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Saturday, February 6, 2016
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home : considered comment : may 2007 February 6, 2016

5/15/2007 3:12:00 PM
An overdue recognition of Benjamin Franklin Noftsger
President and Owner, The Sentinel

On numerous occasions I have called to your attention specific individuals who contributed richly to the history and advancement of Rochester and Fulton County. Recently, I was reminded by his great-great-grandson Jacob that I had overlooked Benjamin Franklin Noftsger. He is a worthy addition to this list of achievers and I hasten to introduce him.

Ben Noftsger was typical of late 19th century American business entrepreneurs who seized opportunities to enrich himself by serving his fellow man. But he also was something more, a philanthropist who gave something back as well.

First, then, his business career:

Born on a farm near Cincinnati in 1846, he came to Fulton County with his parents in 1853. Losing his father at age 17, he went to work as a timber buyer but soon branched into business for himself.

He built and managed a large, thriving general store and post office in the village of Grant at the intersection of Roads 150 South and 800 East in southeastern Henry Township, the area known as Sharon or Sugar Grove. There he offered a large stock of dry goods and general merchandise. He also employed two huckster wagons driven by Abe Hoover and George Wallace to make daily calls on his farmer clients. Ben became a respected, successful and likable merchant.

Then, on January 11, 1882, the store and all its contents were destroyed by fire and as a result the Grant village site was abandoned. The post office was moved to the settlement of Hoover on the Rochester-Akron road; Hoover was renamed Grant and later became Athens.

Undeterred by this setback, Noftsger moved to Rochester, went into partnership with A. C. Mitchell in the farm implement business and later became its sole owner.

Ever alert to opportunities in the expanding economy of the late 19th century, the indefatigable Noftsger then entered the grain and elevator business and there he found his business niche.

Eventually, he established five Noftsger elevators the better to serve farmer clients in their own neighborhoods. The elevators were located in Rochester, Athens, Tiosa in Richland Township, Loyal northwest of Rochester and at Walnut in southern Marshall County. All dealt in grain, coal, tile and salt and became thriving enterprises in their time.

During his declining years, Ben sold all but the Loyal elevator and continued in the retail business with a flour and seed store on East Eighth Street just east of the post office building. After a half-century as a businessman, he retired in 1922 and sold the store to his longtime assistant, Arlie Winn.

Noftsger died at 83 on July 18, 1929. He was survived by his wife, the former Sarah Ann Mitchell, and one son, Bennie.

Before his death, however, he had endeared himself to Rochester citizens by his creation of Noftsger's Grove on the west side of the city, which he made available to all who would use it.

Many did, and for many years. Ben owned an entire block on the west side of Fulton Avenue, between Fifth and Sixth streets. On the south half, he created a fenced park with trees, benches, flowers and a speaker's stand in the middle of the space.

That was known as Noftsger's Grove and it was used on many occasions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as Rochester's gathering place. It became the site of Memorial Day outings, Fourth of July picnics and orations, family gatherings, high school graduation events and class parties. It was open to the public and, so far as is recorded, was honored and protected by the citizens who used it.

The Noftsger residence was in the north half of the block, "a big house with big windows" as recalled by a neighbor boy, Clarence Hill, a playmate of Noftsger's grandson Charley and whose family lived across the street. Clarence grew up to become Rochester's mayor.

Hill has left an evocative memoir of life habits in the Noftsger neighborhood during the first decade of the 20th century:

"The Noftsgers always had a flock of chickens and a couple of cows and Mother would send me across the street to get couple of eggs at eight cents a dozen or a gallon pail of milk at 10 cents. In the summer it would get pretty dusty with all the horse and buggy traffic, the delivery wagons and most-looked-for Killen's ice wagon. They cut ice from Lake Manitou and stored it in sawdust in big icehouses to be delivered in summer. In winter they delivered firewood.

"The bread wagon drove around each day and rang the wagon bell indicating their arrival. The housewives took out their baskets; nothing was wrapped. Bread was five cents a loaf, buns one cent each, doughnuts two cents, breakfast rolls and cookies also were carried. Then the milk wagon soon would arrive, clanging his bell. Again the housewives would bring out their pitchers or tin milk buckets and the driver would measure out a quart or so from the 20- to 30-gallon tank facing him from the front part of the wagon; nothing was bottled. Milk was five cents a quart."

Noftsger later moved from the Fulton Avenue home to 719 Madison Street, where he died. The Noftsger Grove and residence area was sold and divided into building lots.

Such a man was Benjamin Franklin Noftsger and our past was a better time for having had him in it.

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