LIMA — A Lima Daily News reporter, searching for tidbits to fill the newspaper in December 1915, found one at the Pennsylvania Railroad station.
“When the afternoon train over the Pennsylvania road steamed out of the station yesterday,” the reporter wrote Dec. 10, 1915, “a man of erect figure with iron gray hair and ruddy cheeks stood out on the steps of the Pullman car and waved a vigorous goodbye to friends at the platform.”
The man, 91-year-old Samuel Collins, who was headed to California for the winter when the reporter found him that day, said hello to Allen County more than six decades earlier. In the years since he had operated a grocery store, served as Allen County Sheriff, been active in politics and become a major land owner.
Collins was born March 8, 1824, in Belmont County, the son of John and Rachael Cunningham Collins. He eventually moved to Logan County where, in 1847, he married Mary Brinser. The couple had five children, three of whom survived, Rosana, Daniel and Perry. Mary Brinser Collins died in December 1903.
Collins brought his family to Lima about 1852 “when she was but a village and a very small and unimportant one at that,” the News wrote March 7, 1908. “When he opened a general store … at the northwest angle of Square it was his custom, when desiring game for the table to go to the woods in the immediate vicinity of where the Norval Hotel (which was at the southeast corner of Main and North streets) now stands, where squirrels were easily picked out of the tall oaks and hickories by the little pellets fired from the old-fashioned Kentucky rifles aimed by eyes that generally sent their missiles true to the mark.”
Animal pelts, the story continued, were “legal tender in exchange for commodities, and thousands of dollars’ worth of pelts of fur bearing animals came into his store in payment for flour, meat, coffee, sugar, clothing, boots and shoes.”
In addition to the grocery business, Collins became involved in local Democratic politics and in 1861 the popular grocer was elected county sheriff. In October 1864, Collins served as assistant marshal at a mass meeting of local Democrats supporting George B. McClellan for president against Abraham Lincoln. Among the speakers at the meeting was Clement Vallandigham, the leader of the Copperhead faction of anti-war Democrats during the Civil War.
Although Collins served as sheriff only until 1865, that did not end his interest in public office. “The many friends of Sam Collins are going to insist on entering him in the race for mayor at the coming Democratic convention,” the Allen County Democrat reported Feb. 26, 1880. “As a mayor Sam would be a success.”
His run for mayor, however, was not a success, though at one point his supporters were so certain he had won that, according to a story in the Lima Times-Democrat 10 years later, the “boys on the outside decided to give Uncle Sam a serenade …”
“For many years Mr. Collins continued in business as he took a prominent part in public matters and supported movements for various public improvements,” the Times-Democrat noted when he died on Oct. 18, 1919. “He retired from the grocery business in 1865 and during the remaining years of his life was engaged in caring for his extensive real estate interest, which includes many city lots and buildings, and excellent farming properties.”
Foremost among those properties was that at the northwest corner of Main Street and the Public Square, where Collins had established his grocery business and where the family lived for many years. In the early 1870s, Collins began building up the property.
“Our attention was arrested by the preparations in Collins’ Block, at the north-west corner of the Square and Main Street, which are being made for the occupancy of the First National Bank of Lima,” the Democrat wrote Oct. 22, 1874. “The whole building is hastening to completion and will add very greatly to the rooms for business purposes, as well as for the accommodation of the public generally in other respects.”
The Collins block, which was bounded on the west by Cherry Alley and on the south by Sugar Alley, would be home to many businesses over the years in addition to the First National Bank, which faced North Main Street. The City Restaurant, which was under the bank, according to an 1874 ad, offered beer, ale, wines, cigars and presumably, though not mentioned in the ad, food. W.H. Standish, an 1877 ad declared, had “an entire new stock of dry goods, notions, boots and shoes …,” while the same year A.C. Reichelderfer proclaimed he had the “largest stock of toys, vases, toilet seats and fancy goods in Lima.”
Meanwhile, Collins continued to make improvements to his block. In June 1882, the Democrat reported Collins was putting down a white limestone pavement around his buildings, which, the newspaper judged, would be “a much needed and handsome improvement.” A year later, the newspaper wrote that “a decided convenience to persons from the country doing business in the city has been made by Samuel Collins … iron hitching posts.”
Beginning in 1888, persons could tie their horses to those hitching posts and go into Lima’s original YMCA, which was located on the third floor of the Collins block until about 1895. On Aug. 27, 1896, the Times-Democrat reported that “what is to be known as the Lima School of Music” would open that September in the rooms formerly occupied by the YMCA. In the meantime, according to an ad in the News from 1899, the private sanitarium of Drs. Bennett and Buck in the Collins block offered treatment for “rheumatism, sciatica, paralysis, female, nervous and catarrhal troubles” and added that “big neck and rupture” could be “successfully treated without the knife.”
On Jan. 7, 1911, the Lima Republican-Gazette reported that space in the Collins block occupied by the Lima Plumbing and Heating Co. would be vacated to make room for the Empire Theater. “When the new house opens there will be five theaters in Lima devoted exclusively to motion pictures.”
When the new theater did open that March, the News proclaimed it a success. “The incline of the audience floor is sufficient to provide a clear view for all, and the pictures are clear, causing no distress to the eyes.” The theater was tucked in next to the Empire Hotel, which occupied the top floors of the Collins block at that time.
The theater was enlarged in 1919 from 300 to about 1,200 seats and became known as the Sigma Theater. In the 1970s, it became Cinema 1, showing X-rated movies before, in 1981, being converted to office space.
Collins, meanwhile, continued to add to his holdings, acquiring more property and drilling several productive oil wells. When he died in October 1919, that estate touched off a legal battle between his lone surviving child, Perry Collins, and his granddaughter Dorothy Collins. His son Daniel, who had operated several businesses with his father, died in 1908, while his daughter Rosana passed away in 1902. Rosana’s son was Dr. Charles Collins, a popular Lima physician, who had died in 1906. Dorothy was the daughter of Dr. Collins.
The legal fight over the estate ended in July 1924 with Dorothy Collins receiving $42,500 from the estate, “which has a total appraised value of $250,000, and is said to be much more valuable,” the News wrote July 16, 1924, adding, “Perry C. Collins, 69, snow white haired and almost blind son, will have undisputed title to the balance of the estate.”
Reach Greg Hoersten at email@example.com.