The migration that brought thousands of Midwesterners to Tucson may have also brought a very, very large piece of history. If it still exists, the Golden Book of Cleveland could well be the world's largest book. Though it held a half-million signatures, weighed more than 2 tons and was as big as a queen-size bed, it somehow went missing 70 years ago. Now, one man says a mysterious doctor bought the Golden Book around 1952 and took it from Ohio to Tucson. The mystery has baffled Cleveland's historians for decades. Can you solve it? — Erick Trickey
The world's largest book may be lost somewhere in Tucson.
The Golden Book of Cleveland, which weighed about 5,000 pounds and was the size of a queen-size bed, stood at the main entrance of the Great Lakes Exposition, Cleveland, Ohio's almost-World's-Fair, in the summer of 1936.
Four million people visited the fair, attracted to its giant midway full of carnival rides and freak shows, its massive exhibit, and its multiethnic Streets of the World. More than a half-million visitors signed the book's 6,000 pages.
Then, when the expo closed in mid-October 1936, the Golden Book disappeared. Cleveland historians have no idea where it is.
But last year, a tantalizing clue surfaced. If one man's story is true, then someone in Tucson may know the answer to the 70-year-old mystery.
After Cleveland Magazine published an article about the long-lost book, Al Budnick Jr., 70, of North Hollywood, Calif., called to say his father had sold it in the early 1950s to a doctor, whose name he can't recall. The doctor was about to join the first wave of the great Sun Belt migration that brought thousands of Midwesterners to Arizona. He told the Budnicks he was moving from Cleveland to Tucson — and taking the book with him.
Budnick, a background illustrator for children's animation, says his parents, Al Sr. and Josephine, found the Golden Book in the garage of a home they bought in the Cleveland suburb of Bratenahl in August 1945.
"The place was just a filthy mess, old tools, old lawn mowers," he recalls. "There was this big crate in the garage. I remember looking at it and seeing (the book), because I was fascinated by the Indian on the cover."
A dirty, old canvas covered the crate and the book, Budnick says. "I remember standing next to it. The thing came up almost to my chest."
Budnick never opened the book, but he says his father looked inside and told him it was full of signatures.
"One time, my dad and three other guys tried to move it. We couldn't budge it. It just sat out there for years."
No known photos exist of the Golden Book, but we know what it looked like because Golden Book Inc., which operated the registration concession at the expo, sold 5-by-3 1/2-inch replica booklets. The shiny, golden cover depicts Cleveland's landmark Terminal Tower, representing 1936, and an American Indian man gazing on a town, evoking 1836, the year Cleveland became a city. The booklets described the Golden Book as "the largest book in the world" — 7 feet long, 5 feet wide and 3 feet thick, with 6,000 pages inside and room for 4 million signatures. The booklets say the Golden Book weighed about 2 1/2 tons.
Budnick says his father decided to get rid of the Golden Book during the Korean War. The family was cleaning out the garage to convert it to an apartment for Budnick's cousin to live in when he got out of the Army. So Al Sr. called the mayors of Bratenahl and Cleveland, hoping they would want the book, but they didn't respond, his son recalls. So they used some of Al Jr.'s poster paints to make a sign offering up the Golden Book, and Al Sr., a plumber, put it up in his storefront window. He may have also placed an ad in a local paper, Al Jr. says.
"A little later on, he got a phone call from a doctor," Budnick recalls. "I remember he had a woman with him, probably his wife. He was driving a big black Packard. He was going to move his family and practice from Cleveland to Tucson, Arizona. His wife and one of his kids had asthma."
The man was "a big guy, about 6-foot-2," and in his early 40s, about the same age as Budnick's father, who was born in 1907. "He was going to take the book with him, so my dad said, 'Take it away.' "
The next weekend, recalls Budnick, the man returned with a flatbed truck with a pulley attached and about 10 men in two cars. They and Al Sr. spent an hour moving the crate into the truck.
"I remember the crate was sitting on, I guess, pallets, four or five inches off the ground. They put big, long black pipes under (it) and rolled it out of the garage, into this cobblestone courtyard. They finally got the whole crate in the truck. I remember lots of swearing going on, guys drinking water from the garden hose, the guy's wife in the kitchen, talking to my mother or something.
"I remember he gave my dad a business card and wrote the address of where he'd be living in Tucson. He said, 'If you ever come out West, come visit us.' " The card is long gone, Budnick says.
