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Romance of the Lightning Rod

This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News on July 12, 1925



By Howard Burba


     We are willing to grant Mr. Ben Franklin all due and proper credit for stumbling upon the lightning rod idea.  But when it came to knowing about them and making them and commercializing them, we are in duty bound to rate Mr. Franklin as a rank amateur.

      It might as well be told in the beginning that the first lightning rod ever made for practical purposes was turned out in the city of Dayton, O., and that over a period of almost one hundred years, in fact, ever since the lightning rod was invented, its home has been within fifteen miles of its birthplace.  To be exact, even to this day the home of the lightning rod is at West Milton, thriving little Miami co. city near the Montgomery co., line.

     Like everything else worth while that has been handed down to us through the years, there is a romance back of the lightning rod; happiness and sorrow and poverty and plenty have played their part in its invention and manufacture.

     Away back in 1798, when Absolam Mast decided to quit Randolph co., Va., and take a chance with the Indians in what was then known as the Northwest Territory, and which comprised all that vast acreage, heaven alone knew how much, lying west and north of the Ohio river, he wasn’t seeking a site for a lightning rod factory.  On the other hand, Mast was of that rock-ribbed Mennonite stock that actually held it to a sacrilege for men to “monkey with the elements” or to attempt to solve the mysteries placed over man’s head at the creation of the world.  He came on to the Northwest Territory, and took up a vast tract of land which now lies at the extreme southern edge of what is Miami co., a part of which forms the site of the present town of West Milton.

     Mast erected a home and put in crops, sharing with his neighbors that of which he had an abundance and accepting in return a share of that on which he was short.  But after a couple of years the call of North Carolina was too strenuous to be easily shoved aside or ignored, so he returned to his native land.  A year or so later, however, he was back, and with him came the remainder of his clan.  They promptly set about clearing homesites, hewing building material from the sturdy oaks which grew as thick as weeds along the Stillwater river slopes.  At night they gathered about the tallow dip and whittled out the wooden pegs which served them in the absence of nails.

     These were the forefathers of the large colony of Masts in and around West Milton, sturdy, substantial citizens in their own community, and bearing a name that is known wherever lightning rods are known.

     Along about the time the Masts were getting a fair start in life John Rayburn became dissatisfied with conditions around the little Clark co. settlement of New Carlisle.  He had heard of the rapid growth of Dayton and of West Milton, so he packed his few earthly belongings and turned his face toward the setting sun.  Today West Milton is but a step from New Carlisle.  It was a long walk then, with dense wilderness and no sign of habitation between the two points.

     Rayburn, upon reaching West Milton, promptly started in the grocery business, and just as promptly failed.  Neighbors said he was giving more attention to a new-fangled contraption he called a lightning rod than he was to weighing out sugar and taking pelts in return.  He spent most of his time putting threads on common bars of iron and tinkering about the forge in a West Milton blacksmith shop.  Rayburn would go on foot to the house of a pioneer, explain to the owner just how lightning is really a liquid, that it flows over the outside surface of metal, just as water flows through the inside surface of a pipe; he would explain the benefits accruing from his invention, and, more often than not, he would land a contract for a lightning rod.  Returning to the blacksmith shop with his measurements he would fit up enough rolled iron, of three-eighth inch size, to rod the building, and then he would proceed to install it before taking another order.

     Glass insulators were unknown in those days, so Rayburn would go to the old West Milton tannery, secure the horns of steers butchered there, and use these to hold the lightning rods at a safe distance from the roof or outside walls of a building.  To this day horn still serves as in excellent non-conductor.

     But the action of the elements soon served to handicap Rayburn’s business.  The rods he erected were not giving satisfaction; they easily took on rust and were quickly eaten away.  Someone had told him about a chap in Dayton who had been doing a little experimenting, with the result that he was able to produce a rod coated with copper, a far more successful product than either the plain steel rod, or the steel rod dipped in a solution of zinc—the earliest form of galvanizing.  So he paid a visit to Dayton.

     He located a chap named Vermillion, working in a little cellar repair shop on the site of the present towering structure which houses Dayton’s City National bank.  Vermillion had not only invented a copper coated rod, the first of its kind in the world, but he had been wise enough to secure a patent on it.  Rayburn spent some time in negotiating for the patent, and finally secured it in return for 30,000 feet of galvanized rod he had on hand.

