Took Root to Medina, Ohio

By Frank Rocco Satullo, The OhioTraveler

American ingenuity is alive and well in Medina, Ohio where the worker bees at Root Candles exhibit the same honesty, integrity and craftsmanship that their founder instilled nearly 150 years ago.

This company is now in its fifth generation, with the founder’s great-great-grandson as the current president. However, it’s not just family values and work ethic that made Root Candles a household name; it’s also the fabric of the community that surrounds it.

A visit here is met with a blend of ground-breaking advancements, past and present. On the one hand, it’s like rubbing elbows with the 19th and 20th centuries, but on the other hand, it’s like a glimpse into the modern marketplace and state-of-the-art innovations that continue to keep Root Candles on the cutting edge.

Complimenting the massive manufacturing muscle of Root Candles is its aromatic brick flagship store, filled with palettes of artistry, bringing warmth to every nook of its majestic rooms. Take a moment to slowly inhale and exhale. Do it again, and you’ll see why these candles have such a restorative quality mentally, spiritually and of course, romantically. Throughout is an array of fragrances that bring the imagination alive with possibilities.

From beekeeping to honey, to candles, this company’s journey has burned slow and true throughout its history.

Amos Ives Root (A.I. Root) was born into a family of hard-working folk in 1839 and grew up in a log cabin on the Ohio frontier. He met the breakthrough inventions of the 1800s with a sense of fascination and curiosity. He even traveled the dirt roads of the time by a horse-drawn wagon, giving lectures about electricity – a discipline in which fellow Ohioan by birthright, Thomas Alva Edison, would later demonstrate his incandescent light bulb for the first time. Root and his partner would put a sheet of metal on the wagon, have people stand on it with metal slippers, then generate electricity through wires that they held.

“The people would start to sort of jump and dance around,” said Brad Root, the current president of Root Candles. “They had a pump organ that they would use and playfully say they ‘could teach anyone how to dance.’”

Unfortunately, the traveling show ended abruptly with the tragic drowning of A.I. Root’s partner when they tried to cross a swollen river during a rainstorm.

Rather than continue the show by himself, Root decided to enter a more stable profession as a way of appeasing the father of his girlfriend, Susan, so that he could then marry his sweetheart. Therefore, he manufactured jewelry and repaired watches at a shop on Medina’s grand square. It is there that a mental spark would transform an industry and the Root family for generations to come.

A swarm of bees darkened a window at the shop in 1865. This captured A.I.’s curiosity, so an employee asked him if he wanted to have the honey bees. Intrigued, A.I. said “sure.” His friend then captured the queen and gave A.I. what his wife named his “box of bugs.” A.I. was so delighted that he gave his employee a full day’s wage for the time – one dollar.

That day, a beekeeping empire was born.

A.I. poured himself into the world of bees, and in doing so, he discovered ways to revolutionize the beekeeping industry. He invented standardized removable frames that made hives interchangeable between beekeepers. He then perfected a way to extract honey with one of his most ingenious inventions – Root’s Automatic Extractor. It was so popular that demand quickly grew globally. The Root beekeeping equipment allowed the honey to be harvested for the first time without destroying the colony.

Honey extracted with this new method was used to produce Airline Honey. This name came from the creative combination of his initials, AIR, and the word “line,” as in “line of honey.” It was considered the best on the market, and A.I. became affectionately known as “The Bee Man” in 15 different languages.

Finally, in 1869, he established The A.I. Root Company. His factory and warehouse were built in Medina, Ohio on the vacated old fairgrounds just west of the town square in 1878. From the following year to 1920, the company manufactured beekeeping equipment at a rate in which it filled four railroad cars per day to meet the demand. The railway that connected this American success story to the world at large still hugs the edge of the Root grounds to this day.

With so much to communicate about the vast information in the rapidly changing beekeeping industry, A.I. created the magazine Gleanings in Bee Culture in 1873.

The company still publishes this monthly periodical, but it’s now titled, Bee Culture – The Magazine of American Beekeeping. Whether a beginner or veteran beekeeper, private or commercial, catch the latest buzz at http://www.beeculture.com.

There’s a peculiar anecdote about this magazine that doesn’t even have to do with bees: It was the original written record of the first complete circle ever flown in a heavier-than-air flying machine, a feat accomplished by the famous Wright Brothers.

A.I.’s scientific inquiry had no bounds. He traveled over 200 miles on dirt roads to Dayton, Ohio to witness this monumental moment in aviation history. He was so enthralled by their success that he wrote an article about it, but the editors at the various scientific magazines of the day rejected it, simply out of disbelief. An archival copy of the Gleanings in Bee Culture magazine and published record of this historic flight is now in the Smithsonian Museum.

A.I. absorbed so much research and experience about the bee industry that he sat down to pen a book in the 1890’s titled ABC and XYZ of Bee Culture. Over forty editions later, it is still published today as a tried and true beekeeping manual known as “The Beekeeper’s Bible.”

