LIMA — Lima was a city on the way up when Gus Holstine arrived in the early 1900s. Oil derricks stood on the edge of downtown, and steam locomotives chugged into life at the locomotive works on the south side. Downtown, business deals were cut in the Public Square, salesmen crowded the “refreshment counter” at the Lima House Hotel and farmers from the surrounding area tied their horses to hitching posts in front the White or Oak cafes while they went inside for drinks and a free lunch.
Holstine liked what he saw. Born Oct. 27, 1876, in southern Ohio, he had worked as a tile salesman and in retail stores before coming to Lima in July 1905 from Mansfield intent on setting up shop in the growing community. He set his sights on the Racket Store (a racket store was similar to a five-and-dime store) at 141 N. Main St., which was operated by C.J. McCune.
McCune initially was reluctant to sell the 25-by-50-foot store to the eager Holstine, but eventually relented. “The Racket Store, situated in the Kendall Block, 141 N. Main St., was sold yesterday by proprietor C.J. McCune to Mr. Gus Holstine, of Mansfield, who will take possession of the store at once,” the Lima Daily News reported July 22, 1905.
Holstine named his new store The Leader because, he would later recall, “I had in mind that Lima should have a coming store with a name that would stand out and look forward …”
Shortly after buying the store, Holstine ran an ad in the Lima Times-Democrat proclaiming the Leader “the bargain store of Lima” and giving its location as in “the Racket Store’s old stand … next to the City Book Store.”
It wouldn’t remain next to the City Book Store for long. On Nov. 10, 1912, Holstine acquired the lease for the book store and knocked down the wall between the two stores, doubling his space. “Mr. Holstine, when queried about his new purchase, and his extensive jump into the mercantile trade, said he had not yet definitely decided as yet on what new lines will be added, but that his plans call for a complete department store, and that he will employ 40 people in his organization,” the Daily News wrote.
Three years after acquiring the book store, Holstine took over the second floor of both buildings and invested $40,000 in remodeling. Under the headline “Palatial Business Block in Lima’s Retail District to House Leader Store,” the Times-Democrat reported that “the new structure will be fireproof, two stories in height and will (include) a basement.”
The structure might have been fireproof but the contents were not, as evidenced by what was at the time one of the city’s worst fires. “A tangle of fallen timbers and soaked material was all that was left of the first floor of the Leader Store, 141-5 N. Main St., after fire of undetermined origin had been fought continuously for 12 hours,” the Lima Republican Gazette reported Sept. 14, 1920, two days after the Sunday blaze. “Thousands watched practically all the firefighting equipment of the city in action.” Eight firemen suffered minor injuries battling the fire, the story continued, and police were “called out to keep order” among the spectators.
Holstine, who moved the offices of the Leader Store to the City Bank, made the best of a bad situation. On Sept. 26, 1920, two weeks after the fire, he announced “a gigantic fire sale” of undamaged goods and, for the next month, advertised the sale heavily.
“With such crowds that it was necessary to lock the doors to keep people from jamming the store, the fire, water and smoke sale being conducted at the Leader Store proved one of the greatest attractions ever staged in Lima in the nature of a sale,” the News reported Oct. 28, 1920. “Before the doors opened at 7:30 Wednesday morning, more than 800 people were waiting to be admitted. When the doors were thrown open, the store was filled in 15 minutes until it was necessary to lock the doors for over an hour until the several hundred people in the store had been waited upon. This process of locking the doors was found necessary through the entire day, the doors being merely opened long enough to allow the store to fill.”
About this time, Holstine’s son Sylvan, who was born in 1901 to Holstine and his wife, the former Blanche Levy, joined the firm. He soon was acting manager and, according to the News, “does practically all the buying” for the store.
On May 22, 1921, the Republican Gazette reported that the leader had obtained a 99-year lease on the store property, opening the way to expand the store, which by 1921 employed about 100 people. Late in 1923, Holstine announced plans to add another floor and a new front to the store.
“Twenty years ago there opened on Main Street just north of the Public Square a new department store. It occupied a small room, only 20 by 50 feet, and represented but a few hundred dollars,” the News wrote Nov. 30, 1924. “But year after year, that store has expanded until today it ranks as one of the finest and most up-to-date department stores in northwest Ohio. It is the Leader store, which is now celebrating its 20th anniversary and ‘opening’ after undergoing an extensive expansion program.”
In May 1926, the store inaugurated an event known as “Leader Days” and billed it as “Ohio’s Greatest Merchandising” event. “This is the first time the Leader has attempted anything of this kind and because of the unusual good success with which it was met Friday, ‘Leader Days’ will become an annual event to be looked forward to each spring and fall by every member of the family,” the News wrote May 14, 1926.
Families also could look forward to other events at the Leader. On May 11, 1927, the News reported the “huge sum” of $50,000 would be on display a store showroom window, signifying the “amount of business the store expects to transact” during Leader Days. For Christmas 1933, the Leader store claimed “the largest Christmas wreath in the state of Ohio.” At 500 pounds and 60 feet in circumference, the News reported Nov. 30, 1933, the wreath was suspended above the store’s first floor. On April 22, 1935, the News wrote that the store would give Lima children a chance to take part in Shirley Temple’s sixth birthday celebration. “A huge birthday cake, now on display in the Leader Store window, will be cut and each child will be given a slice,” the News reported.
During the depths of the Great Depression, Holstine had given his employees a larger slice, increasing salaries five percent for his 117 employees. “The pay in increase is in keeping with President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s plea that ‘wage scales must be maintained and even raised,’ Gus Holstine, president of the store said Wednesday,” the News wrote May 10, 1933.
On Oct. 15, 1939, as the Leader Store marked its 34th anniversary, Holstine told the News that business was good and that he didn’t expect the war that had recently broken out in Europe to last long. “It will be a quick war. Prices will not go way out of sight. The fighting will be over within a year,” Holstine predicted.
Holstine died Sept. 25, 1945, less than a month after Japan officially surrendered to end World War II and about three months after his grandson, Philip, a fighter pilot who had been shot down and held prisoner in Germany, returned to the United States.
Next week: Postwar expansion
Reach Greg Hoersten at TLNinfo@civitasmedia.com.