Being an entrepreneur in the nineteenth century was no easier than it is today. An oft-quoted modern statistic is that only about half of all small businesses survive their first five years. The dry goods store known as Foote & Barnard lasted barely eight months over the course of the year 1865, before catastrophe closed its doors forever.
I came across this story while I was conducting research in the Lorain County News on another topic. The Oberlin College Archives holds three ledger volumes once belonging to Wellington and Pittsfield merchants called Foote & Locke, composed between 1837 and 1846, so the name caught my attention. The short and unfortunate history of Foote & Barnard unfolded across just ten short notices and advertisements.
In March 1865, the dry goods firm Clarke & Foote announced its formal dissolution. C. S. Foote, junior partner in the operation, published his intention to continue on “at the old stand” and became the senior partner in his new venture by bringing in one William Barnard, Esq. Less than two months later, the News reported, “We are sorry to hear that our friends and patrons, Messrs. Foote and Barnard, Merchants, were burned out last Thursday night, losing their entire stock of goods, and but partially insured, supposed the work of incendiaries” (5-10-1865, pg. 2).
A much longer description of the blaze appeared in the Wellington section of the following week’s paper. Fire was first discovered near “the butter room” and was believed to have been started by arsonists. Despite the lack of wind on the night of the fire, “the buildings being of wood and the contents so combustible, the fire rushed through it with great rapidity.” Adjacent structures were also in danger of being consumed. The stove and tinware shop owned by Orrin Sage, and the hardware store of Ethel Benedict, were both “greatly periled,” which provides strong evidence that Foote & Barnard operated out of the business block at the intersection of the village, the northeast corner of what is today Main Street and Herrick Avenue.
Foote & Barnard’s overall financial loss was estimated to be as much as twenty-five thousand dollars, on which they had approximately seventeen thousand dollars insurance. In the immediate aftermath of the fire, the two men moved first to the basement of Benedict’s hardware store, just across Main Street, but soon after relocated to “the large building lately occupied by Belding & Harris as a shoe and grocery store.” (I believe this was on the north side of what is now West Herrick Avenue.) So much of their stock had been destroyed that they pleaded for time to “visit the eastern cities for more goods” so they could resume operations (5-17-1865, pg. 3).
But circumstances continued to worsen. The reconstruction of Foote & Barnard’s store had to be abandoned for the year because “brick for the purpose could not be obtained” (7-12-1865, pg. 3). By late October, the men began to weekly promote a going-out-of-business sale, noting in the advertisement that their old stock had burned and they had “determined to close” (11-22-1865, pg. 3). A formal dissolution of partnership was published in January, 1866, printed over a card of thanks from C. S. Foote to his former customers. He was retiring from business after more than twenty-five years.
Mr. Foote had one more role to play in the history of Wellington. Upon retiring, he sold both his “fine residence” and his interest in the defunct dry goods store to William Rininger of Attica, Ohio. I have written about Rininger before. One of the village’s wealthiest and most irascible residents, he eventually owned the massive brick Italianate block erected on the site of Foote & Barnard’s burned wooden shop, selling it in 1882. But brick ultimately proved no more impervious to fire than wood. A half-century after Foote & Barnard lost everything in a single spring night, the so-called Rininger block also burned to the ground in 1915.