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The Old Greenville Balloon Tragedy and
When Forest Fires Threatened Arcanum

This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News, April 8, 1934




By Howard Burba


The memory of the average Darke co. citizen is just about as vivid as that of the citizen of any other county.  And yet, like his neighbors, the Darke co. citizen needs to reflect at times before his memory, like a well-kept card index, opens and reveals again scenes long filed away.

     You can travel Darke co. from one end to the other and there is little likelihood that in all your conversations you will hear even the slightest mention of the old tragedy I am about to recall. Yet, on the other hand, if you bring up the subject yourself you will find that every other man you meet in the county was either an eye-witness to it or he knows every detail and is familiar with every angle of the story.

     It is pretty difficult to forget entirely an event which shocked and saddened an audience of 35,00 people.  Even a lapse of 29 years cannot erase it from one’s memory.  Those who were numbered in that 35,000 will tell you they cannot forget it, even if they live to be a hundred years old.  Go into Darke co., this morning and ask the first native you meet if he recalls the terrible balloon tragedy at the Greenville fairgrounds on the 31st day of August, 1905. It is a safe wager the answer will be in the affirmative, and the story as he tells it exactly like it has been told and retold in all the years since it occurred. It is so vastly different from any other tragedy recorded in the history of western Ohio, that it still carries deep interest.

     For some weeks before the annual Darke co. fair, scheduled for the last week in August, 1905, publicity had been given to a great feature act to be presented by a widely-known aeronaut, Prof. John Baldwin.  The mere mention of Baldwin’s name in those days was sufficient to create interest, for he had become the idol of all lovers of skill and daring; there was not in the entire amusement world an act more thrilling than the one Baldwin had, up to that time, presented more than 1000 times before hundreds of thousands of people.

     In every village store and posted on cross-road schoolhouses for weeks before the date fixed for the fair one could find placards bearing the picture of a daring aeronaut soaring high in the clouds, while in letters that all could read and understand was an announcement that the greatest aviator of that day, Prof. John Baldwin, would make an ascension from the fairgrounds and, while high in the air, discharge dynamite bombs in a mimic warfare with an enemy army supposedly encamped on the ground below.

     There were no ifs, ands or maybes connected with it, according to the poster.  The daring act would be staged in all its death-defying splendor, and as a great outdoor attraction to which there would be no extra admission fee.  The date was fixed positively for Thursday, August 31, the hour for 3 o’clock in the afternoon.  The whole world, it seemed, had heard of the exploits of Baldwin, for his name was as familiar in aeronautics in that day as the name of Lindbergh is today.  In daring, there is no reason to believe that the “Lone Eagle” was one bit more intrepid than Baldwin.

     The third day of the fair dawned bright and clear and before dawn residents of Darke and adjoining counties were wending their way toward the fairgrounds at Greenville from every direction and in every manner of vehicle.  Railroads ran special excursions.  The fair in itself had long been an outstanding event in this part of the country.  The added attraction offer on this particular occasion only served to emphasize its greatness as a drawing card.  By noon 35,000 people had passed through the fairground gates—a record-breaking attendance for all time in the history of the Darke co. fair.

     Baldwin had arrived on the scene the day before with his little family, consisting of a wife and three small daughters.  His huge gas balloon and the equipment necessary to inflate it and launch it on its voyage into the air was in place long before the noon hour.  Practically every man, woman and child had at some time during the day strolled over to where the balloon was being inflated in the hope of catching a glimpse of the man whose name was to them a household word.  They had heard of Baldwin, had read of his exploits in the United States Signal Corps during the Spanish-American War and his subsequent adventures.  They wanted to be able to say on their return home that they had actually seen Baldwin in person.

     The hour of 3 o’clock arrived, and as 35,000 people turned their eyes to that part of the grounds where the balloon had been inflated, they saw the big gas bag rise majestically, while from the small basket attached beneath they saw Baldwin smiling and waving to them.  None dreamed, of course, that it was an actual farewell he was waving to them.  Certainly no one was prepared for the terrible tragedy which was to be staged in the twinkling of an eye.

     But here is exactly what happened, as Darke co. citizens, given a moment for reflection, a moment in which to draw a card from memory’s index, will tell you as graphically and in the same tragic tone as though they were talking of an event of yesterday.  Here is the way The News told it in its issue of the same day:

     “John E. Baldwin, aged 41, was blown to atoms while making a balloon ascension at the Greenville fairgrounds at 3 o’clock this afternoon.  His balloon was blown into shreds so that no parts were recovered.

     “A crowd estimated at 35,000 people witnessed the terrible accident, among whom were the wife and children of the unfortunate man.  Fragments of his body were scattered over an area of 20 acres so that it was impossible to recover much of the body even in small pieces.

