Allen County’s 200 years of history provides countless news stories to look back on. Here are a few highlights in random order:
Milner Hotel fire
In 1945, the Milner Hotel burned in downtown Lima. The hotel was originally known as the Norval Hotel and was at North and Main streets. The huge fire killed two people as it grew to include Eckerd’s Drug Store, the Hudson Restaurant and more. Fire Chief Harry Taflinger had a heart attack at the scene and had to be taken to a hospital, but before that he saw the severity of the blaze and asked the city editor of The Lima News to call fire departments from Wapakoneta, Delphos and Kenton.
A cause was never found.
Because of the loss of life, City Council examined water supply problems in detail. In the end, this fire helped spur the digging of reservoirs for a more reliable water supply.
Elida mayor shot
Elida’s mayor and constable Clarence “Pops” Prince was shot and killed in front of Elida school in 1962. His gun was found to have misfired. The school had experienced a rash of break-ins, and he was apparently watching a particular suspicious car. Two men were arrested after a manhunt.
Snow cruiser crash
In 1939, Adm. Richard E. Byrd was preparing for his third trip to the South Pole. He was testing out a new vehicle, a snow cruiser, that measured 20 feet wide and 55 feet long and weighed 37 tons. The cruiser, a tank-like structure, clipped the edge of a bridge over Pike Run near Gomer while traveling on Lincoln Highway and wrecked spectacularly. It came to a rest at an awkward angle in the stream and sat for at least a week, drawing a throng. The vehicle made its way to the South Pole on Jan. 11, 1940, and was abandoned there when the men were needed in World War II.
• The 1913 flood shut down Lima. The Hiner Stone Quarry building on East North Street was washed into the flood when the riverbank collapsed, carrying with it an immense steam shovel. A Shay locomotive operated by the stone company floated into the newly constructed East North Street bridge, which also eventually washed away. That Shay locomotive was subsequently donated to the city and is now housed in the Allen County Museum. Water was reported 12 feet deep in Faurot Park, while homes along South Main Street between Eureka and Circular streets were under 8 to 9 feet of water. South of the river, water crept into the boiler at the Lima Locomotive Works closing the shop, and employees couldn’t reach Ohio Steel or the Gramm Motor Car Co. One man, Basil Buck, died when he tried to cross a bridge and was swept away. Statewide, 467 people died.
• Tornadoes are frequent. Of all the local twisters to touch down, the one that wreaked the most havoc was the “Palm Sunday” tornado that hit at 9 p.m. April 11, 1965. Locally, it hit the townships of Sugar Creek, Monroe and Richland. On that night in a span of five hours, 12 tornadoes touched down across the state, killing 57 people and injuring 315. Property damage was estimated at $40 million from that storm.
A 1920 tornado killed six people and destroyed property to the total of $350,000. Ohio Electric cut street car service in half to have enough power to keep factories going.
A 1948 tornado killed two boys in Landeck and one man in Columbus Grove. Property damage was $5 million.
A 1950 tornad0 ripped straight through Lima and left 8,000 without power and no phones for three weeks. The funnel cloud leveled the Sharon Drive-In. No one was killed. Damage was reported at $1.5 million.
• The Blizzard of ‘78 began on what seemed like a normal winter night. But the barometric pressure read 28.28 inches, the lowest ever in this country aside from a hurricane rating. The wind blasted freezing rain and snow across the area, sending great drifts of snow up to the roofline of houses and closing untold roads, including Interstate 75. Evacuation centers were set up to house those who didn’t have power, and people volunteered on snowmobile to ferry people and supplies. There were five deaths in the Lima area, most from exposure and some from heart attacks. It took four days to dig out enough that factories were reopening and calling back their workers. A local weather observer said 13 inches had fallen in the storm, adding to the 20 inches that had already fallen that month.
• The January 2005 ice storm brought down trees and power lines and saw some 34,000 American Electric Power customers left without power. At one point 82% of the county lacked power. Some were without power for over a week. Lima schools was canceled for five days.
Ohio abolished separate schools for Black and white children in 1887. Court cases arose around the state in the late 1970s to address imbalances, with some saying the state wasn’t doing enough to work against racial isolation. Administrators contended the system wasn’t intentional and was due to shifts in housing patterns. Regardless, the federal government required no school having less than 20% or more than 50% non-white enrollment. There were a dozen public forums held to talk with citizens and years of work involved.
The district’s magnet programs began in 1984, a result of a federal court order demanding desegregation of two elementary schools. The program drew white students into a minority setting.
• The Ku Klux Klan marched through Lima on Aug. 1, 1923. Back in the 1920s, more than 3,000 people in the Lima region were interested in joining the KKK — in this area, the perceived threat was mainly from Catholics and Jews, as only 3% of the population was Black at the time. The Klan’s plan was to accept these 3,000 men into the Order at a “naturalization” ceremony at Lima Driving Park, located where Lima Memorial Health System now stands.
There was an outcry of protest, but some still numbered the parade-watchers at 100,000. It was a mostly silent crowd, and policemen tried to hurry the parade through.
• The Klan’s ranks contained the Black Legion, a branch of the Klan so notorious it was even condemned by other Klan members and considered a terrorist organization. Nationwide, there were reportedly 6 million members of the Black Legion, with 6,000 of those members located in Lima. A Lima man, Virgil Herbert “Bert” Effinger, was credited with being the national commander, according to Lima News reports.
• Race relations erupted in the early 1970s at Lima Senior High School during “Negro History Week.” School had to be closed for a few days while tempers subsided. Eventually, parents and police joined teachers and administrators walking the halls to ensure order at school.
