Plain City has been fortunate in its history not to have suffered the widespread fires that plagued so many towns in their early days. One did not have to live in Chicago to experience the devastation a fire can bring to a collection of closely-packed wooden buildings.
In the 1970s and 1980s we did have the fires that destroyed the Super Duper building (the old Leonard Block) and took the upper stories of the Jackson building on North Chillicothe Street. At least by then we had modern firefighting techniques and equipment.
In the 1800s fire was a constant threat in both homes and businesses. Wood burning fireplaces, coal stoves, coal oil lamps, oiled wooden floors and wood frame buildings were conflagrations waiting to happen. Certain businesses, such as furniture factories, were particularly vulnerable.
In the late 1800s the Barlow-Kent Furniture factory was located on West Main Street. It covered almost half an acre on the south side of the street in the area where the Eskimo Queen now stands. The company manufactured all types of furniture. On Nov. 23, 1889, the factory was destroyed by fire. The company moved to Urbana and built another factory there.
Saturday, March 14, 1891 began as an ordinary work day, but the following account from the Cincinnati Enquirer tells how the day ended.
At noon today the furniture factory of Barlow, Kent & Co. was discovered on fire, and in less than one hour the immense shops, with all the contents, were totally consumed. The fire was the result of a piece of gross or criminal carelessness on the part of a boy named Steve Newland, who, being forbidden to smoke in the factory, threw the end of a lighted cigarette into a bucket of benzine in the paint shop.
The fire spread rapidly under a strong wind, and the heroic efforts to save part of the plant were fruitless. The loss to the firm will be about $25,000, on which there is an insurance of $8,000.
Apparently the company moved back to Plain City and rebuilt their factory here, but on Oct. 3, 1893, another fire gutted the second plant.
The Historical Society has two photos which were originally identified as being of the aftermath of the 1889 fire, but closer examination leads us to believe that they are in fact of the 1893 blaze. Both photos show children with no coats or scarves and trees in full leaf, which would point to the October date.
Another fire that left its mark on Plain City occurred on Thursday, Oct. 30, 1930. The Black Block was a two-story brick building on the northeast corner of the town square. The Ormerod-Jones Drug Store had opened in this building in 1910. By 1930 Ben Jones had bought out his former partner. Howard Black, a local attorney, and his sisters Jennie Black and Olive Black Feather, lived on the second floor.
The fire started in the rear of a grocery store on the east end of the building. It was owned by Peter Nappi, who had recently purchased it from Mary and George Elias. A freshly oiled floor and an overbanked coal stove were given as the causes of the blaze, which was discovered shortly before 1 a.m. by Carroll (“Speedy”) Woodruff, who lived on East First Avenue behind the building.
The Blacks were able to escape (“in their nightclothes,” the Marysville Tribune pointed out), although they lost everything. Two neighboring frame buildings to the east were heavily damaged as well. The Plain City Fire Department, under Chief Robert Jackson, had to call for aid from Marysville, a fact which the Tribune article was at pains to point out.
Plain City’s pumper is powered by a Ford motor and did not provide sufficient pressure for the emergency and had not Marysville helped out with the fire it would probably have spread and done much more damage in the town.
An indirect victim of the fire was the elderly Mrs. Ada Cole. (Her age is variously given as 75 and 84 in the newspaper accounts.) She had experienced heart problems before the fire and the excitement proved too much for her, bringing on a heart attack from which she died about 3 a.m.
The Black Block was rebuilt as a smaller, one-story structure. It continued to be the home of Ben Jones’ Drug store until the 1960s. A small space on the east end of the building was the first home of the Plain City Public Library from 1946 to 1962. It is now Plain City’s Masonic Lodge.
Rosemary Anderson is the vice president of the Plain City Historical Society.