In July of 1964, motorists were greeted by the newest billboard from Shaker Heights auto dealer David L. Blaushild. Bold letters declared: “Let’s Stop Killing Lake Erie, have your council vote Anti-Pollution!" Learn how one car salesman helped initiate an environmental movement in Cleveland that pushed lawmakers to publicly recognize and respond to the lax enforcement of antipollution laws.
In July of 1964, motorists traveling along the Inner Belt Freeway south of Memorial Shoreway were greeted by the newest billboard from Shaker Heights auto dealer David L. Blaushild. Bold letters spanning a giant 80- by 20-foot sign declared: “Let’s Stop Killing Lake Erie, have your council vote Anti-Pollution! write…David Blaushild 16003 Chagrin.” The environmentally conscious car salesman acquired free use of 15 billboards in the Cleveland area, and was using them to draw attention to the issue of lake pollution. A series of advertisements in Cleveland’s newspapers complemented the imposing signage, and called on the citizenry to join the crusade. Blaushild asked Clevelanders to express their support for the cause by filling out and mailing in a coupon to his dealership, which would be forwarded to public officials. An overflow of public response prompted the salesman to expand his efforts. He began sending both petitions and an antipollution resolution to those that replied to his ads. The respondents could then circulate the petitions within their communities throughout the greater Cleveland area, and submit with the proposed statement of position to local governing bodies for adoption. By some accounts, over half a million signatures were gathered between June and August. Twenty-six towns along Lake Erie passed Blaushild’s resolution calling on the Ohio Governor to take steps towards preventing industrial and sanitary pollution from reaching public waters.
David Blaushild’s Moreland-based Chevrolet dealership served as headquarters for the petition drive. Both his surname and automobile promotions had long been known in the Cleveland and Shaker Heights area. Just one year prior, he had caused a minor stir with another billboard located near Fairhill (Stokes Boulevard) and Petrarca Roads. As described by Cleveland Plain Dealer, “Tired businessmen driving home…have been met by the sight of two scantily clad young women cavorting on the catwalk of a billboard.” Police intervened after receiving complaints, which Blaushild chalked up to the doings of rival auto dealers. Beyond enlisting bikini-models to sell cars, he was also known for imaginative radio and print advertisements. In 1963, Blaushild employed the Cleveland Orchestra to record a minute-long jingle promoting a “classically, classical deal at David Blaushild Chevrolet.”
Beyond his sometimes-questionable promotional tactics, Blaushild’s name carried weight in the auto sales industry. Lester Blaushild, David’s father, opened a franchise of the Star-Durant car line around 1921 at 12100 Kinsman Road. Keeping up with the rapidly changing automobile industry, Lester switched to the Hudson-Essex line before finally settling with a Chrysler dealership in 1931. The Latvian immigrant brought members of his family to Cleveland during this time, including his brother Bennie. Bennie started working for Lester in 1924, and soon after opened B.W Blaushild Motors, Inc. at 15215 Kinsman Road. The Dodge-Plymouth dealership relocated within Mount Pleasant at 14307 Kinsman Road in 1932, and eventually opened a showroom at the Kinsman-Lee intersection in Shaker Heights at 16333 Kinsman Road by 1948. All the while, Lester’s dealership grew by bounds. Regularly touted as the largest Chrysler dealership in the region, at one time it was the third largest in the country. In 1949, Lester opened a new Chrysler-Plymouth showroom at 16005 Kinsman Road.
David Blaushild worked for his father’s auto dealership beginning in 1938. With the advent of World War II, David enlisted in the U.S Army Air Forces. Joining in 1942, he served as a photo intelligence officer in Europe for nearly the duration of the war. Upon his discharge, Lester offered David the choice to work in the mechanic shop or frontroom. David chose the latter, at which point his father removed himself from the business’ daily operations. Following the relocation of both the Dodge-Plymouth and Chrysler-Plymouth auto dealerships to Shaker Heights at midcentury, the Blaushild name became a fixture in the emerging Kinsman-Lee auto row. A year after Lester’s death in 1958, David transitioned the business into a Chevrolet dealership. The Chevrolet dealership expanded to include a showroom across the street at 16222 Chagrin Boulevard in 1963.
A trip to Shaker Lakes in the summer of 1963 drastically altered the trajectory of David Blaushild’s life for the next decade. Hoping to share fond childhood memories of visiting the recreation grounds with his young daughter, David Blaushild arrived to find the body of water emitting a rancid odor and littered with garbage. Similar to most cities situated along Lake Erie, both Shaker Heights’ and Cleveland’s sewage infrastructure was outdated and ineffective. With excessive rain, the sewer systems regularly failed and raw waste flowed into the surrounding rivers and lakes. He quickly discovered that Lake Erie was in just as bad of shape. In addition to being a final destination for much of the region’s sewage overflow, the lake was used as a dumping ground for untreated chemical waste by local industries.
Blaushild immediately began working to raise public awareness about the sad state of the region’s water supply. He was not alone in advocating for the modernization of sewage systems or holding industries accountable for breaking antipollution laws. Increasingly since the early 1960s, scientists and environmental activists voiced their concerns over the alarming levels of pollution in Lake Erie. Blaushild, however, effectively used his skills as an advertiser, salesperson and showman to bring this crisis to light and build a base of support that could influence policymakers. In addition to his billboard and print campaign, Blaushild booked television appearances, radio interviews and a speaking tour to spread his message. Local newspapers similarly began to call on lawmakers to take action on water pollution issues.
As support for Blaushild’s cause grew, governing bodies of communities along Lake Erie were quick to adopt his resolution. Cleveland Mayor Ralph Locher initially rejected the non-binding proposal, however, citing the potential negative economic impact on local industry if antipollution laws were strictly enforced. Following public outcry, the resolution passed in the fall of 1964. The following year, Ohio’s Governor requested a federal government conference be held concerning Lake Erie pollution. Blaushild used the opportunity to present state officials over 200,000 signed petitions and letters that had been collected over the course of his campaign.
The Woods and Water Club of Cleveland named Blaushild their Man of the Year in 1964, noting that he had “single-handedly…done more than any other person to fight pollution of our lake and waterways.” The highly visible media campaign, however, only marked the beginnings of a nearly decade-long battle waged by Blaushild to raise public awareness about the region’s water pollution crisis. In 1965, Blaushild sued the City of Cleveland for failing to enforce water pollution laws. He asserted that the local government turned a blind eye to local industries that dumped untreated chemical waste into the Cuyahoga River.
The case was drawn out over seven years, eventually making it to the Supreme Court. In the end, Blaushild lost. It was determined that the City was not the appropriate regulatory authority for enforcement of the antipollution laws. Despite its outcome, the lawsuit had served its purpose. The harmful and illegal dumping practices employed by a number of Cleveland industries were brought out into the open. Coinciding with the national media coverage of the 1969 Cuyahoga River fire, the work of environmental activists such as Blaushild attracted attention to the dire state of Lake Erie and set the stage for future regulatory protections of the region’s water supply.
Blaushild stepped away from his public role in the fight against water pollution during the early 1970s. Since the eye-opening visit to Shaker Lake in 1963, the crusade to save Lake Erie had taken over much of his life. Reflecting a tenacity and flare for salesmanship that is often disparagingly associated with used car dealers, Blaushild instigated lawmakers to publicly recognize and respond to the lax enforcement of antipollution laws. His campaign mobilized residents living near Lake Erie into action by offering a platform from which they could express their concerns.