America experienced a bicycle craze in the 1890s as pneumatic tires, chain drives and a more forgiving geometry made riding a bike something almost anyone could do.
In Lima, furniture store owner Frank E. Harman, who was then well into his 30s, was right in the middle of it. Harman rode bikes, sold bikes, sponsored bike races, headed the local cycling club, led efforts to build a cycling track and even sponsored a school to teach others to ride.
“The Bicycle Riding School, which is so popular in larger cities, has been a long felt want in Lima and the enterprise displayed by F.E. Harman in opening such a school in Music Hall is deserving a creditable mention,” the Lima Times-Democrat declared February 19, 1896. “Music will be furnished by the Manhattan (Mandolin) Club and Mr. Harman will furnish bicycles for the ladies, gentlemen, girls and boys all to take a spin around the spacious hall,” the newspaper added, noting, “The floor will be prepared for cycling and no one need fear taking a fall.”
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Harman was in the middle of a lot of things in Lima. He was instrumental in the development of City Park (Faurot Park), built a business block on the southwest corner of Market and Elizabeth streets that still stands, served on a committee that aimed to mitigate Ottawa River flooding after the great flood of 1913, was largely responsible for putting a Christmas tree in the middle of the Public Square and served, if only briefly, as the “chief lieutenant” to Corbin Shook, a Socialist who was elected Lima mayor in 1911. Harman was a Republican.
“It would be difficult to imagine a better-known business or a better-known business man in Allen County than F.E. Harman Company and its proprietor and owner at Lima,” William Rusler wrote in his 1921 history of Allen County.
Harman was born March 7, 1857, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the son of William M. and Elizabeth Warren Harman. His mother died in 1860, and his father remarried and moved his family to Lima about 1869, operating a store here until around 1876.
F.E. Harman attended the Lima public schools but, according to Rusler, “his education was complete so far as family circumstances would justify at the age of sixteen, and he at once sought an opportunity to make himself useful. For three years he was a clerk in the local Pennsylvania (Railroad) freight office, and then entered upon terms of apprenticeship to learn the trade of tinner with J.R. Hughes.”
“He learned the trade and business as well, and for six years Mr. Hughes conferred upon him responsibilities far in advance of his years by making him manager of the stove and house furnishing store and tin shop,” Rusler wrote. “In 1886, he bought a partnership, the firm name becoming Hughes & Harman. For three years his firm was located in the Union Block on the Public Square.”
In 1883, he married the former Clara Mary Bell. The couple had no children. Harman eventually sold out to Hughes and, along with his brother-in-law, F.M. Bell, opened a home furnishing business in the 200 block of North Main Street under the name of Harman & Bell.
“F.E. Harman is no longer in the firm of Hughes & Harman but will open a new store at 215 Bell Block, North Main Street, about March 1, with a full stock of crockery, stone and tinware,” Lima’s Daily Democratic Times reported January 18, 1889.
Within two months of opening the store, Harman and his partner added a unique feature to appeal to women who enjoyed hand-painting china.
“Harman & Bell this week placed in the basement of their store a furnace for firing decorated china, in the art of preparing which articles many of the ladies of Lima are quite proficient,” the Times reported in April 1889.
Four years later, Harman embraced a hobby of his own.
“Last evening a number of bicycle enthusiasts met and organized the Lima Wheel Club with the following officers: F.E. Harman, president; A. Watson, vice president; M.L. Johnston, secretary; L.H. Kibby, treasurer; W.J. Richie, captain; J.W. VanDyke, F.J. Banta and L.E. Stamets, board of directors,” the Times wrote in April 1893.
A year later, an ad in the Lima Times-Democrat for Harman & Bell proclaimed them dealers in “bicycles of all kinds.” Harman not only sold bicycles but sponsored races.
“Harman & Bell have engaged a fancy trick bicycle rider to entertain the crowd between the start and finish of the bicycle race on Decoration Day,” the newspaper reported in May 1894. “The exhibition will take place on North Street between Main and Elizabeth.”
In the summer of 1895, a “new track built at Harman’s behest,” according to the Times-Democrat, opened at the south end of McDonald (McDonel) Street and was christened with a crash by the ever-enthusiastic Harman and friends.
“While sprinting on the new track a few evenings ago, F.E. Harman, Will Foltz and W.S. Weaver ran together and were piled up in a confused mass,” the Times-Democrat wrote June 29, 1895. “Mr. Weaver was the most unfortunate, having his wheel badly disabled and was considerably bruised himself. Mr. Harman had one of his fingernails almost torn off and was also bruised. Foltz, as usual, lit on his head and his auburn hair almost ignited the dry grass.”
In the meantime, Harman had ended his business relationship with his brother-in-law.
“The partnership heretofore existing between F.E. Harman and F. M. Bell, under the firm name of Harman & Bell, has been dissolved by mutual consent. F.E. Harman will continue the business,” the Times-Democrat wrote in November 1894.
Harman continued the business and continued to open it up for art exhibits, china painting classes, concerts by the Manhattan Mandolin Club and, during the Spanish-American War, as a collection point for packages he personally delivered to Lima soldiers stationed at Camp Bushnell in Columbus.
As the 20th century dawned, Harman improved and expanded his store on North Main Street. In April 1903, The Lima News announced that Harman would build a “steel bridge” across Cherry Alley to connect the second floor of Harman’s store with two new showrooms in the old electric light plant building, which was behind the Opera House Block.
In June 1904, Harman improved the outside of his store. Under the headline “Marvelous Talking Electrical Sign Installed at Harman’s,” the Times-Democrat on June 18, 1904, reported, “Shoppers on North Main Street last evening were greatly attracted by the new talking electrical sign at F.E. Harman’s store. The contrivance is quite ingenious and the sign, flash after flash tells the story of the good things in bargains to be found inside.” The newspaper concluded, “So good is this contrivance that it may be considered second only to the king of all sensible advertising mediums – the newspaper.”
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