When the lights went out

First Posted: 4/21/2014

LIMA — The lights were out in Lima and Police Chief Thomas A. Lanker feared the criminals would soon be out as well, drawn to the darkened city like ants to a picnic.

It was late fall 1922. South had just defeated Central 19-0 in their annual Thanksgiving Day football game. Popular evangelist W.E. Biederwolf was packing souls into his tabernacle at Pierce and Circular streets. And Lima, a city which had grown to a population of more than 41,000, was in its first year under a city commission form of government.

It was not going well.

In 1921, Lima voters approved a change in the structure of city government. Voters now elected five commissioners to replace city council with the commission chair serving as mayor. The commission also hired a city manager to run the city on a daily basis. The city manager reported to the mayor. C.A. Bingham, of Binghamton, N.Y., was hired as Lima’s first city manager.

“The big problem was finances. The new regime had the job of acquainting the people with the fact that improvements must be paid for. Since the city was scarcely able to pay for routine operations, that meant financed debt,” according to the “1976 History of Allen County, Ohio.”

In November 1922, the regime tried to acquaint the people with the facts, putting a two-mill operating levy on the ballot. It was defeated.

“Wholesale slashing of city payrolls began yesterday, when City Manager Bingham issued orders to executives of the police, fire and engineering departments to make immediate cuts in their respective forces to come within municipal revenue,” the Lima Republican Gazette reported Nov. 10, 1922. Not only would police and fire departments be cut beginning Dec. 1, 1922, but the city vowed to pull the plug on Lima’s street lights, including the newly installed boulevard lighting in the downtown.

Downtown merchants reacted quickly to the police department cuts. The Lima News wrote Nov. 10, 1922, that “within three hours after the city commission had ordered a drastic cut in city police and fire departments, Lima merchants had placed plans on foot to create a contingency police force to protect downtown property.”

On Nov. 19, 1922, the News reported, Bingham proposed an “occupation tax plan” to the city commission as a “means of raising $100,000.” The News predicted, correctly as it turned out, that “he will face a body divided as to its advisability and back of them a community feeling that such a tax would be a detriment to the city …”

On Nov. 29, 1922, Bingham told the News the city commission would not attempt “to enact legislation to provide funds for street lighting unless the taxpayers show unmistakably that they want it and are willing to abide it … Defeat of the two-mill levy proposal by the voters has been taken by members of the commission as a direct command to spend only those funds which will be received by them, even though the city may be in darkness for 13 months … Members of the commission and Manager Bingham make it very plain that a spirit of vindictiveness does not enter into their decision to regard no legislation for the purpose of providing funds.”

They were true to their word. “Lima citizens took a long, lingering, farewell look at the street lights Thursday night,” the News wrote Dec. 1, 1922. “Unless something unforeseen occurs, the lights will be seen no more until Jan. 1, 1924. Pedestrians on the street at a late hour stubbed their toes on uneven sidewalks and swore softly to themselves as they thought of the nights to come when the city will be in total darkness.

“Farmers in the country and residents in the villages … saw for the last time the reflections of the city’s lights and the sky above it,” the News continued. “Friday night, when they look toward the city, they will see a spot so black a piece of coal would leave a white mark on it as one Lima business man said Friday.”

Well, not quite. “Lima basked in the light of a silvery moon last night,” the Republican Gazette reported Dec. 1, 1922. “Downtown streets were darkened, with the exception of the feeble rays showing from store windows and the occasional headlights from passing automobiles, after sundown. By 11 o’clock the streets were deserted.”

The silvery moon may have saved Lima from total darkness but it couldn’t save the commission from the wrath of Lima’s citizens. Under the headline “Turn on the Lights or Resign” the News on Dec. 1 opined: “This slogan may be spread throughout the city before the end of the week, according to Limaites met in all parts of the city Friday, as the answer of the public to so-called retrenchment by the City Commission. … Deep, sullen resentment with charges that the action is due to a ‘pet peeve’ over the defeat of the two-mill levy, is met on every hand. Sober, staid business men and bankers, admit without permitting quotation that darkening the city’s streets is inviting crime.”

Police Chief Lanker shared that fear. Under the headline “Crime Carnival Feared,” Lanker told the News on Dec. 3, 1922, that the lack of light would be an invitation to “yeggs” and other thieves.

Indeed, yeggs (1920s slang for thieves, in particular safecrackers) had plied their trade in Lima several weeks earlier. On Nov. 13, 1922, the News reported that “yeggs shattered one safe with explosives sometime early Wednesday morning obtaining more than $100 in cash” at the Pure Oil Co. on East Kibby Street.

Lanker’s fears were somewhat realized the night of Dec. 2, 1922, the city’s second without street lights, or a silvery moon. “Robbers, masked and otherwise, held high carnival in darkened Lima last night,” the Republican Gazette wrote. Among the crimes was an attempted robbery “within the shadow of the Biederwolf tabernacle” by a masked man who apparently had not received Biederwolf’s message. “Only the cries of the woman frustrated the robber,” the Republican Gazette noted.

Light appeared at the end of the tunnel, if not yet in the city, on Dec. 4, thanks to the looming Christmas season. “Faced by the prospect of depressed Christmas shopping and subsequent heavy losses, decreased patronage by theater goers and general unsatisfactory conditions due to the turning out of street lights by the city commission, merchants of the city have acted,” the News wrote. The merchants would “personally guarantee the amount of money necessary to have each of the 1,349 boulevard lights burning during the Christmas season.”

Street lights throughout the city soon followed when a plan to assess property owners was announced. On Dec. 9, 1922, The Lima News reported that “all street lights will burn Saturday night, it was announced at city hall Saturday morning. … Orders have been issued to the Ohio Power Co., and the Lima Gas Co. to turn on all lights Saturday night.”

In addition to the boulevard lighting, Lima’s city commission oversaw paving of the Public Square for only the second time since pioneer days. Among other accomplishments, the city commission worked to alleviate flooding on the Ottawa River and improve the city’s reservoir system.

In 1933, Lima returned to a mayor-council form of city government.

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