Sherri Wells, left, and Diana Wells are shown with an antique secretary desk that has been in the family for generations. Delving into its history, the women learned the piece was sold in Findlay more than a century ago. (Photo by Randy Roberts)
Sherri Wells, left, and Diana Wells are shown with an antique secretary desk that has been in the family for generations. Delving into its history, the women learned the piece was sold in Findlay more than a century ago. (Photo by Randy Roberts)

By SARA ARTHURS
STAFF WRITER

A chance look at the back of an antique piece of furniture led a local genealogist on a sort of treasure hunt.

Sherri Wells knew the “secretary” had been in her mother-in-law’s family for a long time, but it wasn’t until recently she got to sneak a peek at the back of it — and learned it was sold in Findlay more than a century ago.

It’s a wooden piece — Sherri’s guess is it is perhaps made of oak — with shelves along the left-hand side. Diana Wells had kept dishes there, but the shelves would also work for books. They are adjustable.

On the right-hand side of the secretary are drawers. Above them is a glass door with an etching depicting a scene of hunters and birds. A panel in this part of the furniture can fold down to make a desk surface on which to write.

But it wasn’t until Diana Wells recently moved to a new home that Sherri got a look at the back. She saw markings indicating it was from Ewing and Alspach, a Findlay company in business in the 1890s and 1900s. It was just one of many furniture companies in Findlay around that time.

Sherri is an avid genealogist and has been since high school. She subscribes to Ancestry.com, an online genealogy network, and spends many evenings researching family connections. She has made contacts with relatives in Georgia, Florida, Arizona and Colorado through the online database.

So researching the history of furniture companies in Findlay was right up her alley.

She went to the Findlay-Hancock County Public Library as well as the Hancock Historical Museum to learn all she could about Ewing and Alspach. She learned the company was located, in 1899, at 210 S. Main St.

Other furniture companies listed in an 1899 business directory include Findlay Table Manufacturing Co., Factory Ave.; Trout, F.H., 319 N. Main; Haley, J.M. and Co., 131-133 N. Main; Rummell, W.B., 118 E. Sandusky; and Stein, Julius A., 300 N. Main.

The 1897 directory differentiates between “furniture manufacturers” such as Central Furniture Co. at 411-415 W. Main Cross St. and W.E. Snyder at 200 W. Crawford St., and “furniture.” The latter category includes Ewing and Alspach at 210 S. Main St.; Haley, J.M. and Co. at 131-133 N. Main St.; Hood Bros Co. at 211 N. Main St.; Rummell, D and Son at 116-118 E. Sandusky St.; Stein, Julius A. at 300 N. Main St.; and Trout, Frank H. at 310 to 314 N. Main St.

The same directory lists Ewing and Alspach as selling “furniture, baby carriages and refrigerators.”

The Findlay City and Hancock County Directory from 1899 to 1901 lists S. V. Alspach, whose wife was Meda, at 200 First St. Wilbur Ewing is listed as residing at 118 First St.

“So they were even neighbors,” Sherri said.

Sherri also found a Sept. 18, 1953, story in the Republican-Courier about the death of P. Wilbur Ewing, 89. A lifelong resident of Hancock County, he had gone on to become president of Ohio Bank and Savings Co. In 1889 he had been elected clerk of courts for Hancock County.

S.V. Alspach died at age 88 on Dec. 13, 1946. He had also taught school and served as a deputy sheriff and deputy recorder. Both men were Elks.

A Jan. 18, 1909, article from the Norwalk Daily Reflector makes reference to C.F. Jackson Co. purchasing Ewing and Alspach. The article states that the company “one day last week purchased the large stock of furniture and stoves and the good will of the old established firm of Ewing and Alspach, of Findlay, Ohio.”

The article states that “Ewing and Alspach carried nothing but high-grade goods and enjoyed a large business in Findlay.”

“It is understood that this firm was interested in the big oil deal that took place a few days ago, and consequently has enough of this world’s goods to enable it to retire,” the article states. “According to recent dispatches those who had oil leases in the Findlay district cleaned up a good round sum for their holdings.”

The Republican-Courier from Oct. 2, 1961, also features an advertisement on the 75th anniversary of Trout Furniture Store.

It includes an old advertisement, reprinted, that states in part: “Gifts that mean so much, Because they last a lifetime, and have the impress of careful, thoughtful givers. There’s a suitable present here in the furniture line for everyone you can think of. Here is the finest and most desirable collection in this part of the state. For bachelor’s quarters, for milady’s boudoir, for the child’s room, nursery, library, parlor — furniture for all over the house, or for any kind of a home. The good, guaranteed, Ewing and Alspach kind, that lasts so long, (looks) so well, and costs so little, is a reason why should you buy here.”

The historical ads also list the prices. “Easy rockers” cost 75 cents to $25, couches were $6 to $50 and “ladies’ writing desks” cost $4.50 to $20.

As for Diana Wells’ secretary, she said it belonged to her late husband John’s parents “for as long as I can remember.” They kept it in the parlor, along with some other family pieces. The family didn’t go into the room back then except occasionally, such as to play the piano.

Sherri said her husband’s aunt called it “the bookcase.”

Diana doesn’t know whether it was John’s mother or his father who originally inherited the historic piece of furniture. But when John’s parents died he asked for it, as it was a piece he remembered from his childhood.

Sherri had always wanted to see if there was a label on the back. So when Diana was moving, she got her chance and took pictures with her phone. Some of the labels were clear, such as the names Ewing and Alspach.

But there were also mysteries. Sherri found markings with numbers including “124” stenciled in ink and “20” carved in the back corner. She doesn’t know what they mean.

Sherri said that every time she looks at the piece now, she finds more clues. Looking at the back again recently she found “some handwriting in different places.” Much of it is in pencil and hard to read. She is finding some partial names, such as one marking that could say “ING” or “ERG.” The “ING” might be part of “Ewing,” but there is a “J” in front of it, which doesn’t correspond to Wilbur Ewing’s first name. She has also found a marking “T.H.” and a reference to “J. Otson.”

She doesn’t know what many of these markings mean, and there is also a circle with “I don’t know what” in it. But she is enjoying trying to solve the mystery.

“It’s just fun,” she said.

Arthurs: 419-427-8494
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