Reminisce: Lima’s downtown in pioneer days

Edgar B. Cunningham’s trip down memory lane led him back more than a half century to Lima’s Public Square when he was a boy in the years after the Civil War.

“During the ‘70s most of the retail business was located on the Public Square and all the stores kept open until 9 p.m., and most of the business houses had their regular coterie of loafers who showed up almost every evening,” Cunningham wrote in a January 1924 reminiscence for the Allen County Historical Society. “Jim Langan’s grocery in the northeast corner of the square was headquarters for an elderly crowd … and the stories and jokes they would tell were surely great fun.”

According to a 2001 story in the historical society’s publication, the Allen County Reporter, the informal gatherings eventually had to be disbanded after a younger, more hormonally active, group of males “started making remarks and holding discussions about the relative merits of various young ladies and their mothers as they passed by.”

By 1924, much of the Square and downtown that Cunningham remembered from his boyhood more than a half century earlier was gone. New, brick business blocks had replaced the wood-frame structures of the pioneer days as Lima boomed in the wake of the 1885 discovery of oil. Home to about 4,500 people in 1870, the city grew to a population nearing 42,000 by 1924. Langan’s grocery, where gawkers once perched on barrels to watch militia drills and speeches, had been replaced by the Mitchell Block, which was built in 1889 and today, with two stories lopped off, is home to Joey’s Italian Deli and Subs.

In the century since Cunningham put pen to paper, many of the business buildings that went up as Lima boomed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries have been razed and replaced.

There are, however, two business blocks built before the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter that still stand and, moreover, are still used – the Cunningham block, home to Our Town Roasters coffee shop, and, around the corner on North Main Street just north of Joey’s, the Baxter Block, currently the location of the temporarily closed Hollander on Main Restaurant.

When those blocks were built, Lima’s downtown was a place of dirt streets, plank sidewalks and horses.“I recollect this town as it was thirty years ago,” a man described as “an old resident” told the Lima News in December 1890. “At that time the whole town was in the neighborhood of the Square and that was nothing but a mud hole. I remember walking across a slanting log over a hollow to the back of the hotel that stood about where the Lima House now is (the northeast quadrant of the Square); and there was a bridge toward what is now the northwest corner of the Square. There were no streets laid out as there are now; only a few main roads leading into the town.”

In his 1921 county history, William Rusler described Lima’s downtown in pioneer days as a “wood and hay market – a clearinghouse for farmers.” Wagon loads of wood and hay, he added, were “sometime mired” in downtown mud holes.

Of the two antebellum business blocks still standing, the oldest is the Cunningham block in the northeast quadrant of the Square. The block was built in 1856, the year Edgar Cunningham was born, by his father Archibald S. Cunningham. The Cunningham family lived just east of the new block in a house which once stood where the Town Square Senior apartments are today.

One of the first tenants of the new blocks was the John McWhorter wholesale grocery. “Store in Cunningham’s new brick block, northeast corner of the Public Square, Lima, Allen County, Ohio,” read a February 1857 ad for McWhorter’s in the Allen County Democrat.

In the nearly 180 years between McWhorter’s grocery and Our Town Roast Coffee shop, the Cunningham block has been home to many businesses and offices. During the Civil War, the law firm of Matthias Nichols and G.M. Baxter had an office in the block while the Holland and Buskirk grocery advertised that it had a large stock of items “constantly on hand” in its store in the Cunningham block.

In the early 20th century, Nelson and Herbst tailors had a shop in the block while, in the middle of the century, Kamber Clothes and Neal’s clothing store leased space. In more recent years, enterprises like the Hat Palace and the Diamond Emporium maintained shops in the building.

In 1859, while McWhorter was establishing his business in the Cunningham block, a new building was going up around the corner. “Baxter and Melhorn are now hauling stone for the foundations of their new buildings, and in a few days the masons will be at work,” the Lima Weekly Gazette reported in July 1859. “These buildings are both to go up this fall and will furnish good storerooms for businessmen.”

By May 1860, the Weekly Gazette was reporting that Samuel A. Baxter Sr.’s “new brick building is progressing finely, and when completed will be second to none between Dayton and Toledo.” The Lima Deposit Bank opened in the “north room” of the Baxter block later that year.

The Allen County Reporter in 2001 called the Baxter Block “one of downtown Lima’s most consistently occupied areas,” adding, “While businesses on either side were removed or replaced, Samuel Baxter’s structure has remained and served as home to scores of businesses.” A longtime tenant was Basinger Jewelers, which moved into the block in the early 1920s and remained there until the business closed in January 2000.

A notable early tenant, according to the Reporter, was Dr. George Hall, a dentist who had an office in the Baxter Block, possibly before moving to the Mitchell Block next door. “Dr. Geo. Hall this week announces to the citizens of our community that he can take out teeth without pain. We know he can put them in without pain,” the Allen County Democrat wrote in May 1881.

“Dr. Hall had served in the Union Army for the entire duration of the Civil War,” the Reporter wrote. “He had been taken prisoner in Atlanta and escaped his rebel captors by jumping from a moving train near Wilmington, N.C. He was able to find a family of Union sympathizers in Wilmington who hid him for six days until federal forces took the city.” Dr. Hall married, moved to Lima and started his practice here in 1867.





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


See past Reminisce stories at

Reach Greg Hoersten at [email protected].