Factory Fires of Fifty Years Ago

This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News, December 16, 1934

 

Factory Fires of Fifty Years Ago

By Howard Burba

 

Whether due to luck or exceptional fire-fighting methods, or a measure of both, Dayton has never been visited by what could rightfully be termed “a conflagration.”

            Residences and stores and factory buildings have gone up in smoke, to be sure, but in almost every instance the flames have been confined to one or two buildings. At no time is it recorded that as much as a single block of buildings was swept away, with the exception of the fires on E. Third st. during the 1913 flood, and certainly that could not be charged against the record, since the fire department had been swept away, horses and equipment had perished and eight feet of water raced through the street in a raging torrent when the fire broke out.

            The nearest approach to a “conflagration” was what is now historically referred to as “the opera house fire,” the story of which long since appeared on this page. That was in 1868, and in that instance destruction was complete. Turner’s Opera House, located on the site of the present Victory Theater, and reputed to be one of the most modern and attractive places of its kind in the middle west, was entirely consumed by flames, along with the storerooms extending south along that side of Main st., and east for a considerable distance toward Jefferson st. Yet with the severe property loss, and unparalleled excitement attending it, the blaze claimed but one human life, a merchant by the name of Sandmeirer.

            From 1868 to the year 1884 Dayton’s fire department earned its pay, yet kept losses to a minimum and kept the flames they were called upon to quench confined to the structures in which they originated. The interval between those dates, 1868 and 1884, was possibly the most prosperous in the history of the city from an industrial standpoint. During those years Dayton saw the erection of more new industrial plants than during any similar period in her history. She became one of the greatest producers of agricultural machinery in the world.

            Not only were plants removed here from other cities during that period, but newly established concerns, building from the ground up, were numerous. Here was centered the plow industry of the nation and for years the far west looked to Dayton for its modern plows and cultivators, rakes and harrows, grain drills, mowers and threshing machines.

            Let’s pause for a moment to learn just how firmly Dayton was entrenched in the field of implement production when she reached the ‘80s. Of course the Barney and Smith plant was going full blast and had been since its inception in 1840. Baird and Brothers, John Rouser, Parrott and Gilbert, Pierce and Coleman, Pinneo and Daniels and S. N. Brown and Co. were all engaged in some form of woodworking, most of them producing every type of furniture known to the household of that date and finding a market for it in every state in the union. But it was in the production of agriculture that Dayton took front rank.

            B. C. Taylor and Son were manufacturing hay rakes at Wayne and Third sts.; J. Lane Reed and Co. were operating The Champion Plow works on Front st. near Third; Marshal, Graves and Co. were making the “Victor” and “Star” hay rakes and trade engines; D. E. McSherry and Co. were making the world-famous “McSherry” grain drills at 1126 E. Third st.; John W. Stoddard and Co. were working 500 men as early as 1880 in the manufacture of rakes, harrows, drills and seeders in a mammoth plant at 1122-1140 E. Third; Pritz and Kuhnst were turning out horsepower threshing machines in their plant at Second and Sears sts.; Charles Parrott was operating the Aughe plow factory on E. Third; The Farmers’ Friend Manufacturing Co., operated by Weusthoff and Getz were making grain drills and corn planters in a large factory on State st.; The J. B. Pitts Co., later the Woodsum and Tenny Co., were manufacturing the celebrated Pitts threshing machines at Keowee and Pitts sts.; B. E. Houser and Co. were turning out high class carriages and farm wagons at the corner of Third and Union; Weaver Brothers, carriage and wagon specialists, were operating at 12 E. Fourth st.; J. L. Baker and Co., removing here from New Carlisle, were turning out 350 fine carriages annually; down on Fifth st. L. and M. Woodhull were employing 100 men in the manufacture of hay rakes; Murray and Speger operated another buggy factory at Fifth and Stone sts., Pfeiffenberger and Smith were making drays, carts and wheelbarrows at a huge plant on Water st.; W. W. Phillips was turning out approximately 50 fine stage coaches a year.

            Those firms were engaged in the exclusive manufacture of farm machinery and implements. Of machine shops there was no end. Industrial history, written in the ‘80s, records names familiar only to older citizens, such as Boyer and McMaster, A. A. Simonds, Buckeye Iron and Brass Works, Central Machine Works, Chadwick and Francisco, Charles Wuichet and Co., Dayton Steam Boiler Works, Dayton Cornice Works, D. H. and C. C. Morrison, Greer and King, Brownell and Co., Leland and Daugherty, McHose and Lyon, Neff and Bennett, Smith, Vail and Co., Stilwell and Bierce Manufacturing Co., Stout , Mills and Temple, W. P. Callahan and Co., Joyce, Cridland and Co.

