Editor’s note: This story first published 50 years ago today in the Aug. 7, 1964, edition of the Bellefontaine Examiner.
Watkins Farm Supply and Plating Works are hit by raging flames
Loss expected to be in many thousands — Firemen save homes nearby after blaze discovered in parked truck
Bellefontaine firefighters, Bill Carnes, left, and Auxiliaryman George Packer are shown crouched behind a drinking tank for livestock that was used the night of Thursday, Aug. 6, 1964, to protect themselves from white-hot flames that raged through the Watkins Farm Supply and the neighboring Bellefontaine Plating and Manufacturing Co., along east Patterson Avenue. Auxiliaryman Packer was later hospitalized with arm and shoulder burns. (EXAMINER FILE PHOTO | BYRON SCOTT)
Being probed here today were the ruins of one of the city’s most disastrous fires in several decades in an effort to determine the exact cause of the conflagration which virtually destroyed or crippled two businesses that employ nearly a half hundred persons at times.
Destroyed was the Watkins Farm Supply, 116 east Patterson avenue, and badly damaged and crippled was the Bellefontaine Plating & Manufacturing Co., across an alleyway to the west.
And damage will run into the many thousands of dollars, it was indicated last night and today. Just how much will be covered by insurance is yet to be ascertained.
The fire originated at the Watkins mill and was discovered about 10:20 p.m. The flames spread rapidly, threatening first the adjacent residence of Mr. and Mrs. Grant Watkins and family, and then the flames leaped across the alleyway and began eating away at the wood window panels on the east side of the three-story brick structure, a landmark, that housed the plating concern.
Firemen from Urbana, Sidney, Marysville, and virtually all of the village departments in the county joined with the Bellefontaine fire-fighters in confining the flames to the two structures. The southwest corner of the Watkins’ residence was scorched and charred. Neighbors and others, assisted Mrs. Watkins in clearing the house of household goods and personal belongings.
The conflagration came at a bad time for both concerns. The mill had been busy with the current harvests, and the plating company was preparing patterns, moulds etc., for the 1965 models of vehicles manufactured by the Superior Coach Co., Lima, in addition to the great amount of custom work it does for Bellefontaine and out-of-city interests.
Mr. Watkins last night informed the Examiner he was out of the city and became aware of the fire as he approached the city from the south. He said he experienced trouble in identifying himself and getting through the blocked streets to the scene. He said he had no idea how the fire might have been started.
Destroyed were the small retail sales room, offices and milling departments, along with all of the contents, including a large, tractor-trailer outfit. Other smaller vehicles loaded with hay and straw were parked across the street and in other areas and were not damaged.
Kenneth Crissman, owner of the plating firm, was unable to pin point his losses, but felt sure insurance wouldn’t cover his losses.
Saw Fire Early
The fire started in a straw-laden truck parked between the mill and the retail display and office structure, according to Mrs. Grant Watkins.
She was using the telephone in the office at the time and said the Leroy Kerns, an employee, was on another phone when they saw the flames in the parked truck. Glenn Daniels, who resides across the street, saw the fire across the street.
Just what started the fire in the straw truck remains unknown.
Gone for sure, he added, were about $30,000 in solutions employed in his plating concern on the first floor and about the same amount of generators and rectifiers on the second floor of the aged brick structure.
There was considerable damage to other equipment and supplies on the first floor, but most of it was limited to water damage. His offices located in a newer portion of the building, was undamaged. Records, orders etc., were removed by him to the nearby Miller Sohio station, or placed in a truck and backed away from the scene.
Threatened besides the Watkins’ home was the Miller Sohio station and some 18,000 gallons of gasoline in underground tanks on the north side of the station.
Bellefontaine firemen placed their aerial ladder on Patterson avenue in front of the two burning buildings and sprayed water down on the roaring flames. Urbana’s aerial ladder truck was placed behind the Miller Sohio station to fight the flames in the building housing the plating firm, and to keep them from heading west towards the station.
Nearly 500 phones “out”
Between 400 and 500 individual telephones in the area were put out of service by the fire when a span of 100-pair cable was burned through by belching flames, C.W. Palmer, general manager of the United Telephone Co. said today. Temporary repairs are being made to restore service but before the cable is permanently replaced the loss will be between $3,000 and $4,000 to the phone company.
Mr. Palmer revealed the company employees had completed the testing on new fire alarm circuits and cut them into service just two minutes before the fire alarm was turned into the Bellefontaine Fire Department.
