Saturday, September 8, 2012

Michigan Buggy Inferno

“A life long work gone skyward,” said M.H. Lane, president of the Michigan Buggy Company as he watched his business go up in flames. [1]

On the evening of January 16, 1902 the sun set on the main building of the Michigan Buggy Company for the last time. An hour after the approximately 300 blacksmiths, wheelwrights, painters, finishers and other employees headed for home the night watchman discovered a fire in the shipping room. A few hours later the entire five-story brick building and all it contained lay in smoldering ruins.

Photo displayed with permission of the Kalamazoo Valley Museum.

Before the fire the state of the Michigan Buggy Company was never better. “According to President M.H. Lane and a number of the employees, the factory has never before been so fully stocked with finished goods and wheels, leather, broadcloth, wagon trimmings, wood, and the general equipment of a big factory, as it was at the time of the fire; nor never before has it been so filled, or rather overrun with orders. The books showed orders for over 100 carloads [train carloads] of finished goods.” [2] Doing an annual business of $600,000, the Michigan Buggy company was undoubtedly a successful business that was important to the Kalamazoo economy. [1]

The origin of the fire was a mystery. The shipping room reportedly did not contain flammables, but nonetheless that was where George Kieber, the night watchman discovered the blaze. Immediately he ran to trip the alarm. Within eight minutes the Kalamazoo fire department was on the scene, but before they could set up their six forty-foot streams of water [2], “the second and third floors of the new cast building between the main structure and the first fire wall were in flames.” [1]

The firefighters at first hoped they could prevent the fire from spreading beyond the firewalls between buildings, but they were simply not sufficiently equipped to fight a fire of this magnitude. They were particularly worried as the fire approached the triple-walled paint shop which contained many flammables. The flames again spread through the fire wall and several small explosions rent the air, but no large explosions rocked the building as all those present had feared.

Melodramatic accounts appeared in both the Telegraph and Gazette and are too colorful to omit entirely. “First from one point and now from another the grim old fire king would rear his lurid head. Water was useless. Wherever the greedy flames took the first lap of destruction, annihilation followed.” [1] “From every side the red faced demon could be seen, grinning, smiling in anticipation of the feast before him. . . The long, hungry forked tongues leaped from window to window and from floor to floor. . . Onward and onward swept the flames destroying everything before them, at times leaping high into the air and again bursting forth as though in joyful exultation.” [2]

When the first wall of the five-story building crashed to the ground several firemen nearly lost their lives. Several times more they were forced back as wall after wall swayed and crashed into rubble. While the firemen continued their attempts to douse the flames, they had now switched into damage control mode. Nearby homes were blistering from the heat so hoses were turned on them to prevent the spread of the disaster. [1] Fortunately, these efforts were successful and no buildings beyond those of Michigan Buggy succumbed.

When it was evident that the whole factory would be lost “many willing hands volunteered and a large quantity of tops, cushions and other material were removed from the warehouses to a place of safety.” [1] Unfortunately, the value of these items did not exceed $200. [2] “The only building that was saved was a small wooden addition on the east end, in which are stored the old cushions, buggy tops and bolts.” [2] Thirty Shetland ponies were also rescued from a nearby barn.

The progress of the fire was watched by about 5,000 spectators who from half a block away shielded their faces or moved back away from the tremendous heat. While their front sides burned their backs were freezing in the wintery air. [1,2]

Rubble from the blaze blocked the railroad tracks that passed by the factory and this was cleared within hours so that train traffic could resume. Another problem that required quick action was the debris that dammed Arcadia creek. If it had not been removed promptly the lower end of the city could have been badly flooded. [1]

Photo displayed with permission of the Kalamazoo Valley Museum

Now, all that remained was a charred heap. Nearly three hundred men were out of work. About two-thirds of them were heads of household so all told 1,000 men, women and children who depended on Michigan Buggy to pay the bills were without a source of income. [2] This too in the middle of winter when they couldn't even seek temporary employment as farm laborers. To make the situation worse, the employees had not yet been paid their wages for December as the company typically paid mid-month for the previous month's work. Now it was feared that the pay rolls and checks which had just been put into the safe at days end had not survived the combination of fire and water. “The most pitiful sights at the fire were the groups of sad faced women who looked into the seething mass of flames as they destroyed their husbands' place of employment and threatened them with hardship and even hunger.” [2] The monthly payroll of the company was about $20,000 which in addition to the direct hardship imposed on the workers and their families would also trickle into the rest of the community in lost rent and grocery money. [3]

If one could say there was a bright spot during the massive blaze it was that no one sustained serious injuries. One fireman suffered severe burns to his face and another badly scraped his hands, but that was the worst of it. Unfortunately, there was one fatality that resulted from the fire. This occurred the following day when John Decker, 24, was posting advertisements on some of the free-standing brick walls of the factory. Despite the men stationed around the perimeter of the site, presumably to warn away gawkers, Decker and two companions posted placards on a couple of walls before approaching another. This wall was unstable and onlookers noticed bricks at its top beginning to tremble. They called to the men who scrambled away as fast as they could. Decker, a well-liked veteran of the Spanish-American war, was only two feet from safety when the bricks buried him, crushing his head nearly flat. [4] The remaining walls were torn down to prevent further tragedy. [5]

One good bit of news came for the now unemployed workers when the safe was hoisted from the rubble. The pay roll checks which had been placed in the inner-most of three compartments had survived. They were a little worse for wear, but that hardly mattered to the men now seeking employment wherever they could. [5]

When it was all over, the damage was estimated at $200,000 [1,2], not counting lost business which was expected to cost about $800,000. [3] The worst of it was that only $87,400 of the loss was covered by insurance. Despite the fact that a devastating fire had destroyed part of the factory only six years previously, the company had not purchased sufficient insurance to cover a total loss.

Now, one major question faced the Kalamazoo community. Would Michigan Buggy rebuild . . . again? The residents were forced to wait anxiously for over three months before the answer came back in the affirmative. [6] Although the new Michigan Buggy building was state-of-the-art and very well built (and still stands), no one in town likely would have believed that the company would only remain in business just over a decade more. This time it came crashing down under a black cloud of scandal and not a rain of fire. But that is a story for another time.

  1. Kalamazoo Gazette, 1-17-1902
  2. Kalamazoo Evening Telegraph, 1-17-1902
  3. Lyon, David O., The Kalamazoo Automobilist, 1891-1991. 2002. New Issues Press. Western Michigan University. Kalamazoo.
  4. Kalamazoo Evening Telegraph, 1-18-1902
  5. Kalamazoo Evening Telegraph, 1-20-1902
  6. Kalamazoo Evening Telegraph, 4-29, 1902

Note: I would especially like to thank the staff of the Kalamazoo Valley Museum for allowing me to include the above photos, but also for searching out the photo of the ruins for me unbidden. For more on the museum go to their website.

For more information about the history of the Michigan Buggy Company I encourage you to read a nice article on the Kalamazoo Public Library website.

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