Rodemich Brothers’ Grocery
I recently came across an image from 1910 of the Rodemich Brothers' Grocery while researching a post on the man who made the photograph, Charles F. Mensing. I have to admit, this brilliantly sharp image really sucked me in—exploring it at high resolution was like a trip back in time. After spending a few minutes zoomed in on a digital version of Mensing’s print, I took a step back and started to think about the bigger picture. What about the building that housed the store? That led me down a rabbit hole as I did a little research to see if it was still standing. Here's what I pulled together.
The building was located at 1129 Miami Street in East Toledo. Charles Mensing grew up in this neighborhood near Fasset Street. Lucky for us, after taking up photography as a young man, he enjoyed documenting images of his old stomping grounds so we can enjoy them today.
Unfortunately, since the pandemic has closed our library, my research resources were limited and I wasn't able to determine when the brick two-story building was constructed. I'm guessing the 1870s. However, from what I found in a few online city directories, before the structure housed the Rodemich Brothers Grocery, it served as Christian Textor's Grocery and Hardware store. This 1890 advertisement for a portable fire escape from Larry Michael's excellent book, East Toledo at Work, mentions Textor's name at the bottom. City directories from the 1890s indicate Textor and J. George Rodemich partnered in a grocery and hardware store at this address until 1900. It looks like that's when George and J. Michael Rodemich moved their dry goods store from 301 Fasset Street into this building on Miami Street and christened their new business, Rodemich Brothers’ Grocery.
I believe you can sense the feeling of pride felt by the Rodemich's and their employees in this impressive 1900 photograph taken during the early years at their general store on Miami Street. The details in this photograph are incredible. You can zoom in and almost touch the faces or see your reflection in the large display windows. The turn of the twentieth century was an exciting time in Toledo. Many immigrants began to settle here by the late nineteenth century, attracted by the factory jobs available and the city's accessibility by rail and water. The last two decades of the 1800s saw the city's population swell from 50,000 residents to over 130,000—one of the highest growth rates in the country.
Just ten years after opening Rodemich Brothers' Grocery, we get our first look inside the store. This is the Mensing photo that drew me into the story of 1129 Miami Street. Based on the amount and the quality of the inventory seen in this photograph, I'd say George and Michael's store was doing pretty well. The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were the age of the independent mom-and-pop store. As residents moved into neighborhoods segregated by class and ethnicity and into the suburbs created by the advent of streetcars, small family-run general stores sprang up to meet their needs. The early 1900s were probably the peak years for this grocery. I'm sure it was a major hub for the neighborhood along Miami Street, overlooking the Maumee, between Fassett and Wilmot Streets. I can imagine men stopping in to use the phone and then picking up a cigar to enjoy on their walk home. Or neighborhood kids running in to buy penny candy. Typically, these groceries reflected the ethnic demographics of their neighborhood—this part of the East Side was mostly German.
While 'one-stop' chain stores played a significant role in the neighborhood grocery's demise, another factor was the development of self-service shopping, developed in 1916 by Clarence Saunders in Memphis. Saunders opened the first-ever "self-service" grocery store, empowering his customers to handpick whatever products they wanted. Saunder's store, which he named Piggly Wiggly, also introduced shopping baskets. It's easy to see just how innovative Saunder's ideas were when you contrast them with the photograph above. Like most general stores at the time, almost everything in the Rodemich store is behind a counter and accessible only to store staff.
I picked up this image from a social media post. I'm not sure where this matchbox holder fits in the history of 1129 Miami Street, but I would guess the early 1900s. At the turn of the century, the well-to-do in Toledo’s West End neighborhoods were heating their homes with natural gas and steam, but many Toledoans were still using wood and coal. This matchbox holder would have seen a lot of use back in the day.
More research led me to this 1928 photograph, which appears to have been shot from the old Fassett Street bridge. Here you can see how close the building sat to the banks of the Maumee. Today, the riverfront opposite 1129 Miami Street is part of the Kuhlman Corporation elevators. From this photo, you can see the front façade of the building has taken on a whitewashing since we saw it last in 1900 and the south side features some prominent advertising. By this time, the rise of chain stores in the years after World War I began to challenge the dominance of the independent grocers. I'm sure the Rodemich brothers were feeling the pinch. On top of the stiff competition, people were now speeding by along Miami Street in automobiles, so I'm sure they felt the advertising on the side of the building might slow folks down enough to notice their store.
This next image left me feeling relieved to see the Rodemich Brothers’ Grocery had survived the worst years of the Great Depression, which hit Toledo especially hard because of the city's dependence on blue collar industrial jobs. This 1938 photograph shows how the store's interior had been updated since the 1910 picture, and it also brings to light how the store's inventory changed over time. Instead of a few baskets of seasonal produce, the display on the right now includes a stack of Sweetheart walnut meats, Frank's Kraut, and Campfire marshmallows. The counter on the left side of the store contains a Tootsie-Roll display. The two men toward the back are standing between a "Chi-Namel Dept." advertising globe. The Chi-Namel graining kit was patented in 1908 by the Ohio Varnish Company of Cleveland as the "Original Ready-to-Use Chi-Namel Graining Process." For "a little under 2 cents per square foot" a plain floor could become a "Hard Wood Floor with Maple Inlaid Border" or have the effect of a natural oak floor. I guess we shouldn't be surprised at the variety of products offered at Rodmich's since the brothers had always advertised themselves as "dealers in staple and fancy groceries," but as you'll see in the next photo, that's not all.
This 1939 exterior shot shows that the Rodemich Brothers' horses and wagon are long gone, and the family has entered into the gas and oil business. By now, I'm sure they had their hands full trying to compete with the chain stores. Offering gasoline was probably part of a strategy to convince people to stop here instead of driving somewhere else for their groceries and hardware. It was all part of being a "one-stop" shop.
By 1940, the little grocery on Miami Street disappeared from city directories. I assume the Rodemich family closed the business to pursue other interests. I did find a 1940 census record for John G. Rodemich. At 77 years of age, he reported he was widowed and worked 60 hours per week for 52 weeks as a grocer in 1939. He passed away in September in 1941.
I understand the building was converted into residential space after they departed. It looks like it was ridden hard through the 60s, 70s, and 80s. The end of the 20th century was tough on the building and the neighborhood. Sadly, 1129 Miami sat empty for years and was demolished in 2007 to make room for weeds.
Today, the lot at 1129 Miami Street has seen better days. Hopefully, a new building will rise on this lot someday and another Toledo family will take their shot at the American dream.