LIMA — When a demolition company clearing the way for the city’s new Central Fire Station in the mid-1970s knocked down the old houses and buildings just south of the Ottawa River, it did what the Ottawa River nearly did some six decades earlier.
Gone was Rowlands Row, a nub of a street running east off South Main Street where residents in the early 1900s were occasionally forced to row for their lives as the river rose around their homes.
Gone, too, was the ramshackle brick building just north of Rowlands Row which for more than 50 years was used by the city Public Works Department for storage but which, when it was built, had been a long-sought central market and the pride of the city.
Over the years, Rowlands Row, named for Daniel Rowlands, whose family settled in Allen County in the middle of the 19th century and who owned much of the land in the area, acquired a reputation for vice. Newspapers of the time referred to it as the “Jungles.” On June 28, 1909, according to the Lima Times-Democrat, an early Sunday morning raid on a Rowlands Row residence “rounded up a game of ‘craps’ in progress, catching the defendants in the act of ‘rolling the bones.’”
When not “rolling the bones,” operating stills or committing assault, residents seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time avoiding drowning. In the first few months of 1904, the Ottawa River twice inundated the area. On the first occasion, according to Jan. 22, 1904 edition of the Times-Democrat, “a big boilermaker named Young … paddled to land in a wash tub…” Two months later, on March 26, the newspaper reported “nearly all” the residents of the addition had to be rescued by boat.
Late that summer, a public meeting was held at the new Market House “for the purpose of discussing ways and means to protect the city from floods in the future,” the Times-Democrat reported Aug. 26, 1904. One suggestion was the construction of an eight-foot dyke on both sides of the river from the C.H. & D Railroad bridge to Pierce Street. The dyke wasn’t built and the floods kept coming. “Rowlands Row and the frame residences between the Main Street bridge and Eureka Street were almost entirely submerged, and access to many of them at this writing is impossible,” the Times-Democrat wrote March 26, 1913, during the biggest flood in the city’s history. After severe flooding on July 16, 1915, the Lima Daily News noted that “while many sections of the city were hard hit by the storm, this little street (Rowlands Row), only a block long, has suffered more devastation than the rest of the town put together.”
Finally, during the 1920s, a series of projects to widen, straighten and improve the banks of the river eased the flooding threat.
While Rowlands Row in the early 20th century was a civic problem, the central market house was a point of civic pride. Long before it became a reality in 1902, city residents, newspapers and farmers from the surrounding area had pushed for a central market.
In April 1889, the Lima Daily Times wrote approvingly of the “thinking farmers” of Shawnee Township after they became the first agricultural group to pass a resolution endorsing the idea of a central farm market in Lima.
In early August 1891, while collecting tidbits of news — the courthouse, “standing as it does at the crown of the Main Street hill,” was drawing favorable comments from visitors; a Tanner Street blacksmith was attempting to tame “a big red fox” he had tied in his shop – a Daily Times reporter talked to “a gentleman who lives south of the creek.” This gentleman, according to the reporter, opined, “No city in the United States needs a market house as bad as does Lima. If a man wants anything he must go to the groceries, and pay double the price. The farmers must go to the grocers to sell. If we had a market three times a week, that would give a chance for the people to go and buy their goods direct from the farmers.’”
Area farmers, as well as the gentleman from “south of the creek,” got their wish in December 1901 when City Council passed an ordinance to issue $5,000 worth of bonds to construct a market house south of the creek. At the end of June 1902, a reporter for the Times-Democrat visited the construction site. “Where two weeks ago was just an ordinary strip of unoccupied ground,” the reporter wrote, “today he found it undergoing a wonderful change. Everywhere were great piles of lumber with large numbers of carpenters shaping it into a huge entrance and fence.”
Four months later, on Oct. 30, 1902, the Times-Democrat was reporting the structure nearly complete. “When prepared for occupancy, which will be soon, the structure will be found to be a handsome and commodious building. On the north and south sides of the edifice the merchant booths will be located. The market office will be located in the east part of the structure. Sheds upon either side of the building will afford accommodations for various exhibits and sales stands.”
By June 1903, the Market House, which already had been used for a number of dances and political meetings, was opened for its intended purpose. The Times-Democrat observed on June 5, 1903, “The dealers in meats, vegetables, fish, fruits and other household provisions” arrived early and had sold out well before noon.
“Most of the interior stalls and outside curb spaces have been sold, and most of the renters were on hand this morning and the favorable result of the initial market day in Lima, may hasten the sale of the remaining stalls and spaces.”
For all the early optimism and the facility’s popularity as a political meeting spot and a marshaling ground for parades, the Market House was foundering by 1913 with complaints increasing that it had been taken over by a few “middle men.” As a Times-Democrat reporter wrote Sept. 29, 1913, “When a farmer receives 50 cents a bushel for tomatoes, which the market dealer retails to the consumer for from 90 cents to $1.25 a bushel, where does the consumer come in?”
The building wasn’t doing much for the city either. The Daily News reported Feb. 9, 1917, that the building made “just exactly 30 cents” for the city in 1916. “This is excepting money spent for a new scale and other equipment purchased to increase the revenue of the establishment.”
A proposal by the market master, hired by the city to run the facility, to spend $15,000 renovating the building to include a municipal dance hall to increase revenue went nowhere.
In the 1920s, with interest from vendors and customers waning, the Market House was closed. The city would use it to store equipment for the public works department.
Reach Greg Hoersten at TLNinfo@civitasmedia.com.