Diverse ‘Pants Factory’ history


The building known as the “Pants Factory” on North West Street in Hillsboro has had a diverse history and is a testament to the power of architectural preservation, adaptation and reinvention, according to Columbus preservationist Jeffrey Darbee.

Darbee, a historic preservation consultant, was instrumental in helping to get the now more than 100-year-old building placed on the National Register of Historic Places over 20 years ago, after which it experienced an extensive remodeling that transformed what had previously been variously an agricultural business, garment factory, and three-story antique mall, into a thriving residential space for senior citizens in Hillsboro.

The name “Pants Factory” came from the building’s stint as a production facility for the Hercules Trouser Company. Despite the fact that this wasn’t the original commercial use of the building, the name stuck.

The eventual closure of the Pants Factory after its many decades functioning as such did not stop people from using the name to refer to it, something that did not escape notice by the new developers. They incorporated the name as part of the building’s new identity as apartments. It is now known as the Pants Factory Senior Apartments, a nod to the past and an acknowledgment that with innovation and creativity, historic buildings intended for one purpose can enjoy continued relevance when adapted for another.

Their immediate predecessors also invoked the Pants Factory name, adapting the building in the 1990s as an antique mall. They called it The Old Pants Factory Mall, and imagined the building as a showplace for antiques, collectibles and memorabilia.

Upon its opening, a C.S. Bell bell dated 1886 was given away and a C.S. Bell display was promised to visitors during its opening week, according to a classified advertisement in the Cincinnati Enquirer. Depression and other glassware and antiques, along with dealer space, were offered in the advertisement.

An inscription at top of the front of the building bearing the name of “Roads” is a clue to the building’s storied past that predates its incarnation as a pants factory.

The building was originally built by the J.E. Roads Company as the new home of the Highland Egg and Poultry Company. Save for the apparel presumably donned by its many employees, the company had nothing to do with pants during its original venture in the early years of the 20th century.

One of its younger employees was then 12-year-old Vince Golden, father of Sue Golden Boatman. She said that, “When I was growing up, it was always the pants factory. They made pants there.” But she said her dad’s memories go back to when, as a young boy, he got his first job sorting eggs at what was then the poultry company.

Boatman said that one of the most salient stories her father told her verbally was about the time when he was a 12-year-old employee and had the opportunity to travel with one of the company drivers to deliver shipments of eggs to Cleveland.

She said that after having obtained parental permission, Mr. Roads, the proprietor, gave him an advance of 25 cents to eat on, and they were on their way. Boatman said her father said that, “in the middle of the night, somewhere around Columbus,” that the driver told her father to, “get out and sit on a bench while he took a nap on the seat of the truck” for a few hours before they resumed their trip to Cleveland.

Upon arrival, Boatman said her dad told her that, “The driver sent him over to a restaurant and he got the most wonderful breakfast for 25 cents.”

Boatman said that while, “I always loved to hear these stories,” the written narrative that her father had maintained in his handwritten notes also provided an illustration of what his life was like while working there.

Boatman said that it was her father’s lack of confidence in his penmanship that was the catalyst for the creation of pages of written first person histories describing her father’s time with the company.

“I gave him a book where they ask you to write things down, they give you prompts,” she said. “He would never write in the book because he thought his handwriting was terrible.” So he would write the page number down with the question and then he would write it on a separate piece of paper.”

One of the questions was: What was your first job?

“My first job was working on an egg truck in the summer between sixth and seventh grades,” Golden wrote. “I rode along and helped load the truck as we picked up eggs in groceries in several small towns. People who had chickens would bring the eggs into the groceries and exchange them for whatever they needed. When the pickup was completed, we returned to Roads Hatchery in Hillsboro and unloaded the truck where the eggs were stored until enough were on hand for shipment by a much larger truck to Cleveland. Our small truck used for the pickup could haul about 40 cases. A case of eggs is 30 dozen.”

“We ran the routes on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, normally leaving Hillsboro about 1 p.m. and getting in around 9 p.m.,” Golden continued. “Except on Saturday, which would be around midnight. The groceries always had more eggs on Saturday as that was shopping day. My salary was two dollars per week which was a good job for a 12-year-old boy. The guy who drove the truck only made ten.”

