The Historic Hercules Engine Plant in Canton, OH
Updated: Jul 22, 2021
History of the Hercules Motors Corporation
The Hercules Motors Corporation was founded in Canton, OH in 1915. The name ‘Hercules’ was chosen for the character in Greek mythology known for his great strength and twelve labors.
Several businessmen and engineers, already successful in the automotive and manufacturing fields, came together to fill a niche in the market with the growing demand for a high-speed, lightweight, heavy-duty gasoline engine for trucks – a product that previously did not exist.
The founders of Hercules Motors Corporation chose to occupy a manufacturing complex that had previously belonged to the Ball, Aultman & Co. The former Aultman complex consisted of five brick buildings that were one and three stories in height.
Hercules constructed their first manufacturing building in 1916 and continued to add an additional 30 buildings to the complex constructed of brick, concrete, and steel. The buildings functioned as office space, storage, machine rooms, boiler houses, product testing, assembly, and milling for Hercules.
The operations began in the spring of 1916 with 186 employees. In its first year of operation, the company produced around 4,000 engines that went into trucks and buses. In 1917, Hercules was contracted to build engines for the Fordson tractor (a division of Ford Motor Company). During the following years, the Fordson tractor business accounted for a large portion of the company’s production. In the fall of 1920 and after some 70,000 Fordson engines had been produced, Mr. Ford discontinued the tractor in this country, producing a crisis that led to the reorganization of Hercules.
Hercules Motors and the War Efforts
The loss of the Fordson tractor business was only a temporary setback in what would turn out to be a major achievement for Hercules in adapting early to changing market needs. New engine models were designed for agriculture, industrial uses, oil field equipment, road building, marine conversions, irrigation, and rural electrification, as well as trucks and buses in the automotive field. By 1929, the products of the Hercules Motors Company were well-established throughout most of the civilized world. Production had risen to about 50,000 units annually.
When America entered World War II, Hercules went all out for the war effort and devoted 100% of its production to war needs. The plant went on a 24-hours a day, 7 days a week, production schedule. To meet the demand for their products and maximize production, 19 new factories and support buildings were constructed between 1940 and 1945.
During the war, the workforce rose to 5,800 men and women working day and night shifts. Before the war, Hercules had never employed women. Women engine builders rose to 20% of the total employed at Hercules. The Army, Navy, and Marine Corps sent soldiers and sailors to be trained in engine maintenance, taught by Hercules technicians. More than 750,000 Hercules engines “went to war.”
Hercules continued to supply engines to the military through the end of the 1980s, making it one of Ohio’s largest defense contractors over the five decades since the start of World War II. Defense budget cuts negatively impacted Hercules in the 1990s and the company was reduced to supplying engines to companies in developing countries. The workforce was reduced to less than 200 workers in the last half of the 1990s and the company finally closed in July 1999.
Restoration and Rehabilitation of Hercules
The Hercules Motors Corporation Industrial Complex was listed as a historic district in the National Register of Historic Places on June 10, 2005, and a Part 1 Historic Preservation Certification Application was approved by the National Park Service on March 22, 2007.
Phase 1 renovations consisted of six adjacent buildings, three of which are some of the oldest in the complex – with dates of original construction ranging from 1855-1943.
The buildings are now being occupied after two years of restoration and construction. The completed buildings feature 90 luxury one- and two-bedroom apartments as well as a great deal of amenity space for the residents, including a community room, party room and kitchen, theater room, and a co-working space. Other amenities include interior bike storage for the tenants as well as a dog wash station.
Renovations during the first phase of the complex were extensive. Parapets were removed and rebuilt, corners and even entire portions of walls were removed and rebuilt to ensure the shell’s future longevity. Walls were carefully deconstructed and rebuilt using the historic brick, where possible. Where it was not possible, a blend of three different bricks was used to match the existing masonry. The 150’ tall smokestack was fully scaffolded, and the top 50’ were removed and reconstructed to remedy a significant lean in the structure that had begun to present itself 20 years prior to renovations.
One hundred percent of the windows were replaced with new aluminum replacement windows to match the historic profiles of the openings that were present in the building. Nearly 300 windows went into the renovated complex including 13 that were over 7-feet wide and 12-feet tall. An amazing amount of light now pours into the building from every angle.
A mezzanine was added into the Powerhouse to connect a new entry vestibule that was added to the residential portion of the structures. This mezzanine was constructed in such a way that it left a large portion of the Powerhouse open as a two-story community space. Reclaimed wood was used in the community space to soften the steel and masonry structures, as well as on the treads and risers of the private stairs in the building.
Historic photo reproductions were used throughout the site as wall coverings. These photos show the historic complex as well as actual shots of the production floors.
This project would not have been possible without the use of Federal and State Historic Tax credits to finance the renovations and construction of this historic building.
Cleveland Restoration Society/AIA Cleveland - 2018 Distinguished Restoration & Rehabilitation Award
You can view more about the Hercules Engine Plant here.
The Sandvick Team