Tag Archives: HISTORY

The Fostoria Company That Made History Come Alive.

It hardly seems likely, but there was once a modest little red brick building on Center Street  in Fostoria Ohio that put more people under the lights of the stage and theater than probably any other drama producers this side of Broadway. From coast-to-coast, for most of the 1900’s, thousands of communities, large and small, would become seduced by the bright lights and the scriptwriters from this Fostoria company who helped those regular folks put on the grease paint and costumes so they could “put on a play”. Not just any typical community theater production, but grand outdoor pageants designed to highlight the histories of those communities that were celebrating centennials, or other significant milestones of their heritage.

The company was the John B. Rogers Company, started in 1903, by Mr. John Rogers, an attorney from Fostoria who used the various talents of local actors and musicians to stage his own local dramas and musicals. Enjoying early success, Rogers soon expanded the concept and began employing the talents and eagerness of other amateurs in other communities to celebrate the anniversaries and centennials.  Many of the early productions were performed on indoor stages as operas, or minstrel shows. As the years progressed the company began selling community leaders on the idea of staging elaborate Centennial anniversaries, or commemorations of notable events of history from their area.  

The shows would often utilize a cast of hundreds of people, a truckload of period costumes, various animals, a large rolling stock of wagon and cars, plus a wealth of music scores, and about a dozen choreographed dance routines. In later years, the Rogers’ directors included early forms of multi media complete with slide shows, sound effects and pyrotechnics. Most of these elaborate shows were performed on a hand-crafted grand stage, made of platforms, scaffolding and curtains about 200 feet in length. It was built strategically on a football field where thousands of people attended the spectaculars from the stands.

These pageants were usually the culmination of a year-long celebration of the centennial or the sesqui-centennial at a 150 years. After World War Two, company officials estimated the Rogers’ Company produced over 5,000 of these shows before they finally closed down operations in 1977 in Fostoria, however another company bought the Rogers inventory and moved it to the Pittsburgh area where it continued until the 1980’s. 
The Rogers company, on average, would produce about 70 shows a summer. Most of operations focused on small town America where local communities would pay a fee for the Rogers company to design a celebration plan for them, that included not just an outdoor historical pageant, but would also give them an organization “plan of action” with which the townspeople could use to stage the entire year-long celebration. Those festivities always included beard contests, vintage clothing sales, commemorative dinner plates, historical programs and photos, wooden nickels, and other souvenirs of the community’s celebration. In the final six weeks of the event, the company would assign a director-business manager to the town to direct the pageant and generally oversee the celebration to ensure that company procedures and fiscal policies were being followed.


This writer became very familiar with the Rogers Company when I went to work for them in the summer of 1969, as a wet-behind-the-ears 20-year-old freshly minted “director”. Yes, I was unusually young for this type of heady assignment, but not one to shrink from adventure. One spring morning, I flew to points south to begin my director’s training in the small southern community of Clayton North Carolina, a few miles south of Raleigh.

(My first association with Rogers came the summer before when I took part in their production of Genoa Ohio’s centennial pageant in 1968. I was a theater major at the time, and the chance to work for Rogers the next summer was an experience of a lifetime)

Because this story was intended to be about the Rogers’ Company, and not about me, I’ll try to refrain from too much self-indulgence, but I will attempt to provide a unique perspective of the company and the effect in had on the communities they worked with.

The Clayton show was special and somewhat atypical because it was being directed by the Vice President of the company, George S. Elias. A man as unforgettable as he was skilled at his craft. With hundreds of Rogers shows on his long lists of credits, George also brought to his mini-school of new directors, an unflinching passion for the world of show business and showmanship. His stocky build,his soft blue eyes, and a face framed by a shock of graying blond hair, combined with a friendly smile and quick wit, had little trouble getting the attention of those around him. Be they young directors, novice actors or the most influential community’s leaders. I was fortunate to have had George Elias as a mentor in those early years.


George’s proudest accomplishment as a Rogers’ director was no doubt his annual reenactment of Custer’s Last Stand at the Crow Indian Reservation in Montana. It was a brilliant idea designed to raise money every year for the reservation and to tell the story of this great American story from the perspective of the Indians who crushed Custer’s 7th Calvary unit.
Elias for a number of years wrote and directed the spectacular battle scene, in classic Cecil B. DeMille’s style with bull-horn in hand, directing the hundreds of actors on horses with guns and arrows to be brutal and violent, while at the same time imploring them not to hurt anyone. Elias became so loved by the Crow Nation, he was made an honorary tribe member. By 1969, Elias was on set with director Arthur Penn, offering technical advice in the production of the movie “Little Big Man” with Dustin Hoffman and Faye Dunaway. Elias called me in June of 1969 to ask if I wanted to come out for the weekend to see the battle scenes being shot and to meet with Penn and the crew. I declined. A decision I have always regretted.

George Elias was not the only Rogers’ director whose roots were buried deep in the loam of Hollywood and Broadway. There were many others, including screen writers, dancers, actors, and behind the scenes technicians, who joined this Fostoria company during the summer months to earn some extra money and to experience a rich slice of pure Americana. One of the most popular directors for the company during its last years in operation was Carl Hawley, a Hollywood scriptwriter and showman who delighted in lending his experience and talents to these small town productions.


In 1968, Hawley and his wife LaFaye, produced a show for Brookfield, Illinois’s 75th anniversary, called the Diamond Jubilee. The local paper wrote of Hawley.

Everything was coming together. In late June “congenial” Carl Hawley, of Hollywood, Calif., arrived in Brookfield to produce and direct the pageant. Apparently no local person could come up to the standards needed for this job, so Hawley was sent for by the Rogers Company.
Hawley was a true showman, in the best “S.E. Gross” style, brimming over with good nature, optimism and a fine sense of flamboyance. And he had 20 years’ worth of experience in promoting such spectaculars as this.
The July 3rd Enterprise reported that   “he has worked with a number of movie stars before joining the Rogers Company. He has assisted in producing and directing James Arness in ‘Gunsmoke,’ Red Skelton and others. He has also traveled with Bing Crosby and appeared in movies under the name Carlos Fernando.”
On his pinky finger, Hawley wore an outrageously large ring, with a gigantic diamond in it that would’ve made Eva Gabor jealous, if it were real. He wore it, he said, as a symbol of Brookfield’s Diamond Jubilee. In early July, his wife, LaFaye, arrived to help co-produce and direct.

There were many directors in the history of the Rogers company and they essentially became the public face of this mostly obscure Northwest Ohio company that provided a wealth of memories to hundreds of thousands of people across the nation. One of their long time directors, Phillys Shelflow, left her Hollywood home each year along with her husband to direct and choreograph the pageants. She said in a 1968 interview that she loved the work because it was all about “bringing America to Americans”.
And speaking from my own experience as a Roger’s director, this seemed to be the essence of each celebration and each production. Every celebration would not only feature the pageant, but a “queen’s contest” which allowed local women in the town to sell tickets to the big show and the woman who sold the most won the crown and a truckload full of prizes from local merchants. Each celebration also featured beard growing contests for the men any man who grew some facial hair was encouraged to join the “Brothers of the Brush” which involved buying a button, an old-fashioned bow tie, and maybe a top hat or some other type of historic fashion.

