At 140 years, Grove City-based E.E. Ward is nation's oldest continuously operating Black-owned business
A moving company plays a vital role for businesses and families, helping them as they move into a new location or a new phase of their lives.
In central Ohio, one such company, E.E. Ward Moving & Storage Co., has carried that load for 14 decades – and its origins can be traced to one of its founders' work in profoundly transforming people's lives.
John T. Ward served as a conductor in Ohio's Underground Railroad, helping slaves escape from bondage to freedom.
Now the company he started in 1881 with his son, William Ward, is marking its 140th anniversary.
E.E. Ward, now at 2235 Southwest Blvd. in Grove City, also is the oldest known continuously operating Black-owned business in the United States, as recognized by the U.S. Department of Commerce and noted in the 2003 Congressional Record.
For 120 years, the company was owned by members of the Ward family.
"It's an honor to be part of that legacy and heritage," said Brian Brooks, who now co-owns the company with his wife, Dominique. "It's more than that. It's kind of surreal, and it's humbling."
The Wards began their business with two horses and a wagon, he said.
"The skills that John T. had, that he used before and during the Civil War to help lead people from the South to freedom in the North, were skills that he found he could utilize in the business world," Brooks said.
During the Civil War, John T. Ward served as a contractor, moving supplies and equipment for the U.S. Army to Camp Chase, said Dolores White, who was the company's CEO from 1996 until 2001, when her uncle, Eldon Ward, sold it to Brooks and his business partner, Otto Beatty, who no longer is involved in the company.
When John T. and William Ward established the company in 1881, it was known as the Ward Transfer Line.
By the end of the 19th century, the company had been renamed E.E. Ward Transfer and Storage Co. after Edger Earl Ward, John T.'s grandson, who was leading the firm by that time.
"What's amazing to me is to think about all the company has endured to stay in business," Brooks said. "Two world wars, economic ups and downs, including the Great Depression, and now a second pandemic."
Eldon Ward, William's grandson, was engaged in the family business in the mid-1940s and stayed for a half-century, retiring in 1996 and becoming the last Ward family member to serve as owner.
"It was time (to sell)," White said. "My uncle was retired in Arizona, and I was no longer able to fully do my job because I had COPD-related health issues."
But in a way, E.E. Ward has remained in the family, White said.
Brian Brooks is Eldon's godson, she said.
"In many ways, the company is still part of our family," she said.
The family nature of the business extended way beyond the names of the owners, she said.
"We were never about getting rich and making a lot of money," White said. "It was simply about providing a living for the family, and the employees were considered as family, not just workers."
Eldon Ward created a gym facility for employees at the E.E. Ward warehouse.
"He wanted to find ways to lift up people," White said. "He wanted to build up his business but also build up the community. So he was involved in so many organizations, like the United Way, American Red Cross and YMCA."
The YMCA branch at 130 Woodland Ave. in Columbus is named the Eldon and Elsie Ward Family YMCA.
"He was a mentor," White said.
The E.E. Ward warehouse was more than just a place to work, White said.
As a girl, the facility also was a place to play, she said.
"My family members were working there, and I loved to run through the warehouse and climb up and explore all the trucks," she said. "I never thought that I would work there myself one day."
In its early decades, the Ward company specialized in moving pianos, White said.
Records indicate the company moved nearly a million pianos for the Steinway & Sons piano company, she said.
"Back in those days, pianos were the center of entertainment in the home. You didn't have TVs or radios," White said.
Jerome Davis has worked for E.E. Ward for more than 30 years. His tenure as a truck driver straddles the Eldon Ward and Brian Brooks eras.
"Eldon was always someone you could talk to," Davis said. "He'd always say, 'Leave your problems at home when you come to work.' If you had a problem you needed to talk over, he was there for you. Eldon treated you not like an employee but like a friend or even a family member. Everyone wants a boss like that."
Brooks has maintained the high level set by the Ward family, Davis said.
The company's legacy and standing as a successful Black-owned business are especially important during a time when the issues of racial equality and justice are at the forefront, Brooks said.
Many owners of Black-owned businesses have told him how much E.E. Ward's legacy means to them, he said.
"They tell me how it inspires them each morning when they open the doors to their own business," Brooks said.
But the legacy he took over from the Ward family extends beyond race, he said.
"There is a commitment to providing quality service to the customer they established over the years," Brooks said. "Our history and legacy mean a lot, but ultimately, it's the quality of service that keeps a company in business for more than a century."
E.E. Ward opened a second office three years ago in Charlotte, North Carolina.
"There are a large number of people moving from the Midwest to the South and Southeast region, so opening an office there made a lot of sense," Brooks said.
The past year has been a challenge for all companies, he said.
"There are a lot of changes that have taken place over the last year, and some of those changes may be permanent," Brooks said. "We'll just have to see."
Overall, he said, E.E. Ward is in a position to continue to thrive in the 21st century.
The company that started with two horses and a wagon now has 60 to 100 employees seasonally, about 12 to 15 long-haul trucks operating depending on the season and another 10 vehicles serving the Midwest region.
For more information on the business, go to eeward.com.