“His store was taking on some of the common characteristics of an antique shop. The heavy bolts of China silk upon his nearly empty shelves were soiled and cracking where the cloth was creased. Bolts of heavy English broadcloth were motheaten. Teas, spices and other perishable supplies had been in his inventory for well over a quarter of a century. He scorned the suggestion, timely advanced, that he advertise a clearance sale and then restock, asserting that he never would sell anything in the store for less than it cost him. In all probability he never deviated in that respect excepting on one memorable occasion” (Robert Walden Notebook, #A17).
It seems fair to say that local historian Robert Walden was not kindly disposed toward nineteenth-century Wellington businessman William Rininger. In his articles on the history of the village, Walden loved to tell the story of Rininger being tricked into selling his downtown block of stores to real estate assessor R. A. Horr. I have recounted the story before, here and here. But the narrative never made much sense to me, and I always wondered if it was true.
William Rininger does seem to have been eccentric, and egocentric, as Walden implies. His entry in Commemorative Biographical Record of the Counties of Huron and Lorain, Ohio (1894) begins in this humble fashion: “Whatever may be the form of government under which men live, it is the men of opinions who rule. They have circumscribed the power of kings, and in representative governments they are the leaders of the common people in both public and private concerns. They seldom fill official capacities. Our ablest statesmen have never filled the Presidential chair. It is the Utopian ideal of Democratic governments that broad, intelligent, honest, partrician [sic] citizenship, with financial independence, unfettered by official burdens, is the goal of the best man’s ambition…As a type of the character of the men foreshadowed above, we introduce a brief sketch of Mr. William Rininger, merchant and capitalist, of Wellington, Ohio” (pg. 910). Clearly, Rininger believed himself to be what might today be called a “power player” in the community, despite Walden’s claim that “he always occupied a seat behind a high desk [in his store] and occupied much of his time in reading newspapers.”
Born in 1823, Rininger moved from Pennsylvania to Ohio with an uncle when he was eight years old. This uncle, William Miller, purchased land on which he later laid out the village of Attica, Ohio. Rininger lived in Attica until moving to Wellington in 1866, when he was forty-three years old. He operated a dry-goods store in the ground floor of the large building on the corner of North Main Street and Mechanics Street, which became known as the Rininger Block. The third floor of that building served as an opera house and theater prior to the construction of the Town Hall in 1885.
As for the story of his being tricked into selling that building, I am still not convinced it is accurate. In January 1882, The Wellington Enterprise reported, “Mr. Rininger has made a proposition to sell his store building to C. W. Horr…We hear it rumored, also, that Mr. Rininger will go into banking–a business in which his experience and abundant capital would, no doubt, ensure success. He may also continue his mercantile business in some other room” (1-25-1882, pg. 2). In the very next issue, an article called “Business Change” confirmed the rumors to be true. “The negotiations in progress several days past for the purchase of the Rininger property were consumated [sic] last week, and Mr. C. W. Horr became the owner” (2-1-1882, pg. 3). Note that it is Charles Horr, not his brother Rollin, who is named as the purchaser of the property. And Rininger is described as the party initiating the sale, not as a man being duped into selling against his will.
Just weeks later, the Enterprise announced, “Mr. Rininger has purchased the lot next east of Bowlby & Hall, about 25ft front and 90ft deep, and will immediately commence to build a two story brick building with very ornamental front, plate glass windows etc. It will have an elevator from basement to upper floor, the whole will be fitted up in first class style. The plans where [sic] drawn up Mr. C. H. Black. It is rumored that D. L. Wadsworth will unite with Mr. Rininger and put up a second brick building on the next lot east and the front room of which will be used as a bank” (3-22-1882, pg. 3). Though the beautiful and elaborate tin cornice originally atop the building was destroyed by fire in later years, the structure itself still stands at 113 East Herrick Avenue.
“Mr. Rininger’s assertion that he never advertised was contradicted by the files of the Enterprise…further, his assertion that he had little use for newspapers was belied by the obvious fact that he spent most of each morning reading the Plain Dealer. Probably these were samples of his dry wit upon an unsuspecting listener,” snarked Robert Walden in 1951. It is certainly true that Rininger placed advertisements in the newspaper. The example below appeared in 1882, as he prepared to vacate his corner building and relocate to smaller quarters just a few doors east.
In October of the same year, it was reported that Rininger’s new residence “has the brick work of the first story nearly up, and work is being pushed rapidly. From the appearance of the plans, we should judge it will be one of the finest residences in town” (The Wellington Enterprise, 10-25-1882, pg. 3). So the timeline of documented events does fit Walden’s version of the story, namely sale of the business block, followed by construction of a new store and residence, and proposal of construction of a “Republican” bank. Did Walden shape the events in his own mind according to his low opinion of Rininger? Or is the truth found in this statement: “[Rininger] had a deep grievance of long standing and was lonely in his self-imposed isolation and glad to talk about it” (#A17). Does this mean the story originated directly from William Rininger, and even if it did, was it accurate or was it the self-serving recollection of an old man prone to hyperbole?
Rininger died in 1901 at the age of seventy-seven. He was buried in Attica in an imposing family crypt. His obituary noted that for many years he owned the Rininger Block, but said nothing about the alleged swindle. I give the last words to Robert Walden, who quipped, “His clearance sale came after his death. There may have been some bargains, but most of the crowd came out of curiosity.”