LIMA — The storm arrived with sudden, stunning violence — flipping buggies, shattering windows and ripping signs and awnings from buildings and sending them sailing like leaves in the wind. A statue of the Goddess of Liberty tumbled from atop the Allen County Courthouse.
“There were numerous runaways and lady clerks in downtown stores were overcome with exhaustion from the excitement caused by the storm,” The Lima News wrote Sept. 24, 1898.
“Never before,” the News declared, “have the people of the city experienced such an inexplicable dread.”
For businessman John W. Rowlands, the dread was a little more explicable. Among the many buildings that had roofs peeled off in the storm was the Krauss Block at the corner of Main and Wayne streets where Rowlands kept inventory for his thriving furniture store. “Mr. Rowlands’ loss will be heavy,” the News predicted.
Rowlands, however, was nothing if not a savvy businessman. In the five years since opening for business, Rowlands had expanded his furniture store into the largest in a city full of furniture stores. Less than a week after the storm, Rowlands was advertising a “Cyclone Sale” of furniture from the damaged warehouse. “The roof and third floor of our warehouse was blown down and goods were damaged by brick and water, about $4,000.00 worth,” the ad read. “Now we have no place to store them. We will sell them at any price …”
Rowlands was born Dec. 16, 1860, in Allen County to Daniel and Elizabeth Hanthorn Rowlands. His grandfather, Rowland Rowlands, who was born in Wales, settled in Allen County around 1858. J.W. Rowlands also had three younger brothers, Edgar, Charles and Alfred, as well as a sister, Pearl. Another brother, Thomas, died in infancy.
“John W. Rowlands was reared on a farm, but left it after reaching his majority and became an employee of the Union News company at Muncie, Indiana,” according to the 1921 history of Allen County. “Later he was interested in the oil industry, and then began working in a furniture store, where he remained for five years.”
Those five years ended in 1893 when Rowlands formed a partnership with Pliny Hoagland and opened a furniture store at 234 N. Main St. “These gentlemen left Lima Saturday night to purchase their goods. They will visit all the large factories in Illinois and Michigan and will make a selection of goods which will meet the wants of the people in this vicinity …,” the Lima Times-Democrat reported Aug. 28, 1893.
Rowlands, whose partnership with Hoagland did not last long, showed a knack for promotion, once using the slogan “you furnish the wife, we furnish the home.” For Memorial Day 1894, according to the Times-Democrat, “the enterprising and hustling young furniture dealer” offered a $12 rocking chair “for the finest appearing wheel in the bicycle parade.” When Lima’s Sunday school students planned a June 1896 excursion to McBeth’s Lake, Rowlands offered to “take all the little ones and their teachers out in his fine big wagons (ain’t he good),” the Times-Democrat wrote June 15, 1896.
Likewise, on Sept. 21, 1896, when “the colored people of Lima and vicinity” celebrated the 33rd anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation with speeches and baseball at the fairgrounds, Rowlands donated an oak center stand as a prize for the event.
All this promotion paid off in growth, so that by March 19, 1897, the Times-Democrat announced, “work has been commenced at the rear of the Metheany block on North Main Street preparatory to the building of an addition to the portion that will be occupied by J.W. Rowlands furniture store.” Rowlands store would remain at 204 N. Main St for the next quarter century.
By the end of 1897, Rowlands was back to his old promotional ways in his new location. “A full-grown African lion will be on exhibition Saturday afternoon in Rowlands’ furniture store window,” the Times-Democrat reported. “The lion is used in one of the illusions presented by Dixey (Henry Dixey was a magician of the time), in which a beautiful young girl disappears, leaving in her place on the stage the lion.”
When it came to animals, though, Rowlands abiding interest was horses, an interest he employed when he was elected to city council. “Chief of the fire department Coates and Councilman J.W. Rowlands purchased a fine iron grey horse for the fire department service Wednesday,” the Daily News noted Aug. 5, 1898. “The horse is nearly 17 hands high, weighs about 1,275 pounds, is four years old and is one of the finest in the country.”
Horses also were a hobby for Rowlands. On Oct. 13, 1899, the Daily News reported that “J.W. Rowlands, the popular furniture dealer, was all smiles yesterday. His thoroughbred, Ueena, which he lately purchased at Lexington, Kentucky, won the red ribbon from a hot field, in the showing of three-year-old standard bred horses at the fair.”
In 1903, Rowlands joined other prominent Lima horsemen to form the Lima Driving Park Co. “for the purpose of owning, leasing and maintaining grounds for speeding horses, riding and driving schools, giving exhibitions and race meetings,” according to the Times-Democrat. The driving park, in the 1000 block of Bellefontaine Avenue, also would be used for automobile races, aerial demonstrations, the county fair and other events for several decades. The site was purchased in 1930 to erect Memorial Hospital.
Rowlands’ brother, Charles, who had been with the store since 1897, joined the Hoover furniture company in 1902. “As a salesman Charley has few equals,” the Democratic-Times wrote. Charles soon was joined by brother Alfred in a partnership with Hoover.
A story in the Sept. 6, 1905, edition of the Daily News described William Hoover and his partners, Charles and Alfred Rowlands, as “hustlers of the first class.” By 1909 they’d hustled their way into ownership of nearly a dozen furniture stores in Ohio and Indiana.
John W. Rowlands, meanwhile, was doing well in Lima. A Republican, Rowlands was appointed director of public services in 1909 by incoming Mayor George Dyer. On Feb. 2, 1910, the Daily News reported noisy “flat-wheeled” city trolley cars were drawing complaints from “City Hospital and from homes wherein persons are lying ill” and that one trolley in particular “is alleged as a regular incubator for nervous diseases.” The problem landed in Rowlands’ lap, who pointed out the franchise agreement with the trolley company forbid the antiquated wheels.
Rowlands later would win praise from the Daily News for his interest in “good sidewalks.” On Dec. 22, 1910, he purchased a black bear for $50 to add to the “collection of animals at the City Park.”
In May 1911, the Daily News announced Rowlands was entering the race for mayor. He finished third behind Corbin Shook, the city’s only Socialist mayor, and Democrat D.L. Goodyear.
Next week: The son takes over.
Reach Greg Hoersten at TLNinfo@civitasmedia.com.