The doctor insisted on paying Al Sr. for the book and handed him two $100 bills — shocking Al Jr., who'd never seen one before.
"The truck had to go through the estate next to us. It was a big truck and couldn't maneuver around the angles. That was the last I saw of it."
That week, at school, "I remember asking the nun, where was Tucson, Arizona?" The nun showed him on a map. "She said it was just a little town in Arizona" where there had been "a lot of Indian wars." Tucson was a small city back then, with a population of only 55,000. The city's postwar boom, fueled by Midwestern émigrés longing for sun and clean air, had just begun.
The Golden Book's creators imagined a far more auspicious fate for their enormous artifact than a garage and a ride across the country in the back of a man's truck. The booklets given to fairgoers promised that the book "will be placed in the Historical Museum" as "a record for future generations." They included blank lines for fairgoers to record the page, column and line where they'd signed the book, so that they or their children or grandchildren could visit Cleveland decades later and see their signature.
But the only sizable historical museum in Cleveland in 1936 was the Western Reserve Historical Society's museum, and the Golden Book isn't there. "No records we have indicate we ever received it, accessioned it or cataloged it," says Kermit Pike, the society's chief operating officer.
"The people running the historical society at the time would probably have been appalled," Pike suspects. "They would've questioned the difficulties of preserving it, if it was truly that large. What do you do with it? How do you move it?"
So, how could the Golden Book have ended up in the Budnicks' garage? Al Sr. and Josephine bought their house, a former gardener's quarters, from the estate of William H. Smith Jr., the late president of the W.M. Pattison Supply Co. — which, according to the 1936 Cleveland city directory, sold factory supplies and machinery, including, "Hoists, Electric and Gasoline," "Motors and Accessories" and "Pulleys." It was located one block from the Great Lakes Expo's main gate.
Smith's company was likely the closest to the expo grounds that could move a 2-ton book. So if the Golden Book went unwanted after the expo, as Pike suggests, it's easy to imagine the fair's management asking Smith's company to haul it away — and Smith, seeing its historic value, telling his workers to store it on his estate instead of throwing it out.
So Budnick's story leads to a plausible explanation of the Golden Book's fate after 1936. Other parts of his story are impossible to confirm, since his father, mother and sister all are deceased. His cousins George and Cherie Dilisio, who moved into the renovated garage around the end of 1953, don't remember the family talking about the book. But Budnick's story is full of specific details that remained consistent when he retold the story four months after the first telling.
According to Budnick's telling, the doctor likely bought the Golden Book and moved to Tucson around spring 1952. Budnick, who graduated from high school in 1956, remembers he was still attending his K-8 Catholic school when his father sold the book. His cousin George Dilisio says he entered the Army in January 1952 and left in late 1953.
So who was the mystery man who not only saw the Golden Book's historical value, but was so attracted to it that he would take it with him across the country? Budnick remembers the buyer was in his early 40s, too young to be moving to Tucson to retire. But a comparison of physicians' and osteopaths' listings from the early 1950s didn't turn up any Cleveland doctors who set up practices in Tucson, nor did a search of the Pima County Medical Society's records of transferred memberships. (That's surprising, considering the size of the early Sun Belt migration. In fact, four doctors moved from Cleveland to Tucson in 1947 or 1948 — Drs. William Sommerfield, Clarence Kuhlman, David Marcus and James West — but their moves are too early to fit Budnick's story, and children of Sommerfield and Kuhlman say their families didn't bring a giant book to Tucson.)
If the Golden Book still exists, it really would be one of the world's largest books. Guinness World Records says the record-holder is the Super Book, created in 1976 in Denver. It was taller and wider than the Golden Book, 9 feet by 10 feet, but the Golden Book would be thicker and heavier: The Super Book had only 300 pages and weighed only 557 pounds. And calls to Guinness and various Colorado libraries turned up another mystery: The whereabouts of the Super Book also are unknown.
So if there's a queen-bed-size crate in your garage, or your friend's or grandparents', take a look inside for a tall building, an Indian and a golden gleam.
If you know the whereabouts of the Golden Book, or anything about its fate after the early 1950s, call 1-216-377-3656 or e-mail email@example.com.
Illustration by Dave Castelan / arizona daily star
"I remember looking at it and seeing (the book), because I was fascinated by the Indian on the cover."
Al Budnick Jr. Parents found book in garage