Gone, not forgotten

Gretchen Otto was flooded with memories Monday afternoon as she took one last walk through the building on Putnam Street that once housed her family’s Otto Brothers Department Store.

Her father, Charles J. Otto, was the last owner of the business when it finally closed in 1966 after 80 years in Marietta.

The original Otto Brothers store, established in 1886, was located on Front Street. The business was moved into the building at 118, 120 and 122 Putnam St. in 1893.

“I haven’t been inside this building since the store closed 48 years ago. I always wanted to remember the store as it was when I grew up here,” Gretchen, 75, said as she paused at the foot of a staircase leading to the second floor Monday. She plans to move out of the area this year.

She noted that the store’s huge time clock was located at the foot of the stairs, and recalled “punching in” for her shift at the store daily.

Marietta Mayor Joe Matthews said his sister, Kay Warden, who now lives in Racine, bought the 6-foot-high clock shortly after Otto Brothers closed.

“My sister used to work there. It was a nice wood clock, and you had to push a large rod to clock in,” Matthews said.

Gretchen was accompanied on her tour of the building by friend Jann Adams and Marietta Councilman Harley Noland. All three boarded the store’s still operational original freight elevator (capacity 3,000 pounds) for a ride to the second of the building’s four floors.

“I used to be afraid of this elevator when I was about 8 years old,” Gretchen said. “It didn’t have any controls. You had to pull on the cable to move from one floor to the next. But after my father showed me how to operate it I wanted to ride the elevator all the time.”

The ground floor had been renovated several times to accommodate various businesses that have been located in the building at 118, 120 and 122 Putnam St. since Otto Brothers closed, so the first floor looked unfamiliar to Gretchen.

But stepping off the elevator onto the wooden second floor with its stamped metal ceilings transported Gretchen back to the days of her youth.

“I was in charge of the Girl Scout and Brownies department, just off the customer elevator on this floor,” she said, walking across the creaking wooden floor boards to an empty display counter near the center of the second floor.

“The department had just two shelves and a display case like this,” Gretchen explained. “That was my first job. Eventually I worked in every one of the departments, including the offices, but I absolutely loved doing the window dressing.”

Noland noted the store had one of the first sprinkler systems for fire suppression in town, and the system is still operational. He said most of the upper floors haven’t changed much from 1966.

“This second floor, with some cleaning up and fresh paint would easily be restored to its original condition when the Otto Brothers were here,” he said.

Gretchen said the store building was a “home away from home” for her family.

“When we were very little my brother, Chuck, and I would play with toys like wagons and tricycles in the aisles on the second floor,” she said. “I miss everyone, but I just feel like the whole family is here with me today-my dad, uncles, and all the clerks who were like family to us.”

Gretchen said one of the store’s rules was that workers should always greet each other when they passed through departments during the day.

“But I’m chewing gum on the floor today, and that’s something we never allowed,” she laughed.

Otto Brothers began as a one-room dry goods shop at 286 Front St., established in 1886 by Gretchen’s grandfather, John Wesley Otto and his brother, Charles William Otto.

The family’s German roots intrigued Jann Adams, who teaches a history course on local German families at Marietta College.

“I’ve read a lot about the Otto family in my research and found them fascinating,” she said. “The German immigrants who settled here were known for their hard work and frugality.”

Adams noted John Wesley Otto began working as a clerk at age 13 for local businessman William Bosworth who helped encourage John Wesley and his brother to start their own business.

“But they didn’t have any money, so Mr. Bosworth loaned them $500 worth of merchandise to start, and they built this business from that,” Adams said.

Gretchen said her grandmother, Nellie Amelia Holst Otto, had a saying that became the family’s motto:

“To give without remembering and to receive without forgetting,” she said.

Monday’s tour of the historic store building will likely be her last, Gretchen said.

“I don’t know why it’s been on my mind so much lately, but I just wanted to see the store one more time,” she said. “I’m moving to Florida due to health issues this year, so this will probably be the last time I’ll be here.”