It happened on Woodville Road (First in a series)

Lou Hebert

The greatness of the Great Eastern Shopping Center

Driving past the Great Eastern Shopping Center in recent years, it's become apparent that this once “Great” shopping hub for Toledo's Eastern suburbia is a ghost of its former self. The once bustling and robust collection of stores and retail commerce on Woodville Road appears to be just a breath away from turning out the lights.
Even the City of Northwood tried to get it condemned recently as a nuisance; a far cry from the big hearty welcome it got when the lights were first turned on for its spectacular grand opening in November of 1956. Nov 7th at noon, the Olney High School band sounded a trumpet fanfare and a giant padlock was opened on a giant wooden lock to officially open the celebration. That night, the crowd was thrilled with fireworks and a high wire act by the Great Gretona Family as they cavorted on the floodlit cable work above the crowded parking lot.
This event marked a new era in shopping for those of us who lived east of the Maumee River. Consumer convenience was the new seduction. No more having to go downtown or find a place to park, or walk from street to street to locate a store. This “cash and carry” Mecca boasted more than 60 stores, all on an 87-acre site that also held a parking lot that could accommodate 5,000 cars. And parking was free with overhead lighting at night. At the front of the center, a cruising lane allowed shoppers to carry their bags and packages out to a waiting car. The shiny future had arrived and it was right there on Woodville Road.
The Great Eastern, like its newly opened twin in West Toledo, the Miracle Mile, would have plenty of shopping options. The Great Eastern was anchored by J.C. Penny, W.T. Grant, a Sears and Roebuck, and Joseph's and Kroger supermarkets. There were also scores of smaller shops including banks, baked goods, a candy store, barber and beauty shops, a hardware, a burger joint, and even a laundry.
Many of the stores were locally owned at the time, such as B.R. Baker Clothing, Grinnel's Music, Balin Shoe Store, Kirby's Shoes, Crosby Shoes, Kennedy Shoe Repair, Wamer's Paints, Keidan Jewelers, and Shinner’s Meat Market which offered free orchids to the first 2,000 ladies who came to the store. Not to be outdone, Kroger's, offered free pony rides for kids that first week of the opening. There was also a Hobby Center Toy Store, which, as an eight-year-old boy had my attention.
The center also offered a new modern retail look as the design of most store fronts incorporated porcelain tile, bricks and enamel, coupled with glass. Lots of glass. There were more than 100,000 square feet of glass used for the large windows and store fronts, and in the center was the mall or plaza area where smaller shops could display their wares in the big glass windows. At the Sears and Roebuck store, you could even get your car fixed as it had an auto service department.
The Great Eastern also spawned other retail stores along that stretch of roadway in Northwood. A Putt-Putt golf course, a few new restaurants, a “Bargain Barn”, a shoe store, gas stations and of course, the golden arches of McDonalds. One of the first in the Toledo area. One of my favorite haunts was the Big Boy on Woodville Road, where teens gathered like seagulls on Friday nights. It was the place to be.
Woodville Road was no stranger to retail and commerce over the years. From Toledo to Genoa, this stretch of roadway was dotted with a variety of businesses and enterprises. But this endeavor was something new. Until the Great Eastern was placed on the plat of Wood County real estate, it had been mostly farmland.
Its transformation into a retail center, however, also transformed not just the rural acres but changed the retail futures of many nearby communities. Why go to the mom and pop stores in your hometown, when so many more retail choices loomed just a few miles away?
And little doubt that these big changes in shopping habits led to the downfall of downtown Toledo's popular shopping corridor by the mid 1970's. Especially the “malls”. And Woodville Road had the first one in the area, with the opening of Woodville Mall in 1970. Others soon followed, and shopping habits changed again. But retail fortunes shift quickly. Here we are in 2023, and most of the malls are history.
Knocked down and plowed under, they exist today in memory only. But strangely, the old sprawling shopping centers of the 1950's, like the Great Eastern, still stubbornly stand, and hang on as echoes of another time and place.

Next in the series...The Forest Park Amusement Center


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