     And here the chapter of poverty and plenty may be written, for Vermillion, supplied through the sale of the galvanized rods with more ready cash than had previously been his at any one time, began drinking heavily and was found one wintry morning lying in the snow near his little underground shop.  He had fallen during the night and, being too deeply under the influence of liquor to regain his feet, had frozen to death.

     Back in West Milton W. J. Mast, of the original North Carolina stock, was running a tavern.  He became interested in Rayburn and the lightning rod business, and came to his rescue when finances were needed to keep it going.  His brother, J. P. Mast, had also become interested, so the tavern-keeper financed what is believed to have been the first plant in the world for the manufacture of lightning rods.

     The concern grew and prospered, and in the hey-dey of its career boasted having more than thirty “lightning rod wagons” traversing Ohio and adjoining states.  Thousands of residents of the Middle West can remember these long, narrow wagons, loaded with bright and shining copper rods, and glistening weather vanes, and prancing steel horses in miniature, the latter serving as ornaments of the rods erected above the roofs of those then considered “well-to-do.”

     For years the Mast name was magical in the lightning rod world, despite the fact that competition quickly sprang up throughout the east.  It was too good a thing to get by the Yankees, so New England entered the field.  But always the West Milton plant remained active, and kept steadily ahead of all others in the matter of new inventions and patents.

     Transportation lines were few in this section at the time, and to get his raw material from the Pennsylvania mills where it was rolled, Mast had to bring it in a circuitous way, down the Ohio river and up to Dayton by canal boat.  The construction of the railroad between Dayton and Xenia helped to solve his shipping problems, and when a freight depot was erected here it also aided him materially as a storage plant.  It is recalled by his descendants that at one time Mast had thirty tons of the crude bars cut to 10-foot length, stored in the old freight house.  To preserve it, and to prevent rust he secured a barrel of benzine and a barrel of coal tar, made a mixture of the two and dipped the rods in this mixture.

     Then he piled them away in the freight house and expected to draw on them as needed.  One evening an employe, working about the rods, dropped a lighted match, and the next morning all that remained of the freight house was a smouldering pile of debris—and Mast’s lightning rods.  Only the coating of tar had disappeared from the rods.  Otherwise they were as good as the day they left the mill.

     L. L. Mast, now at the head of the West Milton plant bearing his name and who was “born and brought up” in the lightning rod business, succeeded his father.  Today’s production of Mast rods are not only manufactured under his various patents, but his versatility enabled him to plan and design practically all of the machinery used in the plant.  His two sons, C. O. Mast and Frank L. Mast, are identified with him, the former as secretary and treasurer of the company and the latter as superintendent of the plant.

     “For a good many years,” said the elder Mast a few days ago to the writer, “the lightning rod business was in disrepute.  Cheap materials, poor erecting and questionable sales methods resorted to by some manufacturers, gave the business a black eye in many sections.  But those who live in memory only, and who imagine that because they no longer see the old, long, marrow lightning rod wagons traversing the country that rods are no longer being made and sold are sadly mistaken.  There are at least a half dozen concerns making them on a large scale, and our own output is constantly increasing.

     “Eighty per cent of all fires occurring in rural sections, where fire protection is at the lowest point, are traced directly to lightning.  So it is, naturally, in the rural sections that lightning rods are most in demand.  You might be surprised, however, to learn that within the past few years we have supplied rods for many skyscrapers and only a short time ago ran a rod from ground connection to the top of the smokestack on the U. B. building in Dayton, the largest concrete building in the world.  For years it was an uphill fight to undo the mischief unscrupulous makers and agents had done, and in some sections lightning rod men came to be about as welcome as an epidemic of smallpox.

     “But it is a mistake to imagine that, like the high-wheel bicycle, the lightning rod has passed into history as a commercial proposition.  You can get a pretty good idea of what the Mast plant alone is doing when I tell you that we consume more than a ton of copper weekly, and turn out, each week, from 2500 to 3000 feet of finished copper rods, in addition to installation equipment.  Our largest market today is south of the Ohio river and through New England, though I have sold myself in three days in the state of Ohio, more than $1400 worth of lightning rods.  No, the lightning rod business isn’t dead yet by a long shot.  And there are no indications just now that it is even getting feeble.  So many other manufacturing concerns have sprung up to attract attention that the general public has lost sight of the lightning rod.  That’s all.

     And from the adjoining room came the buzz of machinery, the grind of metallic gears and the thump of punch presses as workmen in the Mast plant went right ahead grinding out lightning rods in West Milton, the present home of the lightning rod, prosperous little neighbor of the city of Dayton, the birthplace of the first copper lightning rod ever to be made in the world.