The early industries were related to the business of living — think gristmills to grind flour and blacksmiths to shoe horses.
But we quickly showed our blue-collar strengths and proved Northwest Ohio is pretty darn good at making things for the nation.
The forests, being cleared by the settlers, could be fashioned into any number of money-making products. And the area was opened up to commerce by the Miami-Erie Canal and railroads. The canal as a shipping mechanism, finished in 1845, was short-lived. The railroad had come into this area by the 1850s.
“With the first trains that went through to the Indiana state line, reports of the wonderful oak and elm forests of Northwestern Ohio and Northeastern Indiana were related in the Eastern cities, and these stories, from a cooperage standpoint, when repeated in Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York and Boston, must have resembled those which the Spanish cavaliers carried back to the court of Ferdinand and Isabella. … This fact amounted to the discovery of a new world for operations to the cooperage industry,” the December 1905 edition of the Barrell and Box newsletter reported.
“The number of pike roads, together with this network of railroads, renders travel in this county agreeable and economical,” the 1885 history stated as it explained the county was serviced by the Pennsylvania Railroad system, the Chicago & Atlantic, the Lake Erie & Western, the Dayton & Michigan and the Toledo Delphos & Indianapolis railroads.
Soon, there were sawmills to make lumber, shops to make wagons, factories that made wheels and gun stocks and plants that produced barrels and excelsior. (Excelsior was curled wood shavings used for packing material.) After the Civil War, lumber was needed for railroad ties and bridges.
In about 1863, the first stave mill was opened in Van Wert by Pennypacker & Sibley. A stave, to remind us in the modern era, is a thin slat of wood that was held together with a hoop to form a barrel. There were many mills in this area, each taking advantage of the forests. George H. Marsh, of Van Wert, was another developer of stave mills. Marsh — whose estate was the basis of the Marsh Foundation, which continues today — originated the theme of eagles and called the business Eagle Stave Co. This company eventually became a leading brand and was in Lima by 1901.
The Lima Agricultural Works began in 1863 and incorporated into the Lima Machine Works by 1869. It added the manufacture of sawmill equipment. The company filled an order request from a customer whose neighbor, Ephraim Shay, had developed a unique geared locomotive that could haul logs on steep grades at a lesser cost. By 1882, the company began the manufacture of lightweight standard locomotives and Shay Patent Locomotives. It moved its shop to south Lima in the early 1900s and at one point employed 4,000 people. The final locomotive left the plant in 1956, with only repair work done after that point.
While the steam and diesel engine market faded, the businesses it had a direct tie to grew: Ohio Power Shovel Co., Baldwin-Lima-Hamilton Corp. and Clark Equipment Co.
The Ohio Steam Shovel Co., a concern of the Ohio Steel Foundry’s John E. Galvin, became a subsidiary of the Loco Works in 1928 only a few years into its existence. The foundry produced metal castings for the Loco and would focus on steam shovels in the offseason, essentially.
The machine the Ohio Power Shovel Co. produced, the News wrote March 30, 1930, was the “famous” Lima 101. “The trade name, Lima ‘101,’” the newspaper wrote, “explains one of the leading features of the machine. It means that the hoist has a speed of 100 feet a minute, a speed surpassed by no other machine of its kind.” The shovels were capable of moving 1¼ yards of earth or other material in one scoop and were convertible to cranes, clamshells, drag lines or drag shovels “to suit all kinds of digging and material handling.”
The manufacture of construction equipment continued until 1981.
By 1885, Lima was a bustling community of some 8,000 people with a new courthouse and, thanks to leading businessman Benjamin C. Faurot, an opera house. It claimed a soon-to-be-electrified city street car system, railroad connections in all directions and a handful of newspapers.
Faurot brought in drillers from Pennsylvania to bore a natural gas well at his paper mill on the Ottawa River east of downtown. The plant made strawboard and egg cases, and he was likely spurred to look for the cheap energy after gas was found in Findlay not long before that.
“Throughout the county evidences of gas wells are manifest. Their development is a subject for the enterprise of the future,” the 1885 history stated.
Faurot’s drill found oil.
“The oil find has caused much excitement and those who are working at the well have been compelled to build a high fence around it to keep curiosity seekers from bothering them,” Lima’s Daily Republican reported the day after the oil was struck. “If the well turns out, as it looks now that it will, look out for the biggest boom Lima ever had.”
Before long, derricks sprouted around the area as everyone wanted a piece of the action.
The oil was heavy with sulfur, making it difficult to refine. Businessmen set to building a refinery here instead of shipping the oil out of town for refining. John D. Rockefeller’s Buckeye Pipe Line Co. and Standard Oil arrived, led by John Van Dyke. Some 400 men started construction on the Solar Refinery in 1886.
For some time, the refinery served as a laboratory where Van Dyke and chemist Herman Frasch worked to perfect Frasch’s method for taking the sulfur out of Lima’s oil to make it more marketable.
In 1931, the refinery became Sohio. In 1954, two caverns were dug 460 feet deep for the storage of propane. Miners blasted under the refinery through the rock to dig those caverns, each of which could hold 30,000 barrels of liquefied petroleum gas. More than 45,000 tons of rock were removed, with much of it used as a base for roads inside the refinery. In 1970, three additional caverns were dug. In 1954, a $17-million petrochemical plant was built adjacent to the refinery.
In 1986, the refinery and chemical plant became part of British Petroleum when Standard Oil and BP merged. British Petroleum announced in 1996 that it wanted to sell the refinery, but by the end of the year said it had no suitable buyers and were instead going to close it. After a community-wide effort, the refinery was sold in 1998 to Clark Refining and Marketing, which later became Premcor. Husky purchased it in 2007.
