LIMA — In the years between the end of the Civil War, when he opened his grocery in the northeast quadrant of the Public Square, and the turn of the century, John Wheeler had rose from humble beginnings to become “one of the oldest and most substantial businessmen of this city,” Lima’s Times-Democrat declared.
On a Saturday morning in February 1901, the 78-year-old Wheeler, who was reported to be “improved considerably” after a bout of “la grippe” (influenza), arrived at his store — which was now located in a grand, new building on the northeast corner of Market and Elizabeth streets — after a short walk from his home at 319 W. Market St. He went immediately to the stove and sat down “without having removed his hat or overcoat,” the Times-Democrat noted on Feb. 11, 1901.
When his clerk, J.M. Fisher, “who had been his employee for many years,” asked Wheeler how he was feeling, Wheeler told him “not at all well” — and died. The “visit of the grim reaper came with but a moment’s notice,” the Times-Democrat wrote.
Around the turn of the century, the Grim Reaper cut a swath through the family of the man the Times-Democrat called “Lima’s pioneer grocer,” cutting down not only Wheeler but also his three sons, none of whom were married.
In March 1897, about four years before John Wheeler died, his son, Carlin Wheeler, who was in his early 40s, was found dead in his rooms in a Chicago boarding house. In January 1900, about three years after Carlin Wheeler’s death, John Wheeler’s youngest son, Charles “Babe” Wheeler, died at the age of 39 after a short illness. “He was well known, being employed for many years in his father’s grocery, and was the friend of everyone who knew him,” the Times-Democrat wrote on Jan. 15, 1900. The last son, Harry Wheeler, survived his father by about eight months, dying in October 1901.
The deaths of Wheeler and his sons removed the family, and its name, from the store he founded after moving to Allen County from Hardin County about 1858. The Times-Democrat wrote that Wheeler “first entered into the grocery business in Lima in partnership with his brother, H.N. Wheeler, in 1858 and for more than a quarter of a century he owned a store on the east side of the public square where the Wheeler portion of the Lima house now stands. He was a careful and an industrious business man and accumulated a considerable fortune.”
In February 1889, Lima’s Daily Democrat Times reported the city had granted permission to Wheeler to put up a temporary frame structure “on West Market Street, immediately west of the old Court House in which to place his stock while building up his block.” A year later, the Lima Daily News noted that John Wheeler, “dealer in staple and fancy groceries,” had moved from the “Lima House corner” to his temporary structure at 113 W. Market St.
By the end of 1894, Wheeler’s new building was nearing completion. The Times-Democrat reported in September 1894 that “John Wheeler has modified the plans for his new block on the corner of Market and Elizabeth streets. He has determined to build it of brick with red mortar joints. It will be three stories high and will have a large hall 50 by 65 feet on the third floor.” Although other businesses would find a home in the Wheeler block, the principal tenant would be Wheeler’s grocery.
“The Victorian building featured three bay windows on the second floor, each with ornamental trim bracing them,” the News wrote in 1997. “The second story side windows each had a semi-circular sunburst in the stone work above. At one time, records show there were also stained-glass windows in the building.”
Sadly, Wheeler did not get to enjoy his new building for long. After his death in 1901, his widow, Milleretta Carlin Wheeler, whom he had married in 1851, was embroiled in lawsuits over Wheeler’s will as well as a suit brought by faithful store clerk, J.M. Fisher, for pay he claimed was owed him. Soon after Wheeler’s, death Milleretta Wheeler became one in a long line of widows to walk down the aisle with Dr. William C. Watson. As he married for the sixth time in August 1907, Watson, known in the newspapers as “the marrying millionaire,” was credited with having inherited about $1 million from “five good and true helpmates,” according to the Daily News. The widow Wheeler, his fifth helpmate, died in November 1905 in rooms she occupied with Watson in the Wheeler block.
In the meantime, Jacob Piper, the son of a German immigrant also named Jacob Piper, took over Wheeler’s store. The younger Piper was born in Sidney in 1855 and married Agnes Line, also of Sidney.
“After completion of a Sidney high school course, Jacob took over his father’s business (a general store). He conducted it under the name of Piper Brothers until 1900,” the News wrote in 1934. “At that time he came to Lima and bought the grocery concern owned by John Wheeler, then the oldest grocer in the city, at Market and Elizabeth streets.”
William Rusler, in his 1921 history of Allen County, noted that “Piper enlarged his quarters, installed new fixtures, entirely remodeled it and had one of the best equipped establishments in this part of the state.”
In June 1905, the Daily News wrote that Piper’s store was “Lima largest retail grocery house,” adding that “the stock carried is very comprehensive and well selected, including staples and fancy groceries, teas, coffees, flour, sugar, farm and dairy products, with always on hand a supply of fresh country butter and eggs. The large assortment of goods also embraces crockery, stoneware, tin and graniteware.”
The News continued that “the house maintains in connection a meat department, which is entirely complete in itself and, and it displays as large and varied a stock as can be found anywhere in the city. From 20 to 25 clerks are employed and five delivery wagons are kept in constant service, enabling them to deliver goods promptly to any part of the city.”
In addition to the grocery store, Piper had also purchased John Wheeler’s old home at 319 W. Market St. On June 12, 1920, the Lima Republican-Gazette reported Piper sold the home, for which he had paid $8,000 in 1905, for $40,000 to investors. The deal set “a new record for West Market Street Property,” the newspaper added.
The following year, after 20 years of ownership, Piper sold the grocery to E.H. Dorsey, of Lima. “The new owner announced that he would continue the business much along the same plan followed by Mr. Piper,” the News reported in February 1921. “The store has catered to high class trade in the city and farmers for a radius of 12 to 15 miles in every direction from Lima market their products at the Piper grocery.”
Dorsey closed the store in 1923 and the space was taken over by the Hoover-Bond furniture store. Over the years, businesses such as Roger’s Eyesight specialists, the Frank Morris Wallpaper and Framing Company, Central United Telephone Company and Harry Moyer’s Luggage Shop would open their doors in the building John Wheeler put up in the 1890s. In the late 1990s, the building was razed to make way for the Wingate Hotel.
Reach Greg Hoersten at email@example.com.