By MaryAnn Kromer
FORT SENECA -The village north of Tiffin on SR 53 has a small store that dates back to the origins of the community. Real estate records list Erastus Bowe, who platted the village in 1836, as the first owner. An Ohio Historical Society marker in Fort Seneca states the store and a grist mill existed in the area in the 1820s.
The store's current owner, Darrell Whitmer, has owned the building since 1977. For a few years, he ran the store, but later leased it to others. When he started a truck-driving job, he closed the store. About two years ago, Whitmer decided to renovate and reopen. There was no grand opening, but word got around that the store was back in business.
A NASCAR fan and former race car driver, Whitmer wanted a place to display his collection of racing memorabilia. The long walls of the store are well-suited for that purpose. The merchandise includes candy bars, snacks, soft drinks, Saum's meats, grocery items, tools and hardware, auto accessories and NASCAR items.
"A lot of people stop by because they spread the word about all the pictures and stuff up," Darrell said. "I had (exterior) signs made for the front and both sides."
In his youth, Darrell owned and drove race cars at Findlay, Fremont, McCutchenville, Mansfield, Chillicothe, Allentown and other Ohio tracks. His son still drives at a Michigan NASCAR event every year. Near the front of the store, Darrell has created a gallery with photos of his racing vehicles.
"I've been in racing about my whole life," Darrell said.
Whitmer's daughter, Patti Roland, helps her dad sell NASCAR products online and does paperwork for the store. Roland also did some research on the history of the property. Her dad bought it from John Willis, who had owned it since 1954. Willis wrote an article about the store in the Fort Seneca Sesquicentennial booklet from 1986. His account says the second story was added around 1890 by then-owner John Edwards.
"It's had about 18 owners since 1836," Roland said. "The longest owner of the building was probably Willis. My dad beats them out by about a year. When (Willis) had it, there was a beauty shop in the back ... and (John and his family) lived upstairs."
Willis' article says the store housed the Fort Seneca Post Office after it was moved from the fort in 1833, and most of the owners or their offspring also served as postmasters. When Darrell closed the store, the post office pulled out.
"When John had it, he even sold license plates in here for awhile," Darrell said.
Garry Whitmer, who helped his brother renovate the building, said it was built with squared-off logs and a floor of wood planks. At one time, the store also had a narrow balcony above the front entrance.
"The original store had beams and poles inside here, but we eliminated all that with I-beams," Garry said. "If you had been here a year and a half ago, this was just four bare walls."
"This NASCAR shop was his dream for 20 years," Roland said. "It took him 20 years to think of it and one year to put it in."
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The store now has a concrete floor, new ceiling and paneled walls. Darrell said Scott Spencer did the interior ceiling and wiring, including radio speakers inside and out for playing country music stations.
Many changes were made over the years, but other features have remained the same. Near the front door is a horse trough, a remnant of an earlier time. It now serves as a large planter for summer blooms.
"They used that for drinking water, too. The city used to have a pump on each end of town, and you had to come from your house to get water," Garry said.
"I walked down here with my dad and we pumped water out of that pump," said Roger Dunlap, a lifelong resident of Fort Seneca.
Dunlap remembered when a pizza shop occupied the store's back room and gasoline pumps operated out front. Dunlap also recalled a serious accident in 1964. A local woman, Alice Brown, pulled out of the intersection beside the store in front of a gasoline tanker. At the time, gasoline still contained lead, and the Jaws of Life was not yet available.
"He hit her and took out the water pump, gas pump and phone booth," Dunlap said. "She ended up over here in a driveway. She was killed in the wreck.
"The truck laid out here on its side, with gas spilling out on the road. The highway patrolman come down here and crawled up in that truck with a handful of tools. He was in there 45 minutes. He dismantled the dashboard and got that guy out. There was probably an inch of gas out here, just a river of gas."
"People said gas was running down (SR) 53," Darrell added.
The concrete water trough may have kept the truck from hitting the store. Willis had installed new gasoline storage tanks before selling the property in 1977, but the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency detected contamination and required Darrell to do remediation.
"I had trouble with the EPA for about 13 years," Darrell said. "I had it dug up. ... I had about 30-some thousand (dollars) in it. Then in 2009, they came back and wanted to know about the tank."
Although the tank had been removed, the EPA said the site was supposed to have wells installed to monitor the contamination. Darrell said he spent about $21,000 more for the wells. Roland said the accident in 1964 could have been the source of the fuel in the soil.
"That's all in the past," Darrell said.
During this interview, Darrell reflected on his own past. For 40 years, he was a truck driver, starting at age 15 hauling hay for a farmer in Carey. He also worked as a carry-out boy at Cook's Food Center on First Avenue in Tiffin.
"I started working at Basic when I was 18, and Dad had a trash route. I helped him on that, and we mowed Fairmont Cemetery," Darrell said. "I've worked two jobs most of my life, sometimes three."
In the mid-1960s, Darrell and two other men bought Cook's. Darrell managed the store and continued to deliver hay.
"I'd close the store on Saturday night at 10 o'clock, take a load of hay to Louisville on Sunday, unload it and get back to open up Monday," he said.
After about 12 years, the three partners sold Cook's. Darrell then bought the store in Fort Seneca and ran it for a few years before taking a full-time job driving. For 13 years, he worked for HiWay Auto and Truck Parts in Findlay.
Now, the store is Darrell's main occupation. During the summer, he opens the store at 7 a.m. and closes at 6 p.m., including Sundays. He said migrant workers frequent the store during the growing season, and several local residents stop in daily for coffee and socializing. A community bulletin board is posted in the store.
When Darrell needs a break, a friend and neighbor, Dianna Burke, minds the store, as do Gary Whitmer and Roland. One day, a man delivered meat to the store and Roland sold him a box of cereal.
"We have boxes of cereal back there with NASCAR on them. The dates on them are 1992. Some of them are worth $30 and some are worth $4. The box he picked up was $4. After he left, I got to thinking, maybe he thought that was regular cereal," Roland said. "Later, he called up and said, 'How old was that cereal? I put milk on it and I still couldn't eat it.' Now when he brings meat, I always tell Dad to ask him if he needs any more cereal."
The current hours at Whitmer's Fort Seneca General Store, 5990 N. SR 53, are 8 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 8 a.m.-1 p.m. Sunday. The phone number is (419) 939-3513.