            Smoke was pouring from the proverbial “thousand factories” away back in 1884 and Dayton was writing her name in large letters on the industrial skies. Then came the fire fiend to single out two of her most substantial establishments and, temporarily, strike their names from the list. One of these was The John Dodds rake factory, a pioneer institution and a name famous throughout the middle west. Thumbing back through old newspaper files we reach the date of July 24, 1884, and there learn the details of the costly blaze. Here is the reporter’s description of it, taken from the old files:

            “Dayton yesterday suffered the most disastrous fire that has been here since the burning of the beautiful opera house in 1868. And the loss yesterday was, perhaps, even greater than at that time. The loss on buildings, machinery, patterns, stock, household goods and wearing apparel amounted to about $80,000.

            “The fire originated in the extensive rake factory of John Dodds, situated west of Dale av. and between First and Second sts. It originated in a shaving box that stood beside the engine room and near the Little Miami railroad tracks and it is supposed that it caught from sparks from a passing engine as there was no fire in the shops and had not been for several weeks.

            “Five weeks ago the shops shut down and since that time they have been putting the machinery in first-class repair for the fall work, having just completed the repairs.  The fire originated a few minutes before 11 o’clock, Orion Dodds sending the alarm by telephone from their office to the Baxter st. engine house. From there the alarm was communicated to the entire department, which responded very promptly. But there was difficulty in laying their hose, on account of the distance and location of the water plugs, and the first hose brought into service was soon rendered useless by bursting, the flames spreading so rapidly and being so hot. A further embarrassment was the insufficient pressure for 20 or 30 minutes after the water was turned on. Added to this was a strong, continuous gale blowing from the northwest and it looked for a time as though nothing could save that part of the city from the consuming flames and but for the wise and faithful work upon the part of the department the destruction could not have been estimated. The department deserves the highest credit for yesterday’s work; one thing Dayton may be proud of, and that is the efficiency of its fire department.

            “The fire resulted in the destruction of the office and furniture of Mr. Dodds, which was located west of Dale av., and south of Second st., the destruction of his brick dry kiln, engine room, his large three-story frame shop, the first floor being used as the wood shop, the second as the paint and pattern shops and the third as a wareroom for unfinished stock, hubs, spokes, bent felloes, axles, shafts, etc. At the time it was packed full of this material and finished wheels. The large brick machine shop, also three stories high, was entirely destroyed with all the machinery and contents of every kind. The boiler and engine and all the machinery in both shops is a total loss. Fire could not more completely do its work of destruction than was done there. His frame ware shed for old and second-hand stock was also totally destroyed.

            “This property was all situated west of Dale av. and between First and Second sts. The brick wareroom, 150 feet long, 50 feet wide and three stories high, and which is now full of finished work was saved, while it stood within a few feet of both wood and machine shops, yet it suffered only slight damage. Had it not been for the strong wind that blew the fire of the other buildings from it, it would be in ruins with the others and the burning of that would also have meant the destruction of the lumber yard in which there is about $40,000 worth of lumber. The foundry, which stands north of the machine shops and east of the north end of the wareroom, was also saved without any damage.

            “East of the machine shop and on the southwest corner of First st. and Dale av. was a one-story frame dwelling with a food stable on the same lot, owned by Mr. Dodds and occupied by one of his employees. That was totally destroyed with its entire contents. The flames were so intense that nothing could withstand their approach. Chief Larkin said that it was the hottest fire he had ever seen.

            “On the north side of Second st. and east of Dale av., was the destruction of private residences and personal property. On the northwest corner of Dale av. and Second st. was a two-story frame dwelling belonging to Stephen Wolf and occupied by Charles Keller. It was totally destroyed and Mr. Keller saved but little of his personal property. So quickly did the fire spread that Mrs. Keller barely had time to escape with her life. Next east of the Wolf building was a two-story frame owned and occupied by Mrs. Ditman. Everything was lost except a few household goods that were carried out by friends. Next east of the Ditman property was a fine two-story frame owned by H. F. Fackler and occupied by Mr. Heaten, mail carrier No. 1. At the rear of the lot was a large two-story frame stable, used as a paint shop by Mr. Fackler and stored with a valuable assortment of painting materials. The dwelling and stable with its contents were a total loss. The sum of $32 in money which Mr. Heaten kept hidden under a carpet was also destroyed. Next east of this property was a one-story frame by Mrs. Segis Heiges and occupied by Rev. Bowers. This dwelling was nearly a total loss and the stable in the rear was swept away.

            “That ends the list of dwellings destroyed, but the large stable of Mr. Landis was burned with its contents and also the shed owned by Mr. Clark, to the east of it. The stable of Mr. Orion Crabbe on the north side of the alley was destroyed, the fire sweeping along the alley for a distance of one entire square.

