Witness to History: The Reeds Corner

In many parts of the world, there are buildings that achieve the status of a shrine not through any religious overtones, but simply because of their age and noble historic stature in the community.  The buildings are held sacred because of the place they hold in the heart of the collective family.

Mansfield has a place like that: it is hallowed in our memory because it has been a vital intersection of the town for longer than anyone can remember.  In fact, it was built on the oldest site in town where civilization took root in the early wilderness of Richland County.

Today it is known as the Reeds Corner, because it carried that business name for over a century; and even as the business purposes of the place have changed in our generation from mercantile to restaurant, it still retains that department store name in a kind of sacred defiance of time and change.

That’s how you know it is a shrine.

We assume that shrines are created in order to make sure future generations don’t forget some event or person; but the ancients originally made shrines for a different purpose: in order to draw people to a specific site on the planet.  They understood, as did Einstein, that on some level of our earthly reality time does not exist; and that if something unusual occurred at some particular place, it still is happening in that reality where time has no influence.  We all have access to that reality in some part of our soul.

When you go into a shrine, you stand in the presence of honored people and sacred moments, though centuries stand between you.

The Reeds Corner is consecrated simply by the tremendous number of Mansfielders, through all the generations of our town, who have passed through its doors; people representing every neighborhood, every social tier, every facet of the city’s identity. People who made a difference in this town, and people who passed the time indifferently in idle moments: all lend value to the space as a vital organ of the community’s body.

A place takes on shrine-like value whenever the community remembers those historic figures who stepped into that space. 

As it happens, one of the most nationally recognized and honored figures who called Mansfield home was known to frequent the Reeds Corner, and his presence there is clearly documented.

His name is John Chapman; he is remembered as Johnny Appleseed; and he was on that site before the Reeds building was constructed: when the corner had the first store in Mansfield.

The site that eventually came to be known as the Reeds Corner, began its civic life in 1810 when Mansfield was only 2 years old and barely scratched into the wilderness.  That place on the northwest corner of the Public Square is where Samuel Martin built a log store, destined to be the first of a long line of businesses selling merchandise.  Martin’s customers were pioneers and American Indians; and he didn’t stay in business long because the pioneers chased him out of town for selling whiskey to the Wyandots.

John Chapman was a familiar character walking through Mansfield from its earliest days, and this ledger entry shows the day he picked up some coffee and paper in the store when it was owned by E.P. Sturges, after 1815.

During the first half of the 19th century, it was known as the Sturges Block, after the little log store was transformed into to a Dry Goods emporium.  The Sturges establishment also offered Mansfield’s first bookstore, which served for years, as well, as its first lending library.  This portrait of the northwest corner of the Square appeared in the New York Illustrated News in 1862.

In 1864, the Sturges Block became the landmark we recognize today with the familiar brick and stone work that reflects the mid-century Italianate phase of American Classical architecture.

In the late 1860s the Reed brothers took over the Sturges dry goods business, and during the next decades their name was established on the corner.  In the 1870s, one of the brothers bought the other out, so that by 1902 the landmark was clearly designated as The H.L. Reed Co.

H.L. Reed was Horace LaFayette Reed, who came to Mansfield following the Civil War and was variously referred to in town the rest of his life as Lieutenant Reed or Captain Reed, depending on who was introducing him.  He had been injured in the war and walked with a pronounced limp, which made him ever more determined to demonstrate his stability; so his store was advertised as “The Old Reliable.”  This photo is from 1903.

Mr. Reed, his family and clerks, all pose at the entrance facing Main Street in the 1890s. This part of the building was remodeled in the 1910s, so that today the door is situated on the right of this photo.

This postcard view of North Park Street can be dated as having been made after 1915, because that’s when H.L. Reed passed from the earth and the store passed to the hands of John Cook: he had the brick building whitewashed to the distinctive appearance it kept for the rest of the 20th century.

In this view from the early 1920s, the Reeds Corner is clearly distinguished as a distinctive landmark even from the air.

This photo taken around 1957 shows how the building was modified in the 20th century to accommodate window shopping, by replacing the sidewalk brickwork with picture windows and awnings facing the Square.

For about a decade in the 1960s-70s, the northwest corner of the Square was the principal stop for Mansfield city bus lines.  In the 60s, Reeds acquired the Berno Building next door on North Park Street to expand the women’s apparel department; and the Kobacker Building next door on Main Street for increased window exposure to shoppers.

As the last department store in downtown Mansfield, Reeds struggled to keep up by remodeling in 1984; but ultimately closed in 1993.  After the turn of the century, the building was returned to its original brick face, and modified for new life as a restaurant.  It opened in 2005 as Sweet Basil Eatery; in 2008 it became Ed Pickens Cafe on Main.

The Reeds corner had its national close-up screen test in 2012 when President Obama used the landmark as a backdrop for his campaign speech in Mansfield.  The distinctive Reeds script on the front of the building was lifted from shopping bag and advertisement designs of the 20th century.  The man on the roof was lifted from Washington DC for secret service eyeballs.

The Reeds corner has stood watch over the Square in honorable duty as a true and remarkable stalwart of the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries.  The unique brickwork design of its roofline suggests the draping curve of a graceful valence: as if the curtain is continually being raised on the city’s stage, so the ongoing play continues into the next generation.

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