I’ve often joked on this blog that I stay as far away from the twentieth century as possible, but given the anniversary nature of this event, I felt safe. A century ago this very day, the three-story Italianate building known as both the Rininger Block and the Horr Block burned to the ground over the night of Wednesday, February 24th and into the early morning hours of Thursday, February 25th, 1915. It was one of the largest fires in the history of the village.
Papers in nearby Elyria and Medina reported breathlessly on the catastrophic occurrence. “WELLINGTON VILLAGE VISITED BY A DISASTROUS FIRE IN ITS BUSINESS SECTION” shouted the front page of The Elyria Chronicle on Thursday morning. The Chronicle noted that in addition to the destruction of the massive structures, “The wall of the Horr building fell into the street and heavily damaged the cable and wires of the Wellington Telephone Co., putting a large part of the village out of telephone service.” By the day after the fire, the front page of the Elyria Evening Telegram was dominated by photographs of the conflagration in progress, including the image at the top of this post.
The Wellington Enterprise had published its weekly edition as normal on Wednesday, so it was seven days before the next issue featured local coverage of the fire. Given the passage of time, the reporting was a bit more subdued. An entire column of “Fire Notes,” published in the March 3rd edition, was simply a list of one-line observations on the scene. It feels rather stream-of-consciousness, as if the writer–or the town–was in shock. “For a day or so after the fire, East Main street as far as the postoffice [sic] resembled a foggy day in London as far as atmospheric conditions were concerned,” read one note. Another mentioned the truant officer pulling “fascinated school youngsters” away from the scene. A third line reflected on what might have happened had the fire occurred while the water supply was low. And so forth.
The damage was immense. In addition to the loss of the three-story block itself–as well as the inventories of the multiple stores that filled it–the wooden buildings on the east side of North Main Street were condemned, including the “old laundry building” formerly occupied by Wah Sing. Many nearby glass windows were shattered from the heat of the blaze. The telephone lines were damaged as noted, leaving the town without communication. Dynamite, and eventually the Interurban street car, was used to pull down the dangerously teetering brick walls still standing after the blaze. The work of cleaning up the downtown began immediately and the Enterprise was already reporting by March 3rd that “from its ashes there will arise a modern block of two stories in the near future” (pg. 2).
In the months that followed, the cause of the disaster became clearer. A local merchant, F. C. Bixler, confessed to starting the fire and was indicted in mid-April. He owned a store fifty miles to the southeast in Dalton, Ohio, that he was finding impossible to sell, and his Wellington store–located in the destroyed block–was not proving profitable. Early reports noted that Bixler had very little insurance, so his motive seems to have been to free himself from his legal obligations to the Wellington venture and return to his family and work in Dalton. It is likely that his intention was only to damage his own shop beyond repair. By early May, Bixler was convicted of arson and sentenced to “an indefinite term in the Ohio penitentary [sic]. If he behaves well, possibly he may be paroled or pardoned at the end of a few years servitude” (Enterprise, 5-5-1915, pg. 4).
The life of the village went on. The debris was eventually cleared away and plans were drafted for a new edifice. E. E. Watters was a businessman who suffered the heaviest losses in the fire, estimated at nearly $35,000. He had insufficient insurance to cover at least one-third of the reserve stock of his dry goods and general store, and had just received a new shipment of items for the spring selling season that was totally uncovered. But he vowed to reopen on the same site and by April 21st, the newspaper announced that he had leased the entire lot for twenty-five years, with an option to buy. From then on, the site became known as the Watters Block.