On May 12, 2016, history buffs David McWhorter and Scott Suther presented a talk to over a dozen residents on the fires that help shape New Carlisle and Bethel Township.
McWhorter began the presentation with a history of fire insurance. According to McWhorter, fire insurance was unknown before the Great London Fire in 1666. However, after suffering devastating losses in that fire, mutual societies began to form to share the cost of property lost because of a fire.
The first insurance company in America was formed in Charleston in 1735. The company known as the Friendly Society of Mutual Insuring of Homes against Fire failed when a fire in 1740 destroyed over 300 homes, storehouses, stable and wharves.
In 1752, Benjamin Franklin formed the Philadelphia Contribution for the Insurance of Houses from Loss by Fire, which was the first successful mutual aide company in America. However, for many property owners, fire insurance did not become readily available to prevent loss until much later.
For the residents of New Carlisle and Bethel Township many times the losses suffered because of fires either forced them out of business or out of the area.
On June 16, 1889, a fire was discovered at The Superior Machine Company at 1:15 a.m. The fire, which started in the foundry, was believed to have been started as a distraction for robbers who wanted to rob businesses in town. The main factory and a smaller building were destroyed. However, the fire fighters were able to save 500 fire pumps. Because of the fire, the company moved their entire operations to Springfield. Although the company had fire insurance, the insurance only covered a little over half of their loss.
Less than six months later, on December 15, 1889, a fire broke out between Prugh’s Grocery and Lowman’s Boot and Shoe Story. The fire, started by a defective flue, destroyed a half block on South Main Street. The firefighters were unable to sound an alarm because the bell rope broke. When the fire department arrived at the scene, the fire engine quit. Springfield Fire Department was called but didn’t arrive at the scene until 1:45 a.m. Although there were no fatalities, the fire was not contained until 8:00 a.m. the following morning and ten businesses suffered damages.
Six years later, eleven businesses were destroyed on Washington Street because of a fire that started in a livery barn. On May 5, 1895, a fire was reported at 10:30 p.m. The fire spread so rapidly it quickly engulfed the city building and several other buildings. Springfield Fire Department was called; however, they didn’t arrive until after midnight to find the entire block lost. The fire department believed that drunks who were sleeping in the livery barn started the fire. Because of the insurance coverage, few of the business sustained substantial losses. This was a turning point for the insurance industry as more and more property owners saw the benefits of having insurance.
The most disastrous fire in New Carlisle’s history occurred on November 9, 1899. The fire started at Hahn’s Feed Store on Main Street from a loose stovepipe, which many believe was deliberately loosened to cover a burglary. Although the New Carlisle Fire Department responded quickly, the fire was so intense that they soon ran out of water in their tankers and had to fill them from Honey Creek. The Springfield Fire Department was called; however, they did not arrive in New Carlisle until 5:21 a.m. The city council decided to require fireproof structures to replace the destroyed buildings.
In 1906, a fire that destroyed the business district from the Odd Fellow building south to Jefferson Street was started during a political rally at which the celebrants “fired off an old anvil.” The practice involved placing a charge of gunpowder between two anvils and firing the charge. The explosion shook lose a stovepipe and destroyed the city block.
With each major fire, the town council saw the need to make improvements in the infrastructure of New Carlisle. After a 1910 fire destroying the post office on Main Street, the council proposed a bond levy, which the residents passed, to install a public water system. The fire, which started in Martin’s Plumbing store eventually, destroyed the entire block at the current location of the CVS Pharmacy.
The public water system was instrumental in saving the Carlisle Inn on February 8, 1912. Because of the ready availability of the water, the fire fighters were able to reach the fire, which started in the attic, before it had time to spread.
Fire has shaped not only New Carlisle but Bethel Township as well. One of the most significant was the Olive Branch School. In the last 100 years, the round school building, which now houses a museum and the Tecumseh Board of Education, was built in 1873 has burned twice. On November 10, 1913, Principal Edgar G. Weller notified sparks coming out of a register in the Auditorium. When Superintendent David Neer attempted to enter the basement to find the cause of the sparks, he was forced back to the first floor by smoke billowing up the stairs. He sounded the fire alarm and 110 students and their teachers left the building. The students formed a bucket brigade and tried to extinguish the blaze; however, their attempts were futile. When the Springfield Fire Department arrived, the walls were falling in. Although the building was not a total loss, the fire caused $16,000 in damages.
The building was rebuilt, but disaster struck again on December 8, 1949. A presentation of the operetta H.M.S., Penafore was scheduled for the evening. At 6:00 p.m. Ralph Heaton, left the building. Ten minutes later, he noticed flames through the windows of the auditorium. He closed off the auditorium and called the fire department. The Donnelsville Fire Department responded to the scene and was able to extinguish the flames saving the school from destruction. Only minor damage to the auditorium occurred.
In more recent years, fires have destroyed two restaurants, an apartment building, and a barn in Bethel Township. On January 15, 2000, a fire that was attributed to cigarette smoking destroyed the apartment building at 202 E. Main Street. The building was a total loss and Michael Kniceley was taken to Miami Valley Hospital in critical condition because of smoke inhalation.
In addition, a large barn on Gerlaugh Road was destroyed on August 3, 2000. The fire started in the hay. Twenty-nine head of cattle were removed safely from the building; however, 7000 bales of straw, haw and cornstalks were destroyed.
In January of 2001, both The Pines and Country Connection were destroyed. On January 3, Country Connection at the corner of SR 235 and US 40 burned to the ground as the result of an accidental fire that was believed to have started in the kitchen. Although the Bethel Township Fire Department responded quickly, they faced 25-foot flames and crumbling walls that were impossible to fight. By morning all that remained of the structure was an empty shell sitting on the concrete slap.
Eighteen days later, The Pines at the intersection of Lower Valley Pike and Osborn Road caught fire. The fire started in the wall and made it difficult to fight since the fire department could not get to the source of the flames. The building collapsed into the basement and was allowed to burn itself out.
McWhorter and Suther have many other tales of fires and how they changed the history of New Carlisle and Bethel Township.