Dayton History

The Barn Gang drove America into the 20th century

By Leo Deluca

Dayton’s impact on the open skies is well known, but the city had an incredible impact on the open road as well—one that is less understood yet tremendously significant. Dayton—the birthplace of aviation—also ushered the automobile into the 20th century.

By 1900 there were only about 150 miles of asphalt-paved roads in the entire nation. The automobile was an oddity. In order to start a car drivers had to turn a cumbersome hand crank perilously positioned on the engine’s front end. Arms were broken; cars broke down; and in 1908, Cincinnati Mayor Leopold Markbreit controversially said, “No woman was physically fit to operate an automobile.”

But everything changed inside a Dayton carriage house in the early 1900s. Inside this storied “barn” an assembly of fervent inventors, affectionately known as the Barn Gang, built the electric starter and revolutionized the automobile. Highways soon sprawled across America. The world was never the same.

But who was the Barn Gang? While numerous mechanical minds were among its ranks three brilliant inventors occupied the heart of the Barn Gang.

Charles F. Kettering
Charles Franklin Kettering, a genius farm boy from Loudonville, Ohio, was forever mesmerized by the world around him. After graduating from Ohio State University in 1904, Edward Deeds hired Kettering in the inventions department at NCR. It was here that Kettering first dazzled Deeds with his intellect and the two became lifelong friends and business partners. In 1909, they organized the Dayton Engineering Laboratories Co. (Delco), which later became part of General Motors (GM). “Boss Ket” served as GM’s vice president of research until 1947, and while he held over 140 patents none was more groundbreaking than the electric starter. Charles Kettering landed on the cover of Time magazine on Jan. 9, 1933, for his accomplishments.

Edward A. Deeds
Like Kettering, Edward Deeds was raised in the Ohio countryside. Born in Granville, Ohio, Deeds graduated from Denison University and arrived in Dayton in 1898 to work with Thresher Electric Co. And it was in the Gem City that he would make his mark. Amongst his many roles, Edward Deeds served as chairman of the board of NCR, president of the Miami Conservancy District, co-founder of Delco and founder of Carillon Historical Park.

William A. “Bill” Chryst
An often unsung member of the Barn Gang, W.A. “Bill” Chryst went to work as John H. Patterson’s NCR office boy at an early age. From this plebeian position Chryst rose through the ranks to become Kettering’s first assistant at NCR and followed him to both the barn and Delco. It was Chryst who first suggested the company alter its name to Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company, Delco for short. Chryst served as Delco’s chief engineer, traveled the world as an international diplomat and never lost his ties to the Barn Gang.

The Barn Gang’s storied barn is preserved at Carillon Historical Park. Every September during Concours d’Elegance, when classic and antique automobiles color the Park’s campus, it becomes a fitting symbol of just how far Dayton has driven us.