The oil wells in the area had begun to run dry by 1910. Another industry boom was quick to follow, however. Benjamin A. Gramm brought his car manufacturing company from Bowling Green to Lima in 1910. The Gramm-Bernstein truck’s innovation was parts were standardized to make them more easily repairable. The government bought a few and subsequently awarded the company the contract the build the prototype for the Army’s heavy-duty truck, called the Liberty Truck. Another Lima company, Garford, was also tapped to churn them out for the military.
Superior Coach announced plans in 1923 to start a plant to supply coach bodies for the Garford truck. The first product was a wood-constructed deluxe passenger bus body, and the company grew to make coaches for funeral cars and ambulances. In the 1930s, it introduced an all-steel safety school coach and was an early adopter of safety glass. During World War II, focus shifted to military vehicles, and then back again to the automotive industry. It merged with Sheller Globe Corp. in 1968. By 1981, Sheller Globe closed the school bus manufacturing plant, which was spun off into Mid Bus, and Accubuilt focuses now on funeral coaches.
The Ohio Steel Foundry began building a plant in south Lima to manufacture gun tubes as World War II was ramping up. The Army had been in town to talk with major industry players about defense contracts. The Loco Works made more than 1,500 tanks during World War II.
United Motor Service, a subsidiary of General Motors, took over the Lima Tank Depot in 1942. During World War II, the depot handled every type of vehicle in the Army’s motorized fleet, including amphibious landing craft; craft cargo carriers; light, medium and heavy tanks; self-propelled guns and tank rescue vehicles. From Dec. 1, 1942, to Dec. 7, 1948, there were 102,607 vehicles valued at $2.5 billion processed, equipped, modified or remanufactured at the plant.
Workers have been involved in the continued manufacture of military vehicles. Since 2004, the plant has been known as Joint Systems Manufacturing Center and is operated by General Dynamics Land Systems.
There were several cigar companies in Lima, and they mainly employed women. Deisel-Wemmer was founded by Henry Deisel in the 1880s. It became Deisel-Wemmer-Gilbert in the 1920s and grew until it owned or rented 17 plants and employed 4,000 workers. DWG merged local operations in a Bath Township plant in the early 1960s. In 1967, workers at the Bath Township plant formed RG Dun and bought 55 percent of the local production. RG Dun moved back to the downtown Lima plant in 1968. It closed in 1990.
Neon Products Inc. began in a small storeroom in 1930. Sam Kamin and James Howenstine steered it through the Depression, even cobbling together enough World War II-era work to keep afloat, and business boomed after they developed a Plexiglas sign. Kamin bought Lima’s Arkraft Sign Co. in 1956 — the place where he had his start in the business in the 1920s. In 1964, a newspaper item stated it employed about 400 people. The industry was done by the late 1970s.
Procter & Gamble opened a Lima plant in 1968, with a focus on a variety of brands of liquid detergent and fabric softeners. The distribution center was finished in 2006. In 2018, the plant began making perfume products. Last year, employee use facilities were improved — updated entrance, meeting area, medical facility, cafeteria and fitness room. At that time, the plant reported 700 employees and another 800 contractors work there.
The Lima Ford Engine Plant opened in 1957. The first engine at the local plant, an eight-cylinder built for the Edsel, Mercury and Lincoln models, was produced in May of that year. The sale of cars spiked, and Ford was able to double its payroll by 1960. The automobile giant credited Lima’s strong workforce for making it successful. In 1979, the Lima plant was credited as being the backbone of Ford’s small engine production. The plant now makes F-150 engines.
Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Co. started making small motors in refrigeration and air-conditioning units in Lima in 1937. The first product made here was washing machine motors. World War II pushed the demand for war goods, and it boosted its workforce from 1,500 to 5,000 as it made gun stabilizers for tanks and generators and small motors for bombers, fighter planes and cargo planes. Westinghouse Electrical Corp. sold to Sundstrand in 1992, and Sundstrand was closed by 1996.
Lima City Hospital was Lima’s first. In 1899, a residence once owned by a judge was purchased and converted into a hospital. The first school of nursing graduating class was in 1904, and it closed in 1971. The site of the former Driving Park was purchased in 1930 for a new building. Lima Memorial Hospital opened in 1933, named in honor of those who serve in the military.
Mercy Health-St. Rita’s Medical Center, operated by the Sisters of Mercy, began in 1918 as the need for more hospital space was made clear by the Spanish flu pandemic. The six-story building was designed to accommodate 125 people in a home-like surrounding. The first patient, Ben Rokowsky, was admitted Dec. 13, 1918. The last nun in administration left in 1971, and the last class of St. Rita’s School of Nursing graduated its last class. Nursing education shifted to Lima Technical College. Its Graduate Medical Education Center is currently under construction.
By the 1960s, both Mercy Health and Lima Memorial had expanded and modernized such that Lima is a healthcare hub and a major employer in the industry today.
Lima Board of Trade organized in 1887. Among the first officers were S.S. Baxter, T.T. Mitchell, C. Parmenter and B.C. Faurot.
“Most of the officials of the organization, in those early days, were connected with the oil business,” the 1976 history stated.
In 1905, the Lima Board of Trade merged with the Lima Progressive Association, which changed its name in 1914 to the Lima Chamber of Commerce. It was called the Lima Board of Commerce for a time but changed back to “chamber” in 1928 with Henry Deisel as president.
It was called the Lima Association of Commerce in 1935 until it went back to “chamber” in 1963.