In 1980, top songs included the Doobie Brothers’ “What a Fool Believes” and “Hot Stuff” by Donna Summers. Urban Cowboy and The Empire Strikes Back were playing at the movies. Sony launched the Walkman. Pac Man and Cabbage Patch Dolls were all the rage. NHL’s Great One Wayne Gretsky scored his first NHL goal. CNN had its first broadcast.
Newspapers reported the fall of the Berlin Wall, Mother Theresa awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and Baby Jessica rescued from a well. And in the Mansfield, Ohio News Journal this story appeared: “Tom Smith, local firefighter, opens mini-storage facility next to the cable TV office on Lexington Avenue.”
It all started with Tom Smith’s cars. An avid Corvette enthusiast, he rented a barn from a local farmer to store his cars. There was some extra space in the barn, so he sublet that space to other car buffs.
One day, a friend called Tom’s attention to a magazine article detailing a new trend for “mini-storage” in Texas. Intrigued, Tom called the author, Bill Ard, a self-storage pioneer living in Kansas City and they discussed this brand new industry. People had stuff and they needed a place to store it.
Tom flew Bill Ard to Mansfield and together they studied different areas of the city and selected what they thought would be the best location for opening a mini-storage property. Tom picked 1585 Lexington Avenue, next to the cable TV office, and that’s where he opened the first Storage Inns of America.
Taking out a second mortgage on his house, Tom set to work. His father was a little skeptical. Would people really pay money to store their stuff? But setting doubts aside, father and son worked together to build the first 40 x 60 storage structure, a brick building with a truss roof.
During construction a man arrived with a restaurant cooler to store. Tom asked could he wait a month for the construction to be complete? But the man insisted he needed the space now. Not wanting to lose a customer, Tom and his Dad measured out a space on the concrete slab floor. Placing the cooler within the chalk markings, they continued to building around it. They had their first paying customer and they were on their way!
That first 40 x 60 building is still renting storage spaces today, with eleven more storage buildings on site. Tom’s parents, Carlton and Donna, managed the location for over ten years and Tom’s father remembers renting a 10 x 10 to some ladies who held bible study classes in the unit in the summer, because the property backed up to a woods, the birds were chirping and it was very peaceful.
In 1987, Tom and his wife Debbie relocated to Dayton. There, Tom built the second Storage Inns of America, this one at 6400 Bigger Road in Centerville. To get the best use from the site, and to manage issues with water runoff, Tom installed underground storm drainage. The pipes are big enough for a six-foot man to stand upright in them, and they run the length of the property.
During construction on a windy overcast morning, the coffee wagon blew its horn about 10:15 and all stopped for a coffee and donut. A truck driver coming down Bigger Road also stopped to get a coffee.
“It’s a shame how that twister knocked that building down back there,” the driver said. Tom and his crew raced down the property and found their new “Building F” in a twisted mess. A passing tornado had tangled the building beyond repair. It was rebuilt, though and became part of the 107,000 s.f. complex at Bigger Road.
As soon as Centerville was complete, Tom was out looking for another location, finding one north of Dayton, in Huber Heights. Then came the next, at Alex-Bell Road, which contained Tom and Debbie Smith’s first climate-controlled storage spaces.
Traveling north to Troy, they built Storage Inns of America number five there in 1996, and a few months later, Wright Brothers Storage Inn went up across from the main runway of Wright Brothers airport, an executive airfield in Springboro. Tom and Debbie enjoy flying and flew over this site many times as they were learning to fly.
Expanding their horizons even more that year, Storage Inns of America went to Columbus. Minerva Park Storage Inns of America was the first location chosen in Columbus, opening in 1997. Minerva Park is a quiet village within the city limits of Columbus. That sleepy quality was interrupted one afternoon when a woman mistook her gas pedal for the brake pedal and ran right through the storage building! The manager rushed into the building as the car came to rest. He helped the woman out of the wreckage, but her Lexus was totaled and damage to the building was considerable.
At their second Columbus location, Tamarack Circle. one of the managers there recalls a man who came in to find out what their biggest storage unit was. He wanted to store big boxes.
“I asked him what kind of big boxes,” the manager said. “He replied ‘Coffins.’ I said they’d better be empty, because we did not have climate controlled spaces.”
Lazelle Road Storage Inns of America was the third Columbus self-storage location. An employee there recalled a customer who said he needed a storage unit for everything he’d cleared out in anticipation of raising six exotic animals in his home. The man invited the employee to his car to see the “exotic animals.” They were sextuplet babies!
The fourth Columbus Storage Inn on Georgesville Road, was built under high tension wires in 1997. Tom found a small exception in the power line easement that permitted buildings to be built under wires if the buildings were not over a certain height. It took some effort to convince the city of Columbus, but Tom persevered and the project was approved.
Back in Dayton, Beavercreek Storage Inns of America went up on a site where a company once manufactured space shuttle parts. In 2000, Storage Inns of America opened two locations the same day; one in Worthington and the other on Troy Street in Dayton. A year later, the fourteenth Storage Inn of America opened in Reynoldsburg.
Over the years, many unusual things have been stored at Storage Inns of America: an entire 10 by 10 unit full to the ceiling of Star Wars memorabilia, a thirty-foot airplane, cars in storage for more than 25 years, a half-million dollar RV, the boyhood stuff of a NFL football player.
Managers have discovered people trying to live in the units (that’s not allowed) and one fielded a call from a scientist at Ohio State looking for a place to store live animals for use in the lab. When he was told he couldn’t keep live animals in the unit, he asked if it would be okay to keep dead animals in the climate controlled section.
Storage Inns of America has been a work in progress since 1980. Many of the locations selected would not have been considered prime areas for future development but Tom was willing to take the risk that growth would come.