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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Mansfield Churches: First Congregational Church

78 years ago a Mansfield landmark burned to the ground.  Only four blackened walls remained of the First Congregational Church.  Hundreds watched as the spire, which rose over 200 feet above Park Avenue West, fell and the building crumbled.  According to the News Journal, the question was often asked – “What if the Congregation Church spire should fall?” The answer: The flame eaten spire toppled and plunged to the ground like a giant lance, impaling itself in the ground 50 feet east of the building.  No one was injured.[i]

Due to disagreements on social issues, church members split from the Presbyterian Church around 1833 and formed a society and obtained a temporary place of worship in an upper room of the warehouse of E. P. & E. Sturges.  The First Congregational Church in Mansfield was organized on April 3, 1835, by Rev. Everton Judson and Rev. Enoch Conger.  “The church advocated opinions on temperance, anti-slavery and other reforms, which caused much opposition both ecclesiastical and social, in the community.”[ii]

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The original First Congregational Church

The first structure for the church was built shortly after its organization.  A four-acre site was bought on Park Ave West, then West Market Street, for $750.[iii]  The same site was the home of the church until the 1942 fire.  A brick meeting house was built, “with a basement for lecture and Sabbath school purposes” and later a parsonage was erected on the grounds.  It was said the church could seat about 500 and was one of the finest church edifices in the state at the time.[iv]  In 1855 the church was enlarged, including an “audience room forty-two by seventy-three feet, a ladies parlor twenty-five feet square, and a pastor’s study.”[v]

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1856 map showing the location of the First Congregational Church.  Mulberry Street is to the right and West Market is today Park Avenue West.

Disaster struck in August of 1870 when Rev. E. B. Fairfield noticed sparks coming from the roof or the church building.  By the time firemen had arrived, the church was already lost and they focused their efforts on saving the neighboring structures.   The library belonging to the pastor and seats and books in the lecture room and Sabbath school were saved, but a beautiful organ was lost.  Plans had already been made to replace the church the next fall and subscriptions for that purpose had already been made in the amounts of $30,000 or $40,000.[vi]

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First Congregational Church and Parsonage around 1896.

Construction began immediately and nearly three years later on June 8, 1873, the church was dedicated. The church was nearly destroyed by fire the month before its dedication.  Mrs. Proctor, who lived near the church, noticed a light inside on the night of May 10, 1873 and raised alarm.   The fire, caused by the spontaneous combustion of debris and rags left by painters, was quickly extinguished and minimal damage was done.[vii]  The organ installed in the church in March of 1873 was said to be one of the largest in the state at the time.  The manufacturer, Samuel S. Hamill, was on hand for its installation.  The case was of black walnut and the organ measured 16 feet in width, 29 in height and about 12feet from front to rear.[viii]

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Inside the church from the Memorial Manuel of the Congregational Church, Mansfield, Ohio, 1882

The church stood for 69 years until the early morning hours of February 17, 1942.  According to Virgil Stanfield, in his article in the News Journal in 1970, “Tippy Tin”, the pet bulldog of Raymond Bauer of 105 West Luther Place, first noticed the fire and awakened his master, who promptly sounded the alarm.  Even though the church was lost, Tippy Tin was rewarded with a hamburger at the Max Diner.  In addition to the church, the library and a painting of “Aunty” Bradford were also destroyed.   Bradford, a former slave, left most of her $2,000 estate to the library of The First Congregational Church and the Sunday school library was named after her.  After the fire, the church sold the property for $75,000.[ix]

Also after the fire, church services were held for a few weeks in the auditorium of John Simpson Junior High School and later in the Park Avenue Baptist Church until July of 1950.  In March of 1951, services began at the new Congregation Church on Marion Avenue at Millsboro Road and the church was officially dedicated June 24 – July 1, 1951.[x]

Sources:

[i] Flames Reduce Stately Edifice to Smoky Ruins. Mansfield News Journal. Mansfield, Ohio. 17 FB 1942, pp. 1
[ii] First Congregational Church, Mansfield, Ohio.  Seventh Manual, 1912, pp. 6-7
[iii] Flames Reduce Stately Edifice to Smoky Ruins. Mansfield News Journal. Mansfield, Ohio. 17 FB 1942, pp. 1
[iv] Memorial Manuel of the Congregational Church, Mansfield, Ohio, 1882. pp. 188
[v] First Congregational Church, Mansfield, Ohio.  Seventh Manual, 1912, pp. 7
[vi] Burning of the Congregation Church.  Mansfield Herald. Mansfield, Ohio. 25 AUG 1870, pp. 3.
[vii] Richland Shield and Banner, Mansfield, Ohio. 17 May 1873, pp. 3
[viii] The New Organ, Mansfield Herald, Mansfield, Ohio. 06 MAR 1873, pp. 3
[ix] The Mansfield That Was.  Mansfield News Journal. Mansfield, Ohio. 22 FEB 1970, pp. 5D
[x] Dedication – First Congregational Church. 1951.

