In the early morning hours of September 26 a fire started in one of our area’s most historic buildings located in Berkey, Ohio. The building is located on the northeast corner of Sylvania-Metamora and Berkey-Southern Roads. For over 30 years the building has been known as Keeler’s Korners. The townspeople have known it as part of their very small downtown since 1913. Sylvanians have admired this old red-brick building as they traveled west over the years. Something about it made people want to stop and buy something, just to see the inside, to get a glimpse into the past. When walking in the front door you were taken back in time. The smell was that of 108 years of occupancy, and it was a wonderful smell.
This corner property was only sold a few times over that 108-year span. Here’s what the old records on microfilm show:
- July 3, 1913 – Bertice & Allie A. Kilburn
- Oct. 15, 1917 – Joseph E. & Ida E. Page
- 1928 – Jasper Smith Janney & Clarence Lee Janney (brothers)
- Feb. 20, 1942 – Clarence Lee Janney
- Sept. 1, 1959 – Maynard H. Janney
- Dec. 6, 1984 – James & Patricia A. Keeler
- Dec. 31, 1992 – Gary T. & Lori A. Keeler
- May 7, 1997 – Gary T. Keeler
Lucas County records show the building was constructed in 1913 while the property was owned by the Kilburns. The Toledo & Western Railway had laid their tracks down Sylvania-Metamora Road ten years earlier, and Berkey needed a general store and a place for the train to stop. The Kilburns filled that need. Bertice Kilburn and Allie Westerman were married in 1891 in Lucas County and the 1900 and 1910 census records show them living in Richfield Township. In 1910 he was 41 years old and listed as a farmer. Allie was 40 years old. Their five children were living with them including Floyd – 17; Ethel – 13; Wanda – 12; Lula – 9; and Dewayne – 6. They built the building and only owned it for four years, selling it in 1917. The next year, in 1918, Bertice Kilburn was killed when he was lighting a gasoline stove that exploded and burned him. His obituary said that. “He lived between two worlds from that time to March 4, 1918, at seven am when without a struggle he passed into the future life.” He was 48 years old. In the 1920 census, Allie was still living in downtown Berkey with her son Floyd in close proximity to the store. Both Bertice and Allie are buried in Ford Cemetery in Berkey.
In 1917 Joseph E. and Ida E. Page purchased the building and according to the 1920 census, they were living here and operating a general store here. Joseph was listed as 54 years old and employed as the owner of this retail general store. His wife Ida Page was listed as 54 years old, and living with them was their son Joseph J. Page – 26 years old – employed as a salesman at the general store, and Mary Jacquet, servant, 47 years old – working for Page family. Joseph Page died in 1924, and Ida Page sold the building four years later in 1928. When the 1930 census was taken Ida Page was renting a home at 5738 Phillips Avenue in Sylvania.
In 1928 Jasper Smith Janney and his brother Clarence Lee Janney purchased the building. Their parents were Clarence E. and Elsie (Smith) Janney, who had eight children while living in Bedford Township, Michigan. Three of their children were boys, and these three boys went on to operate three different commercial stores in Lucas County.
It gets confusing because none of these brothers used their given first names:
- • Jasper Smith Janney – born 1900 – went by Smith Janney – he married Isma Comstock in 1921.
- • Clarence Lee Janney – born 1902 – went by Lee Janney – he married Dorothy Hirst in 1923.
- • Maynard Hugh Janney – born 1911 – went by Pete Janney – he married Neva Bowman in 1931.
By the 1930 census, Smith Janney and his family were living in Berkey operating the general store. Family records said that they lived on the second floor. This census shows that he owned the building valued at $8,000. He was 30 years old, married, and the owner of the general store. Isma B. Janney was his wife, 29 years old. Also living with them were their children: Ulis Janney – 5 years old; Arnold Janney – 2 years old.
The next year, in 1931, Smith Janney moved to Trilby (now Toledo) and started operating a general store on Alexis Road at the corner of Gay Street; although he and his brother continued to own the Berkey building. Janney family histories said that the youngest brother, Maynard Janney, known as “Pete” began working at the Berkey store on a part-time basis in 1928 while still in high school. Then he continued to work there for his older brothers, after graduating from Lambertville High School in 1929. He started managing the business in 1931 when he was 20 years old. Also in 1931, while operating this store, he married Neva Bowman. She was a Sylvania girl and grew up near Brint and Mitchaw. Records show that in 1934 Pete and Neva purchased the home at 12156 Sylvania-Metamora, five houses east of their store, and family records said that Pete purchased the mercantile business in 1937. But property deed records show that his brother C. Lee Janney still continued to own the building until 1959.