     “In his ascension Prof. Baldwin carried with him seven dynamite bombs, weighing six pounds each, which he used in an aerial war demonstration.  These seven bombs exploded simultaneously at an altitude of 1500 feet.  There was practically no wind, and when the balloon ascended it went straight up for at least 1000 feet.  Then it took a course over the southern part of the fairgrounds, which was then crowded with people.  One theory is that in lighting the fuse Baldwin held it too long in order not to drop it into the crowd below him.

     “Baldwin served with Brig. Gen. A. W. Greeley of the U. S. Signal Corps during the Spanish-American war and had been in the balloon business 16 years, his fatal ascension at Greenville being the eleven hundredth in his career. He had made ascensions in all of the principal cities of the United States.  He had adopted the offensive and defensive tactics of the Signal Corps and used them in his exhibitions.  Successful ascensions and exhibitions were made in Dayton on Monday and Tuesday before the tragedy at Greenville.

     “A wife, two twin daughters, aged 10 years, and a daughter, aged 7, are bereaved.  They were on the fairgrounds at the time and were witnesses of the terrible accident.

     “The largest fragment of the man’s body recovered was a foot and an ankle. The fragments, weighing 90 pounds, were gathered together, placed in a casket and were taken in charge by the wife and children, who left with them this evening for their home at Dalton, Ind.  Baldwin had been out all season attending fairs and giving exhibitions of the use of dynamite from a balloon for war purposes.  He was recognized as an expert aeronaut.

     “In his exhibitions Baldwin would ascend several thousand feet in the air and explode dynamite at intervals.  Today every eye among the thousands of spectators below watched him until he became almost a mere speck.  Suddenly a great cloud of smoke appeared.  It hid the airship from view, the spectators supposed, as the balloon had vanished from their sight.  In another moment the sound of the explosion reached the ears of the watchers, but the balloon did not again appear to their view.

    “For a moment the crowd waited expectantly, thinking that a view of the aeronaut would be obtained through a rift in the smoke.  Then a cry of horror rose from the multitude.  The balloon had vanished.

     “Searchers immediately began looking for fragments of the balloon.  A half-mile away they found pieces of silk cloth from which the balloon had been made and splinters of the basket framework on which the aeronaut had been perched.  Scattered about over a 10-acre field were found fragments of Baldwin’s body.  The distance at which the remnants of the airship fell was so great that the crowd did not see the fragments of the man’s body hurtling through the air.

     “No one can tell how the accident occurred.  The sticks of dynamite which Baldwin carried with him exploded simultaneously, as only one report was heard.  It is supposed that in igniting the fuse connected with the dynamite he fired the gas in the balloon and that it exploded, causing the dynamite to explode also.

     “For nearly 20 years Baldwin has been giving balloon and airship exhibitions about the country.  He was 37 years old and his home was at Losantiville, Ind.

     “It was after great difficulty that Mrs. Baldwin was revived from the faint which followed the tragedy, and tonight her condition was reported to be critical.

     “Col. J. K. McIntyre, James Pritz, Thomas Legler and Ed. Borderwisch, all well-known Dayton citizens, were seated in an automobile on the race track in close proximity to the place where the aeronaut made his fatal flight.  Mr. Borderwisch conversed with the man a few moments before the ascent was made, at the same time admonishing him to be careful in handling the dynamite.  When the balloon had attained apparently its maximum height, Mr. Borderwisch observed that an accident had happened and the same instant the explosion was heard.  In fact, he was the first of the many spectators to fully appreciate the situation.”

     From subsequent news reports we learn additional details; of the wild confusion and excitement which followed; of women fainting while strong men shoved and pushed their way across the race track to the fields adjacent, each curiously imbued with an uncanny desire to locate a fragment of the ill-fated aeronaut’s body.  There was a cry that several sticks of the dynamite had not exploded with the balloon, but had fallen into the nearby fields.  Even this did not interrupt the mad rush of those bent upon gathering up small strips of the flimsy silk as it floated gracefully to the ground.

     No more tragic ending of a county fair day has been recorded in Ohio.  Sickened by the sight, yet fearful of missing some new detail in connection with it, the crowd was loathe to quit the scene.  As was to be expected, theories of how the accident occurred were numerous, but the most generally accepted was one which left the daring of Baldwin undisputed, one which really gave him a higher place in the hearts of his public.  This was to the effect that, after lighting the first stick of dynamite he realized the danger of dropping it above the crowd.  Advocates of this theory contended that he expected the balloon to drift away from the fairground, as it usually did on such ascensions, but when it stood straight above the heads of the multitude Baldwin feared to drop the bomb lest its explosion should in some way become retarded until it had fallen into the crowd.  They argued that he bravely held the dynamite in the balloon, preferring to sacrifice his own life rather than the lives of the watchers below.

