LIMA — Much had changed in the year since Lima welcomed 1917 with a celebration the Lima Daily News judged to be “livelier and noisier than ever before.”
“In cafes throughout Lima, caps were sprung on bottle after bottle of sparkling wines, but the jollity was not once carried to extreme to cause annoyance to anyone else. The beautiful gowns worn by the women and the attractive decorations in the various places enhanced the enjoyment of the celebrations,” the News wrote Jan. 2, 1917.
On the verge of 1918, with the United States involved in World War I, fuel and food and, seemingly, merriment were in short supply. “Hilarity usual to New Year’s Eve was mostly lacking. At the Elks home and at one or two of the dance halls special entertainment had been provided, but they broke up promptly once the new year was duly ushered in,” the Republican-Gazette observed Jan. 1, 1918, adding, “Few people were on the streets at midnight. An occasional toot or a carnival whistle and one or two shots concluded the repertoire of the baker’s dozen of street revelers.”
In April 1917 the U.S. entered World War I and the country was feeling its effects. In Lima in January 1918 Red Cross volunteers packed dressings to be sent to the battle front. Men, women and children — and even Lima firefighters in their down time — knit socks and mittens for the soldiers. Trustees of the German-American bank thought better of the name and changed it to the American State Bank.
Military conscription followed closely on the heels of the declaration of war and city and county selective service boards sent out questionnaires to those eligible for the draft. Lima’s newspaper regularly printed lists of those who had, and had not, returned the questionnaires.
For most in Lima, however, the war was felt most keenly as temperatures dropped and coal piles shrank. Winter had arrived with a vengeance and Lima got a dose of it on the first day of 1918.
“A heavy snow swirling out of the southwest before a strong wind, threatened to tie up railroads out of Lima last night, drove pedestrians to shelter, and ushered in the new year with the city in the grasp of the worst storm of the season.” the Republican-Gazette reported Jan. 2. That same day, the rival Lima Times-Democrat noted that “Lima people spent their New Year’s day very close to their own firesides. It was not (a day) for pleasure riding, and neither was it a very appropriate one for visiting or taking a stroll. From early morning until well into the night a steady fall of snow made the New Year a most appropriate time to remain in the house.”
The frigid, snowy, “old fashioned” winter of 1917-1918 was made worse by the coal shortage. More coal was being sent to European war zones while production dropped as the U.S. shifted to a wartime footing. A federal fuel administration, under Harry Augustus Garfield, son of assassinated President James A. Garfield, was set up to reduce hoarding and profiteering, encourage conservation and regulate prices.
In Lima, a committee was appointed in the fall of 1917 to oversee the local supplies and issue coal cards to residents to help track consumption. “Members of the committee called attention yesterday to the fact that Lima is the only city in the United States which has taken over absolute regulation of coal distribution,” the Republican-Gazette wrote Jan. 2.
That same day, the newspaper reported the local supply was dwindling. “All the coal available in Lima at noon yesterday would supply only 263 families with a ton of coal each, according to reports of all dealers to Walter H. Clarke, secretary of the federal fuel committee,” the Republican-Gazette reported. “Dealers hereafter, by order of the committee, will make daily reports on every pound of coal in the city.”
Such dire reports, which appeared frequently in Lima’s newspapers that winter, occasionally prompted the committee to commandeer carloads of coal from local railroad yards; less official seizures landed Lima residents in trouble.
“Police put the lid on private coal confiscation last night, following the arrival Sunday of an entire train load of fuel, consigned to the federal coal committee. Three men were arrested, charged with stealing coal and the horse and loaded wagon of a fourth is being held waiting for him to appear and claim it,” the Republican-Gazette reported Jan. 1.
The fuel committee also took steps to curtail hoarding. “An example was made of two Elida men at headquarters, both being members of the same family, but each securing a card through false statements made to clerks of the committee,” the Daily News reported on Jan. 7. “As they were leaving the Chamber of Commerce, another man waiting in line, heard them bragging and breaking through the line reported the incident to W.H. Clarke who got hold of the pair before they had a chance to leave the building. The coal cards were taken away from them.”
In the throes of a cold spell, the coal shortage was felt in all aspects of daily life. Restaurants, theaters and retailers shortened hours and closed on some days. “To cooperate with federal authorities,” an ad in the News for Bluem’s department store read, “we are doing our bit in conserving coal by closing our store at 5 o’clock daily except on Saturdays, when the hour is 9 o’clock.”
Meanwhile, the city’s plan to open the new year with a new south side fire house, “went glimmering” on Jan. 1 when, according to the Republican-Gazette, “the heating plant failed to warm up the building at Lafayette and Main streets as planned. Chief Mack had been unable to obtain a coal supply and the firemen tried to heat the house with gas, but without success.” The fire house, which included a cell for holding prisoners, opened the following day.
At times, the quality of the coal was the problem, as on Jan. 2 when lights in the west end were turned out for several hours “when steam pressure at the Ohio Electric powerhouse fell too low to carry the load,” according to the Republican-Gazette. “The grade of coal being burned was so poor, the engineers reported, that they could not keep up steam.”
The city’s religious life also was affected by the coal shortage, with congregations combining or even canceling services. On New Year’s Day, men of the Central Church of Christ went to the Burkholder farm “to cut wood which will last them during the coal shortage. The women will go with them to cook dinner and help in any way possible,” the Republican-Gazette reported. The men chopped 25 cords of wood and made plans to return for more in February.
On Jan. 11, as residents struggled to stay warm and businesses struggled to stay open, things got worse. On that day, the Daily News ran a story warning that the biggest storm in a winter of big storms was bearing down on Lima.
Next week: The Blizzard of 1918
Reach Greg Hoersten at email@example.com.