps run that end of the business.
In this time of mergers and buyouts, and friendly and hostile takeovers, it’s rare to find a family founded business still in operation past the second generation.
Not corporate America. The ribbon factory is tucked away in a small Ohio farm village. The nature of the business and the hands-on attention to detail is not something that can be printed up on a computer and run from corporate headquarters in New York.
Third generation owner and manager, Ed Powers, did not acquire his knowledge and skill in college, he learned the business beside his father out on the floor when he was kid.
The county fair supply business is not high-tech, but they do strive for excellence and achieve a high degree of perfection in their products.
Big part of it. When Powers and his crew go to the fairs and see the smiles of 4-H winners or a grandmother who sewed the winning quilt and won the cherished blue ribbon, they know their ribbons have helped inspire others to strive for excellence.
For that alone, Ed and his crew deserve a blue ribbon.