There are less than a dozen business buildings on Norwalk’s Main Street which date from the 20th century. The majority of them were built in the 19th century, although most have had a modern business room front added along with other structural changes. The oldest business building stands at 28-30 E. Main St. It was built in 1834 by William Pitt Brown as the American House hotel.
The 20th century structure under discussion today is located at 60-64 E. Main St. and is known to us seniors as the “Ford Garage,” though the last Ford drove away from there more than 30 years ago. This is at least the fourth building at this location, with the first three having been destroyed by fire.
Each of these buildings was occupied by the livery stable of John Mitchell Harkness, a Civil War veteran commonly known as “Mitch.” In his era the name of Harkness was one of the best known in Norwalk. Anyone who “was anybody” rented their horse and rig from Harkness Livery.
Mitch had started his livery business at this location in 1867. He used mainly the old livery barn of the City Hotel, a wooden building at 54-58 E. Main St., but also used a wooden building at 60 E. Main St. In June 1875 the Harkness enterprises were destroyed by fire which originated in the upper story. The dozen or more horses along with harnesses and buggies on the main floor were removed, although the sleighs, cutters and horse feed on the second floor was lost.
A new wooden building was built on another Main Street lot immediately afterward, and was ready to occupy in just two months. Mitch was so grateful to the Fire Department for their fine work that he offered then the use of the new building for a dance and social. The open floor was 30 by 112 feet, so there was plenty of room.
Just two years later, on April 8, 1877, the City Hotel was discovered to be on fire. Even though most of the town turned out to help, there was a delay in telegraphing word to the water pumping station on the river west of town. By the time sufficient water pressure could be had, almost the entire block of wooden buildings was destroyed. Flying sparks threatened the west side of South Prospect and ignited roof fires as far away as the Courthouse. As before, the livestock and much of the equipment was saved.
Within a few months another new wooden building was built on the lot. This stood until March 12, 1906, when a frozen water pipe was being thawed and the wall ignited. Eventually the front portion of the building was destroyed and significant damage was done to the Wheaton Block at 54-58 E. Main St. The Harkness stock was removed safely as was much of the merchandise in the other building. The Harkness family lived on the second floor of their building, and they lost all of their personal property.
Following this third fire the present building was built of a special pressed white brick made in Fremont. The same material was being used at the time to build the house at 30 Woodlawn Ave. Another significant change was that the Harkness family would no longer live in the second story as before.
Within a few years the horse had been replaced by the auto, and the Harkness firm ceased to exist. J. R. Dall bought the property in 1921 and opened his first Ford Automobile agency. His changes here included the present addition at the rear, near Seminary. Mr. Dall moved to Elyria in 1927, and the Harkness property remained the Ford agency for more than 50 years under a number of different owners.
Next Week: More about livery stables.