Today’s firefighters have modern trucks, hoses and hopefully many safety devices to protect them as they battle the unexpected, but it is still a dangerous job.
This was not always the case. A century ago, nearly all fire departments were manned by volunteers. The truck, in the early days, was pulled by horses, which were hitched to the wagons, ready to go at a moment’s notice. I’m told this was a bit fearsome for a small child who had to walk past the station with the horses harnessed and ready to gallop at the first command.
A fire bell would sound; the firemen would head for the station. The pumper trucks could be parked near a water source, such as a creek or pond, if necessary and the water would be pumped by hand(s) as fast and far as possible to douse the fire.
Nearly every community in Greene County has suffered from destructive fires, but in 1908, this was described as the “most disastrous fire in the history of the city of Xenia”.
The story begins when Henry Harrison Eavey came to Xenia at the age of 16 to work in a grocery. He enlisted in the OVI in 1862, then, five months later was discharged because of injuries suffered as a prisoner of war. He returned to the grocery business and in 1865 opened his own store on West Main Street.
Four years later he formed a partnership with M. C. Allison and James Carson to start a wholesale business at 132 E. Main St. The partnership dissolved in 1880, so Eavey, along with J. D. Steele and W.B. Harrison formed Eavey and Co. They constructed a new building at 36 W. Main Street. When that partnership ceased to exist, Henry took his sons into the business as partners. Henry was vacationing in Florida the night of Feb. 2, 1908 when the fire broke out.
The fire started in the rear of the Eavey wholesale house, in the sugar room. Although there was no positive proof, it was rumored that it was arson.
The fire had been blazing for a while before the policeman on his regular rounds spotted it. Officer Hayes sounded the alarm and in short order, the fire department hoses were pouring water on the building.
Every possible stream of water was aimed at the blaze, but it seemed no amount of water could stop the raging flames. One by one the three floors collapsed. With each collapse, it seemed that the fire burned even brighter, with the flames and sparks not even diminished by the flow of water. The Xenia Water Co, a private utility pumped constantly for twelve hours from two stations to ensure that there would be adequate water to fight the fire.
Residents who had heard the alarms hurriedly dressed and arrived to view the scene. The men nearby rendered whatever assistance they were able to give the exhausted firefighters.
The fire was contained to the Eavey and Steele building, in spite of the fact that it appeared that adjacent structures might be affected. The building to the west was saved from the fire, but the damage from the falling brick of the Eavey building along with the water damage rendered that building unusable.
The total loss was estimated to be well over $100,000. But that was not the biggest loss. Two volunteer firefighters lost their lives when a brick wall collapsed on them. The fire chief was distributing coffee to the firemen. He had just taken coffee to the two men when the wall came down trapping both. Martin Ullery and Joseph Fletcher were killed by the falling brick. Some of the bricks hit the chief, who was badly injured, but survived. He had to leave the scene to be treated by a doctor.
It was so cold the water froze on the remains of the building and in the morning, the fire was still smoldering, canned goods were exploding from time to time, adding to the stress of those watching.
The building on the east side was spared. The occupants of the building reported their losses. William Neeld, the undertaker, reported a loss of about $200, John Charters, the jeweler lost less than $50 and Hyman the fruit dealer suffered the loss of only a few dollars. Insurance would pay most claims filed by the Eavey Company.
The third floor of the building had been occupied by the IOOF lodge and the female counterpart organization, the Phoenix Rebecca Lodge. The Phoenix later became a symbol of the new Eavey Company.
Henry took the first train home to personally see the damage. The Eavey Company offices were quickly set up on the Steele Building. Merchandise continued to be warehoused in other buildings in the city and 20 railroad cars were ordered by telegraph to provide additional storage of supplies.. The Eavey Packing Company building on Washington Street was used for warehouse purposes, and so the company remained in business.
A lot at the corner of Third and Detroit Streets was purchased where a new two-story building was erected. As the years went by, and the company continued to grow, several additions were made to the structure. The red brick building still stands at that corner.
In 1960, the operation was moved to a location on Bellbrook Avenue. Eventually, members of the Eavey family sold the business to Super Valu, of course, that property remains vacant at this time