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20 E. 5th Street

BY CAROLINE EGGERS - ceggers@perutribune.com

Bread stealing scoundrels. Unusual employment opportunities. And a major flood.

After more than 100 years of memories, scandals and sweet-smelling bread, the red pile of bricks located at 20 E. 5th may be the first downtown building in Peru to undergo transformation through a citywide effort to preserve some of its own history.

At the turn of the 20th century, Mercer & Co Steam Bakery, whose name still reads across the top of the building, popped up in Downtown Peru at 20 E. 5th.

Moses P. Mercer, the son of a carpenter who moved to Peru in 1845, opened up the shop in 1902 at the age of 75.

“There is nothing more essential to good health than bread and there is no bread with more nutriment that Mercer & CO Pioneer loaf,” read one slogan in 1908.

“The very best is none too good for you. The very best is Mercer’s Pioneer bread,” another slogan said.

During the bakery’s 20-year tenure, the “great flood of 1913” completely erased the streets of Court and 5th below the building.

In 1915, a horse drawn delivery wagon “ran with great speed” directly into a Mercer & Co. delivery wagon, which was turned completely over right in front of their business.

Miami Vulcanizing occupied the back of building in 1916, and presumably was a tire service shops – vulcanization is the act of adding sulfur to a rubber-like substance, like tires, to make it more durable.

Next came Seiler & Messmore Bakery, which was also called Messmore Brothers and MESSMORE’s Bread and Cakes.

This bakery lasted from around 1920 to at least 1941, as listed in the city of Peru directory.

“Every morsel tempting and palatable,” one slogan read. “They satisfy. You’ll ask for more.”

The bakery probably lasted even longer, as some Peruvians recall a bowling alley opening up on the second floor over the bakery.

Peru Common Council Member Terry Alley remembers visiting, and said the building already seemed very old 50 years ago. The bowling center hired kids from the high schools, and they would manually set the pins for you, Alley said.

Fellow Council Member Phyllis Torrence used to stop by the four-lane bowling alley often because her friend, Marilyn, was a pin setter.

“There weren’t too many jobs for girls, let alone boys, back in that day,” Torrence said. “It was interesting to sit and watch.”

The block used to also have a restaurant, taxi service, and the former Daily Miami County Sentinel newspaper office, and Torrence recalled when the bakery was underneath the bowling alley.

“It was quite a busy street at one time,” Torrence said. “They tore a lot of those old buildings down. They all went by the wayside.”

Inside the century old building, “it’s surprising how much room there is,” she said.

The late John Guyer had reminisced to Peru Building Administrative Assistant Brenda Douglass that when he was a pin setter, he would wait until the bakery would put out fresh racks of bread into the alley to cool and would sneak down and take a loaf or two off the rack.

On an “If you grew up in or around the town of Peru, Indiana – remember when” post on Facebook, several folks said they had parents who were pin setters at the alley, and a few remembered bowling there in the 1950s, when there was a different shop owner underneath.

David Eynart said he actually was a pin setter in the late 1950s, and recalls being hit in the lower legs by flying pins, getting hit by spare balls thrown by beginner bowlers, and noticing fellow pinsetters by a small, overdeveloped muscle on the outside of the elbow. He said the pin setters would toss a football on the grassy Courthouse lawn while waiting for weekend customers.

The last recorded date of operation was 1960.

Overlapping with the bowling business, G. C. Baber Motor Supply relocated to the first floor of 20 E. 5th in 1951, and remained there until 1990.

Parking signs still painted on the building today were there as early as the 1960s, according to photographs.

Shortly after Baber closed, T.J. Phillips Fabric Store opened in 1992, and lasted through 2009.

Now, after nearly 10 years without a commercial owner, 20 E. 5th may finally get the attention it needs.

The city of Peru purchased the building in 2015 for just $400 under Mayor Jim Walker, and the Miami County Economic Development Authority has since spearheaded the effort to get a business back inside.

A developer has already been selected to partner with the city to restore the building for business, and MCEDA is waiting on design plans now, according to Executive Director Jim Tidd.

In advance of development talks, Tidd hired a structural engineer to determine if the building is sound. With the exception of rear end of the building, the structure is primed for renovation.

But “it’s going to take some serious restoration,” he said. “That building needs more than a facelift.”

Before any agreements are finalized, Tidd will present plans to the city council beforehand for approval on funding – and hopefully begin renovations shortly thereafter.

The deceptively large space at the intersection of 5th and Court Streets could open up its doors to a new business by this summer, Tidd said.