LIMA — The United States had been involved in World War I for a little more than two months and writer Garret Smith was not, to say the least, feeling very upbeat about it.
Not that he was concerned about strategy and the movement, or lack of movement, of armies across Europe. No, Smith was worried about what the war would mean for the folks at home because of its effect on the nation’s main energy source – coal.
“King Coal no longer bears the guise of a merry monarch,” Smith wrote in the Lima Daily News on June 30, 1917. “His is a grim and parsimonious mien. Signs all point, as nearly as the man in the coal cellar can make out, to something bordering on a fuel famine for the coming winter.”
Between war and coal famine there is little to choose,” Smith continued. “Imagine the main streets of our big cities yawning caverns of blackness! Picture the population shivering beside cold radiators! Not a wheel turning on rapid transit lines; no elevator service in skyscrapers; even cooking largely an impossibility! No railroad connections with the outside world! Think of the thousands of dead stacks of factories, steel mills and munition plants, of the unemployment and crime induced by desperate suffering and flourishing in the darkness!”
Smith’s grim vision, it turned out, was a tad pessimistic. Although the winter of 1917-1918 was bad – some factories were forced to shut down as the relentless snows piled up on the dwindling coal piles and newspapers kept readers up to date on the expected arrival of new supplies - Lima and the nation shivered through it with limited social upheaval.
Smith, however, was right about one thing – coal was king. It kept the country warm, working and moving. Much of the supply went directly to consumers, who could choose from many varieties to fuel their furnaces. In 1919, the West Side Coal Co. on Jameson Avenue offered Kentucky Block, Chilton Lump, Hazard Lump, Black Beauty Egg, Mine Run Pocahontas, Bob White Pocahontas Egg and Bob White Pocahontas Lump.
Like the corner store, coal dealers dotted the landscape of Lima in the early 20th century. Many were located at railroad crossings. Ads in the News in February 1919 touted coal from the Consumers Fuel and Supply Co. at Vine Street and the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, the Domestic Coal Co. on Jameson Avenue at the Pittsburgh, Fort Wayne & Chicago Railroad and the Peerless Coal Co. at Kibby Street and the B&O, which offered its customers “lumps of satisfaction.”
And just northeast of the intersection of East High Street with the Detroit, Toledo & Ironton Railroad was the Custer-May Co.
The business was founded in 1919 by Frank Custer and Edward May, offering, according to newspaper ads, coal, coke, flour and wood. May was married to Custer’s sister, Sylvia, and had at one time operated the Custer quarry east of Lima.
The partnership, however, was short-lived. In 1921, May and his son, Lester, opened the May and Son Coal Co. several blocks to the south at 941 Bellefontaine Ave. By then, Custer, too, apparently had moved on. When his father Jacob died in October of 1921, he was listed in the obituary as Rev. Frank Custer residing in Scio, New York.
For the next half dozen years, the former Custer-May Co. would go through several different owners. A 1923 Lima News ad lists it as the Domestic Coal Co. By 1925, it’s the Home & Supply Co., while the 1926 City Directory lists the business as the Home Fuel Supply Co., operated by Eli C. Brooks.
By 1928, the Turney and Son Coal Co., operated by Orion Turney and his son, Maurice, is operating at the 1009 E. High St. location. “The Turney and Son Coal Co. has in its yards coal from the mines of Ohio, West Virginia and Kentucky,” the company declared in an April 8, 1929, ad in the News. “All the coal is of the best grade, with the best type of coal being the ‘Blue Ribbon.’ This coal is suitable for the ordinary furnace because it will not clinker, and the sulfur content is very low, the dealers says.”
Turney and Son’s chance of staying in business very long also was low and, after Orion Turney was sued for divorce by his wife and sued for damages after an accident, the company became the Shanahan Coal Co. about 1930.
Stability arrived a couple years later when the company came under the ownership of Gideon Geiger and Orrie Odell. Initially known as Producers Sand & Gravel Co., the firm soon became the Geiger and Odell Coal Co., offering, according to a 1934 ad, quality coal from mines in Dundon, West Virginia, and Harlan, Kentucky. The latter was described as a “ladies’ coal” with “less firing, less ash, practically no soot…”
In an August 1937 ad in the News, Geiger and Odell promised that “all coal is carefully forked and clean when delivered. The Geiger & Odell Coal Co. uses its own trucks, is prompt in delivery, careful in handling and always pleased to aid the customer to get the most fuel value for the dollar invested.” The ad also noted that Geiger and Odell operated a Standard Oil service station “in connection with the business.”
Geiger and Odell not only owned the business, they also participated in its operation. On a March day in 1946, this hands-on approach had a sad consequence when a coal truck driven by Odell with Geiger as a passenger was struck by a southbound D.T.&I. freight train at the crossing by their business. Odell, according to the March 6, 1946, edition of the News, sustained back and chest industries. Geiger was killed.
Odell “reported he neither saw no heard the approaching train,” the News noted, “but that Geiger shouted, ‘Look out, here comes a train,’ a moment before the collision.”
A week later, the News reported on a sad irony of the crash.
“Residents in the vicinity of the E. High Street crossing of the Detroit, Toledo and Ironton railroad recently petitioned the road for removal of the bell on the cross-warning system. The bell was removed,” the News wrote March 12, 1946. “The first name on the petition was that of Orrie G. Odell, 71, who operates a coal yard at 1009 E. High St. Shortly after the bell was removed a truck was hit at the same crossing. Gideon E. Gieger, 67, 811 Rice Ave., was killed and the man riding with him was injured. That man was Orrie G. Odell.”
Odell would operate the coal company on his own for another decade before retiring. He died in September of 1966. Today, 1009 E. High St. is a parking lot.
Reach Greg Hoersten at firstname.lastname@example.org.