The ladies, as well could pick through the racks of beautiful recreation of historic period dresses of many type which were at the Centennial store.

This store was also the headquarters for the event and was the place where everything was coordinated, meetings were and a variety of commemorative items were up for sale. Items that were mostly produced or brokered by the Rogers’ company. In fact the Rogers company also owned another firm called the Ohm Company which specialized in various trinkets, badges, hats and ties that most folks, who got into the celebratory spirit were eager to buy. It was a win-win-win situation. The town, the Rogers company and the director all shared a cut of the profits.

While money and the American “profit motive” were certainly in play for the Rogers Company, I always sensed that the owners and directors were motivated by more than just the almighty dollar, and that the greatest reward was in the sense of community these productions created.  In the smaller towns across the country who got caught up in the spirit of the celebration, the people who took part often found themselves making new friends, sharing new experiences and generally painting some indelible memories they carried for many years.


One case in point, was my first show I directed on my own which was in Newell, Iowa. A small farming hamlet of 700 citizens in Northwest Iowa, not far from Storm Lake, and about 60 miles east of Sioux City. It was essentially in the middle of nowhere and I thought I’d be dealing with some pretty dusty folks who had corn silk in their ears. How wrong I was. This little town was as prosperus and progressive as any town I had ever known, and  . the townspeople of this bucolic village were as energetic and friendly and competent as any I have ever encountered throughout the rest of my life. These folks knew how to have fun. A small town with a big heart. I learned a lot from them and never forgot their hospitality and zest for life. The show and the celebration of the town’s 100th birthday was a grand success. I was proud to be a part of it.  In 2004, 35 years after the 1969 Newell Iowa Centennial. I decided to visit that small town again while on a trip out West. The intervening years had taken their toll.  Much of Newell had physically changed, with closed up store fronts, and fewer downtown businesses. But more importantly, the people had not changed. Many of the same folks instrumental in putting the celebration together were still there, 35 years older, but just as eager as ever to have a good time. They held a party for me and my family. I was humbled. We reminisced, we laughed, we drank, we traded stories, and we paid tribute to those who had passed on, and by the night’s end, we made the past come alive again.  I also realized that the Centennial they observed in 1969 was more than just a one week event. It had stayed with them for decades. Several told me that it was the biggest thing that had ever happened in their little town and it was a very important time in their lives. One they would never forget. Nor shall I.

The work of the Rogers Company may be over, but still quietly lives on in thousands of towns across America.


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Mystery “Death Ray” Inventor Lived in Toledo

One of the motivations I had for starting this blog ten years ago in 2010 was my passion for discovering people and events of the past that had been largely ignored, forgotten or assigned to the junk drawer of history.

Every now and then I spend some time sorting through that old junk drawer and without fail, I tend to find a few gems. Such was the case this week when I came upon the story of Maurice J. Francill. Born in Marion Ohio just before the start of the 20th century, Maurice, whose given name at birth, was Francis Marion Cowgill,(he changed his name later in life) would spend most of life exploring the mystery and magic of radio. In fact, he was known as the Radio Wizard, and by the early 1920’s he was stunning audiences around the country with his ability to use radio waves to control mechanical devices. From toys to cars to trains, Maurice Francill had figured out the technology of “remote control”. Recall that in the 1920’s, most people were still wrapping their head around the remarkable new concept of listening to people speak from far off cities on a crystal radio in their living rooms.

This was big magic to most people at the time. It was a technology in its infancy and radio stations were just at the early stages of development. Toledo would not have a radio station until 1925. But here was Maurice Francill, already showing people how radio waves could not only travel through the invisible “ether” of air, but how those waves could make things move.

Local Audiences Awed By Francill’s Shows

In the February 10th , 1923 Edition of the Coshocton Tribune, Francill was demonstrating a remote controlled automobile on the city streets of Coshocton as part of a radio exhibition that was touring the country.

The paper wrote: The machine he will demonstrate tonight is valued at ten thousand dollars and required a year to build. The machine is equipped with a radio selector which makes it possible to perform an operation request from any member of the audience, much in the same manner as if it had “mechanical brains”.

From that description it may be safe to conclude that Maurice Francill, who would later move his operations to Toledo, was the inventor, not just of remote control, but the first autonomous car. That was almost 100 years ago.

Francill would continue his demonstrations for curious eyes in a broad swath of cities and towns across the nation. In New Castle Pennsylvania in 1926 Radio Wizard Francill gave demonstrations at a car dealership of his invention showing the crowd how he could start the automobile, flash its lights, honk its horn or turn its wheel “without the touch of a human hand”. The newspaper writer reflected on what this “remote control” technology might mean for future. Francill even allowed people in the showroom to thoroughly inspect the car to make sure it wasn’t rigged with a hidden driver or wires. It wasn’t. The article also said Francill demonstrated how to fry an egg on a block of ice using this technology, but didn’t elaborate.

His amazing feats before thousands of people would be repeated maimes over from Newark Ohio to Reno Nevada with many stops in between. In Waterloo Iowa in 1927, thousands of onlookers jammed various points of the city to watch in awe as he drove a Hudson Essex down a city street, turned on a washing machine at a city laundry, and started up an ice factory with the press of a button on his 15 pound radio transmitter from a remote location. He was theRadio Wizard. His creativity for finding new applications was impressive. In 1929, In Newark,Ohio he was demonstrating at a local dairy, how his radio device could operate a mechanical milking machine for cows. He repeated the same stunt on stage at a theater in Lima in 1929, and the newspaper reported that the cow, “Duchess” was calmly brought onto the stage and Francill, was able to extract 40 pounds of milk which cascaded into the bucket like “Niagara Falls”. On that same trip to Lima he also showed how radio could be used to operate a street car, and he did it for all to see.

It is not apparent if Francill had succeeded in finding commercial uses for his new radio technology. However, because Francill was seen by many as an entertainer and not a scientist, his credentials and credibility may have been questioned as a serious inventor. Especially when considering that many of his shows also included spiritualism and Seance features. But it was hard to deny that he did have something tangible to provide audiences who marveled at his ability to drive a car, or a play a violin or milk a cow without the aid of a human hand.

It was the stuff of the future and in the 1920’s and 30’s, the science of radio was the new frontier of possibility and Francill brought some of that “wonder” to hometown America.

As far back at 1926 in an interview with a Reno Nevada reporter, Francill said he had built a death ray machine that could stop a beating heart and wanted to try it our on a convicted murderer who was condemned to die. He said he was asking some state governors to let him try it. He was convinced that the death ray technology would be the technology of future wars when armies would be able to use them to “annihilate people by the hundreds”. He also predicted it would become a popular crime fighting tool, for it not only could kill people, but kill the engines of speeding getaway vehicles and could start distant fires. His discovery of the“death ray”, he said, was found by accident while doing other experiments. He held its technology as a closely guarded secret lest it fall into the wrong hands of amateurs.

He also would later demonstrate the use of “light rays” which he touted as a new method to broadcast voice transmission on a,beam of light. He felt this was in many ways more effective and useful than radio waves. He was prescient on that thought, but light ray technology was not new. Hardly.

It had been invented by Alexander Graham Bell in 1880. In fact the use of light ray photo-phones did become an effective stealth communication during World War Two. Today’s fiber optic technology is built on the foundation of light ray technology.

