LIMA — On warm days in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Vine Street Grounds was a favorite spot for the national pastime or for just passing time.
Baseball games between local teams of tradesmen drew raucous crowds and the occasional snide correspondent. An 1895 story in the Lima Times-Democrat, for example, was written “in memory of the deceased — the pipe connectors ball club — which expired on the Vine Street grounds between the hours of 10:30 and 11:30 o’clock, July 4th, …”
On the other hand, the many visiting circuses often played to audiences awed into silence by the spectacle. In June 1905, the “Greatest Show on Earth,” Barnum & Bailey’s Circus, stopped at the grounds and promised to deliver “Deeds of Desperate Death-Defying Daring” and “Fearful, Frightful, Fearsome, Fearless, Fascinating Feats …,” according to an ad in the Lima Daily News.
As a young boy in the 1930s, Gene Duff had watched circus animals being unloaded at the grounds. By 1946, he owned the property, which lay at the foot of Broadway Street between Vine Street and the Erie Railroad, and was trying to assure worried residents of the neighborhoods that grew up around it that Duff Truck Line wouldn’t be a distraction if it was allowed to locate there.
Duff told them the firm only owned 10 trucks, which were engaged in local work or trips within a 50- or 60-mile radius of Lima, the News reported Oct. 15, 1946. Duff, the newspaper wrote, also told residents “the company did not have a night crew nor did it have trucks going in and out at night.”
Although the city eventually approved the truck line’s move from its cramped quarters in the Merchants Forwarding building at Metcalf and Fourth Streets to the new site, the truck line didn’t stay small. By the 1960s, Duff was the largest common carrier operating wholly within Ohio.
Gene Duff grew up with the business. He was born in Logan County in 1924, the same year his father was looking for a way to supplement his income from a nearly 100-acre farm. “So Tira M. Duff bought a Ford Model T truck, and with a little salesmanship, luck and timing, launched a moonlight business hauling groceries between Lakeview and Lima,” the News wrote March 18, 1984.
As a 12-year-old boy he would ride “the tailgate while Dad drove the truck,” Gene Duff told the News in 1984, adding that his father expected hard work. “As soon as I was old enough to pick up a box, Dad put me to work.” He said he accompanied his father on runs after school, and on weekends, when they would deliver on Saturdays and service the vehicle on Sundays.
Initially, Gene Duff said, his father hauled groceries “from the Johnson Co. in Bellefontaine, to small mom-and-pop stores in and around Lima.” Then, by picking up a load of foodstuffs from the J.M. Sealts Co. in Lima, Tira Duff made money coming and going, the News wrote.
The truck line, Gene Duff told the News, remained “small and meager” until about 1946. “In those early years, Gene’s mother would help with answering telephones and taking orders, Tira and another man continued to run the business and Gene took turns with his dad driving the rig,” the News wrote in 1984.
Business picked up in the wake of World War II and by 1947 Duff boasted 11 pieces of equipment and 12 employees. That same year, Gene Duff married Bonnie DeVilbiss and took over the dry freight side of the family business. “Turning a young person loose in transportation at that time was difficult,” he told the News. “There were so many regulations which hampered growth, and since I didn’t know it couldn’t be done, I did it.”
Company founder Tira Duff died at age 77 in October 1959, a little more than a year after the death of his wife, Ada. Gene Duff took over the family business.
On Nov. 7, 1965, Gene Duff announced the company had purchased 29 acres on state Route 65 just south of Interstate 75 that had been used by the federal government for tank storage during and after World War II. “The existing terminal, on five acres of ground at Broadway and Vine streets, is inadequate to support the continual expansion program of Duff and future growth of Lima and the surrounding service area,” the News noted. The company’s home office and maintenance facilities were to stay at Broadway and Vine streets.
A little less than a year after announcing the move, the company opened the new facility. “Every known device to improve service and freight handling has been built into our new site,” Duff told the News Oct. 23, 1966.
The ground level of the office building featured a private motel area and TV room for drivers, a communications room, lunch area, ladies’ lounge and locker and wash rooms, the News wrote. The upper story housed a dispatching system for the Lima terminal and a central dispatch room for the statewide system which would be in operation 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
By 1984, Duff had added terminals in Columbus, Toledo, Dayton, Cincinnati, Mansfield, Richfield and Canton, while six major interstate acquisitions allowed the company to expand its business into Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Indiana, Missouri and Michigan.
That year, Duff employed about 180 people in Lima among its garage and terminal on state Route 65, the main office at Vine and Broadway streets and a data processing center which had opened at 675 W. Market St.
But the trucking industry was changing.
According to an article on Duff in the Nov. 10, 1980, edition of Forbes magazine, the Motor Carrier Act of 1980 made worthless once valuable operating authorities from the Interstate Commerce Commission, which gave companies the right to ship on specific routes. “With the old regulatory barriers down, everyone is rate cutting at a time when overall tonnage is down about 25 percent,” Forbes noted. Duff’s task, the magazine concluded, was “to outlast enough of the competition so that he can wind up with a break-even piece of the freight business.”
Duff outlasted the competition until the late 1980s when Duff Truck Line closed. When Gene Duff died at the age of 79 in January 2004, the News noted that he had built the one-truck operation his dad started 80 years earlier into a 600-truck, 1,200-employee operation spanning several states.
Reach Greg Hoersten at email@example.com.