Reminisce: Reports of peace (or lack of it) — the news of Christmases past

It was the day of Christmas 1858 and not a creature was stirring in Wapakoneta — a state of affairs which was duly noted in the Wapakoneta Democrat several days later.

“Last Saturday was the dullest Christmas we ever saw in Wapakoneta,” declared the editor of the newspaper, obviously disappointed by the lack of news. “There was not even a dogfight on our streets, and as to drinking … We did not see an individual during the whole day that was the least intoxicated.”

No dogfights? No drunks? Disappointing, to be sure, but then Christmas is traditionally a day of peace and quiet and long winter naps. But not always.

In the 165 years since that very quiet Christmas in Wapakoneta, the area’s newspapers have occasionally been gifted with something other than peace (or lack of it) on earth to report. Often it was the weather; at times it was something else. On Christmas Day 40 years ago, it was both.

“As evidenced by numerous dead batteries, the low dipped to 12 below zero Sunday (Christmas morning),” the Lima News reported December 26, 1983, adding that the high Christmas Day was 3 below zero. Christmas Eve, the News noted, “was not exactly picnic weather either when the thermometer plunged to a record low of 16 below.”

The something else occurred around 7:15 p.m. that bitterly cold Christmas when a tank containing crude oil exploded along South Dixie Highway just south of Buckeye Road. The fire eventually involved four of the 20 large tanks on the site and about 8.4 million gallons of crude oil. “There is an ungodly amount of heat,” a Shawnee firefighter told the News at the height of the blaze.

It eventually was determined the explosion and fire resulted from a ruptured tank which spewed oil across South Dixie Highway and was ignited by electrical equipment near the tanks. It took almost a week and the aid of oil fire experts from Texas to extinguish the fire, which destroyed telephone lines and burned the pavement off a stretch of South Dixie Highway.

Two decades earlier, the quiet of a frigid Christmas Eve was broken by the wail of sirens as firefighters, many roused from sleep or wrested from holiday celebrations, rushed to the scene of a massive fire in the heart of Lima. “Firefighters remained on duty today at the scene of the $150,000 Christmas Eve fire which swept through the four-story building that houses the El Tempo Night Club at 119 E. Market,” the News reported December 26, 1963. “Approximately 1,000 spectators lined the streets to watch the blaze that could be seen for miles in all directions,” the Lima Citizen noted.

The building that housed the El Tempo was built in 1892 at the height of Lima’s oil boom by Minor Harrod. In the weeks following the fire it was leveled as was a neighboring apartment building which had been heavily damaged.

Lima’s oil boom not only fueled the construction of buildings like the Harrod, but it also brought new businesses to the city, including one which came with a huge dose of danger. Nitroglycerin, which put the boom in the oil boom and was used in wells to help the oil flow, came to Lima just a few years after the 1885 discovery of oil.

The plants that manufactured the volatile explosive were generally small, one- or two-person operations, and generally located near what today is the intersection of Shawnee Road and state Route 117. They tended to blow up regularly and spectacularly, which one did a few days before Christmas in 1900.

“With a sound that was heard for many miles and with a force that made the earth tremble as if in the throes of a violent earthquake, 300 quarts of nitroglycerine in the magazine of the Producers Explosive Co. on the Berryman farm, exploded …,” the Allen County Republican-Gazette wrote of the December 22, 1900, blast. “It was one of the most distinctly felt shocks among the many that have occurred in this vicinity.”

At the time of the explosion, the newspaper added, “the streets and store were crowded with people busy with their Christmas shopping. With the rocking of buildings came the sound of falling glass and each one looked at the other and inquired, ‘What was that?’ But for the frequency of these explosions the alarm would have been much greater.” At the site of the explosion “not even a splinter could be found of the building, while over a distance of nearly an acre the tall timber was destroyed, some trees broken and twisted, the bark or branches removed.”

Unlike the fires in 1963 and 1983, there was a casualty in the explosion, William Reddick, the company president. His remains, “in all about enough to fill a cigar box,” were buried in Findlay.

Weather was often the story on Christmas. During a cold December in 1929, ice floes on Lake Erie threatened shipping and imperiled travelers. In mid-December of that year, seven Lima men working at Put-In-Bay, were forced to walk over ice floes and paddle to make it to Sandusky and ultimately home for Christmas.

Three years later, the temperature hovered in the mid-60s on Christmas. “Nearly all parts of the state basked in a warm sunshine, like a day in April, with soft breezes blowing from the south,” the News wrote December 26, 1932. On that day, 102-year-old William Brown Bowdle of Allen County, who had served in the Civil War and was the county’s oldest resident, died.

In 1945, the first Christmas since the end of World War II, many Lima residents were forced to be home for the holidays as ice and snow moved in on Christmas Eve. “Motorists stranded by suspension of bus service and motorists who got as far as Lima before being forced to abandon projected trips sought rooms in local hotels,” the News reported the day after Christmas.

“Hopelessly floundering on the carpet of sheer ice which afforded practically no traction for spinning wheels, automobiles homeward bound for Christmas, in some cases were abandoned until the brief thaw came early Tuesday,” the newspaper wrote.

On Christmas Eve of 1950 two children were abandoned in Lima. “A 20-year-old mother of two children, a boy of 2, and a girl of 3 months, walked into the Greyhound bus station Christmas eve and turned over her offspring to a waitress with the explanation that she was without funds to continue her trip to Johnson City, Tenn.,” the News reported, adding that the mother and her sister, who was traveling with her from Detroit, were held by police.

The women were released several days later while the children were turned over to the Allen County Child Welfare Board pending their return to relatives in Tennessee.





This feature is a cooperative effort between the newspaper and the Allen County Museum and Historical Society.


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Reach Greg Hoersten at [email protected].