William Harmon: The short term of the first paid fire chief

According to his obituary, William Harmon was born in Hayesville, Ohio around 1851 and arrived in Mansfield shortly after his marriage.  But other records indicate the family may have been in Mansfield as early as 1859.  The 1860 U.S. Census places the family in Mansfield’s 3rd ward and John Harmon, William’s father, is listed in the 1858-59 Mansfield city directory.  Regardless of when the family arrived in Mansfield, William would follow in his father’s footsteps becoming a carpenter and a respected citizen of Mansfield.  On April 10, 1872, William married Laura J. Crider, the daughter of Tobias and Mary Crider, a Mifflin Township farmer.   William continued to work as a carpenter throughout the 1870s and 1880s and, on June 3, 1884, was elected by the Mansfield City Council to the position of fire engineer,[1] receiving a salary of $60 a month.[2]

William Harmon became the first paid fire chief for the city of Mansfield and was one of the main proponents for the creation of a paid fire department around 1881, but his time as chief was short.  In May of 1886, Harmon resigned from the department and stated he was moving to Kansas City.  The following week, reports came out that the mayor was going to charge Harmon with malfeasance in office and gross official misconduct.  The mayor argued that Harmon had violated the trust of Mansfield citizens and had conspired with others to set fire to and burn many buildings in the city.  The buildings included homes and businesses owned by many prominent citizens, including a warehouse owned by Peter Ott, a barn owned by Manuel May, a barn owned by Dr. William Bushnell, and the Covenanter’s Church on West Market St. (today Park Ave West), just to name a few.  Most citizens felt Harmon could not be guilty of the charges, but felt an investigation was necessary to get to the bottom of the matter.

In early June, the city council held the Harmon Investigation in which a number of men who had worked under Harmon were questioned.  First was George Stevens, who stated Harmon had suggested burning a number of buildings in order to “show the citizens how we can fight fire.”  He also stated that Harmon had asked him to set fire to Blymyer’s barn after Blymyer refuse to vote to increase his pay to $75 a month.  The next witnesses, James Nash and George Englehart, confirmed the testimony of Stevens.  Two other witnesses, Louis Schissler and Fred Longsdorf, stated they had heard Harmon make comments like this, but felt he was “too sensible a man to do anything of the kind.[3]”  A few days later Harmon was acquitted of all charges by a vote of 8-2.  The council stated that charges were a result of ill feelings between the chief and other members of the department and that the chief and other members had often joked about burning old buildings.  This was the basis for the charges against the former chief.[4]

William Harmon made his way out to Kansas City and built a name for himself in that city as a contractor and builder, as well as chief of the Kansas City Fire Department.  He was responsible for the erection of many buildings in the city, including the Altman Building, the Askew Building, and the Loose building.  He was remodeling the Union Depot at the time of his death on February 19, 1899.[5]


Sources:

  1. Richland Shield and Banner (Mansfield, Ohio). 07 June 1884, p. 5.
  2. Mansfield Herald (Mansfield, Ohio). 03 July 1884, p. 6.
  3. Mansfield Herald (Mansfield, Ohio). 03 June 1886, p. 6.
  4. Richland Shield and Banner (Mansfield, Ohio). 05 June 1886, p. 4.
  5. Mansfield News Journal (Mansfield, Ohio). 26 Feb 1899, p. 5.

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