            “A great many families suffered a good deal of loss by moving their goods from the houses on the opposite side of the street. Furniture was broken and goods either stolen or lost. The excitement and grief were indescribable. There were two or three sick ladies who had to be carried to safe quarters; children were reported to have been burned and the fear of a general conflagration rendered the people wild and some of them helpless. Gardens were utterly destroyed. In some places the heat was so intense as to roast potatoes in the ground and to crumble flagstone pavements.

            “Bert Hale of the fire department was knocked down by a falling brick wall and at first he was thought to be dead. He was carried to a house nearby and after about 20 minutes was back at his post of duty. Chief Larkin, in passing between Mr. Dodds office and the Malleable Iron works was severely burned about the neck.

            “This is the fifth fire Mr. Dodds has suffered, and yet he is not discouraged. He announced that the works will be rebuilt at once.”

            It was a sad blow to Dayton, yet everyone was quick to take heart when they heard the statement of Mr. Dodds, issued long before the smoke had cleared away from the destroyed structure, that he would have men at work rebuilding as soon as the embers cooled. It was an excellent example of the spirit that prevailed among Dayton industrialists in those early days. Nothing stood in their road. If an inventor had something that offered merit, something that was likely to create a demand among the millions of tillers of the soil who had learned to look toward Dayton for agricultural machinery. He could fine someone here ready to finance and produce and market that invention. That accounts, in a large way, for the fact that the first cash register was turned out here, along with a “dozen” firsts in the farm implement industry.

            So Dayton went right on smiling and John Dodds went right on rebuilding his big plant and then, within the same year, came a second blow. The fire fiend laid hands on the Stomps chair factory, still another old veteran in the local manufacturing field. The Stomps product was famous throughout all this territory. Grand Rapids was little more than a wide place in the road at the time; her citizens had not even dreamed that their city would some day become the nation’s furniture factory. Stomps’ chairs had for years and years found their way into the homes of residents of Ohio and adjoining states and when 1884 arrived it was a tremendous plant, as manufacturing plants were then measured.

            As the year neared an end, even while Stomps’ chairs were in demand by those with Christmas gift problems to solve, an alarm of fire called the department to the big, rambling plant on E. First st. Again we turn to the files, and again we read the story of destruction.

            “A little after 7 o’clock last evening,” reads a local paper of Dec. 11, 1884, “an alarm of fire was sent in from Box 15. It was soon known that Stomps and Co.’s extensive chair factory, 229, 231 and 233 E. First st., was in flames. The building, which was a three-story brick extended from First st. north to an alley, nearly 200 feet. The front of the building was used for packing and storage, while in the rear were the machinery and the various rooms filled with material for making and finishing goods. The fire started back of the packing room, about the middle of the factory in the second story and from the time it was first noticed by some boys it was only a few minutes until it seemed the flames had spread to every part of the building. The entire building form top to bottom was filled with inflammable material: oils, paints, varnish, upholstering, chairs, lumber and shavings.

            “The fire department responded promptly to the alarm and there was no delay in turning water on the flames, but water seemed to have little effect. The entire force of the department was concentrated upon the fire but it was not subdued until the stock, with the whole inside of the building, was a total loss. For fully three hours the department fought the flames with skill and pluck and yet the fire ceased only when there was nothing more to burn. But the firemen were successful in confining the flames to this one building. At one time it was feared that the large new wareroom, just east of the factory, and two dwelling houses would also be swept away, but through energy and good management the adjoining property was saved.

            “What rendered the situation more difficult was that there was a strong wind blowing from the northwest and at times the flames would rise from 50 to 75 feet above the top of the factory, dash long streams of fire over the buildings to the east until it seemed there was no possible chance to save them.

            “Another difficulty was the smoke. It poured from the windows and over the top of the building on which some of the firemen were stationed; they were partially stifled and driven back from their posts. Some of the firemen said that the smoke for quantity and density beat anything they had ever seen.

            “The large gas reservoir belonging to the Gas Co. was just behind the burning building and the greatest care was taken to prevent the flames from spreading in that direction.

            “This factory was established by the senior member of the firm, G. Stomps, 26 years ago. It has never been idle at any one time more than two weeks and that was during the famous strike a few years ago. The firm at the time of the fire were working 110 hands and expected to continue through the winter without diminishing their force. Of this force quite a number had been in the factory for over 20 years while over half of them had been with the firm for more than 10 years.

            “The origin of the fire is a mystery, but it is believed by the proprietors that it was incendiary. They cannot account for it in any other way. There was not a stove in the factory from which the fire could have been communicated. The men had all left the building and it was locked over an hour before the fire was discovered, so that it could not have occurred from a careless use of matches. The office, with the books, being in the front room of an adjoining dwelling, was not injured.

            “Officials of the Stomps Co. estimate their loss at fully $40,000, stating that it might be higher than that. They carried a total of $17,000 in insurance on building and stock.”