Francill’s one questionable claim was his public insistence that he had a “death ray” device. In 1940 he demonstrated it to reporters and witnesses in Toledo. In February of that year he assembled a group of reporters and witnesses to his home in North Toledo. Nine men, according to the article in the Toledo Blade, watched as Francill used a “queer machine” with port holes and coils, to deliver a death ray of sorts to a rat that rose up on its “shaky haunches, ran in a few agonized circles and died.”

The reporter, Arthur Peterson, contended that the rat was a large brown alley rat and appeared to be in good health before it was taken out of a wire cage and put into a glass case. From 15 feet away Francill’s projector was trained on the rat inther glass case and caused its sudden death. How and why did it die? What exotic technology had this Toledo inventor uncovered? Francill told the reporter he didn’t know, but he theorized that the “ray” may have deteriorated the tissue of blood and flesh and nerves.

He also demonstrated another experiment with the strange projector by projecting a ray unto a pair of beakers in which were two unidentified chemicals. When hit by the “ray” the chemicals turned from a milky white color to blue color. Francill showed the witnesses assembled at his home other examples of his shadowy science including the projection of a ray from the secret box to a shaft of steel which became very hot. He also showed a “military” invention thathe says was a thermal compound that can be ignited by water and get so hot it can eat through the side of a battle ship.

Just how long Francill lived in Toledo I have not yet determined(still working on it). I do know that he was here in the 1930’s and through part of the 50’s before he returned to his hometown of Marion where he passed away in 1974 at the age of 77.

Was he a crackpot? A conman? Or was he the real deal? Maybe a little of all three. Not sure really, but what I can ascertain by what I’ve read in the limited research I’ve done, is that he made some of his money by selling sponsors to his shows. When he demonstrated his “remote control” automobiles, it was usually underwritten and marketed by a car dealership. Or a dairy if he was milking cows, or a street car company if he was “automating” the local street cars. His draft card and selective service application in 1943 shows he was living at 1702 N. 12th Street in Toledo, was employed by the Massachusetts Protective Association(insurance company) and was married to his wife Josephine.

I am very curious as to what Francill’s “death ray” was. If it was not a hoax, I suspect that perhaps he had stumbled into some rudimentary microwave wave technology. The use of very high frequency radio waves to heat objects, which had been discovered in the 1930’s and even featured at the 1939 World’s fair in Chicago.

Regardless, even if Maurice Francill was just a clever huckster who could harness electronics to make a quick buck, he gave Americans of all ages and walks of life a sense of wonder of the world around them, a sense of the future wonders that would eventually come to fruition. Heat the very least a futurist, and a teacher who helped spark the imagination of the country.


Filed under The Forgotten and no so famous, Uncategorized

Toledo’s Unforgettable Judge Austin

Judge James Austin

Judge Austin

Prior to the creation of a Municipal Court system, Toledo, like many cities, had for years used what was called a “Police Court”. In Toledo, that court was synonymous for several decades with one man: Judge James Austin.

Judge Austin was undoubtedly one of the city’s most powerful and colorful characters of the early 1900’s.  According to some accounts, he was the compelling reason that Toledo decided to create a municipal court system of four judges and structured the city’s court system.

It was said that a “certain class of citizens was being favored by Judge Austin.” In one edition of the ‘Police Journal’ of 1922, it was noted that “he withstood the continual howl of the newspapers and the public” for his actions in court.

Despite his critics, Judge Austin remained a popular figure in the city and was reelected to his judicial post many times over, even after the city had gone to a municipal court, Judge Austin was reelected to it and named its chief judge.

Even after assuming his new role as head of the court Judge James Austin continued to create headlines.

The ‘New York Times’ carried one story from 1920, when Austin couldn’t decide the guilt or innocence of a local grocer charged with running a gambling operation and bribery. So he asked the court audience to vote on it. He handed out 34 ballots and the vote came back 27-7 in favor of acquittal.

In another infamous case, a group of southern musicians had been arrested in the city’s notorious tenderloin district for panhandling, Judge Austin decided their best punishment would be to go get their instruments and come back and give the court a make shift concert, which they did.

It was his creativity in sentencing and his reputation for leniency that often sparked the most furor, for Judge Austin was of the mindset that a jail sentence was not always the best form of punishment. He believed it did little good to sentence poor people to the workhouse for crimes that “rich people” got away with.

He was known as the “Golden Rule” judge, believing that to be fair, you had to understand what people were going through and that sometimes the heart was a better measure of punishment than laws.

In 1908, back when Toledo had a workhouse near Swan Creek and City Park known as “Duck Island”, Judge Austin found himself “guilty” of curiosity and sentenced himself to a “day” at the prison, as an inmate, to see what the experience of a prisoner is really like.

On a bitterly cold day in February of that year, Judge Austin reported to “Duck Island” and subjected himself to endure the indignities of  being just another inmate. Citizen Austin was treated no differently than others, ordered to strip and get into prison togs, march to the dining hall and was sent to a pond to cut ice for the ice boxes at the jail.

Upon his release, Austin said, he would have to do some “tall thinking” in the future before sending a man to the workhouse. This was one of the reasons that Judge Austin had earned the nickname of the “Golden Rule” judge.

Another reason for his sobriquet was that the good judge was heavily influenced by the former Toledo Mayor Samuel “Golden Rule” Jones, who also believed that poor men deserve “second chances.” Like Judge Austin, Mayor Jones believed the court should not always punish, but serve to reform. He frequently took sides in favor of keeping families together.

In one case in 1909, a young girl appeared before his court to urge the judge to “Let Papa go” after her father had been arrested for “riding the rails.” Judge Austin listened to his heart and released her father from custody.

Austin was eager to listen to children in his court. In another case when a young “newsboy” was brought before his court on an assault charge against another “newsie.” Judge Austin decided to allow the young “newsboys” to serve as the judge and jury to decide verdict and punishment.

Judge Austin’s tenure as the “Police Court Judge” began in 1908 when he took the reigns of the court and lasted on the bench for another 20 years.  Within days after taking over the police court, the Toledo News Bee reported that Austin would not send a man to jail or fine him for drunkeness explaining that the Judge thought it was a disease. And one afflicted with it can no more combat it than he could typhoid fever. It was also noted that a defendant would not be sent to the work house on a first offense, however wife beaters would be shown no mercy. Shortly after assuming the robe, the Judge sentenced a man to 60 days in jail for taking a razor “strop” to his wife for punishment of an unknown transgression.

A native of Rhode Island, and a former Board of Elections member and police court prosecutor, Austin had been in some sort of public employment in Toledo for over 30 years. He was also a Unitarian as he was the son of a Unitarian minister.

Despite his taste for the dramatic while behind the bench, he was said to be a man of modest means, and an even temper. He didn’t drive a car, but took street cars and walked to work each day.

As a writer, he was also was popular on the speaking circuit as he tried to spread his ideas on how the “Golden Rule” should be applied as a tenet of justice. He was, by today’s standards, “liberal” of thought and was friends with many in Toledo’s so called “underworld.”

Judge Austin could be harsh and stern with those who took advantage of the poor and the weak. He was also a robust voice in the anti-gun movement of that era and often opined that guns had no place in a modern society.

It also became Austin’s goal to convince the city to give up its workhouse on Duck Island and start a prison farm.