But outside school walls, the problems were the same. Lima Mayor Christian P. Morris imposed a state of civil emergency in August 1970 after racial tensions peaked. Ohio National Guard patrolled streets, and a strict curfew was enforced. The Black Panthers had a storefront and a strong presence. Policemen were shot by unseen snipers. Sparking much of the controversy was the fatal shooting by police of a 42-year-old black woman who was trying to prevent police from arresting a juvenile. A grand jury found the police were justified.
• On Jan. 4, 2008, Lima police Sgt. Joe Chavalia shot and killed Tarika Wilson during a drug raid at Wilson’s home. Police were looking for her boyfriend, who later pleaded guilty to drug trafficking. Also injured was Wilson’s 1-year-old son, whom she was holding. Chavalia was later acquitted of criminal charges related to the shooting. The shooting ignited racial tensions in Lima. Civil rights leader the Rev. Al Sharpton and nationally syndicated radio host Warren Ballentine called for a 50,000-person march, but it didn’t materialize. The Rev. Jesse Jackson spent a day in Lima, supporting pastors, registering high school students to vote, meeting with city officials and preaching at Philippian Missionary Baptist Church about Wilson’s death.
World-known Preacher Billy Sunday first visited Lima in 1911, where a revival fever swept up the citizens such that a building — known as his tabernacle — was built and took up the entire block from Pierce to McDonel streets. He returned here in 1931 to speak at Memorial Hall about the virtues of Prohibition.
The Jim Twins
Jim Lewis, of Lima, and Jim Springer, of Dayton, were identical twins separated by adoption shortly after birth. Each adoptive couple was told that the other twin died at birth, which wasn’t true. When Lewis was 16 months old, his mother visited the Miami County courthouse to settle the adoption paperwork, and an official remarked that the other little boy was named Jim, too. After years of wondering, Lewis began looking into it and reunited with his brother when they were 39 in 1979. Their similarities in life choices were amazing. They received national attention by scientists studying nature versus nurture.
Country singer Willie Nelson and his fellow musical “outlaw” Waylon Jennings serenaded more than 35,000 people at the Allen County Fairgrounds in 1982 during a free concert to benefit economically distressed farmers.
Lima Correctional Institution case manager Bonita Haynes was assaulted and killed by two inmates in 1996. They received life sentences on top of their existing sentences. In the investigation, several security issues were revealed. The prison housed 2,094 inmates that day living in dormitory-style housing. They had freedom to walk around most of the medium-security prison for men. Changes were made after Haynes’ death.
The nation’s eye was turned on Lima after a 6-year-old Willshire boy, Matt Winkler, became the first human being to ever survive rabies in a documented case. The youngster was treated at St. Rita’s Medical Center by Drs. C. John Stechschulte and Thomas T. Weis.
John Dillinger, Public Enemy No. 1., was brought to Lima Sept. 27, 1933, and housed in the Allen County jail. He had been arrested for robbing a bank in Bluffton. Just a few weeks later, Dillinger’s gang arrived to muscle him to freedom. Harry Pierpont, Charlie Makley, Russell Clark, Harry Copeland, Edward Shouse and John Hamilton arrived at the jail on Oct. 12, 1933. Pierpont shot and killed Allen County Sheriff Jess Sarber in the scuffle. Pierpont, Makley and Clark were later prosecuted for this murder. Sarber’s son Don took over as Allen County sheriff.
The influenza pandemic of 1918, known at the time as the Spanish flu because news of the illness was allowed to go public from that country, arrived in the area in October 1918. The health board took quick steps to mandate masks and shut down commerce. In the last three months of 1918, there were 92 deaths from influenza and pneumonia in Lima. In the United States, the epidemic claimed 675,000 lives in a nation of about 103 million. The average lifespan in the country dropped more than 10 years between 1918 and 1919. Worldwide it’s estimated the flu claimed between 20 million and 50 million, more than the total military and civilian deaths in World War I.
The Forsythe case
Eyewitnesses testified that they were present when Ralph Forsythe shot Chuck Conner right between the eyes at his birthday celebration in August 1957. Yet no one could find the body or the murder weapon. And when a jury of Lima residents convicted Ralph Forsythe of manslaughter in 1957, it marked one of the first times in this country that such a conviction was handed out without a murder weapon or a body. On Dec. 14, 1957, the 10 men and two women who sat on the jury returned the verdict of guilty of manslaughter after deliberating for 37 hours.
Eleven years later, the Third District Court of Appeals ordered a new trial on the relatively new grounds of pretrial publicity. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned the conviction of Cleveland neurosurgeon Sam Shepherd, accused of killing his wife, because of pretrial publicity. As a result, Forsythe was released from prison. After his release, Forsythe returned to Lima where he led a quiet life as a commercial artist and owner of Kai Fine Art. It was a good life for he and his new wife, Anita, and their two daughters. One day prior to the 26th anniversary of the crime, Forsythe died and was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery.
The Mid-Valley Pipeline had crude oil storage tanks on South Dixie Highway. There was a fire and explosion on Christmas Day 1983, which caused a massive conflagration and evacuations of entire neighborhoods in that vicinity. The road itself was damaged, telephone poles were burned off at the ground and fences were melted. Fires burned for a week as firefighters from across the region — and even a specialized crew from Texas — fought freezing temperatures. It was determined a tank had leaked and the oil ignited accidentally.
Bluffton bus crash
A bus carrying the Bluffton University baseball team crashed in Atlanta on March 2, 2007. The team was traveling to Florida when the bus fell from an overpass. Players David Betts, Scott Harmon, Cody Holp, Tyler Williams and Zachary Arend died, as well as bus drivers Jerome “Jerry” Niemeyer and his wife, Jean. The crash led to grassroots efforts to mandate lap and shoulder belts on buses, which was signed into law in 2012.