Saturday, March 09, 2013

The eternal optimism of John C. Flatt

Appearances can be deceiving and, as I've written before, that certainly is the case with this poor old building on the east side of the square, vacant since South Central Mutual Insurance moved to new quarters. Who would know, looking at it head on, that this is the oldest brick building in Lucas County?

Built during 1866-67 by pioneer merchant Oliver L. Palmer, the front was spruced up perhaps during the 1880s, then replaced entirely during the 1920s. It's necessary to walk down the alley beside the building to get some idea of its true age.

Chasing details about old buildings on the square, I discovered a week or two ago that the new front was added during June and July of 1925 by John C. Flatt, who had purchased the building from Pete T. Paton, who had operated a cigar and "gent's furnishings" store here for a couple of years.

Flatt had been making and selling candy and ice cream in Chariton since 1903, most recently in half of the north-side Blake Block, where Ben Franklin now is located.

When the remodeling was completed, the Flatt family moved into the upstairs apartment and opened their business downstairs. Candy cases and a soda fountain occupied the front of the building, an ice cream parlor filled a 20x26-foot area behind it and the candy kitchen brought up the rear. Ice cream-making operations were installed in the renovated basement.

The business proved to be so successful that it was necessary during November of the following year to build a 20x36-foot addition onto the rear of the building.

One of the interesting things about John C. Flatt, in business at this location for only 10 years before dying at age 57 in June of 1936, was his eternal optimism. The Chariton Patriot, helping Flatt celebrate his 30th anniversary in business on the square during April of 1933, recorded the details in a front-page story in its April 27 edition:

When Life Did Not Sail Smoothly
For J.C. Flatt During his 30 Years
in Business Here, He Merely "Dug In"

First Flatt Store Began on North Side With A Captal of $90

J.C. Flatt, pioneer Chariton business man, is looking back this week over 30 years of experience in making and selling candy, ice cream, and other confections in Chariton.

In 1903, at about this time of the year, four horses pulled a wagon hub-deep in mud from the Burlington depot to a frame building near the northeast corner of the square.

The house furnishings and a few candy tools had come from Colorado. Accompanying them was a 24-year-old youth who had worked in candy kitchens since the age of 16 with the constant desire to some day own a store of his own, his wife, and one son.

After paying the freight and drayage costs this young man had $90 and J.C. Flatt had his first store.

As he reviewed the past thirty years at his home over his present store Wednesday afternoon, Mr. Flatt went over a wide variety of ups and downs in business life. In the process he revealed why Flatt's is one of the few firms now operating on the public square that were in business in 1903. His business has been built on three very firm foundations --- courage, love of work, and willingness to serve.

Mr. Flatt didn't say so. He said, "Whatever measure of success I have obtained has been due to the continued patronage of Lucas county people. I greatly appreciate it, and hope to serve them for many years to come."

The first store didn't sell ice cream until May, 1903, largely because the proprietor didn't have the money to secure equipment.

In desperation he wrote letters to competitive manufacturing firms, mixed them in the envelopes, and due to the cut-throat competition which existed at the time managed to secure the necessary implements. He paid for them when the bill came due.

His store was there until the following August, when the Odd Fellows lodge purchased the frame buildings near the corner to erect a brick building and ordered him to move.

"Believe it or not," Mr. Flatt said, "there wasn't an empty building in Chariton at the time."

He purchased the frame building and planned to move it to a plot near the Chariton Herald-Patriot newspaper office, then located off the northwest corner of the square. As the building was being pulled over the curb it tipped and collapsed.

The next issue of the Heraldl-Patriot, then edited by Sam Greene, present California state senator, carried the story under the heading, "Flatt's Flat Flattens."

Mr. Flatt was almost flattened, too. However, he bought the fixtures of a store located next to Yengel's meat market, was there until November, and then moved back to the north side to occupy the west half of what is now the J.C. Penney Co. store. Another November event was the completion of the brick paving around the square and to the depot. W.F. Trost of Chariton was the engineer in charge.

Again calamity descended. Fire which started in a cafe next door destroyed his store.

Mr. Flatt started from scratch again, this time near his first location next to what was then the Fair store and is now occupied by Spurgeon's. He had no more than started, however, when a fire next door again threatened.

"I had had enough experience with fires by that time," Mr. Flatt said, "and when everyone yelled 'You had better move out,' I just sat at my candy bench and continued to sit. The fire never touched us.

"We had smooth sailing from then until 1907, when the First National bank failed. Business grew so bad that we were forced to give a note for five months rent.

"In those days a bank failure almost ruined a town forever. Chariton, however, rose from the ashes in remarkable fashion and soon recovered."

In 1911 Mr. Flatt lost a leg in a hunting accident. The same year his wife died.

In 1912, he came home from a second operation at a Kansas City hospital to find his liabilities six times greater than his assets and three motherless children to care for.

"I just dug in again," he said, "and with the support of many friends managed to pull through."

Mr. Flatt moved from the north side to his present location on the east side of the square in 1925. The present store is the oldest brick building in Chariton, but has been completely remodeled.

The store and manufacturing plants represent an investment of approximately $20,000.

In his manufacturing department Mr. Flatt stresses cleanliness and quality. HIs plant is said by salesmen to be the most sanitary in Iowa. His products, well, they've been eaten for 30 years.

"Styles have changed in candy, like in everything else," Mr. Flatt admitted. "There is a preference now for chocolates instead of the harder pieces that were formerly in vogue. However, many of the old types are coming back --- under new names."

Mr. Flatt likes to make candy. He gets a great deal of satisfaction from the tedious efforts that go into making his window displays among the best in the middle west.

"Sometimes, when things look dark, I think of entering another type of business, but I can never think of anything else I would like. And if a man can't make a success of work to which he is attracted, he doesn't stand much chance in anything else," he said.

While making candy and ice cream and piloting his business through fair weather and foul, Mr. Flatt has never neglected other sides of life.

He is chairman of the city park board. Chariton's two beautiful parks are largely due to his guidance. He is president of the Rotary club, was one of the charter memers of the Commercial club, and has been prominent in other activities.

Through the week bouquets, congratulations on the past, and best wishes for the future have been pouring into Flatt's store.

John C. Flatt (born Aug. 28, 1878) died at age 57 on June 1, 1936, and his buried in the Chariton Cemetery with his wives Irena (1871-1911) and Elma (1885-1960) and an infant son, Richard Arthur, born and died during 1909.

No comments: