Bygone Muncie: Nickey Block’s Treasure

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“Sale of leftover WALL PAPER. 5, 6, 7, 8 and 10c. per roll, for the next 10 days. DRUGS AND THE BOOK OF NICKEY.

This was the advertisement Frank and Vinton Nickey published in the Muncie Evening Press on January 9, 1890. The Nickey brothers operated a popular drugstore on the southwest corner of Main and Mulberry during the height of the gas boom. In addition to offering prescription drugs, the Nickeys sold a variety of other products, including wallpaper, moldings, books, Bibles, pens and ink, perfume, and alcohol.

The Nickeys inherited the store from their father, Jeremiah. The elder Nickey had established Nickey’s Drug and Book Store on this corner in the 1870s. After his death in 1886, his sons ran the business until they sold it in the early 1900s. The new owners renamed the store to Shaw and Jackson Drugs. A few years later, it became the HM Jackson Drug Company.

During the Great Depression, Hook’s Drugs was the building’s main tenant, followed in the middle of the century by Modern Electric, then Hood Music, Cade Florist and others. The Downtown Farm Stand has occupied the space since 2007, retailing its organic groceries as the only downtown grocer. The building’s second-story spaces and storefronts along Mulberry have served many occupants over the years, although too many to list here.

While we know a lot about these tenants, the origin of the Nickey Building itself is a puzzle. Sara and Dave Ring, the owners of the Farm Stand and the current owners of the building, have found evidence dating to at least the 1880s. But the exact age is a best guess, given the building’s many modifications.

Formerly Muncie:Shopping, church, snow and charitable donations marked the Christmas of 1929

From the street today, it looks like four buildings occupy the southwest corner of Main and Mulberry. But by the end of the 19th century, there were probably six separate structures. There were two 1875 buildings at the western end of this strip which were combined for the R. Meeks and Sons Mortuary. Historically, these buildings were 115 and 117 E. Main. The building along the alley was demolished in 1980 and is now a parking lot.

The law firms between the old Meeks building and the Farm Stand, historically 119 and 121 E. Main, were probably built as separate structures around 1880. The Farm Stand occupies the two remaining buildings, an unnamed structure in 123 E. Main and the Nickey Building at 125 E. Main. It is not known when they were built, let alone combined, but it is possible that part of the original Nickey Building dates from the late 1870s.

The original facade of the Nickey Building circa 1900.

Guess Jeremiah Nickey had some sort of retail space in an older building on the corner. In the late 1870s, it was demolished to create the Nickey Block. In the 1876-1877 Emerson City Directory, Jeremiah Nickey is listed as a “drug and paint dealer” at 97 E. Main. A Sanborn Fire Insurance card from 1883 placed 97 E. Main on the southwest corner of Main and Mulberry with the label “Drugs, Books, & Wallpaper”. The footprint of the building on this map matches what exists today.

The building next to the Nickey, originally 91 E. Main, served as retail space for several hardware stores in the late 19th century, including Putnam and Kirby Wholesalers. At the turn of the 20th century, the St. John Cigar Company moved here. In addition to tobacco, guests could play pool on the first floor or climb a narrow spiral staircase to a small bowling alley on the second.

In the 1890s, city officials renumbered the addresses of downtown streets. 91 and 97 E. Main became 123 and 125 E. Main, respectively. A facade restoration in the 1910s was the likely date the Nickey was combined with its neighbor.

The Rings bought the building a century later in 2018 and began the difficult restoration journey. Through this process, they discovered random artifacts from Nickey’s long history. But two years ago, Dave Ring discovered a legitimate historical treasure hidden deep in his new building.

Tucked away in a nearly inaccessible attic, carefully concealed under a plank covered in coal ash, Ring found an early 1890s account book from Nickey’s Drug and Book Store. It was in excellent condition!

The ledger contains records of the purchases of Munsonians, businesses, and churches from the gas boom era. These customers purchased a wide variety of products from Nickey’s including prescription drugs, wallpaper, stationery, perfume, turpentine, grain alcohol and whiskey. The book lists many clients, several of whom you can recognize including Frank Ball, Citizens Street Railway Company (a precursor to Union Traction), Merchants National Bank (First Merchants), Winifred Brady, Thomas Neely, R. Meeks & Sons Mortuary , James Boyce, OW Crabbs and Ball Brothers Glass.

Nickey’s clients came from all walks of life. Bro. William Schmidt, the pastor of St. Lawrence, was a patron, as was Kate Phinney, the famous Madame de Muncie during the gas boom era. Arthur Patterson, owner of the nearby Patterson Block, has often stopped at Nickey’s for moldings and wallpaper, as has Arabella Winans, co-founder of the Women’s Franchise League. Several churches had accounts with Nickey, including Bethel AME. The log shows church elders purchasing several reams of Nickey’s wallpaper for the shrine just before Christmas.

Modern Electric was a key tenant of the Nickey Building in the mid-20th century.

By far the biggest customer of the ledger, however, is the town of Muncie. It is not clear whether the entries reflect the business of the city council, the mayor’s office, or some other city department. But whoever did the shopping in town, did so frequently at Nickey’s. As you can imagine, the ledger records the city buying large amounts of ink and paper, but also, oddly enough, whiskey.

Frederick Putnam, a settler trader and columnist, was also a frequent customer. I tried to date the ledger accurately by cross-checking Putnam’s purchases at Nickey’s with his diary entries from the early 1890s, but I was not very lucky. However, Putnam recorded several entries on Jeremiah Nickey a few years earlier in 1879. On March 7, Putnam wrote that “Mr. Nickey’s Hands Laying Bricks – Some Preparation for the Construction in Progress. Two weeks later he wrote: “Mr. Nickey started masonry at the back of his store. If Putnam was referring to the construction of the building we know today, then the Nickey Block is one of the oldest standing structures in downtown Muncie.

I plan to return to the ledger in future columns of ByGone Muncie this year, as there is a lot to explore. But for now, Happy New Year!

Delaware County Historical Society

Chris Flook is a board member of the Delaware County Historical Society and is the author of “Lost Towns of Delaware County, Indiana” and “Native Americans of East-Central Indiana”. For more information about the Delaware County Historical Society, visit delawarecountyhistory.org.

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