Within ten years, the prison farm in Whitehouse was built which remained opened for another eight decades before it was eventually shutdown in the 1980’s. It stood vacant for decades and was recently demolished.

Judge James Austin

Judge Austin


Filed under Old Places and Faces, Toledo area crime news, Uncategorized

A Tesla Treasure -Lost In Toledo?

Did WBuhlbook1956ScienceFairTeslaCoiloodward High School in Toledo once have a real scientific treasure, and if so, where is it?   For those of you familiar with the famed inventor Nikola Tesla, you  already know that this Serbian-American genius was considered by many to be one of the greatest inventors and most brilliant minds of 20th century physics.  His legendary innovations include everything from alternating current, the radio, the induction motor, the neon light bulb and many others.  What you may not have known, according to a 1937 Toledo News Bee article, is that Woodward High School in Toledo was reportedly in possession of one of Nikola Tesla’s original Tesla coils that he used in his controversial laboratory in Colorado Springs, Colorado around 1900.  The article from April 20th, of 1937, reports that a Woodward High School electric and radio teacher, Alpheus Bitter, had acquiredtesla coil article one of the ten original Tesla coils from Colorado from a “garageman” who was selling them.  The high elevation city of Colorado Springs, at the foot of Pike’s Peak,  is where Tesla spent a number of years in a laboratory, (now the site of the city’s Memorial Park), developing a system to transmit electricity without the use of wires.  It was Tesla’s quest. His long held belief that electric current at high voltages could be transmitted through the air and distributed without the cost of building wired networks.  It sounds wacky, but Tesla was not to be taken lightly, he was after all,  the man who invented,  and is credited with, the development of alternating current and the hydro-electric station at Niagara Falls, New York.   He was eccentric yes, but whether he had lost touch with reality with some of his ideas, is still up for debate. Historical records, for example, show that it was Nikola Tesla, and not Guglielmo Marconi who actually invented the radio, even though the latter is usually credited with fathering that major communication breakthrough.  


Nikola Tesla

Nikola Tesla

But it was Tesla’s later efforts to find a sort of “wi-fi” system to transmit electric current through the air that brought skeptical attention to him.  Many thought he had gone off the deep and had become the prototype of mad scientist, working alone in his laboratory using a system curious looking towers, antennae and large coils to shoot out bolts of lighting across the night skies. The heart of those experiments involved his now famous “Tesla Coil”,  which can emit large bolts of artificial lightning by sending current through the air towards a grounding tower at the receiving end.  (Every good sci-fi movie of the 1950’s included at least one Tesla Coil scene.)

The coil became the working symbol of Tesla’s concept and his name has been indelibly coupled with the device. By the 1930’s, however, Tesla’s famed laboratory in Colorado has been taken down and Tesla had long since moved away back to New York to continue his experiments there. 

Tesla working in his Colorado Springs Lab circa:1900

Tesla working in his Colorado Springs Lab

It was in the 1930’s that Toledo, Ohio teacher, Alpheus Bitter, is reported to have purchased one of the last remaining original coils from the Tesla lab that could generate up to a half million volts.  Bitter, according to the article in the News Bee, brought it to Toledo for use in his electricity and radio classes at Woodward High School.  And this particular news clippings says it was being displayed to the public for a special demonstration.

If the Toledo News Bee article is accurate, and Woodward High School did hold in its grasp one of the greatest science artifacts of the 20th century, where is it?  I asked a Toledo Public School spokeswoman who says she was not aware of it, but would look into it and see if she could answer just where the large coil may have ended up.   “It would be a find, indeed,” says Ottawa County antique dealer, and electronic hobbyist, Ernie Scarano, who owns Mantiques, a specialty antique store in Elmore. The centerpiece of his store, which features antiques for more masculine taste, is a working Tesla coil that he built himself. Ernie says that to his knowledge, no one in the world has an actual Tesla-made Tesla coil. There are thousands of Tesla coil winders around the world who are tinkerers and hobbyists, but he is not aware of anyone who actually owns a “real” Tesla coil. He thinks its value would be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. “Lots of people around the world would want this, museums would want it.” But, once again, the question arises. Where is it? Did it get sold or salvaged, or stolen? Or it is gathering cobwebs in a forgotten closet. Woodward_High_School

Sadly, we may never find the answer to this mystery, as the historic Woodward High School building was taken down by wrecking crews a few years ago and the answer may have been buried deep in the rubble and carted off for salvage or junk.

As for the teacher who bought the Tesla Coil in Colorado and took it to Woodward High School, I have learned that Alpheus Bitter was not just a hobbyist-teacher who liked to tinker, but that he too was a brilliant engineer of electronic communication and had the credentials to prove it.  In his 1992 obituary in the Toledo Blade,  It is written that Bitter taught at Woodward High School until 1945 and influenced many young men to enter the field of electrical engineering. And that he was also responsible for helping put many Toledo TV and radio stations on the air, including WOHO, WTOD, WTOL, WSPD and WGTE-TV.   Alpheus Bitter’s resume also included a long time stint as a consultant for Willys Motors in Toledo, in the 1940’s and 50’s, in their attempts to build television equipment, and designed the electronic glass cutting process for Owens-Illinois. In his later years, he lectured on electronics at the University of Toledo.  Alpheus Bitter was 88 years old when he passed away from cancer at the Golden Haven Nursing home in 1992.  he was well known and well respoected, but there was no mention in his obituary of the novel Tesla coil or what may have happened to it.  He surely knew its value and perhaps he sold it to someone else who understood that this was, in the science world, as precious as a piece of art from one of the masters.  Mr. Bitter may have taken the knowledge of its whereabouts to his grave. We can only hope that someone, somewhere is still holding Mr. Tesla’s holy grail in safekeeping, maybe here in Toledo.ntesla2





Filed under Old Places and Faces, The Forgotten and no so famous, Uncategorized

Toledo’s Dell Hair, First of a Rare Breed of Cop-Poets

Cops who put down their pistols and pick up pens in the gentle pursuit of poetry, may seem like a rare breed, but perhaps not as rare as you might think. Happened to read recently about an undercover cop in Los Angeles who is also a poet and says he is one of a growing number of officers who have something to say in verse. So he is trying to organize these poet-police officers into some type of national cop-poets-society.  If this should come to fruition, I will suggest they make a special place in their ranks for Toledo Policeman Dell Hair, the nation’s first cop-poet, at least the first one who was nationally recognized for his verse. While not considered a great poet, he was popular and was published numerous times in the course of a career that included walking the dark streets of downtown Toledo, fighting crime while composing rhyme.

 He was born Adalbert Hair on a farm near the small western Michigan town of Morrice back in 1871. Always the romantic, he left that community behind as a young man to join the U.S. Army Cavalry Regiment in the American West where it is said that he helped put down down the last of Geronimo’s Apache uprisings. From there, Hair eventually made his way to Toledo where in 1906, he joined the ranks of the Toledo Police Department. This of course was long before squad cars, so Hair spent much of his time on foot as a patrolman. While he was on duty, it is reported that he not only worked out poems in his head, but, often gave those suspects he arrested, on-the-spot renditions of his verse, as he hauled them back to the police station.  From those many days and nights on the streets, in 1908, he published a collection of poems that he wrote entitled “Echoes from the Beat”.

 About a year later, Hair left the Toledo Police Department, under controversial circumstances, and formed his own downtown private security company, which was really a poetic way of saying he hired out as a night watchman to check on downtown stores. But he did it well, and did it for many years until he died. All the while, writing and publishing his poems and even becoming involved in city politics.  A Toledo New Bee article in 1909 reports that Dell Hair spoke to a political rally in a campaign against Toledo Mayor Brand Whitlock, in which Hair claimed he was fired by the police department because Whitlock, also a writer, was “jealous of his literary accomplishments”. Hair was not shy about voicing his opinions and was outspoken on many issues of the times, often putting those concerns about city problems into iambic pentameter. He was also popular with many in the city, especially the downtown merchants whose stores he protected at night.  Hair even tried running for mayor in Toledo in 1915, but returned to his police work and his poetry.  Dell Hair, lived at 1005 Salem Street in Toledo and was married to his wife Charlotte, had several children and continued writing poetry and staying on the downtown beat, until his death from the flu in 1932.

 During his lifetime, he wrote and published many books of poetry. Many of which ares still available on E-bay and other used book sites. Some of the titles to look for are “Roses and Thorns”, published while he was in the Army, also “Songs of Darkness, Light and Death” from 1895, “Nature Beautiful”, published in 1929, “Violets and Thorns” and “Echoes from a Dell” in 1922.  Dell Hair was described by those who knew him, as a large man in stature, a big and burly guy who, despite his love of poetry, always put his respect and admiration first for his fellow officers and firemen. In dedicating “Echoes from the Beat”, he wrote : “In honor of the great love I bear for the police and firemen who, ​​without hesitancy, risk their lives for the welfare of others, I dedicate the third volume of my ​​poems”.​

 Just what motivated Dell Hair to be a cop and writer of poetry, we’ll probably never know for sure, maybe he didn’t know either. But Jessee Fourmy, the cop in Los Angeles who I mentioned at the start of this story believes it has to do with a cop’s natural instinct to study and understand human nature. He says they are seekers of truth, which also the goal of the poet.

 Fourmy says there are so many cops now writing poetry on the West Coast, they have started their own journal called “Rattle”, in which former Portland police officer-turned-poet James Fleming writes that”Cops and poets are intruders into other people’s lives. They both probe for character, motive, history. They both want to know what people are up to. A person of interest can end up in a poem or in jail.”

 And a police poem can end up in an editorial. In fact, the Toledo Blade used one of Dell Hair’s old poems in 1964 when controversy arose over the old Spielbush Fountain at the Civic Center at Spielbusch and Cherry Streets. The decaying old stone structure was destined to be torn down, despite the cries of those who wanted to save it. The Blade proposed that a marker be erected near the site of the fountain with a poem from Dell Hair, in which he waxed profoundly about how the fountain not only quenched his physical thirst, but satisfied his muse of inspiration. This from the “Echoes from the Beat”

 Old beautiful fountain so holy and good,adorning the place where the old market stood.

Where mammoth iron bars were bolted in rows, Where horses fought flies now a green carpet grows.

Thy dome is not lofty, thy cups are not gold,The people here flock like sheep to the fold.

Mothers to children, for pitchers will call, There is plenty to spare and enough for us all

On every morn between three and four, I quench my thirst from thy bountiful store

As in the tin cup, I thy purity view, A short little verse is whispered for you

Oh beautiful fountain this is my song of the memory erected to one that is gone

All thanks to the son who lowered the rod, that brought to the people one blessing of god.

To this writer’s knowledge that marker was never placed at the site and the Spielbusch fountain is long gone. But the words of poet-policeman Dell Hair live on. Likely will outlive all of us as his verse is passed from generation to generation, perhaps a little dusty with time, but still there, to drink in, like a fountain that just keeps flowing.



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Filed under Old Places and Faces, Toledo area crime news, Uncategorized

Mr. Dixon’s Very Strange Inn and Museum

  Found a story the other day from a 1920’s Toledo News Bee that got my attention. The date was June 12, 1928 and the front page headline read “Weird Dixon Estate Stumps Appraisers”. Turns out that at one time in Toledo, there was a well known inn that served not only food for the hungry, but those who hungered for the bizarre. Seems that a gent by the name of Charles N. Dixon ran the “famous” Dixon Inn at 44-48 St. Clair Street in downtown Toledo for a number of of years. The inn also doubled as a museum which certainly provided the topic of great dinner table conversation. The dusty rooms at the Inn featured a deviant’s delight, such as a stuffed sea serpent, a “greasy” hangman’s rope, a skeleton, a petrified man, tools used for torture, bloodied hand weapons, statues, swords, stuffed animals and a long list of oddities that might make Mr. Ripley green with envy. The gist of this particular story was not about the Dixon Inn, per se,  but rather about the fact that Mr. Dixon had died and his belongings were now up for auction and appraisers just weren’t sure what the market rate might be for a genuine authenticated sea serpent. As a group of local appraisers walked through the museum to get a better look, the News Bee reporter tagged along and recounted the tour this way:
      “the mounted animals, the stuffed fish and preserved specimens of rare fowl watched the procedure with glassy and impersonal stares…The Museum, once the gathering place of the demi-monde and the ultra Bohemian, now is a place of oppressive and profound silence, cluttered with all the nightmarish specimens that one eccentric could gather together in a  lifetime.”
   The reporter explains that Dixon began collecting these weird artifacts as a child growing up on a ranch in the West and kept collecting them through adulthood. After he moved to Toledo and opened the inn, he started stuffing the rooms of the building with skeletons, Indian hatchets, bloodied bayonets and weapons of all types and sizes that still hadn’t been cleaned from use. They piled up in the dusty and damp old rooms with other items of the weird including pillories, bones of unknown animals and the grinning skulls of prehistoric people.  One of his favorite possessions was a “Great Stone Face” that reportedly had been dug up on Monroe Street during the excavation for a sewer line and was thought to be the work of Mound Builders. As to whatever happened to Mr. Dixon’s den of darkness, I am still trying to find out. I can only surmise that such a collection today might actually fetch an substantial sum were it to go up for auction. As for the Dixon Inn, it would appear that its location would now be in the same block on St. Clair St. where Fifth-Third field is today. Kind of makes me wonder what’s buried under first base. 

This story has lots of unanswered questions and is really a work in progress, posted in the hopes that maybe one of our readers knows something about the Dixon Inn they could share. In the meantime, I am also embarking on a  search for more information about the fate of these strange artifacts and man who was responsible for this most unusual Toledo museum, Mr. Charles N. Dixon.   Updates, to be forthcoming.  By the way if you too are wondering about the word “demi-mond”,  according to one Internet dictionary  it is a  “group whose respectability is dubious or whose success is marginal: the literary demimonde of ghost writers, hacks, and publicists. Also called demiworlds”  FYI-  Lou


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From the Trenches to Toledo: Letters Tell The Personal Stories of War

By the time the United States entered World War One in the spring of 1917, the  earth had already been shuddering with the thunder of battle for three years through Europe and on the high seas. Many Americans, but not all, were ready to join the fight against the Kaiser and put an end to the long nightmare of German ambition.

