By Megan Neary
John Kropf’s Color Capital of the World: Growing Up with the Legacy of a Crayon Company is a feat of in-depth history blended with personal and family memoir. He tells the story of the rise and fall of the American Crayon company, which was founded by his relatives shortly after the civil war. This story of one innovative company offers insight into the early, exciting days of the city of Sandusky, Ohio, as well as a picture of how and why the factory closed down and Sandusky became a member of the so-called rust belt. Paired with the history of this company and Kropf’s family are stories of Kropf’s own life- from the joy he felt at sticking his head into a bin of crayons and breathing in their unique scent, to his later return visits to the city as an adult. Each chapter is named for a color- a color that can be found in a box of crayons and a color that stood out to Kropf as he recalled and wrote each story. The book is educational, entertaining, and colorful, much like the crayons that play such an important role in it.
Kropf is an attorney by trade, but a writer at heart. He said, “I always thought, you know, being an attorney there’d be more security and it would be kind of a safe route to take and I’ve really enjoyed the career I’ve had, but I’ve always nursed this sort of inner artist, you know, there’s this secret life I feel like I’ve lived. Some people paint, some people are musicians, and I feel like I have this Walter Mitty fantasy that perhaps I could be a writer.” He’s kept a journal since he was eighteen and published various short pieces, including one on this site, called Hard Hat in an Information Age. He’s also the author of Unknown Sands, a travel book inspired by his time living in Turkmenistan.
He said he was inspired to write this book when “I was reading about how in Sandusky they were demolishing [the American Crayon factory] and I thought that was really marking the end of an era for me and then at the same time I had both my mother died and my sister died and they were sort of the last family connections to that company and I just thought I had all these stories that I wanted to share with somebody. I thought they’d be interesting, at least, everyone seems to like crayons, so I wanted to tell those stories.”
“I had put together sort of family stories that were pretty broad in their scope… then during Covid I had a lot more time at home to really narrow it down and when I finally found a publisher through the University of Akron Press they really helped me a lot to kind of narrow the focus and they said let’s just focus, you know, on the crayon stories and the crayon company.”
“I added the color chapters, I don’t know, fairly early on. I was worried it would sound hokey but I thought the stories really cried out to have a chapter named after a color sort of associated with something in that story.”
“For me I was fortunate I had a lot of papers and correspondence that was handed down through my family that I got to look through that helped me to understand what was going on in the company at the time.”
“In Ohio all kinds of intellectual, industrial forment was going on. You had the Wright brothers, Thomas Edison’s from Ohio, you had all kinds of automobile start up companies…
You had the railroads were first sort of started in Northern Ohio. The start of this company was part of that innovative spirit. It was basically members of my family experimenting in the kitchen to try to come up with a new formula for chalk which then led to the crayons. We often think of Silicon Valley, you know, in the late seventies, early eighties as people being innovative in their garages, you know, Steve jobs and so on creating PCs, but there was quite a bit of this spirit going on in the late 1800s.”
“As I was thinking about these stories I guess I have a tendency to kind of sympathize with or understand, you know, in certain eastern cultures there’s this tendency for ancestor worship and I kind of understood that because i had all of these, I was very very fortunate I had all of these artifacts from the family that had been preserved and handed down and having them all around me they were all talking to me in a way, they were all telling me stories in a way and I think the longer i was away from my hometown… I thought I don’t want these, what I consider really interesting stories, to be lost, I want to be able to tell them to a wider audience.”
Once he had written the book, Kropf turned his attention to getting it published. He had experience with this process, having published the book Unknown Sands, a travel book about living in Turkmenistan. He said, “I really zeroed in on small independent presses or university presses that I knew might be interested and were in that region and I was not with an agent so that made it a pretty clean relationship there. And university of Akron, it just so happened that they’re doing a series on Ohio history and culture and this fit into that series and I was just really fortunate that it worked out well and it’s probably not your traditional book from an academic press…because it blends personal memoir with history so it might be a little bit of a hybrid so I’m just really thrilled that they took it on.
When it comes to getting a book out in the world Kropf said “part one is writing the book which is a really consuming process and then the second is finding a publisher and then the third, which I’m in right now, is really trying to get your book noticed, you know, get it marketed and get people to pay attention to it. It sort of feels, you know, like you have this child you’ve raised and you send this child on out into the world and you want everyone to like your child and take notice and that’s sort of where I am now.”
When it comes to future publications, he said “I have some other family stories I think might have some literary value on my father’s side of the family. I have my grandfather who was in World War 1 and he was in something called the balloon observed corp and he was actually, they had a small group of soldiers that went up in these balloons four, five thousand feet up in the air and they looked down, you know, in France they’d look down at the lines of the Germans and report back what they would see and it was a highly dangerous specialty to be in in the army because these balloons were frequently shot down and the parachutes that they had were very primitive, early parachutes and they didn’t always work and I had his diary from that time. I’ve donated it to the Smithsonian but I’ve kept a copy and I’ve thought there might be a book in there somewhere.”
About the Author: Megan Neary is a Co-founding editor of Flyover Country, a teacher, and a widely published writer of fiction and criticism.