Reminisce: The year 1883 was a momentous year for Spencerville

Eighteen eighty-three got off to a blazing start.

“The year 1883 has opened with the most disastrous chapter of fires ever chronicled upon the pages of a new year’s history in the same length of time,” the Allen County Democrat declared after a fire just 16 days into the year heavily damaged a home at High and Pierce streets.

“While Lima has had her full quota, hers have not been as disastrous to life and property as some that have occurred in sister cities and towns,” the Democrat added, noting that the “ominous” clanging of the fire bell in Lima on January 16 had come “hot upon the heels of the startling news of the great fire at Spencerville …”

News of the “great fire at Spencerville” could be found under a stack of headlines two columns over in the Democrat. “A Whole Square Swept from the Heart of that Thriving Little Village,” read one while below it “Scintillations Seen at a Distance of Twenty-Five Miles as the Mad Flames Reached Up and Kissed the Heavens,” read another. “The Dying Embers of Ruined Business, Ruined Fortunes and Blasted Hopes,” read yet another.

News of the fire could not be found in the Spencerville Journal, which was destroyed in it.

Remarkably, the fire of January 1883 was just one of a string of memorable events in Spencerville that year. Charles Pohlman, a longtime Spencerville hardware store owner, who arrived in 1883, recounted some of them for the Journal in September 1937. Even Pohlman’s journey from Chickasaw to Spencerville that year on the narrow-gauge Toledo, Cincinnati and St. Louis railroad was memorable. The train, “true to the tradition of the old narrow-gauge,” “was involved in a wreck before reaching Spencerville, the Journal noted.

“The year 1883, according to Mr. Pohlman, was a momentous one for Spencerville,” the Journal wrote. “During this year the first passenger train came through on the Erie railroad. During this year Johnzy Keith finished here, what at that time, was one of the largest and best hotels in this part of the state. During this year Spencerville’s first fire engine was unloaded from a boat on the canal.” The fire engine, which was brought up the canal from Piqua, was the first piece of equipment for the Invincible Volunteer Fire company, which was organized in 1883.

Although Pohlman didn’t mention it, Keith, a pioneer Spencerville resident and merchant, also died in 1883. Pohlman also didn’t mention the weather, which most people in the area mentioned first when recalling 1883.

Writing in November 1929, longtime Journal editor Paul W. Cochrun looked back on 1883. “On the 21st of May of this year it started to snow,” Cochrun wrote. “By the morning of May 22, the snow was fully two feet deep. Fruit trees were in blossom and some of the early apple trees bore small apples. The snow was so heavy that it threatened the trees … Some fields of corn had been plowed and (the corn) was ankle high.”

Cochrun noted that, though the corn was completely covered in snow, it was not greatly damaged – until later. “September 9th of the same year, a killing frost came and ruined the corn crop,” Cochrun wrote. “The year 1883 goes down in Spencerville’s history as one of the worst the early inhabitants had to face.”

And it started with the fire of January 16.

“Spencerville – that pleasant, thrifty little village of 1,000 inhabitants, situated fourteen miles west of Lima on the (Miami and) Erie canal and the T. C. & St.L. railroad – was the scene of a disastrous conflagration, early Tuesday morning, that at one time bid fair to sweep half the town out of existence, leaving bare the east bank of the canal,” the Democrat wrote. “The fire was first discovered between 3 o’clock and 4 o’clock a.m., and had secured such headway in the frame buildings where it was raging that the power to arrest its progress was not in human hands or heads until it had spent its fury.”

The Democrat wrote that “the entire able population of Spencerville was upon the ground with buckets, pails, and every conceivable vessel for carrying water to the seat of destruction. Fair, fragile women worked hand to hand and shoulder to shoulder with stout men. The hissing flames flashed defiance upon their efforts and seemed to snap demoniacally as building after building went down to ashes.”

Despite the efforts of Spencerville’s citizens and the abundant, handy supply of water available in the canal directly to the rear of the businesses, the only building left standing on the northern part of the west side of Broadway between Third and Fourth streets was a saloon owned by Leonard Johns on the corner of Fourth and Broadway, according to the newspaper.

In all about a half dozen buildings were destroyed. “The fire made a magnificent light, seemed to flash up and mingle with the clouds,” the Democrat wrote.

Like the fire itself, news of it spread rapidly. In Chicago, which knew something about big fires, the Tribune reported the Spencerville “conflagration” had destroyed the Burns & Veach dry goods store; the dry goods and groceries of L.G. Cochran; the millinery store and $800 in currency “secreted in the store of Miss Ella Cowan”; the “Spencerville Journal, with the entire outfit”; the restaurant of George Bayman; the blacksmith shop and dwelling of A. Barlow; “and the large tenement-house of Merrit Harvey.” The Tribune reported the fire “originated from a defective flue in Bayman’s restaurant.”

The Weekly Jeffersonian in Findlay was less specific. “The fire fiend visited the village of Spencerville, Allen County, at 3 o’clock Tuesday morning, and totally destroyed the town,” the newspaper wrote, adding, “Spencerville was a flourishing village with a population of 550.” The Hartford (Wisconsin) Press reported that “the business portion of Spencerville, O., is a mass of smoldering ruins.”

Spencerville, it turned out, was not “totally destroyed.” Soon, the Journal was again reporting the village news. “The Spencerville Journal, lost by fire January 16, has reappeared under the date of April 6, and is brighter, better, prettier than ever …,” the Democrat wrote April 12. “The Democrat wishes them the greatest of success.”





This feature is a cooperative effort between the newspaper and the Allen County Museum and Historical Society.


See past Reminisce stories at

Reach Greg Hoersten at [email protected].