Catching up with J.J. Fleck

The docents served a spring lunch Saturday afternoon at the Seneca County Museum. About 30 guests were finishing their food when they heard a knock on the door of the Fort Ball Room. In answering the knock, museum director Tonia Hoffert discovered a man with a mustache clad in a white apron and carrying a basket. He said he was in the neighborhood and asked whether Mrs. Troxel (the home’s former resident) needed anything from his pharmacy.

Hoffert invited him to step in and introduce himself.

“My name is J.J. Fleck, and I’m a druggist here in Tiffin,” the man said.

In reality, the speaker was Mark Steinmetz, the great-nephew of the late Jacob Fleck. In taking the persona of his relative, Steinmetz geared his program to the year 1915, two years after the 1913 flood. That year, Fleck would have been 62 years old and doing business out of 187-189 S. Washington St.

Fleck’s name remains on that downtown building.

After a few comments about neighborhood homes that were moved to new locations after the flood, Steinmetz gave some biographical information about Fleck.

Fleck’s parents had come to the United States from Germany in 1847 and settled in Findlay. By the time he had finished high school, he was drawn to a career in pharmacy. He spent two years studying at the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy. Between 1887 and 1892, Fleck operated drug stores in Findlay, Gilboa, Dunkirk and McComb.

“Business was good, and I enjoyed it. I was compounding my own medicines. You have to understand, back in those days, when you went into a drug store in the 1800s … a lot of times you’d find patent medicines that had an awful lot of alcohol in them,” Steinmetz said. “My feeling was, there’s got to be something out there that could make you feel better without the alcohol.”

In 1883, Fleck moved to Tiffin and opened a drug business at Perry and South Washington streets. The business would relocate to 3-5 S. Washington for 11 years before its last move in 1902. Fleck married Clara Hauck, bought a home in town and raised eight children.

Fleck also became a community business leader with the founding of the Tiffin Natural Gas Co. in 1885. After selling shares of stock to raise funds, a test well in the area of Circular Street and Rock Creek revealed a pocket of gas and oil that provided fuel for the glass factory, pottery and other industries to the area.

Agriculture also played a significant role in the local economy, so Fleck started making medications for farm animals, including a worm powder for horses and a dietary supplement for chickens. The druggist kept a file of testimonials from satisfied customers. He also printed “Fleck Facts” and other brochures that listed his products with instructions for their use.

“I always did a lot of advertising … so people not only had an idea of what we sell, but there’s stuff in here about how to take care of their animals, how to get this stuff down their throats and into their stomachs,” Steinmetz said.

In 1889, Fleck developed packaged dyes to use for Easter eggs. At the store, he made up fabric dyes in barrels. Sales always increased in the spring because women said they were using them to color eggs. Fleck saw an opportunity to make food-based, pre-measured packets of dye powder just for that purpose.

He boxed several colors, along with a wire dipper, picture decals and instructions printed in multiple languages. Eventually, orders came in from all over the country during the Easter season.

“If you want to see what colors we’re working on …” Steinmetz said, pointing out the smears on his apron.

Steinmetz also introduced Lorraine Meisner, who worked at the Fleck Co. from 1946 until it closed its doors in 1997.

After taking a few questions from the crowd, Steinmetz suggested they view the egg dye exhibit in the museum’s east parlor. Door prizes at the event included original boxes of Fleck Easter Egg Dye.