Boatman’s father wrote that at the end of that summer he became employed, “at the Parker Hotel as a bellhop.”

Elsewhere in Boatman’s father’s notes there is mention of the building functioning as a dairy.

“If you provided your own bucket, you could buy three gallons of skim milk at the dairy for ten cents,” he remembered.

Boatman said her father was born in 1924 and they moved to Hillsboro and lived at the bottom of the Pants Factory on Beech Street about 1930.

Roads’ business also proved instrumental in the family history of Dr. Jeff Beery, who wrote in, “Highland County, Ohio, a Pictorial History”, about his paternal grandparents moving with his father, Forrest Berry, and his siblings, “to Hillsboro in 1925 to open a baby chick hatchery business in the Pants Factory building (then known as the Roads Chickery), on the corner of North West and Beech Street”

Beery described how their family business prospered in scale and location from its beginnings at the Roads building.

Darbee, who filed the paperwork to petition for the building’s inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places, said that while he doesn’t remember the precise circumstances, he believes it was pursuant to a request by the then owner to help facilitate the process.

Darbee noted in the application comments that, “The building represents a property type, the early 20th century all-masonry industrial building, that has all but disappeared from Hillsboro. The building is significant as a physical remnant of the small-scale, but important, industrial base that once existed in Hillsboro. Simple, unadorned, masonry bearing wall construction.”

At the presumed behest of the owner, the application was successfully filed and approved.

Subsequently, it was remodeled and converted into senior citizen housing. Shortly thereafter, the newly remodeled building was part of the biennial Highland County Historical Society House Tour which showcased its transformation to others.

Darbee and his wife, Nancy Recchie, who formed Benjamin D. Rickey & Co., and whose professional and personal partnership began when they were protesting the proposed demolition historical landmark Columbus’ Union Station, “dedicated their lives to preserving and promoting historic and cultural legacy,” according to reports.

Darbee said that he and Recchie are familiar with the historic architecture of Hillsboro, having, “worked in the eighties with an interesting person named Jack Hope… He had interesting ideas about what to do in Hillsboro.”

Darbee explained that the preservation of historic architecture is important for many reasons, but that a dearth of investment capital can become an unfortunate hindrance. Another factor is perception.

Many people, he said, think new is better. “This is old, it looks terrible. Therefore it must not be worth preserving. And it ignores the fact that a lot of these buildings can take a lot of abuse, and still be restorable, and, as my wife pointed out, more interesting, as well,” he said.

He said that overcoming the stigma of a building being old is a classic problem preservations have historically dealt with.

“When they’re well built they tend to last a long time even when they’ve had deferred maintenance,” he said. “And seemingly unimportant or unattractive buildings can become very useful and very attractive, depending on how you handle them.”

He said that, “It’s kind of distressing to hear the stories” about how many historic buildings have been torn down in Hillsboro.

“We see it all over Ohio. There are places where the economic conditions are right for reinvestment in historic buildings and there are places where it’s much harder. The more rural areas and especially the more southern areas tend to be that way,” he said. “It’s really a shame, because they have some of the richest architecture. They tend to be the earlier settled parts of the state.”

Darbee said that a lack of commitment to historic preservation can have deleterious effects.

He said people might think, “That’s only one house. We have lots of houses in town. Or, you know, that old commercial building. It’s only one building, so, you know, we don’t need that.”

He said that this incremental architectural erosion can have a cumulative negative effect.

“Pretty soon, you lose your streetscapes, you lose your neighborhoods, because it’s one after another. That sends the wrong message to people who come to town,” he said. “Vacant lot after vacant lot or parking lot after parking lot… begins to hurt a community.”

“We learned long ago that historic preservation is real estate and buildings get preserved when there is a good sound economic use to go into them,”, Darbee said. “The Pants Factory is a great example.”

Darbee said that although he doesn’t remember the exact details of how he got involved with the Pants Factory preservation efforts, he is very familiar with Hillsboro.

“It’s a great downtown,” he said.

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