Toledo, like the rest of the country, sent her boys to the front to help in the cause. During this time, the news stories of the day reflect an emboldened American spirit of pride and patriotism and a compliant willingness to sacrifice  both blood and treasure to the effort. Toledo did both. Thousands of dollars of were raised to help fund the war through what were called Liberty Loans and Toledo was one of the top leaders in the country for such fund raising, and likewise, Toledoans also offered thousands of young men to fund the need for human lives on the front lines in France, in what would become a brutal trench war of attrition against the hated Germans.   By the time it was over on November 11th, it had been the costliest war in terms of human life, in the history of humanity. Over 8 million dead. For the United States, 116,000 military troops died in battle or from disease or accidents in the short 19 months of deployment.  Over 400 young men from the Toledo area would not return home alive, having died on the battlefield, or of disease or by accident.

The Toledo News Bee newspaper at the time was a great repository of war information, reporting daily on the situation at home and abroad. One of the most poignant features I found in the pages of the newspaper were the letters from Toledo “Yanks” serving in France during those months just before the fall of the Germans in November of 1918. The letters lend a human perspective to the events. A truly American perspective through the eyes of young men, many of whom had never traveled much beyond Lucas County, but whose sensibilities were now transported to a strange new world against the harsh landscape of war that would change their lives forever.

“When we landed in France we were shipped in boxcars, they packed us in like sardines. We had to split up and sleep in shifts during the ride at night.” So writes William Kieswetter to his father J.L. Kieswetter of 828 Michigan St. ” The speed of the French trains would make one seasick. One could walk backward twice as fast as we moved forward. We were five hours in going 20 miles. On the night of October 31st, we saw several bombs dropped on Nancy, killing many people.”

Private Edward Major wrote to his father F. Major at 1806 Ray St. Toledo..” I was wounded in the thigh on the morning of November 1st, just after daylight. We were going over the top. As we went over the top, a gang of German machine guns opened fire on us. We jumped into a shell hole and listened to the bullets buzz over our head. Soon it became quiet, so one of the fellows said “let’s go”, so we started. Started was all. From the minuteswere showed ourselves we drew a hornet’s nest of machine fire. But  this time our fellows kept going. I was one of the lucky ones. I got plugged. But it is not so bad, these hospitals are a great place to get some rest.”

“Wine, women and song are what Paris lives under” so wrote J Frank Coveney to his sister Mrs. Stanley Lanker in Point Place. I never saw the likes of it before in all the cities I’ve been in, both in the United State and over here.” Coveney goes on to write, “We are billeted and set in a small building about 10′ x 12′. It is pretty crowded. This is one of the battlefields and graves are all around us. One grave they say has 10,000 French soldiers in it. A good sized city – isn’t it?” Some of the German prisoners are sure bum looking fellows and gaunty. They seem to be glad to be taken. I guess their stomachs are full of war.”

For some of the Toledo soldiers, the adventure of war also involved other adventures besides those on the battlefield. Louis Gerding of Toledo wrote to his mother Ann Gerding of 119 Maumee Avenue about his new kindled friendship with a “French girl”.

“I’ve got the best little girl over here. She is teaching me French and I am teaching her English. I sent you her picture about a month ago. If you didn’t get it, here’s another one. In another month, your son will be able to speak French. Just think of it! We had a party about two weeks ago. I sure had a good time We had all the beer and eats we wanted. We also had a little show and also the band was here, so you see we never get time to get homesick.”

The sight of an American soldier, a Yank, with the companionship of a French girl was apparently not an unusual occurrence, so penned, Toledoan David Redding of the Chief Surgeon’s office to his father John Redding who worked for the Wabash railroad and the nephew of Rev. Thomas Redding of Maumee. “Everywhere..one can see an American soldier with a girl, while the French soldiers walk alone. The American soldiers are the cakes-of-the-walk in the town. I am learning French rapidly. I don’t mean I can speak fluently but just can make myself understood.

Corporal Bennie Rosencranz of Toledo wrote to his family that it was candy that was in short supply in France. ” We get all of the tobacco and cigarettes we need and at less than they cost in the United States. Candy is very scarce, however, and when the Y.M.C.A. gets a supply, which is not very often, it lasts about a day.”

Other Toledo soldiers wrote of their eagerness to defeat the Germans and come home.

“At last we are here and ready to do our best to lick the Kaiser.” So wrote Toledoan Clinton Hart to Mrs. John Holzer of 1230 Oak Street. “We are all in fine condition, we were on the boat just 17 days.” One cannot judge the beauty of France by these camps, for Army camps in war times are not pleasing to the eye. Only old men and women are to be seen. All of the men who can wear the uniform have gone to war, but the women are making a wonderful showing. They keep the chief industry going, which seems to be the making of wine in this locality. Our long days of drilling are over and now the real show is about to begin. I feel good enough to lick any German that walks and I sure will hand it to him.”

Others were even more  belligerent in their regard for the Germans. “We are over here to lick Germany, all of us in the Army are willing to do that.” wrote Shirley C. Matheny of company C to his mother Mrs. J.W. Matheny of 319 12th Street. “If we can’t make these baby killing, conceited pig-headed Huns crawl and say Kamerad to us then we don’t want to come home. They have stopped calling us the contemptible little Yankee army now, we’ve gone up in the world. They now call us barbarians and they know whenever they are facing Yanks, they had better fight like hell or beat it while the beating is good. It’s very simple, get Fritz on the run and keep him running and the war will soon be over.”

For many of the young Toledo soldiers deployed to Europe, the experience was one of cultural enlightenment. They were getting the chance to see a world they had only heard of, or read about before. Many communicated those experiences to their loved ones back home.  Carl Hoefflin wrote to his mother Mrs. George Hoefflin of 1919 Hurd Street about his life in France The people surely do live strange over here. They wear wooden shoes. The girls drive three or four horses. The buildings are made of stone and are very pretty. The streets are also beautiful.”

“About 25 of us are living in a sawmill at the present time“, said Private Geogre Fulkert of 731 Pinewood, in a letter to his wife and family“Some of the boys are living in hay lofts. There are numerous ancient buildings here. One church is 289 years old. Some of the houses are older than this church. This is one place that indicates what women can do. They go out in the field and pitch hay and they operate street cars and do other things that I thought a woman could not do.”

And Miss Mary Ges of 137 Steele St. read in a letter from her soldier friend Walter Dieffenbach of his observations of this strange and foreign land. “It is rather interesting to note that the movie scenes and descriptions of French rural life depict conditions very accurately.”The farm houses, barns. sheds, etc that are built around a central court are very picturesque, but the romance of sleeping in the second story of a cowshed, as fell to our lot, is nothing to be enlarged upon from the standpoint of comfort.

And while many of the Toledo Yanks reveled in these new experiences, they were also quick to point out that There is “no place like home”. Ferd Gladieux, a Company B machine gunner of Starr Avenue in East Toledo in writing to his father, George, summed it up this way.  “ We boys are all having a good time and all enjoying good health, so there are no kicks coming from any of us. I just got through with my breakfast. It was some breakfast. I had seven eggs. It makes me think of home and it’s the one thing Uncle Sam doesn’t give us.”


