The widowed entrepreneur persevered to create a lasting, tasty legacyLeo Deluca The dawn of the 20th century was a remarkable time in Dayton. On Oct. 5, 1905, Wilbur Wright shattered the brothers’ previous flying records at Huffman Prairie Flying Field; Charles Kettering’s automobile starter motor debuted on the 1912 Cadillac; and National Cash Register founder John H. Patterson was solidifying his position as the Father of American Salesmanship.
During this time of immense positive change Dayton resident Charlotte Culp was facing immense personal crisis.
Culp had recently been widowed with six children to feed. A talented cook, she began preparing baked cakes, rolls and bread, then sending her kids to sell them door-to-door. The endeavor was a success, prompting her to first sell goods via horse and wagon before opening a stand at the 34 South Main Street Market.
In 1904, after the grand opening of the Third Street Arcade, Culp’s eldest son, Howard, expanded the business, selling poultry, eggs, cheese and dill pickles at three lunch counters under the glass-domed rotunda of the Flemish-style building.
But when the Great 1913 Flood, Ohio’s worst natural disaster, drowned Dayton in some 20 feet of water the Arcade was hit hard, destroying the Culp family’s bakery equipment and a brand new NCR cash register.
After the waters subsided Culp’s rose, re-opening as a bakery in the center of the Arcade before the family opened a full-service cafeteria in 1930. On the Fourth Street side of the Arcade, across from the Keith Theater, Culp’s sold renowned pies, pastries and home-cooked food.
The following decade, with wartime production in full swing and a rush of military personnel reporting to Wright and Patterson Fields, Dayton’s population spiked. Culp’s reaped the benefits. By the 1940s it was serving as many as 5,000 customers a day.
Not only was Culp’s Dayton’s first restaurant to offer air conditioning, but it also featured the first electric Hammond organ in the area, the inaugural concert played by a visiting Chicago artist.
Culp’s was sold in 1960 and the following year moved to a new Kettering location off Far Hills Avenue. From the 1970s through the 1990s the restaurant disappeared from the Dayton landscape before returning in 2001 at Carillon Historical Park. It was the first time Carillon Park ventured into regular food service.
Now, the completely reimagined restaurant has reopened at the new Heritage Center of Regional Leadership. Inside are a period-inspired soda fountain and a beautifully restored 1903 Barney & Smith #602 interurban car. Once operating on the Dayton & Western Traction Co. line between Dayton and Eaton, the interurban car sits atop historic brick that covered Wayne Avenue alongside the Dayton & Xenia Streetcar tracks.
Kids and adults alike can enjoy a traditional soda, coffee or phosphate at the marble-topped soda fountain or enjoy a meal inside the #602. Today, the spirit of Charlotte Culp and her family’s legendary Dayton restaurant lives on at Carillon Historical Park.