The fire that destroyed the old Monroe Blind factory the evening of March 5, 1912, was spectacular.
Fueled by the vacant wood-frame factory building and pushed by a persistent east wind, the fire spread, jumping Tanner (Central) Avenue and torching buildings of the J.H. Raudabaugh Sash and Door Company on the west side of the street as well as a half-dozen private residences along Tanner.
“The heavens were aglow with the bright red flame, and to the residents in the north and central parts of town it appeared as if the whole south side of the city was burning,” the Lima Times-Democrat wrote the following day, noting that “fully 5,000 people stood along the Erie tracks (which bordered the site to the north) and other points of vantage and watched the spectacle.” Extra cars were put on the city streetcar line to accommodate the gawkers drawn like moths to the flames.
As spectacular and rapid as the fire was – the three-story structure was reported leveled in an hour – the financial fall of the promising company that once occupied the site had been just as spectacular and rapid. When Monroe Manufacturing company went down some 17 years earlier, it came close to taking down one of Lima’s most prominent citizens with it.
“The burning of the factory building originally occupied by the Monroe Blind Manufacturing company marks the closing chapter in the history of an enterprise that seemed doomed to disaster from the beginning,” the Times-Democrat wrote. “The fire last evening instantly recalled to the minds of those who have lived here for a decade the almost tragic events that followed the organization of that company.”
The Monroe Manufacturing and Lumber Company was founded in 1890 by William Hanson C. Monroe, a native of Shelby County, who previously had been involved in making blinds at a lumber mill in Virginia. In 1890, Monroe and his company relocated to Lima. The Lima plant, according to the Lima Democratic Times, would manufacture “inside sliding blinds and screens, which this company manufactures under patents, and on which it has an immense trade. It also manufactures all kinds of counters and inside fittings for schoolhouses except desks and seats.”
By August of 1890, the Democratic Times reported, the Monroe Manufacturing company “has its big, frame three-story building up and under roof …” On Oct. 10, 1890, a reporter for the newspaper wrote glowingly of the growth of Lima’s south side, describing how he “took a walk through the new town that is being built up south of the C&E and east of the C.H.&D railroads. Besides the Monroe Manufacturing Company’s buildings, which have already been described in these columns, there have been from fifty to a hundred houses put up in this vicinity within the past five months.”
The reporter concluded: “There are some neat and well improved places on St. Johns Road, between Second Street and the C&E railroad, and there are evidences of improvements all through to the west, toward the Monroe factory and proves that this is no mushroom suburb, though it has sprung up with almost magical rapidity.”
All was not so magical, however, at the Monroe Manufacturing Company, around which a good deal of the rapid growth had occurred. In business only four years, financial problems dogged the company. On Oct. 8, 1894, the Times-Democrat reported that attorney Herbert L. Brice, a half-brother of Lima Democratic politician and railroad entrepreneur Calvin Brice, had been appointed to oversee the sale of the Monroe Manufacturing Company. As “duly appointed and qualified” trustee, a legal notice in the Oct. 27, 1894 edition of the Times-Democrat stated, “All persons indebted to said assignor will make immediate payment, and creditors will present their claims, according to law, duly authenticated …” to Brice.
Worse, C.M. Hughes Jr. — grandson of Richard Hughes Sr., who, according to an 1895 county history, arrived in Allen County “in a very early day” — was in the middle of the financial muddle. Hughes was cashier at the First National Bank and board member of Monroe Manufacturing. “The Monroe Manufacturing company is in large measure responsible for the trouble which confronts Mr. Hughes,” the Newark Daily Advocate wrote January 30, 1895, in an article headlined “Sensation at Lima.”
“This concern borrowed $10,000 of the bank as a starter,” the newspaper explained. “On the strength of this and in order to protect the original loans, other sums were borrowed until, before the bank knew it, they were stuck for over $100,000 in this one particular.” Hughes was charged with permitting Monroe to borrow about $140,000 without permission of the bank’s board of directors. Both Herbert Brice and Calvin Brice were involved with the bank.
“There are few people in Lima who believe Mr. Hughes guilty of any intentional wrong,” the Advocate wrote. “The almost universal judgment is that he has been indiscreet, with the best of intentions.”
Whatever his intentions, in late January of 1895, Hughes, who had resigned his position at the bank, was arrested at his home on West Market Street and taken by train to Toledo, where he paid a $5,000 appearance bond and was released. Despite assurances in the Times-Democrat that “no delay will occur in getting at the bottom of the Lima bank muddle, if the stockholders can prevent it,” Hughes did not appear in the U.S. District Court in Toledo until mid-January of 1897.
The trial ended Feb. 6, 1897. “The Hughes case is at an end, and the defendant Charles M. Hughes, Jr., is a free man,” the Times-Democrat reported. “No matter what the opinion of the of the court, ex-bank examiner Betts or others may have been, the jury of twelve citizens of the western division of the northern district of Ohio says the defendant is not guilty, and so ends the case which for two years has hung over the head of the ex-bank cashier.”
With the matter settled, a legal notice in the Times-Democrat announced that, on July 16, 1897, Herbert Brice, the trustee, would pay any claim against the insolvent Monroe Manufacturing company a final dividend of 3%.
Hughes died in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, in October 1932. He was 76 years old. A story in the Franklin, Pennsylvania, News-Herald on Oct. 24, 1932, noted that he had been “associated with banking interests here” for 38 years.
Monroe, according to a history of Northwest Ohio, reorganized his business in 1895. He formed a partnership with his brother, “which lasted for three years, at the end of which he bought out the interests of his brother and then continued alone for four years.” The Lima City Directory from 1916 lists the Monroe Screen, Blind and Partition Co. at 120 S. Central Ave. Monroe was living in Elida. He died in March of 1922 at the age of 67.
The Lima factory was sold to the Lima Real Estate Company in 1895 and had been used by several different companies since then to produce products such as church furniture and barrel hoops. At the time of the fire in 1912, the building was occupied only by a watchman who escaped the fire unharmed.
Reach Greg Hoersten at firstname.lastname@example.org.