Filed under Old Places and Faces, Uncategorized

Famous and Forgotten, Toledo’s Laddie Boy, The First Presidential Pet

There have many “first dogs” who’ve wandered the hallways of the White House over the years, but you may not know that the first “First Dog” to garner regular newspaper coverage in the United State was a dog from Toledo.  It was during the administration of  President Warren G. Harding of Ohio.  In the spring of 1921, the Hardings received a seven-month old Airedale from Charles Quetschke, Harding supporter in Toledo. The Harding’s named the dog Laddie Boy and with no child of their own, this loveable Airedale would soon become treated like a member of the family. Both Harding and his wife Florence shared a love of animals and the First Lady, also an advocate for the care of abused and neglected animals, soon began employing this handsome dog as a poster “child” for the national promotion of animal rights issues.

It soon made Laddie Boy the first presidential dog with a national identity. He was a very important dog, allowed to roam the White House grounds, attend meetings with the President and was even given his own custom-made Cabinet chair. President Harding himself would take the time to write letters to children on Laddie’s behalf. Within months, this young dog from Toledo, Ohio became the most celebrated dog in the nation. Children across the country loved Laddies and on July 26th each year, he was given White House birthday parties at which other neighborhood dogs were invited to join.

I guess it would appear that Laddie Boy was the first and only Toledoan ever to reside in the White House. Having been born as the Caswell Kennels in Toledo in 1920,  he was sired by the internationally
known Airedale Champion Tintern Tip Top, owned by Charles Quetschke of Toledo.  Quetschke was a man of some interest in the area, having led a bit of an adventurous lifestyle over the years as a boxer, sports promoter, motorcyle racer and champion dancer. He is credited with being the man who started the Toledo Kennel Club and the Maumee River Yacht Club.

The legend and life of Laddie Boy, however began to change when Warren Harding took ill while visiting San Francisco in August 1923.  As Harding lay on his death bed, it was reported that Laddie Boy, back at the White House, could sense his master’s impending death and howled constantly for three days before Harding passed away.  When Florence Harding eventually left Washington to return home to Marion Ohio, the Smithsonian Institution reports that she gave Laddie Boy to Harry Barker, the Secret Service agent who had been assigned to protect her, and that Laddie Boy soon found a new life and home with the Barker family in Newtonville, Massachusetts. Laddie Boy, however did not vanish into oblivion, but was recognized by thousands of newsboys around the country who each donated a penny for a memorial to Harding and his faithful canine companion. The pennies were melted down and cast into a life-size sculpture of Laddie Boy.  Today, that sculpture resides at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, but we are told it is not on display.  Maybe, (this author’s opinion), it is time to bring the sculpture back to Toledo, the birthplace of this most celebrated Presidential pet.

A side note to that idea, is that in a 1992 Toledo Blade column by Mike Tressler, he wrote that when Laddie was given up by Florence Harding to her favorite Secret Service agent back in 1923, kennel owner Charles Quetschke of Toledo, who gave the dog to the Hardings, “begged” to have Laddie returned to Toledo, but to no avail.

Laddie Boy passed away on January 22, 1929. The New York Times ran a story the next day, describing the terrier as “magnificent,” and reported that the “end came after the dog had been ailing for many months of old age, and died while resting his head on the arms of Mrs. Barker.”  Laddie Boy was buried at an undisclosed location in Newtonville, Massachsetts.

In a stange footnote followup to this story, earlier this summer in Marion at the Harding historic home, the custom made gold collar of Laddie Boy was stolen, it was apparently the only item taken in break-in at the Harding Home and Museum in Marion.  A groundskeeper back in June arrived one morning and found a ladder leaning against the home and a second story window had been pried open. Many of the rooms were in disarray, but nothing else was missing except the treasured collar.  Marion Police distributed photos of the collar that had been made from Alaskan gold nuggets and the name “Laddie Boy” was written in raised letters on the center. So far it has not been found.



Filed under Old Places and Faces


       In the course of researching and writing about local history, you discover very quickly that you are not alone. There is in fact a growing fraternity of like-minded souls who also spend their days and hours immersed in the pages of time, looking for undiscovered and forgotten truths about our past. For some of those spelunkers of local history, the searches are personal.  Such is the case of  Doug Tracy, of Columbus, who, since retirement a few years ago,  started tracing his roots and found himself being led back to the streets of Toledo where many of his family members led notable lives of public service.   Some of those stories are a part of Toledo’s historical landscape.  It has become part of Doug’s purpose in life to share those stories with others and I am pleased that the Toledo Gazette can offer itself as a venue for that purpose. I know you’ll enjoy them.

The following story is the story of Toledo Fireman James Fraser, written by Doug Tracy, his  great-great grand nephew. 

Beneath Promenade Park

Toledo’s Promenade Park lies quietly along the riverfront where Water Street meets Madison, providing no indication whatsoever of the tragic events that took place at that very site in early January of 1894. Beneath the concrete and sod, unbeknownst to the passers-by who visit the park, lie the remains of the ‘brave and fearless’ Toledo firefighter Captain James Fraser, who valiantly died battling the King-Quale grain elevator fire, the largest fire in Toledo’s history –  a fire that very nearly destroyed all of downtown Toledo that cold winter night.  You will not find a marker or a plaque at the site where the massive grain elevators and other offices once stood, but Captain Fraser is still there somewhere beneath the grassy fields of the park.  Despite an intensive search of the ashes and still-smoldering rubble in the days following the fire, Captain Fraser’s remains were never found.  Only Captain Fraser’s brass suspender buckle, a pair of his glasses and a partially melted brass fire hose nozzle were found, grim testament to the intense heat of the inferno.

At the age of 12, ‘Captain Jim’, as Fraser was known to his firefighting brothers, came to America from Fermoy, Cork County, Ireland, with his 11 siblings, mother and father.  The Fraser’s sailed from Liverpool, England, during the height of the horrific Irish Famine, arriving in New York City in 1849.  Within a year, the entire Fraser family had found their way to Toledo and set up shop as shoemakers, the family trade.  In 1864, young Captain Jim enlisted in the 130th Ohio Volunteer Infantry and found himself guarding Confederate prisoners at Johnson’s Island, followed by duty at Bermuda Hundred, Virginia, in support of the siege of Petersburg.

Following his discharge from the Union Army, Captain Jim worked 8 years as a sailor on Great Lakes ships before being hired as a Toledo fireman in 1872.  He rose through the ranks of the Toledo Fire Department and was appointed Captain of Engine House #1 just weeks before the King-Quale Elevator fire erupted the evening of January 3, 1894.

The first fire alarm came just before 6:00 p.m., when a grain elevator worker noticed smoke and flames at the top of one of the tall wooden structures.  Within minutes, a series of 3 massive grain-dust explosions created an immense blaze.  Captain Jim and his crew were among the early responders to a rapidly growing fire that was already out of control by the time they arrived.  Captain Jim and his partner, Alfred Blaine, entered the King Elevator with their dry fire hose, planning to work their way to the top of the building, signal firefighters below to turn on the water and pour a stream of water downward.  They managed to reach the 3rd floor, but were immediately knocked to the floorboards by a fiery explosion that occurred just as they broke through a door.  A stunned Alfred Blaine yelled in the dark to Captain Jim to “follow the hose” to safety, but never heard another word from Captain Jim.  Blaine somehow managed to reach the stairway and stumbled down a flight, landing near a window.  Dazed and badly injured, he lunged toward the light of the window, only able to summon enough strength to partially break  through the glass, severely cutting himself in the process.  His comrades below saw him hanging out of the window, bleeding profusely, and carried him to safety.  Captain Fraser was not so fortunate.  He was never seen again.