When the 1940 census was taken Pete Janney was found living in Berkey still operating his grocery store. He was listed as 29 years old. Neva was listed as 35 years old, and their children living at home included Joanne S. – 7 years old; Gareth M. – 6 years old; and John S. – 3 years old. Also, as of this 1940 census Jasper Smith Janney was listed living on Alexis Road in Trilby operating his own grocery store with his brother Clarence Lee Janney who was living on Glenn Street.
In 1942 Smith Janney purchased the property at 5765 Secor Road at Alexis Road, and continued a family hardware store there, Janney’s Hardware, while brother Lee Janney continued to operate a grocery store on Alexis Road, C. Lee Janney & Sons Red & White Store. Also in 1942 deed records show that Clarence Lee Janney purchased full ownership of the Berkey property and building from his brother Smith Janney. The youngest brother, Pete, rented the building and continued to operate the grocery store until he finally purchased the building in 1959 from C. Lee.
After the 1940 census was taken Pete and Neva had three more children: Richard N. Janney; Ronald L. Janney; and Alan H. Janney. Richard Janney recently said in an email, “Our family was divided into two groups: The big kids, Joanne, Gary and John; and the little kids, me (Richard), Ron and Alan. Everyone called our dad Pete, even though his name was Maynard, and no one seems to know the reason. Our mom, Neva, taught first grade in Sylvania. We all served sometime working in the store.”
It was reported that at one time there was a yellow arrow painted on the roof of this building that guided early pilots in the direction of the old Franklin airfield that used to exist where the Franklin Park Mall is today. They would see the arrow, and turn east toward Toledo. Daughter Joanne said that her father, Pete, had a great fascination with airplanes.
When Berkey’s first fire department was established in December of 1943, Pete Janney was one of the first community members to volunteer, and in fact, in the early days, the fire truck was stored in a garage that was once attached to the back of Pete’s store. He served as their Captain from 1943 to 1951 and in all served as a volunteer firefighter for the community for 39 years. From 1943 until the fire station was built in 1947 the second floor of Janney’s store was used by the volunteer firemen as their meeting place and gathering place. Ron Janney wrote, “In a sense, the store was also one of the dispatch centers for the fire department. The early alarms were sounded by the telephone operator in Richfield, who would ring ten short rings on all party lines, thereby alerting the firemen of a fire.” Ron Janney said that after the fire station was built the upstairs was converted into two apartments, and remained that way while he worked at the store.
An article about the store in the June 2, 1981 Toledo Blade said, “Upstairs, a big railroad-style flat was once home for the family. In those days, a three-holer stood outside and a souvenir of that primitive sanitary system was unearthed from the back storage room on Friday. When the Janney family moved into a larger home down the road, the upper level became a meeting place for the first volunteer fire department in Berkey. And two shed rooms out back were turned over to house the first fire wagons .”
Pete Janney’s six children have many memories of growing up in Berkey and working in the store. Rich Janney wrote, “The Red & White had no grocery carts, one checkout counter, and the occasional customer stacked the groceries on the counter and when ready to check out we punched the price stamped on every can into the cash register, hit total and a narrow ribbon of paper printed out with just the price of each item – no description. There were no credit cards. Customers could buy on credit, but that required entering each can, package of meat, pack of gum, on a pad with the customer’s name written on top of the pad.” Ron Janney wrote, “Prior to World War II, the store was a thriving business. My dad would buy sides of beef, cases of bananas, and many other grocery items. He also stocked hardware, farm products, and clothing items, including Carhartt work clothes, Wolverine shoes, tobacco products, Spangler candies, and drug store items. Beans, sugar, and rock salt were in bulk bins. There was a large wooden butcher block, where I developed my skills as a meat cutter. When supermarkets opened, the small grocery or general merchandise stores suffered.”
