#HomeGrownStories – Jim Oda

August 10, 2017

Jim Oda is a fifth generation Miami County resident. Before working at the library, he owned an antiquarian bookstore in Piqua. Today Jim is the Library Director of the Piqua Public Library. In 2008, the library moved from its location in the former Piqua Men’s Club to the Fort Piqua Plaza. The Plaza, built in 1891 underwent a 21 million dollar renovation. Today the Plaza not only houses the library but also Turntable Cafe, Mulligan’s Pub and a Banquet Center.

On his connection to Miami County and the Piqua Public Library:
I live here in Piqua. I was born and raised in Miami County. I’m the fifth-generation in my family to live here. My family moved to the area in 1803. They keep trying to get rid of us but we keep coming back [laughs].

I’ve worked at the library for 26 years, so a while. I actually started working here when I was ten. My mother worked at the library so for one summer I shelved books in the children’s department. That’s when the library was the Flesh Piqua Library on Green Street. Before I worked at the library I had an antiquarian bookstore on Main Street. I had that for ten years. I’ve always worked with books and history.

About the history of the Fort Piqua Plaza:
The Plaza Hotel was built in 1891. It was Piqua’s response to Troy getting the county seat of Miami County and the courthouse. The Miami County courthouse was built in 1885. It’s one of the great courthouses of the state of Ohio. It’s a wonderful place. Piqua was more than a little jealous, so two men, Orr and Statler, got together. They hired the same architect, Joseph W. Yost, to design this building. It had 101 rooms, which was too big for the community. We didn’t really need a grand hotel. We had a lot of people coming through town with the east-west and north-south railroads, but it was overkill. The businesses on the ground floor are what kept this building going. They also had a lot of meeting spaces.

Over the years many famous people visited the hotel. Several presidents, including William Howard Taft, Teddy Roosevelt, and Warren G. Harding spoke at the hotel. They stood on the balcony out in front and people gathered on the square. We also had Houdini stay at the hotel. He was giving a performance at the Opera house a block and a half from here. The first meeting of the Piqua Anti-Saloon league at the start of Prohibition was held here. Then when Prohibition ended we had the first bar in Piqua in the basement. We went full circle on that issue. In 1946 the local chapter of the NAACP held a sit-in at the bus stop lunch counter there. That was the beginning of ending segregated seating in the community. Not only has this building been the hotel but it has also been a community center. We try now as the library, the museum, and the art gallery to continue that concept of a community center.

On the renovation of the Plaza Hotel:
Over time the hotel began to deteriorate. It’s a big building and takes a lot of money for a renovation. The owners were not interested in putting big bucks into what were weekly rentals of the rooms. The first talk of renovations that I can recall was in the late the 1980s. Various people would come and look at it and see if they could renovate it. Return on investments was always the tough selling point. One person said they could put a helicopter pad on the roof and connect Piqua to Cincinnati and Columbus [laughs]. We weren’t seeing much helicopter traffic so that idea didn’t go through. [laughs]. It took a while. It was 1997 or 1998 when we started getting serious. A couple of committees were formed with Ruth Koon, Mainstreet Piqua, and the city. They started looking for ways to find the funding. That was the key. This was a 21 million dollar project. That’s a lot of money in Piqua. The city could get certain funds and the library as a non-profit could get different funds. We had about 32 different funding sources. Some were big amounts, some were little. About 2 ½ million was private money from individual donations. One of the biggest donors to that was Jim and Connie Brown of Hartzell Propeller. A lot of people of said, “Why don’t we tear it down and turn it into a parking lot?” We’re glad they didn’t do that. Even when the library was involved people thought about tearing it down and putting up a rectangular building. That would have been easier. There’s a lot of compromises when dealing with an old building. But then there’s no charm, there’s no pizzazz to that rectangle building. We’re very glad that it turned out the way it did.

On the upcoming tenth anniversary of the renovation:
The library moved in here in 2008. We’re looking at our 10th anniversary next year. We’re working on various things, having people come and visit us, giving tours, lectures and different displays. We’re looking at trying to do something once a month. It will be a fun time.

On touring the Piqua Public Library and the Fort Piqua Plaza:
Every two to three months we offer a public tour. We do a lot of tours for reunions of various kinds. We will also lead a tour for a family coming through. Sometimes it’s on the spur of the moment. If there’s somebody available and we can do it. I know some people get upset with us because we do not take them up to see the grand dining room and the ballroom. It’s a spectacular space but it’s booked for weddings most Saturdays of the month. Brides don’t appreciate it if in the middle of their wedding or reception we come in with a tour group. We tour from the fourth floor down to the basement.

What he loves most about Miami County:
I love the people. We have great people in Miami County. People that are cheery. If I say “hi” they will say “hi” back. People that will work with you, people that will help you out. People that are enjoyable to be around. The volunteers in Miami County are great. Every community has that group that if you call them you know they will come and help you out.

We have hundreds of different churches. A church is people to me. It’s much more than a little building. All the people here make it a nice place to live. It’s a nice place to grow up. It’s a friendly, happy area. Now, do we have crime? Yes. Do we have too much crime? Yes. Do we have drug problems? Yes. But balanced against that we have people that will give you the shirt off their back and help you. People look out for each other. It’s the neighborhoods and it’s the communities here that all come together in the county.

His Miami County recommendations for out-of-town visitors:
Visit the small towns. Go to Covington’s downtown. Go to Brandt. Drive around Bethel Township. They’re beautiful areas with quaint downtowns. It’s not a big city — it’s not Rockefeller Center — but it’s very nice. Most of our roads are straight because they’re based on surveying lines. So you can go right, left, right, left and not get lost. Some of them are a little hog path. People think that a curve in a road is a “cow path.”  They’re actually not. When a farmer calls in the cows, the cows don’t wander about. They go straight to the barn. So the little curly cues and roundabouts in the rural areas of our county were formed because of huge trees. Rather than going to the effort of cutting the tree down and taking out the roots, they made the road go around it. It was a lot easier to do that. Of course, now that the trees are gone it looks like a bunch of curves in the road.

I definitely recommend folks from out of town come in and visit us at the library. Come and get a tour. Architecturally, the interior of the library is spectacular. You can see small town grandeur of the 1890s. Throughout the library, we have historical exhibits. Instead of putting everything all together for the museum we spread it out. You can wander around, turn the corner and there’s something new to see. We have an art gallery up on the second floor. The library has about 150 to 160 different pieces in our permanent collection. We rotate that through the gallery. The Ohio Watercolor Society will hold one of their traveling exhibits here. Sometimes we’ll have one person shows. There’s a lot of our local art to see. It’s definitely worth a stop to see how art in our county is preserved.

Piqua Public Library
116 West High Street
Piqua, Ohio 45356
Facebook: @piqua.library
Instagram: @piqualibrary
Twitter: @PiquaLibrary

Follow our storyteller and interviewer, Courtney Denning, at ThisOhioLife.com.