Throughout the rest of the night, a wind-driven shower of sparks and embers ignited building after building in its path in a seemingly unstoppable advance from the waterfront toward the heart of the business district.  First the King elevator, then the Quale elevator, followed by the Chamber of Commerce building, Wonderland Amusement Center and scores of smaller storefronts, were all consumed by the conflagration.  The firefighters were powerless to stop the onslaught and late in the night had given up all hope of saving the rest of Toledo’s thriving downtown.  But in the wee hours of the morning, a miraculous 180-degree wind shift took place, allowing the exhausted firefighters to bring the fiery beast to its knees.

Early the next morning, while thousands of curious onlookers silently surveyed the many blocks of devastation, Captain Jim’s comrades painstakingly sifted through still-steaming debris at the northeast corner of Madison and Water streets, the exact location where Captain Jim was last seen entering the King building, searching for any trace of their beloved comrade.  The next day, January 5, 1864, a Toledo Blade headline declared “Fraser Is Dead”, noting that, “Captain Fraser was one of the bravest firemen that ever wore a uniform.  He was absolutely without fear.  Intense heat and suffocating smoke had no terrors for the gallant officer.”

Three days after the fire, while the debris still smoldered, all hope of ever finding Captain Jim was officially abandoned.  Fire Department Chief Chris Wall reflected on the loss of his dear friend:  “Twenty years ago, when, as a boy, I began to work with the Toledo Fire Department, old Jim Fraser taught me how to do it best, and from that time until Wednesday night, he needed no one to point out the work, or tell him how to handle it.  He was not ordered into the King building; he did not need to be.  He saw what was wanted and his own sense of duty took him there without the word of command.  Neither did he order his men there.  He said, ‘Come,’ and led the way himself.  ‘Don’t let go of the line,’ he has told me many a time, ‘you can always find your way out by it,’ and Jim Fraser never feared a fire before him or behind him, so long as he had a stream of water to fight with.” [Toledo Commercial Times, January 6, 1894]

A reporter in that same edition of the Toledo Commercial Times, went on to describe Captain Jim as, “A brave and noble man.  Personally he was a pleasant man to meet, of kindly heart and gentle disposition.  The children of the neighborhood of No. 5 (sic) Engine House will mourn over his death, for he was a dear friend to them.  His gentle, kindly nature found pleasure in the company of the little ones, and hardly a day passed but what they came to him in little knots of five and six to ‘play’ and pass away a happy hour.”

On January 21, 1864, throngs of solemn Toledo citizens congregated at Memorial Hall to pay their last respects to Captain Jim.  At the service, the eulogies were many and heartfelt. Fire Commissioner L. G. Richardson paid tribute to Captain Jim’s devotion to his city and his country, saying, “Born in a foreign country, Ireland, he came to America and soon offered his services and his life for the preservation of the nation of his adoption.”

After his death, Captain Jim’s legacy of service and devotion was carried on by subsequent generations.  One nephew, George W. Fraser, became Chief of the Toledo Fire Department in 1914, and another nephew, Lewis B. Tracy, was a career policeman and Captain of Detectives with the Toledo Police Department during the early 1900’s.


Filed under Old Places and Faces


It’s Valentine’s day, and one of the largest and most enduring valentines ever received in the United States happened this week, some 63 year ago, in 1949. And you may not know it, but a piece of that once famous valentine resides in Northwest Ohio.  It was called the “Gratitude Train”, or the Merci Train.  A 49 box car train of thank you’s extended to the citizens of the United States from the citizens of France.   Each of the cars filled with hundreds of gifts, artifacts and treasures, large and small, from the French people, as a heartfelt expression of gratitude for the American’s outpouring of love in the form of the famous “Friendship Train” of 1947.

This was the train that Americans sent to help French families get back on their feet after enduring the ravages of World War Two.  The Friendship Train, first proposed by columnist Drew Pearson inspired some 20 million Americans to donate enough items of food, clothing, medicine, money, toys and books to fill 700 boxcars that traveled the nation’s breadth on its way to New York where it was shipped to France.

Overwhelmed by the generosity of the Americans, the French citizens in February of 1949 reciprocated, sending their own Merci Train to the Americans.   It arrived in New York Harbor by ship on February 2nd, 1949 and each state was designated to receive one of the boxcars. The gifts in the 49th car were to be divided between Washington D.C. and the territory of Hawaii.

The Merci Train Arrives in the U.S.

In Ohio, the small four wheeled World War I era boxcar, known as a Voiture, or a 40 and 8 car because it could either carry 40 men or eight horses , arrived in Cleveland on the 10th of February.   Thousands of residents of that city, along with a host of public officials flocked to visit the special wooden boxcar and to view the gifts packed inside. From Cleveland, the car would  make several stops in other cities around the state, including Toledo, where Mayor Michael V. Disalle (who would later become Governor),  and a welcoming committee turned out on a cold February day at Union Station to feel the warmth of the grateful French nation.  Inside the Ohio boxcar was a collection of items that included art, wine, cheeses, toys, books, clothing, needlework , French family heirlooms, war medals, and letters from individuals who personally offered their thanks for all the Americans had done.

Merci Boxcar Now Displayed at Camp Perry

So whatever happened to that boxcar?  Well, it’s right here in Northwest Ohio,  proudly displayed at Camp Perry near Port Clinton.  In fact,  it has been at the Camp since 1950, where it was taken after the Ohio tour in 1949. The gray wooden boxcar was parked on the grounds of the military post in Ottawa County and then largely forgotten over the years.  But  in 1986, a group of local volunteers and historians,  brought the car and its meaning back to life with a restoration effort.  In November of that year, the freshly renewed piece of history was dedicated and opened to visitors at Camp Perry.   And over the past 25 years it has been restored two more times.  In 1998, after suffering tornado damage  and again in 2006, when it got a new coat of paint and a display of plaques from the various French Provinces where the train had first traveled in France.   The “voiture” is currently parked under a partial canopy, amid a larger display of other military artifacts of tanks, guns, and aircraft and is available to visitors to behold,  however, only the exterior of the boxcar.  The interior of the car is empty.  Removed of its precious payload some 60 years ago, the whereabouts of those items are mostly lost.  The Ohio State Historical Society has about a half- dozen of the items, and even they are no longer on display, but in “storage” in Columbus.  The photos of the items, however, can be viewed  on their website. They include a bust of General Lafayette, a wedding dress, a copper kettle and an antique French doll.

Value of Train Measured In Meaning, Not In Treasure

So while the proud old “voiture” boxcar that rests at Camp Perry may now be empty, its significance is not.  For those who can appreciate what this meant to the American and French alike, it is filled with memories of how the citizens themselves  of two nations can indeed forge common bonds of friendship and can reach across the ocean to make a real difference.  Drew Pearson, the newspaper columnist, would observe later that the exchanges between the two countries had prompted millions of American and French children to begin pen pal relationships, predicting that many of these young Trans-Atlantic friendships might endure for decades in the future. I wonder if they have?  But also wonder why this Valentine’s Day story is so seldom told or taught in history books of World War Two.  The  story of not how war is waged, but how peace is waged.

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