LIMA — Julia Miller had one of the best — and likely one of the most dangerous — seats in town when a notorious gang of bandits rolled into Lima for the second time in a little over a month, armed to the teeth and intent on returning to the scene of their earlier crime.
Miller didn’t stay in her seat long.
“Miss Miller, along with a number of others, was seated at the Newberry lunch counter ‘when the fireworks started,’” the Lima News reported on April 28, 1936, the day after the Alfred Brady gang robbed the next-door Kay’s Jewelry store. “There were girls piled four-deep all over the floor of that store after the manager yelled, ‘Everybody lay down’ as the shooting started,” Miller, a deputy clerk in Allen County Probate Court, told a reporter.
“Explaining she ‘never crawled so fast in her life even when she was a baby,’ Miss Miller said pellets from the bandit guns splattered all over the inside of the store,” the News wrote. “When the shooting finally was over and we got up, the soup on the counters was full of lead and some of the girls were so excited they could not get up and had to be picked up,” Miller said.
It had been an exciting four years in Lima for the J.J. Newberry store and its popular lunch counter since it opened its Lima store in the Deisel block, 135-139 N. Main St., in spring 1932.
In September 1933 a fire swept through the three-story building, wiping out Newberry’s as well as smaller businesses on the second floor. Six people were rescued from apartments in the building. Undaunted, the Deisel family trust rebuilt the block and Newberry’s reopened with a Dollar Day sale on Feb. 21, 1934.
On March 19, 1936, the Brady gang, a group of Indiana thugs led by Alfred Brady, made their Lima debut at Kay’s Jewelry store, 129, N. Main St. During that robbery, according to an FBI web site, one of the store owners jumped on Brady’s back and the two ended up wrestling behind the jewelry counter while another member of the gang squeezed off rounds at whoever’s head, usually Brady’s, popped up from behind the counter. The commotion drew a crowd but the bandits still made off with $6,800 in jewelry.
A little over a month later, around 11:30 a.m. April 27, 1936, as Miller settled into her seat at the lunch counter next to Lima police officer Ed Swaney, the Brady gang returned to rob Kay’s again. Swaney’s partner, officer Jess Ford, had dropped Swaney off at Newberry’s while he circled the block looking for a parking place. While Ford was looking for a parking sport, the gang found one in front of Kay’s. Ford parked the cruiser right behind the bandits’ car.
“Two bandits who stayed outside immediately covered Officer Ford, who had stepped from the cruiser” the News recounted. “When Swaney’s attention was attracted to the sidewalk, one of the bandits had a gun against Ford’s back, and another armed stranger was on the sidewalk nearby. Swaney opened fire on the bandits from inside the door of the Newberry store, and a blast of leaden slugs was turned in his direction. Glass in the doors and windows was broken and bullets peppered the metal frame.”
The five “killer bandits,” one of whom was wounded by Swaney, managed to reach their getaway car and fled south on Main Street and then west on Spring Street with Swaney and Ford in pursuit. The pursuit ended in the 800 block of West Spring Street when the police cruiser collided with a car exiting a driveway. Both officers were injured in the crash. The gang’s haul from the second Kay’s robbery was later estimated at more than $15,000.
As for Miller, she told the News the day after the robbery, “I’ll never again sit beside Ed Swaney, or any other policeman, in a restaurant.”
Newberry’s survived the fire, the trigger-happy Brady gang and the occasional high wind that would whisk away the store’s awning and, in 1952, revealed plans for an update. On July 25, 1952, the News reported, “Remodeling work which will add a second floor to the J.J. Newberry store building at 135 N. Main St. has been started. An additional seven feet will be added to the end of the building.”
The revamp also would include new lighting, shelving, a new heating system and air conditioning. The lunch counter, from which Miller had launched herself, would be replaced with “new stainless steel equipment which will include a kitchen open to the view of patrons,” the News noted. The exterior, which still bore a bullet hole from the shootout more than 16 years earlier, was to receive a “granite and red glass front.” Topping it all was to be a 30-foot vertical sign.
“The new second-floor display section will be reached by an escalator, the first to be installed in any Lima store … ,” the newspaper added. According to an item in the Aug. 17, 1952, edition of the News, Newberry’s also would include “facilities sorely needed in the downtown shopping district — restrooms …”
Escalators had been around since the middle of the 1890s; so had mishaps involving escalators and it wasn’t long before the first mishap was reported in Lima. In late June 1953, about three months after the remodeled Newberry’s store opened, a Lima woman was treated for a laceration on her hand after falling on the Newberry’s escalator.
By 1960, Lima’s downtown merchants were beginning to feel the pressure from suburban shopping centers like Westgate and Northland. On May 22, 1960, Newberry’s manager told the News that Newberry’s would almost double its merchandising space by installing multi-level counters, providing space for a “higher priced line.” The store, the manager was quick to point out, would maintain its traditional 5-and-10-cent-store lines. When the store reopened July 7, 1960, the News reported, “Many new lines of merchandise have been added, including television sets, typewriters, a shoe department, a china and glassware section and a furniture section.” The lunch counter was expanded with the addition of stools and six tables.
Nothing, however, could halt exodus of business from the downtown to the shopping centers, which by 1967 included the Lima and American malls.
On Feb. 1, 1968, the News announced, “The J.J. Newberry store ceased operations in downtown Lima on Wednesday …” A company official told the News the “store was closed for economic reasons and added the company has no plans to relocate in the Lima shopping areas.”
The building was demolished in 1987.
Reach Greg Hoersten at email@example.com.