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Otto family shares its history of brothers’ store, flood

March 29, 2013
By Gretchen Otto , The Marietta Times

My father, Charles J. Otto, who inherited Otto Bros. Dept. Store in 1952, was just turning 5 years old in 1913.

His shared stories about the 1913 flood and how it affected Otto Bros., at 118-120-122 Putnam St., have come down through the family from his father, my grandfather, John Wesley Otto, who founded the store in 1886.

John Wesley Otto talked his older brother, Charles William Otto (of Pomeroy) into returning home and joining him in this venture which was being heavily encouraged and endorsed by the elderly Bosworth Wells Dry Goods Store owner where John Wesley had worked from age 13 to 17 sweeping out their store on lower Front and opening stock for 50 cents a day. At age 18, with $500 merchandise given by Bosworth Wells and a $500 loan from the German National, the one-room Otto Bros. Dry Goods opened at 268 Front St. in 1886.

Article Photos

Photo courtesy of Marietta College Special Collections
The post office on Front Street in Marietta, as well as most of downtown, was underwater.

John Wesley and Charles Williams purchased the vacant property at 118-120-122 Putnam St. and built, as they did next door at Kresge's 5&10 cent store, and opened a three-story Dry Goods Department Store at that location around 1893.

Now the 1913 Marietta was a flood town, John Wesley designed the Putnam Street store to have very wide aisles and a very wide staircase to the first and second floors so the rowboat or skiff could float up these staircases in the event of flooding and they could maneuver the boats up and down the aisles so as not to damage the display cases. In the alley behind the stores, Otto Bros. and Kresge's were the lowest point and, thus, rising water entered their Putnam Street basements first.

It takes a 35 foot rise in our two rivers to enter the first floors of these two stores.

Prior to water rising up the basement steps of Otto Bros. all available family members gathered transport merchandise to the upper floor. If additional 'hands' were required, Marietta College was notified and many male students arrived to help any and all downtown businesses needing assistance to move and save merchandise. The rear half of the Otto Bros. Store has a fourth floor as additional space for this very purpose. Otto Bros. has both an Otis electric elevator for shopper use and in the rear of the store is a manually hand-cable operated freight elevator. With electricity turned off...all merchandise from the basement and the first floor had to be transported to higher floors in the 1913 flood which reached the second floor with less than a foot of water. Once water began rising rapidly on the first floor, none of the women in the family were allowed to assist because the boats had to maneuver the wide aisles and occasionally a display case, though bolted to the floor, would cut loose and surface like a whale!

The front door was two doors wide so as to exit with a boat from the first floor, traverse up Putnam to Fourth and tie it off with a long rope, and walk home to 419 Fifth St. When flooding crested and receded, clean-up began vigorously. But, with both water and electricity turned off, my grandfather and great uncles (and all helpers) had to row to waters' edge up Putnam, walk to 419 Fifth St., fill two to four buckets of fresh water and return via boat to clean out everything-the stained walls, the silt left behind, etc. Thus, like most all downtown stores the floors were wooden and during the warm weather months, the floors squeaked! One of many people's first memories of Otto Bros. is how 'the floors squeaked when you walked through the store.' A traveler from out-of-town once asked John Wesley, "Why don't you oil these floors so they don't squeak?" Of course the floors were oiled, but Grandpa always replied, "I like the squeak" as it reminded him of one of the realities of living in a flood held, though a hard working history, an affectionate historic memory for him.

Gretchen Otto is a resident of Marietta.



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