     There was the expected theory of suicide, of course.  This was scouted when relatives and neighbors of the Baldwins in Indiana told how happily the little family had lived, and how successful Baldwin had been in earning a livlihood.  His cheerful, happy disposition and jovial manner, always present when he was about the inflating of his balloon, was also called forth as additional evidence that the suicide theory was the wrong one.

     Thirty-five thousand people saw Baldwin meet his death twenty-nine years ago.  Yet to this day not one of those thirty-five thousand can testify positively as to what caused the explosion.


The Arcanum Forest Fire


     Driving into the pretty little village of Arcanum from any direction it is difficult to imagine that at one time all that part of Darke co. was heavily wooded.  One cannot visualize today the time when huge forests ran down to the very edge of the village, on all sides, and stretched back from it for many miles in an unbroken mass.

     Here and there were to be found clearings, of course.  The battle of the wilderness was on, and men were hewing out their homes and reclaiming the fertile acres which lay beneath those giant forests.  But Arcanum itself was set well in the center of a vast forest, its few narrow streets merging with towering trees and thick growths of underbrush but a few paces from the very center of town.

     As late as sixty years ago forest fires in Darke co. were numerous.  Usually they were purposely ignited by pioneers seeking to clear the land.  Occasionally, however, these immense fires got beyond their control.  Then there was work for all hands to do.  It was in 1874 that the greatest of these events was recorded, and to this day it is remembered by “Old timers” around Arcanum as the most spectacular occurrence in the history of the town.

     The story of the great forest fire at Arcanum is briefly referred to in the history of Darke co. The old newspaper files are more generous in their description.  And here is how one paper, under date of Monday, November 2, 1874, describes it:

     “The rumors of serious results from woods fire in Darke co. induced us to visit Arcanum on Saturday to get accurate information and see a fire in the woods, if a conflagration were in progress in that vicinity.  It was gratifying to learn that, although a good deal of damage had been done by the fires, there were none then burning.  No apprehensions were expressed of further fiery visitations unless there should be high winds to carry flakes of flames from logs still smouldering in the woods to localities which had not already been burned over.

     “The fires in the woods were attributed to various causes.  It was thought that sparks from locomotives had caused the flames; then again that fires had spread from clearings made by farmers; hunters and trappers were also blamed by some of the residents of Darke co.  All these are highly probable as there are dry logs, cord wood, and dead tree and leaves lying all about.

     “In Van Buren tp. the fire swept through the woods for a distance of five miles at a single beat.  In other localities fences were burned and cornfields razed.  The report that houses and farms had been destroyed is unfounded.  Though some had been in great danger, none had been destroyed.

     “On Thursday there was quite an extensive fire on a farm one and one-half miles from Arcanum, owned by Mr. Augustus Kuhns of Dayton, but no great damage was done.  On J. V. Clark’s farm, the same distance to the west, the fire commenced, and all the people turned out and by their exertions, saved the house and barn, and no great damage was done.

     “Arcanum itself was imperiled Thursday night.  The weeds west of the town were on fire and a strong west wind was blowing.  The church bells sounded the alarm about 8 o’clock, and the town saw that the danger was imminent.  Since most of the houses in the west were frame there was no hope, once the fire caught one of them, of preventing its wiping out the entire village.

     “The men worked feverishly, and fortunately the wind changed and the town was saved.

     “Arcanum is one of the liveliest town in this region.  It is prominent as a corn market and has a large tobacco warehouse.  It has four dry goods, two hardware stores, three grocery stores, two hotels, and a population of about 800.  Improvements are progressing steadily and Arcanum now has several handsome brick buildings.  Mr. John Iveston has just completed a fine brick dwelling on the border of the town.  It is situated in a splendid agricultural region, and the people are enterprising, honest and upright.

    “The people are taking great care to protect themselves from future fires.  They now have a watchman who makes the grand round at night and gives the fire alarm when necessary.  All fires outside of buildings are prohibited.

     “One woman was boiling soap last week in her yard and had to put the fire out.  Fire wells, eight inches in diameter, have been dug in various parts of the city, and the council is negotiating to buy a first-class fire engine.  The people of Arcanum have a lot of public spirit.  They had gravel hauled by rail from Dayton, 18 miles away, to make their main street a first class highway.

     “They boast at Arcanum that Darke co. has more miles of free turnpike than any other county in the state, and as the people know what they are talking about, there is no reason to doubt that what they say is true.

     “The reporter acknowledged the courtesy received during his visit to Arcanum.  It is a good place to go.  Mr. Larsh, the proprietor of one of the hotels; Mr. Smith, merchant, and Mr. Clark, druggist, are entitled to special mention.  Mr. Larsh has a very neat and well arranged hotel.  It may be added that Arcanum has but one saloon.  The town was crusaded when crusades were fashionable, but not to much advantage so far as temperance is concerned.”