The cut-in of new equipment at the East Liberty exchange when on as scheduled shortly before midnight.
Bellefontaine firemen received the alarm at 10:23 p.m. Thursday.
Mrs. Grant Watkins told Examiner representatives that she saw the start of the fire and that it originated in a parked truck laden with straw and parked between the milling department and the retail store and office structure.
She said she was using a telephone in the office at the time as was Leroy Kerns, an employee. He dashed outside to removed the diesel truck parked near the straw truck, but found the key was back in the office. He returned and got the key and drove the truck he leases to the company to safety.
Mrs. Watkins said an unidentified boy drove one of the trucks in the Watkins fleet to safety, even though he said he had never driven a truck before.
“When we get telephone service restored we can resume business on a limited scale, and buy, sell, trade and move straw and hay,” Mrs. Watkins indicated this morning.
Mr. Watkins plans to set up a temporary office in the basement of his damaged home.
The load of straw, which started the blaze had been parked since 6 p.m.
Mrs. Watkins said she carried an adding machine and calculator to safety but couldn’t get back in to the cash register or safe. The latter holds the firm’s records, including accounts receivable, and was still hot and smoldering this morning. The condition of the contents wasn’t known at the time.
The plating firm was established in Bellefontaine about 1930 by the late Walter Lewis, president and Ethel Shiery, secretary-treasurer. Mr. Crissman, who has been associated with the firm since its founding, assumed ownership in 1956.
He said ordinarily the firm employs between 22 and 25 persons, but that number was reduced to 16 recently because the firm is preparing for the 1964-65 production in connection with the new ambulance and hearse lines being introduced soon by Superior Coach, Lima. The other employees would resume their duties in the near future, he indicated last night.
Production occupied only the first and second floors of the large landmark, that once housed a woolen mill and later a mattress factory.
The building was featured on some early postcards of Bellefontaine.
Mr. Crissman said the third floor, an attic, was unoccupied.
Mr. Watkins said he assumed ownership of the milling farm supply business in 1939. Prior to that time the business had been known as the Walko concern and before that it bore the name of Armstrong.
The mill reportedly was built around the turn of the century.
For a time after Mr. Watkins purchased the business in 1939 it continued to bear the Walko name.
At times employment ran as high as 15 persons, including drivers etc., Mr. Watkins informed the Examiner.
There were no watercraft in the plating firm structure that once also housed a marine division of the operation of Mr. Crissman and his son, Kenneth Crissman Jr.
This morning, Mr. Crissman Sr., expressed belief his plant could be back in full operation in 60 days after consulting with Gordon Zell, LPZ Construction Co.
Present plans would remove the second and third floors, and make a one story plant. The flames didn’t actually reach the ground floor, but considerable damage was done by water.
Chief of Police Donald Woodruff today said he desired to publicly thank all local and visiting firemen as well as his own staff, auxiliary officers and other law enforcement men on the scene for their efforts during the blaze.
Adding thanks to the firemen, police and numerous volunteers who carried the Watkins household goods to safety were Mr. and Mrs. Watkins and son; Mrs. Esta Littler, her mother, and Mrs. Dorothy Reiff, an aunt of Mrs. Watkins.
Butch Munz, son of Mr. and Mrs. Bob Munz, 544 south Detroit street, was among the dozens of men and high school age youth who cleared the home of Mr. and Mrs. Grant Watkins while it was being threatened by flames during last night’s fire. Butch tossed lamps and other household goods from a second floor window into the arms of waiting volunteers.
The marquee on the west side of Bellefontaine Plating’s new building told that company’s outlook this morning when it read: “Well Burnt, But Not Done.”
Bellefontaine’s water system pumped 2,502,610 gallons of water during the 24 hours ending at 7 a.m. today and it was estimated that about 600,000 gallons of the total was due to the fire last night.
Robert Henry, a Bellefontaine auxiliary fireman received lacerations of the left hand during last night’s fire. He did not require hospitalization.
During the absence of Fire Chief George J. Young, who is on two-weeks military duty with the 37th Division, Ohio National Guard at Camp Grayling, Mich., until Sunday, Cluade Johns served as Acting Chief of the department during the blaze.
Grant Watkins had been in Cincinnati on business this week and learned of the blaze as he neared the city after 11 p.m. Thursday.
Sidney firemen reported that on their way here via State Route 47 they saw flames when they reached the intersection with State Route 65, nearly 20 miles west of here.