Gregg’s: A downtown fixture

First Posted: 9/15/2014

LIMA — On May 1, 1934, in the depths of the Great Depression, Lima’s “Main Street Merchant Prince” reminisced about his 50 years in retail.

Robert T. Gregg told The Lima News he started out making $4 a week behind the counter of a store in Fairfield County “and when my salary was increased to $6.25 a week I was drawing more money than any other clerk in town.” At that time, he said, clerks were mostly men. “The work was too hard and the hours too long for women.”

On only two occasions, Gregg said, had he taken time away from the store he opened in Lima in 1901 and both times it was because of illness. “This store is both my business and my pleasure. I really don’t enjoy a vacation from it,” he added.

“I knew before I came here that Lima was a progressive city and never at any time has my faith in the city been shaken,” Gregg told the reporter. “Oh, conditions have not been good for the last three years, but they have not been good in other places. I went through the panic of 1893 and lived through the one of 1907. This one has been a little more general but the worst of it now is history.”

He would pass his unshakeable faith to his heirs and Gregg’s would become a fixture in downtown Lima, surviving the migration of retail stores to the malls by two decades.

Gregg was born in 1860, the son of Thomas Gregg, who ran a store in Fairfield County, and grandson of Samuel Gregg, who “engaged in the retailing and jobbing of dry goods in Pennsylvania,” according to a Dec. 26, 1935, story in the News. “One of the most cherished possessions of the pioneer Lima merchant is a pair of saddle bags used by his father in riding horseback from Ohio to wholesale markets to buy merchandise for his store,” the News wrote.

Robert T. Gregg became the third generation of his family in retail when he took a job as a counter clerk in a Baltimore, Ohio, store owned by C.F. Hansberger, who would become his mentor. “Shortly thereafter he purchased an interest in the establishment and later bought a store in Tiffin” with Hansberger in 1885.

In 1899, while on a buying trip to Chicago, Gregg visited with friend and supplier Marshall Field, who, the News wrote, suggested Gregg relocate to Lima, which was served by four railroads and in the midst of an oil and industrial boom.

Meanwhile, in Lima at the turn of the century, John Black Jr. was completing what the Lima Times Democrat on May 18, 1901, described as a “handsome four-story business structure” on property owned by Black’s father, who came to Lima from Scotland shortly after the Civil War. The property was on “the east side of North Main Street opposite F.E. Harman’s store.”

“The show windows are, it has just been learned, the largest in the state, and the rooms are very conveniently arranged for an extensive mercantile business.” In 1901, R.T. Gregg & Co. became a tenant of the Black Block in the 200 block of North Main Street.

On March 11, 1902, in a Times Democrat ad, Gregg bemoaned trouble supplying the store caused by floods in the East. Consequently, “we find ourselves unable to give the people of Lima that which we had hoped, viz: a first class opening, consequently we will open under the more ordinary circumstances, and for business you will find us in the ‘Black Block’ and it shall ever be our aim to serve you.”

By 1912, Gregg had expanded into the basement of the Black Block. During a 1915 remodeling, the News praised Gregg’s: “Beyond a doubt this mercantile organization has moved to the front with strides that prove a revelation as to what sound business ethics will accomplish, when put to the test of conscientious fulfillment.”

That “conscientious fulfillment” included, by 1922, filling up the entire Black Block. “There will be four floors and a basement representing a total of 50,000 square feet of floor space,” the News wrote Jan. 15, 1922. “The sales force now numbers between 50 and 60, but after changes 100 or more will be necessary.” At its peak, Gregg’s employed about 250 people, most of them women.

On Dec. 31, 1935, the News reported that “one of the largest real estate deals during 1935 was consummated Thursday morning when R.T. Gregg & Co. acquired the Black Block, 214 N. Main St., which the Gregg store has occupied since 1901.”

Gregg had help running his expanding business, the story noted. “Roy B. Gregg, junior member of the company with his father, is the fourth generation of the family to carry on in the business dating back 125 years. He is active in the management. He has a son, Thomas, still in school, but who has taken much interest in the store. He will represent the fifth generation.” Another of Gregg’s sons, R.T. Gregg Jr., died as a result of an automobile accident in May 1931.

Robert T. Gregg died in 1942 and the fourth generation, Roy B. Gregg, took over.

On June 11, 1950, Gregg’s announced plans to put a new face on an old building. “Work will begin within the next 10 days on construction of a new 75-foot front at Gregg’s department store … The new front will cover both the Gregg building and the north annex which was opened a year ago,” the News reported. The annex occupied the site once home to the Frederick Paper and Twine Co., which was destroyed by fire in 1942. Gregg’s bought the site in 1943.

Five years after the $100,000 facelift, Gregg’s expanded south, acquiring the lease on the Metheany building which housed Harry’s Men’s Store and Willards. The expansion, the News reported July 5, 1955, would give Gregg’s 125 feet of frontage on North Main Street. By this time, Thomas Gregg, who joined the family business in 1945, was the store’s vice president. Gregg’s eventually would purchase the Phoenix Building on the northeast corner of North Main and East High streets.

In 1962, Gregg’s growth continued with addition of a warehouse and parking lot on Union Street. That year also saw Gregg’s receive the prestigious Brand Name Retailer of the Year award.

On Sept. 2, 1964, Thomas Gregg, who was now president of the company, announced the leasing of most of the Central Building, across North Main Street from the parent store. The building, once home to Blattner’s Department Store, would now house Gregg’s appliance department, the News reported.

“The ‘Chimney Corner,’ Gregg’s Department Store’s new restaurant, will serve its first customer at noon Monday, heralding more than a decade of expansion by the retail establishment,” the News wrote Nov. 20, 1966. “During that span Gregg’s has tripled in size.”

Roy B. Gregg, “an outstanding merchant and community leader in Lima for more than half a century, died this morning at his home,” the News reported April 3, 1967. Gregg, 77, had come to Lima with his father in 1900 and grown up in the family business.

The family business was changing. In 1965, Gregg’s was acquired by Gamble-Skogmo. The mid- to late-1960s also most of Lima’s downtown retailers relocate to the malls, but not Gregg’s.

On Aug. 30, 1981, Thomas A. Gregg, who had retired in 1979, told the News that “he and members of his family have purchased all common stock in the store from the Gamble Department Store division of Wickes Corp.” Gregg said he hoped to “squelch rumors the store would be closed or moved to a suburban shopping mall.” Gregg said he wanted “people to know that the (store) means too much to me and to the town to let it leave downtown.”

Thomas Gregg died in June 1983 and his son, Geoff Gregg, the sixth generation, took over the family business.

On Dec. 7, 1984, Geoff Gregg revealed to the News a plan “to invite 10 merchants to set up shop under an expanded department store roof.” Gregg described the project as “a dream right now.”

It remained a dream. The News reported Oct. 24, 1985, that “after 85 years as a local landmark and a protracted effort to survive in downtown Lima, there were indications today that Gregg’s Department Store will close by the end of the year.”

“All I have to say is that I’m proud that we stayed downtown,” Geoff Gregg told the News. He later confirmed the store would close its doors for the last time in mid-January 1986.

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