In early February 1942, as the U.S. struggled to regain its footing in a world forever changed by the attack on Pearl Harbor, 84-year-old Ruth Ann Ashton quietly passed away in her Lima home, the second of three aging Ashton siblings to die in the span of a year.
In late September 1941, Charles Francis Ashton, longtime Lima plumbing inspector, died at the age of 72. A year after his death, in September 1942, 76-year-old William Arlington “Arley” Ashton, who shared a home at 1716 Lakewood Ave. with Ruth Ann, died following a fall earlier that month.
Ruth Ann had been a registered pharmacist at a time when women’s careers were expected to be confined to husband, home and family. When her father, Dr. Edwin Ashton, who operated the Ashton Drug Store in the Public Square, faced bankruptcy, Ruth Ann, described as having a “better business head” than her father, bought the drug store and operated it successfully until around 1907. She was a member of a family that had arrived on one of the first trains to reach the city in the 1850s and had woven itself into the fabric of the city.
In 1923, she sat down to write the story of her family, which had arrived in Lima in the person of her Uncle Frank on one of the first passenger trains to enter the city and had since woven itself into the fabric of the city. The history was written for presentation to the Allen County Historical Society.
That story began with her grandfather, Francis Ashton Sr., who was born in England in 1796, became a brick mason, was married and widowed young, remarried and, in 1831, left home to take a look at America.
“Francis Ashton Sr. came to America from England in 1831,” Ruth Ann wrote, and “started west (from) New York on the first railroad built in America.”
Ashton eventually arrived in Richland County and bought a farm, paying part down and promising to pay the rest in gold when he returned the next year from England with his family, which included his second wife, the former Elizabeth Mackinder, and five of their children, William, Charles, Edwin, Christopher and Francis Jr., who was called Frank.
“The man from whom he bought the farm refused gold in payment, so Francis Ashton Sr. exchanged it in Buffalo, New York, for paper money and made a nice profit in the exchange,” Ruth Ann noted.
The Ashton family left England for good in August 1832 and reached the Richland County farm purchased the year before in November.
“Later he walked from Mansfield, Ohio, to Kenton, Ohio, and entered (claimed) land,” Ruth Ann wrote. Ashton and his son, Frank, opened a hardware store in Kenton but “thinking Lima a better town than Kenton because of the Pittsburgh railroad” decided to relocate, she wrote.
The Pittsburgh, Fort Wayne and Chicago railroad reached Lima in the mid-1850s, and Frank Ashton was on the first passenger train into town, according to Ruth Ann, who noted that the trip ended with a short boat journey across a flooded Public Square. The Ashtons, father and son, “immediately moved the hardware store to Lima and started business in a room at 18 Public Square.”
An ad in the Jan. 19, 1856, Allen County Democrat announced that “F. Ashton & Co. are now in your midst to sell you iron and hardware cheaper by 25 percent than you have bought heretofore in Lima. We come to sell hardware low and will do it. Our stock will embrace every article usually kept in the hardware line.” The ad lists the store’s proprietors as Francis Sr., Francis Jr., and William Ashton.
In 1858, Ashton built a three-story brick building on land he’d bought on the northwest quadrant of the Public Square. Known as the Ashton Block, the Ashtons’ hardware store occupied the first floor, while the second floor was divided into offices. The third floor was known as Ashton Hall.
“This hall is now open for concerts, theaters and other exhibitions, and our citizens can now boast that we have in our town one of the finest halls in the state,” the Lima Weekly Gazette proclaimed Oct. 26, 1860. “The ceiling is high, the walls beautifully frescoed, and when lighted up by the splendid chandeliers which it contains, makes a brilliant appearance.”
It was also solid, as Ruth Ann noted in her paper.
“At a political gathering in the hall on the third floor shortly after it was built someone asked him (Francis Ashton Sr., the former brick mason) if the big crowd wouldn’t overtax the building,” she wrote. “’No,’ he said. ‘You can pack that hall solid to the ceiling, then put all you can on the roof, and you can’t break it down.’”
Ezekiel Owen, president of the Allen County Historical Society, writing in November 1926 noted that during the Civil War “this old hall frequently resounded with earnest appeal to volunteers for the Union ranks. Concerts were held to inspire men to go to the help of their country in its distress, and many an entertainment was given to furnish money with which to send articles of necessity to the boys at the front. In this hall the remains of Martin Armstrong, the first soldier from Allen County to be killed, were laid to rest, and here his funeral, a most pretentious one was held.”
Owen added that “it is interesting to note that in this hall the first commencement of Lima high school was held in May 1864.”
The Ashtons, meanwhile, “soon became prominent citizens in the growing community, and before long, four of the Ashton brothers were manning the store. It was regarded as one of the leading hardware stores in northwest Ohio,” Kim Kincaid of The Lima News wrote in a June 2002 article.
The Ashton family, too, had grown since arriving in America three decades earlier. The five boys born in England before the family came to America were joined by two more brothers, Henry Melhorn and John Rudgard, and two sisters, Eliza and Ruth Ann, who died at 10 years of age in 1857, the year before the family historian — her niece and namesake — was born.
In 1867, the Ashtons sold the stock in the store to two Wooster speculators, W.K. Boone and J.H. Kauke, and the store was moved. In February 1877, the Gazette reported that “the vault of the Allen County bank is about completed in their new room, in Ashton’s corner, and the bank will soon move. The vault is a strong box, safe from both burglars and fire.”
The Lima Trust Company moved from the Masonic Building to the Ashton Block in 1906 and prospered there until 1925, when the Ashton Block was razed and replaced by the 12-story building that occupies the site today.
Eighty-five-year-old Francis Ashton Sr. died in March 1882, survived by seven of his nine children. His second wife, and mother of all his children, Elizabeth, had died in 1869. He had married Sarah Case Newcomb in 1872, and she died in 1876.
“His life through he has been a hard worker, and the result of his labor is known to the citizens of this county,” the Democrat wrote March 30, 1882. “For years he has ranked as the wealthiest man in the town of Lima, and the estate he leaves goes into the hundreds of thousands.”
He was buried in the “Ashton lot,” in Woodlawn Cemetery, “where stands a beautiful, large monument created several years ago, and under whose shadows will lie the clay of the members of the family as they are gathered to their God.”
Francis Ashton Sr. was a brick mason whose family helped reshape Lima.
Reach Greg Hoersten at firstname.lastname@example.org.