The Newman Building and Quality Furniture Fire

The Month of February has brought fire and destruction to Mansfield a number of times.  A few weeks ago, we looked at the fire that ripped through the Baxter Stove Co. in 1899.  75 years ago, another fire destroyed a Mansfield Landmark and other neighboring businesses.  On February 13, 1944 a fire, which started in the Ringside Nite Club at 28 and 30 East Third St., devastated half a city block on North Park St. causing $500,000 in damages.

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Ringside Nite Club on East Third. (Photographer Unknown)

The fire was estimated to have started between 4:00 and 6:00 am and, at 6:40, two young boys noticed the flames and informed a passing police officer.  A short time later, the fire department was at the scene.   The Newman Building was hardest hit; the 3 ½ story building housed the Ringside Nite Club, two restaurants, two cigar stores, and a number of attorneys’ offices.  The fire then spread to the neighboring building which housed the Quality Furniture Store.

Select Photos to view larger (Photographer Unknown)

The neighboring towns of Ashland and Shelby sent firefighters to help fight the blaze, arriving shortly before 9:00 am, and Fire Chief Frank R. Stahl returned early from Columbus where he was attending a meeting of the executive board of the Ohio Fire Chiefs’ association.  No one was reported injured in the fire.

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The cornerstone for the Newman Building was laid in 1882 and named after Mary Newman Cummins, who was the granddaughter of pioneer Jacob Newman.  On October 13, 1864, Mary married Capt. Abraham Cahill Cummins.  Capt. Cummins and Mary resided in the Newman Home, which was located at the site of the Newman Building, until her death in 1877.   In her will, Mary stated that the home would be razed and in its place a building would be erected in her memory.  Capt. Cummins built a new home on the northeast corner of Park Ave West and Bowman Street.  In 1913 Capt. Cummins erected another building in the back of the Newman Building facing East Third.  At the time of the fire, the buildings were still owned by the family, belonging to Mrs. Leo D. Wright, granddaughter of Mary Newman Cummins, and her two sons Lieut. Thomas B. Wright, who would become Mayor of Mansfield, and Pvt. Richard Wright.

After the fire, the buildings were razed and in 1947 the new Sears-Roebuck Store was opened at the site of Quality Furniture.  Sears stayed there until 1969 when they moved to the Richland Mall.  Since then the building has housed the Richland Community Service Center where various community organizations are located.

The 1899 Baxter Stove Co. Fire

It was cold this past week, but 120 years ago Ohio recorded it lowest temperature.   On February 10, 1899 a temperature of -39 ⁰F was recorded in Milligan, Ohio, a small community in Perry County, Ohio.  The day before that, Mansfield Fire Fighters battled one of the worst blazes Mansfield had seen in -20 ⁰F temperatures.

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Mansfield Daily Shield, 10 FEB 1899

The Baxter and Monarch Stove Companies were located on East Bloom St. (now East Fifth).  Around 6:15pm, employee Robert Hartman placed a load of new stoves in the Japanning oven and went outside to talk to the night watchman, George Banks.  A few moments later, the entire east side of town was rocked with an explosion.  At 6:20pm, alarms were sounded and the Fire Department quickly made it to the scene.  Firefighters bravely fought the blaze in frigid temperatures, but were hindered by low water pressure.   Many residents had kept their water running to prevent their pipes from freezing.   The fire spread quickly through the factory, even jumping across the road to the Humphryes Manufacturing Co.  This was quickly extinguished and fire fighters went back to work on the Baxter building.

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1897 Sanborn Map featuring The Baxter Stove Co.  Across E. Bloom is The Humphryes Manufacturing Co.

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From The Mansfield News, 10 FEB 1899

The mist of the water coated the fire fighters until they looked like “animated icicles.” Captain Mosey, knowing that many would suffer frostbite, had cabs sent to the scene of the fire to bring men back to the station to warm up.  Many refused to leave and had to be forced into the cabs.  Many suffered frostbite in their hands and feet.  Firemen Philip Bidel and Emil Myers became stiff from the cold while on the roof and fell 20 feet to the ground.  William Bell had his right foot crushed by a falling wall and had to be taken to the station.  The firehouse had the appearance of a hospital by the end of the night.  By the next morning, most had recovered from the experience, including the nearly 3,000 spectators who came out to watch the fire.  The total loss was estimated at $100,000.  The Mansfield Daily Shield noted it could have been much worse had the wind been blowing from the east as the lumber yard of S. N. Ford & Co. was just to the east of the Baxter works.  Had the fire reached the lumber yard, much more of the city could have been lost.

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A group of men pose in the ruins after the fire, 1899

This was not the first or last fire at the plant.  On Thanksgiving Day 1890, the first occurred and another happened in 1893.  John L. Baxter rebuilt the factory after the 1899 fire, only to have another one in 1910.  They never fully recovered from the 1910 fire and by 1916 the decision was made to close the plant.

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The ruins after the 1910 fire.