He also recalled that just after WW II, and before supermarkets and self-service stores, he was required as a child to pull his red wagon from their house, just to the east, to the store, with lunch in a basket for his dad who was too busy to take a lunch break. While waiting for the lunch to be eaten he would slip into the garage attached to the north side of the store where his dad allowed the Berkey fire department to store their fire truck. He would sit in the truck, which was a Jeep, and turn on the flashing red lights until one day he went too far and turned on the siren. He said that his dad appeared rather quickly at the door and that ended that. Ron also recalled seeing the heavy oak timbers on the ceiling of the basement. He said that the basement was the full size of the store, and in the early days it was used for storage. There was a large wooden elevator that was used to get things up to the first floor, but in his time the elevator was abandoned.
In 1964 Pete Janney purchased the property to the east of his store known as the old Gleaner Hall building, and then in 1966, he purchased the old Kimbell property to the north, where the Kimbell home and barn once stood. Today this property has a large Morton building on it that was built in 2005 by Gary Keeler.
Pete’s wife Neva (Bowman) Janney died in 1971 at the age of 66 years. Her obituary notice said she began her 27-year teaching career in a one-room schoolhouse on Corey Road and taught in Lima and Springfield Township. Then she taught for 18 years for the Sylvania school system, finishing her career at Sylvania’s Highland Elementary School in 1971. Pete operated the store here in Berkey until shortly before he passed away on May 24, 1984. A June 2, 1981 Toledo Blade article said, “There may yet be a future for the store. The family says offers have been tendered, so a second life is possible for the building. What was once an indispensable part of daily rural life in Berkey might be important again – this time to antique collectors.”
Ron Janney added, “The store was a meeting place for locals. There was a hot air register in the floor with a bench close by. In the winter, the farmers and other locals would sit on the bench, and socialize.” There were also some things that not many of the locals were aware of. “My Dad was usually armed with a small pistol, and there was always one available to us in the event of a robbery. My brother Rich and I would stay in the store all night, and we were armed with a shotgun, a rifle and handguns. We were willing to take on anyone foolish enough to try anything. Looking back on this, I think we may have been the foolish ones, but things were different in those days.” He recalled, “My brother Al reminded me of one time when a Lenawee County constable asked us to help him set up a road block for some bank robbers who might be driving through Berkey. On many occasions, we would get a call from dad to come up to the store from our house and “bring two” (firearms) as the store would be overrun with itinerant field workers who liked to shoplift, and otherwise cause some problems.”
A couple of weeks after Pete Janney died, the Toledo Blade, on June 10, 1984, featured a photo of the side of the building which said M.H. Janney, General Mdse. The headlines read, “Closing Shop – Pete Janney Is Gone, So They Shut The Door To His Store.”
There are so many more stories written by the six Janney kids, about working and growing up in downtown Berkey, there just isn’t enough space here to tell all of those now. One final Janney comment that sums it up was made by Ron Janney who said, “The recent fire at the store has saddened all of us, and in one respect, is a tale of great irony.” Many of the Janney men throughout the years gave their time to the fire service and then later worked for a living in the fire service. Ron continued, “So when ‘our’ store burned, we all felt a great loss, and are empathetic to the Keeler family. But for some of us, it was like losing a member of our family.”
After Mr. Janney died, the family sold the three parcels to Jim and Patricia Keeler in December of 1984, and they named this corner “Keeler’s Korners.” They owned the building for eight years, and in 1992 they sold the property, as well as parcels to the east and north, to their nephew Gary Keeler. As I spoke to the area business owners and residents they mentioned that in the last ten years Mr. Keeler had completely renovated the second floor and was residing there when the fire occurred, although thankfully no one was home at the time of the fire.
In 1988 a local artist named Gail Northcott painted a beautiful painting of the old Janney/Keeler building and it is shown here. Years later after the Janney kids saw it, they loved the painting so much that they asked Gail to paint six more, one for each of the six Janney kids, which she did, and they each cherish to this day.
A few years ago the Vernors sign on the west outside wall was becoming faded. A grandson, Jeff Guyton, because of his love for the building and fond memories of his grandfather and his store, came here from NYC and repainted the sign, with the permission of the current owner who set up the scaffolding for him. That mural survived the fire.
Today in 2021 the sign on the front of the building reads: “Help Rebuild Keeler’s Korner” with a Go Fund Me QR code available to make donations. Can this building be restored in order to continue this wonderful story? Or will it go down in history?