The 1920s brought significant change to The A.I. Root Company. Its founder and the Futures Market for honey lost their health around the same time. Amos Ives (A.I.) Root’s storied life ended in 1923. However, his two sons, Ernest and Huber, were chips off the ol’ block and had already taken the helm of the family business. Soon after, they had to steer the company through a challenging time, reinventing it in the process. They were inquisitive and inventive just like their father, so they came up with several ideas to supplement the struggling honey business.

It wasn’t until Huber played a tennis match with a local priest when his “Ah-ha!” moment struck.

That day, a candle making empire was born.

The Roman Empire also went from beekeeping to candle making. They were one of the earliest civilizations to use wicked candles, made by dipping rolled papyrus into beeswax. Beeswax is a natural wax produced by honey bees of the genus Apis. Beekeepers cut the wax caps from honeycombs while extracting honey from the hive. Their early use of beeswax was to make Easter (Paschal) candles because, for candles this size, it is important that they burn clean, bright, and long, and won’t bend in the process. When Christianity spread, so did the candles used in Roman Catholic religious ceremonies.

So as the tennis match played out between Huber and the local priest, the priest explained that many churches bought their candles with the assumption that they had been made with 51 percent beeswax. Yet, in the heat of summer, they either melted before being lit or sagged in the middle. Huber had a degree in chemistry from nearby Oberlin College, so he analyzed the priest’s candles and found that they were impure, having little or no beeswax.

The church needed honesty, integrity, and craftsmanship from their candlemaker: the very three things A.I. had instilled into the company from its beginning. So Huber and his brother Ernest decided to fill that void.

The Roots developed a superior candle by hand-rolling strips of beeswax to prevent melting or sagging. Word spread. Catholic churches and other churches nationwide ordered Root Candles for their purity and quality.

Today, Root Candles is the largest supplier of liturgical candles to the Catholic Church in the United States.

“We’ve used Root Candles at our church for as long as I can remember,” said Mara Cox, a volunteer at her Episcopal Church in Greenville where she has tended to the altar for decades. “They have such a high percentage of beeswax compared to other candles, so they last a long time, don’t drip, and they smell good.”

The brothers went on to perfect and patent many candle making improvements that they pioneered in the coming years; much like their father did with beekeeping equipment during his time.

So by the time the 1920s ended, the Root family had transitioned from the honey and beekeeping business to candle making. However, they continued to sell beekeeping supplies until the year 2000 and publish the bee industry book and magazine to this day.

A generation later, a song titled “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” captured the essence of the 1960s. And so too would the offerings of Root Candles. The “Woodstock” generation was interested in colorful candles with different fragrances, so the company experimented to meet the growing trend. By 1969, they were making consumer candles, and before they knew it, these new additions became some of their top sellers.

Root has a large variety of candles today made of all-natural beeswax. They range from earthy tones to luxurious hues. Customers can choose from a wide array of colorful options that include red, black, olive, ivory, and more. Whether they are votive, dinner, jar, or pillar candle styles, there are more than 40 different fragrances from which to choose.

Floral aromas emanate bouquets that feature lilac, lavender, and rose petals to name a few. Blue basil, vanilla, and ginger types provide more earthy scents. For something that appeals to the palate, customers can try the salted caramel or hazelnut latte. And for that fresh-air smell of cleanliness, they have their crisp linen blend. These are only some of the dozens of examples that haven’t even touched on the seasonal aromas that capture the spirit of autumn or the holidays. A walk through the factory or store always brightens the mood because of the pleasing potpourri of scents dancing in the air.

The production process is all on-site in a modern facility that still has some people working by hand, plus others using their hands alongside other tools and machines. They also have the latest computerized technology that keeps things like colors perfectly consistent.

Motorcoach and other special tour groups get to see this dizzying array of ingenuity at work. It is mind-boggling that the simplicity of dipping beeswax has turned into such a complicated process with so many intricate machines. Going from one workstation to another, a feeling of American-made pride will take grasp. The worker bees look up and see the jaw-dropping looks from their visitors and smile. These smiles are infectious, and it’s easy to see that the same pride and joy goes into everything they make.

Each department concentrates on a very specific job. The assembly line can be trance inducing when staring at the liquid red squirting into a glass holder, one after another on down the line in rhythmic motion. Others hand pour wax into molds. Dinner candles are dipped up to 35 times to obtain consistent color and a dripless burn. There are different processes for different candles whether they are tapered, filled, pillar or something else. Even the wicks are custom woven here.

Every candle type eventually ends up in the quality control lab where testing is done to ensure the high standard created by Huber when he met the need of the priest at the local church. Candles are examined for how long they burn, the size of the flame that they produce, and the amount of wax that drips.

Once the candles pass the rigorous testing stage, they are produced for sale, globally. The manufacturing arm of Root Candles makes about 20 million candles annually. The purity of these candles always goes back to the basic – using pure and natural beeswax, domestically harvested and filtered.

This intricate process evolved throughout many years of the company making adjustments and innovations. It’s this tremendous history and perseverance, along with a sense of family pride, that first piqued Brad’s interest at an early age.

