CRIDERSVILLE — The sound of the relentless spring wind was drowned out only by the huffing and hissing of passing steam engines on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad which rattled the windows of Myrtle Miller’s house wedged between the tracks and Edward Stepleton’s general store on the south side of East Main Street.
Other than a few traveling salesmen loitering around the tiny B&O depot or at the Western Ohio Railway interurban stop and elderly retired men, Cridersville on that warming spring day 100 years ago was a village of women and babies. Able-bodied men who had not been caught up in World War I were working in the nearby fields or at the Garford and Gramm-Bernstein truck factories in Lima.
At about 3 that afternoon, May 2, 1918, what had been an ordinary day became extraordinary with the ringing of the fire bell that signaled the beginning of the end of the village its 400 or so residents had awoke to that morning.
“Fire, lashed by a 40-mph wind, partially destroyed Cridersville on Thursday afternoon,” the Lima Times-Democrat reported the following day. “Two stores, a harness shop, the Home Bank of Cridersville, a physician’s office and eight residences were completely destroyed by the flames.”
That same day, the Lima Republican-Gazette wrote that everything in the path of the wind-driven fire “was swept clean” up to Sugar Street. “Only a brick wall and a few cement pillars stood among the burning embers last night,” the newspaper added.
Gone were Stepleton’s store, Fasig drug store, Sheldon Meffley’s grocery, the Harruf harness shop, Spees hardware, the Newcomer Restaurant, the Joseph Bush hotel and Etta Williams’ Millinery shop. Gone, too, was Myrtle Miller’s home along with those of John Lawson, Catherine Shaffer, John Sellers and Reuben Haywood as well as the home and office of Dr. Charles Strausburg. Only the iron vault remained from the Home Bank.
According to a pamphlet from the Cridersville Historical Society, 32 structures were destroyed and 50 people were left homeless. Damage from the fire was estimated at more than $100,000 — $1.6 million in today’s dollars. Fortunately, only $5,000 was uninsured. Everything in the 100 block of East Main Street from the alley west to the railroad was destroyed as well as two homes on Sugar Street.
According to most accounts the fire began when a clerk from Stepleton’s store, which stood about where the village fire department is now located, was burning trash behind the store and pieces of flaming trash were blown into Lawson’s barn, igniting it. The Times-Democrat offered some alternative versions, writing on May 3 that “the general theory of the origin of the blaze is that some youngsters were playing with a bonfire, while many declare the fire was the result of lads in the Lawson barn smoking cigarettes.”
No matter how the fire started, it wasn’t long before it spread. “In a moment the fire was raging in the barn and the strong wind soon whipped it into Mr. Lawson’s home,” the Lima Daily News wrote. “From this point the fire soon spread to the nearby department store of Edward Stepleton, and on west to the track of the Baltimore & Ohio railway.”
“The initial fighting of the fire depended upon the women of the village,” the Republican-Gazette noted. “Most of the men were at work in Lima or outside the village limits. The women rushed their babies to the post office and other stores and formed bucket brigades.”
The fire soon overwhelmed local resources. “Cridersville has only a volunteer fire department and its equipment consists of one reel of hose and a hand pump,” the Times-Democrat noted. “However, the volunteers fought the blaze with wonderful ability until the arrival of the Lima and Wapakoneta departments.”
The Lima Fire Department “received the call shortly after 3 o’clock,” the Times-Democrat wrote, and immediately dispatched “two triple combination wagons” south to Cridersville. “The two made the run of six miles in about 17 minutes.”
In the meantime, according to the Republican-Gazette, “The Wapakoneta fire engine drawn by horses arrived about the same time as the Lima department. The horses were exhausted by the run from Wapakoneta of seven miles.” The historical society pamphlet, however, describes Wapakoneta’s steam-powered pumper arriving via flat-bed car on the Western Ohio Railway. To be ready on arrival, a fire was started in the pumper’s boilers, from which embers fell onto the flat bed car. “When it arrived in Cridersville the car was on fire,” according to the historical society. “The Wapakoneta volunteers first had to put out this small fire.”
The Lima department’s two motorized fire engines tapped into the cisterns under Main Street but soon found their hoses clogged with mud from the poorly maintained cisterns. The Wapakoneta department put their hoses into the town pond, which would be pumped nearly dry. Despite the problems, the Daily News would later note that “there is little doubt but that for the presence of trained men on the scene, the fire would not have been confined to the limits that were established for it.”
As the fire consumed buildings on the south side of the street, “a considerable amount of the furnishings and valuables were moved … to the north side, which was considered safe,” the Daily News wrote. “Suddenly the front of the large Stepleton department store crashed to the ground and flames were soon raging on the north side of the street.”
Meanwhile, more help was pouring in. “At 3:30 p.m., Boy Scouts in Lima heard of the blaze, hired a taxicab, and rushed to Cridersville to help in the bucket brigade. An unknown Army lieutenant, hearing the news, brought several soldiers from Lima aboard a Liberty truck to help fight the fire,” according to the historical society.
“About 40 men of the village work at the Garford motor truck factory in Lima,” the Republican-Gazette wrote. “When news of the fire reached Lima about 4 o’clock these men were released from work and arrived to help fight the fire.”
The Times-Democrat noted that “the road between Lima and Cridersville was a solid stream of automobiles, motorcycles and vehicles of every description carrying local citizens to the scene of the fire. It is estimated that the conflagration was witnessed by more than 10,000 people.”
As the fire progressed east on the north side of Main Street — consuming the bank, Spees hardware store, Meffley’s grocery, the Newcomer restaurant and Dr. Strausburg’s home and office — it was feared the Methodist Episcopal church would have be to sacrificed to stop it.
“The Lima firemen intended to dynamite the church to keep the flames from spreading,” the Republican-Gazette reported. “It is here the heroic work of the firemen and soldiers came in. Soldiers, army officers and firemen from Lima literally chopped to pieces a house which adjoined and threatened the church.”
It also helped that the church had a new fire-proof roof. “Often during the fire the wind had covered the roof with burning embers,” the historical society notes. “Most of the buildings in town had wood shingle roofs. These contributed greatly to the fire’s rapid spread.”
By 6 p.m., the fire had subsided, leaving Cridersville residents without telephone service — all the lines and poles had been burned — and a bad case of nerves. “Throughout the night nervous residents kept vigil to make sure the wind did not shift and spread the smoldering fire across the railroad to West Main Street,” according to the historical society. “It did not.”
Although there is a historical marker by the town pond, south of the current fire station, the fire today is also marked by what isn’t there — a business district of solid store fronts on East Main Street as existed before the fire.
Reach Greg Hoersten at firstname.lastname@example.org.