LIMA — James E. Grosjean was trained as a cabinet maker, worked as an undertaker, operated a shoe store, founded a company to make improved shoe soles, which survived, and another to make “humane” horseshoes, which didn’t.
With a restless intellect and an abiding interest in natural history, Grosjean dabbled in taxidermy and was an early member of the Allen County Historical Society. Between 1897 and 1902, he combined his skills in a series of mechanized displays housed in large glass-fronted cabinets. In 1901, he unveiled “Noah’s Ark.”
“Few persons in Lima have not seen the production from Mr. Grosjean’s skill and genius that illustrates the fable of poor Cock Robin,” the Lima Times-Democrat wrote Feb. 15, 1901. “The story of the ark is illustrated in a similar manner the principal exception being that the latter invention is much more complete in detail, complicated in construction and of greater value as a work of art.”
“Cock Robin,” based on the dark English nursery rhyme, was destroyed during the great flood of 1913 while on exhibit at a Dayton department store.
“Noah’s Ark” was initially displayed at a temporary museum in the then-new Masonic Building to benefit Lima’s city hospital before being exhibited at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. Later, like “Cock Robin,” it was rented by such stores as Macy’s in New York and Marshall Field in Chicago as part of a traveling show. Grosjean also displayed it in a shoe store he opened on the Public Square in 1902.
After Grosjean’s death in 1938, “Noah’s Ark” and several other of his creations were donated to the historical society and displayed in a room of their own at the Allen County Museum.
Herb Lauer, a retired high school art teacher and museum volunteer, recalled “standing right here as a little boy and looking up at this, all of this, and just being completely fascinated back in the 1950s, fascinated with the movement of the ark.”
In recent years, however, the ark began to falter badly. Sometimes it worked, often it didn’t; eventually it stopped altogether.
This Sunday, thanks to the tireless efforts of museum volunteers, including Lauer, the dove will again fly from the ark to return with an olive branch and the animals will exit two-by-two against the vivid backdrop of a sky that had all but disappeared beneath the grime of a century.
“Think about this,” Lauer said, “put it on a time frame. The 1890s, you’re looking at 40 years after the Civil War, yet you’re looking at 50 years before Walt Disney created Disneyland. So here was a guy who took electricity and made an art form with it. Why would you do that? This was before farmers had electricity on their farms. He had to have been a dreamer. That’s why I really enjoyed working and helping on this.”
Like Grosjean, who took two years to create “Noah’s Ark,” it took Lauer and fellow museum volunteers Rick Balbaugh and Mark Billingsley two years to bring it back to life. They were joined by Balbaugh’s brother-in-law Jim McElwain, who made replacement parts for the ark in his Kalida machine shop.
Balbaugh, who is from Putnam County, said he had repaired several other museum displays when he was approached about Noah’s Ark. “I don’t know who Grosjean is, but this is really important to a lot of people so that’s how I got sucked into it,” he said.
Lauer said Balbaugh was the right man for the job. “He took the math problem on both ends, what was intended to work, what didn’t work and all the inside of that problem was missing. There’s the guy that filled that gap. … I couldn’t have done it. Only Rick could do it.”
“I was a process engineer and controls engineer my whole life, which is to make things work. Otherwise I wouldn’t have known what to do,” Balbaugh said. “It was really mainly just assessing the condition of this. This is like buying a car out of the junkyard because it’s sitting there along the wall not running. All we knew is it quit working, so we had to unpeel the onion layer by layer to figure out what’s wrong with this thing.” Unlike a car, Balbaugh added, there’s only one “Noah’s Ark” so parts aren’t available.
“In fact, we didn’t even know the whole story yet because Mark needed to get involved to tell us the history. All we saw was pieces and levers and such. I don’t even know what this is for, what is it even supposed to do.”
Lauer, too, praised Billingsley. “Mark is so visionary. He can see things. He set all this up. He was the one who said let’s move the ark into the changing gallery so we have more room. … He sees things and makes them work better. He’s just a great guy.”
He’s also a retired electrician, and one part of the ark he made work better was the stained-glass panels that provide the backdrop for the display. “I was looking at those, there had to be some light there so I just bought this little string of LED lights, glued it on a piece of cardboard” and held it up behind the panels, Billingsley explained, adding that “of course you could see the row of LEDs.”
Billingsley found a California company that made panels cross-hatched with tiny fiber-optic cables that light up when the LED lights on the side are turned on. “It’s just so bright. We did find the right stuff for it. It looks a lot better,” Billingsley said.
Lauer agreed. “The lighting on the panels are the biggest surprise,” he said. “I think that shocked all of us. When I cleaned those stained-glass windows and put them back in place with the LED panels behind them the lighting on every square inch of them is perfect now. The colors are so vibrant. It’s beautiful.”
Lauer also thinks Grosjean would be pleased with the restoration. “If he was alive today, he would’ve said, ‘Yeah!’ He would have loved this. Grosjean would have loved the upgrade. He wouldn’t have left here until he understood it because that’s what kind of a guy he was. He was a genius, really.”
Reach Greg Hoersten at firstname.lastname@example.org.