Store celebrates 100-year building

Two firefighters are dwarfed by a mammoth fire in downtown Sidney as they move the fire hose closer in 1914.

Sidney residents scour the debris following a devastating fire in downtown Sidney in 1914.

Tilda Phlipot, left, director of the Shelby County Historical Society, and Steve Springer, owner of Furniture Express, compare blueprints of the historic Thedieck Building to what it looks like now, in preparation for public tours that are scheduled for July 10 in celebration of the structure’s centennial.

SIDNEY — Mrs. I.H. Thedieck, as portrayed by Faye Spangler, will visit her old haunt at 120 E. Poplar St., July 10, when she welcomes guests to Furniture Express in the structure that housed her husband’s department story following a fire 100 years ago.

She will lead free, behind-the-scenes tours of the building at 2:30 p.m. and at 3:30 p.m.

In celebration of the centennial of the historic edifice, Furniture Express managers Steve Springer, Dave Goodwin and John Adams have scheduled a 50-60 percent-off sale to run from July 9 through July 18 and will host an open house from 5 to 8 p.m., July 10. The Shelby County Historical Society will create an exhibit at the store of artifacts from their collection that will tell about the Thedieck Store and its renowned owner, I.H. Thedieck, including the original program from the grand opening in 1915.

That opening was a new beginning for downtown Sidney, after a day Sidney residents would never forget: March 20, 1914. One of the great tragedies in the history of Sidney occurred. A major fire, of mysterious origins, swept through the north side of the court square.

It started out quietly, like a thief in the night. Merchant policeman Shinn had just finished his rounds on the north side of the square at 1:30 a.m. All was quiet. He headed north on Main Avenue, then inexplicably turned around. When he neared the Citizens Bank building, someone whistled. Shinn noticed the fire and called it in. Within minutes, the fire raced out of control. Ordinary citizens teamed with the firemen in battling the conflagration.

The results were devastating. Thedieck’s Department Store, a model of modern merchandising, was completely destroyed. Also demolished were the First National Exchange Bank, Bush & Mumford’s Clothing Store and other businesses. The DeWeese Building to the west of Thedieck’s Department Store, containing the Oldham law offices, Henry Young’s Clothing Store and the Women’s Wear Store, was heavily destroyed. To the east, Citizens Bank was also damaged. The only injury was to fireman W. A Sproul, who stepped on a nail.

People wept for the plight of the Dilloway family. Photographer Dilloway had died a year before. His widow and children had just opened up the business again. They lost everything except the clothes on their backs.

The owners of the stores poked through the smoking ruins early the next morning. Their hearts were heavy, but they needed a plan. The total fire loss was estimated to be $300,000. Only about $200,000 of insurance money was available. How could downtown Sidney ever recover from such a devastating loss?

I. H. Thedieck, the owner of Thedieck’s Department Store, led the march into the future. He was convinced that the downtown area could be rebuilt into a fireproof shopping area, finer than existed before. He threw his considerable energy and resources behind the project. Other local owners and tenants followed suit.

Thedieck, founder of Monarch Machine Tool Co. and owner of other business interests, had the resources to do the job. He envisioned a completely fireproof, modern department store. Thedieck pledged never to allow such a devastating fire to occur again.

The first order of business was to get back in business. Karl Young announced that Young’s Clothing Store would be selling merchandise again within five days, boasting “an entirely new line of goods.” The DeWeese Dry Goods Store began doing business within a few days at its temporary headquarters in the new Yeager Building on E. Court Street. Although it took Thedieck a little longer, he eventually reopened his business in temporary facilities in the Woodward Building on the west side of the square. He ordered all new inventory. The other merchants made similar plans.

Thedieck and son, Frank, as general manager left no stone unturned in their efforts to construct an edifice that would be a lasting monument to their family and the vitality of their beloved hometown.

The completely rebuilt Thedieck Department Store was open for business in the fall of 1915. The family printed a booklet for the occasion that chronicled their efforts to build a structure that was truly amazing for its time.

“An imposing front of white tile at once impresses the beholder and prepares him for the spaciousness of the interior, with its rich mahogany setting so pleasing to the eye and the sanitation, light and air, so conducive to health and comfort,” the booklet said.

Over 45,000 square feet of retail floor space greeted customers. The publication also confirmed the care Thedieck took to ensure his masterpiece would never be devastated by fire again.

“This building is fire-proof in construction and is the final scientific conception of a positively fire-proof structure. Only steel, concrete, brick and plaster on metal lathe have been employed in the making. The floors are of concrete, over which cinders were laid and covered with hard maple flooring. Windows have steel sash, and wire glass used as a fire retardant in all places exposed to a possible conflagration,” it said.

When the Thedieck Department Store reopened, shoppers from all over western Ohio were treated to a wonderful experience. Attractive stocks of silverware, jewelry, leather goods, neckwear, hats, dress trimmings and many other items were available in the store. Periodic buying trips to New York City would result in the store’s having the very most recent styles available for purchase.

The store even boasted a soda fountain of white marble and a luncheon counter where lunches were served daily.

The building was state of the art in other aspects, as well. A telephone system allowed instant communication with every department. The building had direct lines to the telephone company so that only Thedieck Store employees and customers could be on the line. Heat for the building was provided through a vacuum heating system. A pneumatic cash system was installed that served 25 different stations.

Thedieck was a merchandising craftsman with many years of experience. He started his first retail business in Sidney in 1871. He initially had only 600 feet of retail space. The first Thedieck’s opened at the Poplar Street site on Nov. 21, 1882. The store was built on the site of the first structure in Sidney, which had been erected by John Blake, one of Sidney’s earliest pioneers. Thedieck expanded his business over the years, becoming the dominant retailer in downtown Sidney for decades.

The grand opening for Thedieck’s Department Store was on Sept. 22, 1915. The store was the largest store in a city of Sidney’s size in the United States. The author of the brochure noted, “Thus, this store marks the vanguard of progress and civilization in this section as well as personifying in itself the spirit of mercantile progress.”

The spirit of mercantile heritage envisioned by the Thedieck family lives on today. Present day residents remember Uhlman’s Department Store, which occupied the location for several decades until 1989 or 1990. The Francis family purchased it in 1994. Springer, Goodwin and Adams embrace the ideals of I.H. Thedieck, the master retailer of a century ago: “Take care of your customers and they will take care of you.”

Rich Wallace is the secretary of the Shelby County Historical Society. Most of this article originally appeared in “Historical Highlights,” the SCHS newsletter.