I’ll always remember the first time I visited the city of Lima, Ohio. It was March 30, 1981.

I was there for a job interview with the Lima News. What happened that day in Washington, D.C. was big news nationally — the attempted assassination of President Ronald Regan.

I found out about the shooting when I left my interview and turned on the car radio as I was ready to head back south down I-75 to Middletown, Ohio, where I was living at the time.

Like many industrial/manufacturing cities in Ohio, Lima has lost nearly one-fourth of its population since 1970. The population back then was about 53,000, and today it’s slightly less than 39,000.

Over the Memorial Day weekend, I made only my second trip to Lima and it turned out to be a wonderful few days checking out three museums — I wrote about the Armstrong Air & Space Museum previously — and several sights around Allen County.

In the years since my first visit, I’ve become a rail fan, and that’s one reason I wanted to visit again, because from 1877 to 1951 the Lima Locomotive Works cranked out some 7,700 steam locomotives and more than 100 diesel electric engines.

Lima was one of only a handful of steam locomotive makers, and was famous for the Shay geared logging loco, developed by Ephraim Shay, and for "super power" advanced steam locomotives, of which my favorite is the 2-8-4 Berkshire.

Cass Scenic Railroad State Park in West Virginia uses eight Shay locomotives to power its trains. I’ve always wanted to see a Shea — at least on static display — and in Allen County I got to see two.

The buildings at the old Lima Locomotive Works are gone, and the land is barren. The company was located across a rail yard from the very active Husky Energy refinery. To the south of the latter is the Lima Army Tank Plant.

Shay was issued a patent for the basic gear-driven concept in 1881, and patented an improved geared truck for his engines in 1901. Lima made 2,770 Shays between 1878 and 1945.

The two I saw on static display are inside the Allen County Museum (1925 model) and at a covered outdoor exhibit in the tiny town of Harrod, just east of Lima (1905 model).

Lincoln Park in Lima has Berkshire 779 on display. It was the last one built in Lima (1949). There’s a wall on one side of it and the front and other side are surrounded by mesh fencing, making it almost impossible to photograph.

Area residents might be familiar with Berk 765, owned by the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society, which pulls passenger trains on the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad from time to time.

Berkshires were produced from 1925 to 1949 at Lima Locomotive Works, 80 of them for the Nickel Plate Road. The Age of Steam Roundhouse outside of Sugarcreek has one waiting to be restored. I’ve also seen one on static display in Conneaut.

The Allen County Museum and Delphos Canal Commission Museum are two enjoyable places to visit. The Allen County site is two levels in downtown Lima, while the Delphos site is three levels in a former W.T. Grant store on Main Street.

 

ALLEN COUNTY MUSEUM

In addition to the Shay locomotive, the Allen County Museum has several other large items on display, including a horse-drawn milk wagon, conestoga wagon, horse-drawn carriages and funeral hursts, a Model T and firefighting apparatus.

There are sections devoted to agriculture, firearms, Native Americans, woodworking, rocks and minerals, military items, bicycles, neon signs and business and industry.

One display features famous people from Allen County. The most notable to most old-timers like me is probably comedienne Phyllis Diller, and other familiar names are game show host/newsman Hugh Downs and actor Dean Jagger.

For a decade between the mid-1880s and mid-1890s, an oil boom took place around Lima, and its history is detailed in the museum. John D. Rockefeller built a refinery there, which has evolved into Husky Energy’s sprawling plant.

An iron lung, which tuberculosis victims and others who had breathing problems laid in many years ago, is on display, while one section chronicles the story of John Dillinger’s capture after he and his gang robbed a bank in nearby Bluffton.

Dillinger then escaped from the Allen County Jail, and one of his gangsters shot and killed the sheriff.

A Westinghouse Appliances neon sign made by a Lima company hangs in the museum. There once were two major firms in town which produced neon and other types of signs.

There’s a very extensive model train layout in one room, with pictures of Lima businesses of the past painted on the walls around it.

Other highlights are a collection of fossils, setups of an old-fashioned general store and barber shop, Far East exhibit and a Roll of Valor recognizing Allen Countians who served in various wars.

There once were several  large "millionaire’s row" houses on the street where the museum is located, and wooden replicas of some of them are in the museum. And there is a magnificent miniature replica of George Washington’s Mount Vernon mansion.

Also on the grounds are the MacDonell House, a large Victorian home built in 1893; a log house built in 1848 and moved to the grounds; a children’s garden; the Elizabeth MacDonell Memorial Library; and John Keller Railroad Archives.

 

DELPHOS . MUSEUM

The old Miami & Erie Canal once ran behind the Delphos Canal Commission Museum. It is a paved alley now. The museum is divided into various sections focusing on a variety of themes.

Transportation is the focus on the first floor — from the canal era to railroads to automobiles. Old wooden planking from a canal boat is laid out on the floor. The Lincoln Highway is featured, and there are a Sears car and model of Admiral Richard Byrd’s Snow Cruiser. 

The basement features items from industry and agriculture. There’s a walk-behind cultivator tractor made by Speedex of Ravenna, and many small old farm and garden items such as rakes, shovels and corn shellers.

A model train layout is in a room in the basement, and there are many old photos of trains that passed through town, plus a mural around the layout showing what downtown Delphos looked like in the 1940s.

There is an extensive collection of office machines, including typewriters, adding machines, phones and cash registers; vacuum cleaners; signs from long-gone local businesses; and rooms depicting an old-time grocery store, barbershop, and dentist’s and doctor’s offices.

Other highlights are a bridal gown display, military room, vintage toys, 1950s nostalgia, info about Delphos’ opera houses and theaters, church/school artifacts, and antique tools and furniture used in homes.

There also is a display focusing on Allen County resident Leslie Peltier, who became a world famous amateur astronomer. He discovered 12 comets, two novae. and made more than 100,000 variable star observations.

Reporter Ken Lahmers can be reached at 330-541-9400, ext. 4189 or klahmers@recordpub.com.