“As I went through high school and then on into college, my mind was always pretty much set on being involved in the family business,” said Brad. “I started out at the bottom doing odd jobs out in the lumber yard, and then later moved into the office.”

Brad isn’t the first Root to work his way around the company to find his niche. His dad used to unload coal trains and his uncle tarred rooftops in their earlier days at the company.

The history that Brad fell in love with, dating all the way back to 1878, is still evident on-site today. The company’s flagship store now spans over 22,000 square feet of the A.I. Root Company’s original beekeeping and candle factory.

This time capsule not only offers a rich history and an amazing selection of candles but also luxurious home décor inspiration with unique and stylish accents. Each display is done with the same care as those stunning holiday windows at New York City department stores. Customers don’t just see the varieties of candles offered, they also see rooms or situations worthy of holding them. Whether it’s a Hive Candle, the Seeking Balance Spa Travelers, Scented Votives, Timberline Pillars, or Tealights, there’s a scene built around it.

The store has nooks and crannies in each of its flowing rooms that take you on a historical odyssey: into an old vault or to the grand staircase that fans out and sweeps people upstairs for even more shopping. The store features more than candles, too. There are candle accessories, bee-themed merchandise, honey, gifts, and even a large Vera Bradley collection.

“The guys that come here are like ‘I’ve got a list of things I need to bring back with me’ or ‘I’d like to get a gift for somebody,’” said Brad, chuckling. “Though we’ve got fragrances that appeal to men, the hands-down majority are bought by women.”

French Vanilla is a long-standing favorite among scented candles, though others have topped the list as well. For example, English Lavender has always been popular. There is always a surge in the fall for Pumpkin Spice candles, and the Root Pillar Candle looks like it has a smooth weathered tree bark finish, capturing that outdoors feel.

One of the more interesting retreats within the store is to the window with an active glass-enclosed bee colony. Customers can see the inner workings of the hive up close, as bees come and go from outside. Root Candles is definitely staying in touch with its roots. Throughout the grounds, the number of beehives and bee gardens is growing.

The bee gardens stretch across sprawling green space north of the Root Candles headquarters building. There’s a park bench to sit and enjoy the pollination happening during the spring, summer, and fall. There are familiar scents whether outside or inside at Root Candles, such as wild lilac. Even the curbside landscaping is “pollinator friendly” as marked by subtly placed signs.

In 2017, Root Candles began an effort to further deepen their ties to their heritage with the honey bee, a symbol that is now in their logo.

“We have always had a tight relationship with the beekeeping industry,” said Brad. “So in addition to our Bee Culture magazine, we developed a relationship with Project Apis m.”

The mission of Project Apis m. is to fund and direct research to enhance the health and vitality of honey bee colonies, while improving crop production. Their name comes from Apis mellifera, which is the scientific name for the honey bee.

“We want to increase our effort to help honey bees because of their struggle with colony collapse syndrome,” Brad said. “It seems natural for us to continue to do things that are beneficial in the beekeeping industry.”

Root’s all natural beeswax and soy wax is blended with unexpected honey fragrances containing essential oils, for a sensory experience beyond what nature intended.

There are bee boxes that house several colonies over at The Root Homestead, the historical home still on the property where A.I. raised his family. The grounds are well landscaped and cared for. When close enough to the hives, bees can be seen landing or taking off in a never-ending stream of activity. If a visitor gets too close, a sign will catch their attention, stating that protection is required.

Ernest Root was the last Root to have lived in the house long-term until his passing in the late 1950s.

“The homestead at one point in time got converted into apartments,” said Brad. “I lived there as a tenant, and there were a few people after that, but in the late 1980s we converted the house back. It’s a very prized home for us, and we certainly enjoy the fact that it was something AI built.”

This homestead offers even more glimpses into the past. One of the more unique stories features a windmill that A.I. built next to the garage while living there. This was used to power the batteries of his electric car.

“It’s unique that electric cars are sort of new to us, but they had them way back then,” Brad said. “Years later people admitted that while A.I. was in church, they were joyriding his electric car. He always wondered why the power drained so quickly when he had just plugged it in the night before.”

Root Candles has always enjoyed a great relationship with the town it calls home, Medina, Ohio. At one point in time, the town was referred to as “The Sweetest Town on Earth,” and the Roots were known as “America’s First Family of Beekeeping.” Even the local high school adopted the nickname, The Battling Bees. Entering Medina, there’s a sign that reads, “Medina – Home of A.I. Root – Founder of The Bee Industries.”

It is indeed rare for a family business of this size to still be run by that family well into its fifth generation. In fact, the sixth generation of Roots has already shown some interest in continuing the legacy of offering top-quality, American-made products using renewable materials. Whether it’s producing beekeeping equipment and publications, packaging honey, or producing religious and consumer candles, Amos Ives Root’s mantra of honesty, integrity and craftsmanship has never stopped echoing throughout these historic walls.

To plan a visit to experience all that is Root Candles, past and present, start at RootCandles.com. And to take in the picturesque town square and the surrounding area, go to VisitMedinaCounty.com.

By Frank Rocco Satullo, The OhioTraveler


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