Weekend Wanderlust: Allen County History Museum

Kevin J. Elliott
Noah's Ark

I pull into downtown Lima right before noon, relieved that I made it on time. While I’m marveling at one of the Allen County History Museum’s centerpieces — a horse-drawn hearse once made locally by the Superior Coach Company — there’s an announcement over the intercom.

“The presentation of Noah’s Ark will begin in five minutes in the Grosjean Room.”

About six people, including myself, shuffle into the small gallery, facing a strange curio box sitting dormant: Noah’s Ark. We are surrounded by the rest of James E. Grosjean’s “spectacular displays,” including a Ferris wheel made of birds, plus taxidermy specimens either extinct or albino. If the entirety of this museum wasn’t so peculiar already, the Grosjean Room would be a place of magic surrealism, a tactile portal to the past in the midst of the proverbial Rust Belt town built quickly on oil. Lima once had a bustling trolley system, the prominent Faurot Opera House, industry, culture and promise. But now it’s easy to see the decline. In that, this room stands as a gem.

“Wow. I remember coming here when I was in fifth grade,” said a local who looked like he took the same field trips I did as a child in the ’80s. The museum here is special because it conjures that nostalgia in more ways than one. It’s got the requisite quilts, trains, natural history and native artifacts that you can find in most museums. The collections here, though, represent an archived dream state. There is no other place like it.

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In the Grosjean Room, the lights go out. Our docent flips a switch and then a schmaltzy soundtrack and filmstrip narration begins. Beams of light glow through a stained-glass background and a dove flies across the scene. Eventually giraffes join the procession of animals into Noah’s Ark. As a mechanical display of motion and light, it predates Disney’s animatronics by decades, yet has the Midwestern hokum of pure folk art. You’ve got to see it live.

By all accounts, Grosjean was a polymath, responsible for the impressive reliquary that is this Lima museum. He was an undertaker, a shoe salesman, an inventor, a historian and full time innovator. Though his first “spectacular display” (a story of Cock Robin) was destroyed while on loan during the 1913 Dayton Flood, Noah’s Ark, built in 1901, has a storied history.

Before becoming a premier window attraction at Marshall Fields in Chicago, Macy’s in New York and his own downtown Lima shoe store, Grosjean’s ark was rejected by the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo. Always the showman, he then set up his own (not so successful) exhibit in nearby Niagara Falls. As the president of the Allen County Historical Society from 1915 until his death in 1938, Grosjean made sure his creations — and other artifacts that reflected the community — stayed in the permanent collection.

Sometime after Grosjean’s passing, Noah’s Ark fell out of commission until the late 1950s, when sound and narration were added and it was returned to view. Even then, it took slight miracles to keep it running, and it was deemed non-functional again in the ’90s. Last year, though, a group of volunteers, artisans and electrical engineers worked tirelessly to restore Noah’s Ark to its current glory.

But if you visit the museum only to see the Grosjean Room, you’ll be missing one of the most labyrinthine collections of artifacts in all of Ohio. Though much of the thrill comes in searching and discovering, make sure to visit the room that houses a model of Washington’s Mount Vernon, built by George Pond and his son in 1935. Look in shock at the wall of oddities (screws, safety pins, coins) removed from the esophaguses of patients by local dentists Walter and Estey Yingling. And perhaps most notably, take time to sift through the exhibit dedicated to John Dillinger and his gang’s 1933 robbery of the Citizens National Bank in nearby Bluffton. Among the pieces on display are guns used to guard the prisoners in the Allen County Jail prior to their eventual escape, as well as Dillinger’s death mask.

“What is essential is an interest in the individuals who came before us,” said Anne Selfridge, curator of archives at the museum, “and what they went through to bring us to this place and time.”

Of course, without this museum, Lima might be portrayed as just another average Midwestern town, devoid of an interesting past. But with these pieces, the history of the community is still alive and well.

And now, with Noah’s Ark playing three times a day to eager audiences, the imagineering legacy of James E. Grosjean is firmly in place, never to be lost again.

There and Back:

No trip to Lima would be complete without a visit to Kewpee Burger. Many assume that Lima is the home of Kewpee, but the once-thriving chain started in Flint, Michigan, in 1918. Ten years later, Hoyt F. “Stub” Wilson and his wife, June, opened a location in downtown Lima, where it has stood ever since. Now, with all but eight stores shuttered, Lima is the headquarters of Kewpee and that original store is on the National Historic Registry. Even without the “mity nice” square hamburgs that “make your heart go flippity-flop” (the inspiration for Dave Thomas’ Wendy’s), the crinkle fries and thick malts, the space — an art-deco masterpiece decked in orange and white — is a worthy trip back to a much simpler time.

After learning about the Dillinger gang’s bank robbery, you can take a trip to the quaint village of Bluffton and see the Bluffton’s Citizens National Bank where the crime occurred, as well as the building across the street (now a coffee shop) where they gathered to case the joint.

Also in Bluffton is the Swiss Community House and Historical Society, which preserves the traditions of the local Mennonite population that settled in the region in the early 1830s. The group is hosting a celebratory (and likely sobering) caroling expedition around town (in English and German) on New Year’s Eve, if you’re looking for a change of pace.

For hours and more information about when you can see James E. Grosjean’s Noah’s Ark in action, visit the Allen County Museum’s website.