A Day in History

A Day in History: February 4, 1921, Fire Destroys R. C. Day Garage in Eskridge

On Friday evening, February 4, 1921, the Ford dealership belonging to Robert Day in Eskridge, Kansas burned to the ground in a blaze which destroyed seventeen vehicles and threatened the downtown business district.

The Eskridge Tribune-Star and Independent reported on the fire in their February 9th edition, “The fine brick and stone building on Main Street, owned by R. C. Day and used by him as a Ford and Fordson agency with garage and repair shop went up in smoke last Friday evening, the fire spreading so fast that but little was gotten out and the building and contents were in ashes in about one hour.”

The story continues, “Eskridge folks were at the supper table when the fire bell rang at about 6:30 o’clock.  First-comers discovered the fire to be in the back part of the building, on the south side of the new addition that Mr. Day completed to his building some few months ago. The blaze at that time was in the extreme southeast corner of the building, originating, apparently, on or about a work bench where some vulcanizing had been done a short time before.  Mr. Day said there had been a radiator soldered, also, and there was in that corner, also, a newly installed battery-charging outfit.”

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Three unidentified men stand inside the ruins of the R. C. Day garage after a fire destroyed the business on February 4, 1921. The ruins of burned Ford cars are visible in the foreground. Photo courtesy the Dean Dunn Collection.

“The exact cause of the fire is a mystery.  No one was in the garage at the time, everybody connected with it had gone to supper.  Half a dozen or more persons saw the fire blazing away, quite a while before any alarm was thought of, but supposed that the flame they observed through the window was caused from vulcanizing work and so did not stop to investigate the blaze showing at the rear window nearly down to the alley line.  It was not until the blaze actually ate its way through the window and was nearly ready to shoot out the roof, that the alarm was given.  The chemical engine from the fire house was quickly brought to the scene and an attempt made to turn the contents on the blaze, but one tank was empty, and the other would not work.  Dave Leasure, who tried to make it work, and others who frantically attempted to assist him, were unable to get a drop of chemicals out of the machine, and they finally gave it up as useless and turned to the old reliable bucket brigade, using the cistern in the street directly in front of the building.”

“The fire presumably spread to a car standing in the workshop belonging to Will Younker and enveloped it before being noticed from the street.  The gasoline tank of this car, when it exploded, sent blazing gasoline all over the workshop and this made the fire spread with great rapidity.”

“Everybody then ran around to the front and tried to get out some of the contents of the front part, seeing that the building was doomed.  At the same time, a score of workers climbed to the roof of the Robertson Paint store building, on the north and worked manfully with a bucket line to keep the flames out of that building. The smoke was so dense that one could not live in the front of the garage, and as a consequence, little salvage was made.  Three cars only were gotten out, these being the ones directly adjacent to the front door.  The plate glass window of the office room was broken-in and two show cases filled with Ford parts were successfully removed; also Mr. Day’s desk and his safe. A few tires were also carried out, most of them being old casings that happened to be lying on the office floor.  When these few articles had been gotten, the fire was so close that salvage work had to stop and some of the boys had to crawl out of the building on their stomachs.  The three cars next to the door, two Ford coupes and one sedan, all belonged to Mr. Day.  Harry McPherson’s coupe was standing next in line, and Mr. McPherson, who arrived early at the fire, tried to get it out but could not live in the smoke and had to abandon the car.  Will Hakes, whose bran-new Ford stood next to McPherson’s, actually got in his car and tried to release the brake but had to give it up, also, and flee for his life.  He was nearly suffocated by the smoke as was Mr. McPherson.”

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Spectators view the ruins of the R. C. Day Garage after the February 4, 1921 fire which destroyed the business. Amazingly, the brick storefront, seen here braced with a telephone pole, was salvaged and stands today at 212 S. Main Street in Eskridge, Kansas. Photo courtesy the Dean Dunn Collection.

“A great crowd had collected by this time, and there was plenty of help to carry out goods from the Robertson paint store, the Wright barber shop, the Cozy café and the Waugh Implement warehouse, all of these places being practically stripped of goods and equipment.  It was believed that the fire would surely take the entire block, but a fortunate circumstance was the direction of the wind, which was to the south, carrying the flames toward a vacant lot between the Day building and the Sorrick store.”

“The only danger to the Robertson building lay in the direction of the roof, and there were a score of men up there with buckets which they drew up full of water with ropes, the buckets being filled at the street cistern and the well in front of The Independent office.  The fire never did catch on the Robertson building. But another source of extreme danger was the storage tank of gasoline at the edge of the sidewalk in front of the burning building, where Mr. Day operated a filling station.  Hundreds of gallons of gasoline were stored in this tank, but few persons in the crowd were aware that it was buried three feet underground and was guaranteed against explosion.  The pump attached to the tank got red hot, of course, and steamed with gasoline vapor, while the hose burned off, but a constant line of men with buckets of water kept drenching the pump and no danger resulted from it.  Had it exploded; however, it would have drenched every building in this section of town with blazing gasoline.”

“Three cars belonging to private owners were destroyed, the owners being Will Hakes, H. G. McPherson, and Will Younker.  An International truck belonging to H. N. Griggs was also destroyed.  Mr. Day lost eleven new Ford cars, nine of them touring cars and two roadsters.  These cars had been in the agency only a short time and had never been used.  He also lost a new Ford truck and one used Ford car. Two new coupes and one sedan, belonging to Mr. Day were gotten out. This made a total of fifteen Ford cars and two trucks burned.  A Fordson tractor was damaged to the extent of several hundred dollars by the heat but was stored in the basement, up near the front sidewalk, where the fire did not reach.”

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Three unidentified men stand behind the rubble of a burned Ford at the R. C. Day Garage in Eskridge, Kansas. Photo courtesy the Dean Dunn Collection.

“Mr. Day estimated his total loss at $20,000, and he carried insurance as follows: on building, $5,000; on stock, $4,600; on cars about half their value in blanket policy. The shop equipment was a big item of loss, too, for he had a splendidly equipped machine shop, including everything usually found in a well-equipped garage. The shop equipment Mr. Day estimated, was worth $4,000. The fire was a hard blow to Bob Day, but his faith in his home town does not waver. He announced to The Independent, the morning after the fire that before the bricks and stones were cool, he would have workmen starting a new building.”

“J. W. Robertson, proprietor of the paint store, was also quite a big loser in the fire.  His $8,000 stock of wall papers, paints, oils, fixtures, ect., was practically all carried out and it was hopelessly messed up, of course. The fixtures were torn from the walls and damaged to a big extent and a lot of wall paper that was carried out is just about a total loss. The interior of the Robertson store, after the good were carried back again, looked like a cyclone had struck it.  Mr. Robertson estimated his loss as follows, on the building, $683.15, principally to the south wall which is a party wall between his store and the burned building.  This wall is cracked in several places with the intense heat. The roof is also damaged to some extent and the ceilings and walls are ruined with smoke grime. On stock, $3,113.13, principally from the chaotic mess everything was put into when carried and thrown in the street out of the fire zone.  The stock inventoried $8,149.42 in early February, Mr. Robertson said. He carried $5,000 insurance on building and contents.”

“There are small losses on the Wright barber shop, the McCoy building, the Cozy Café, and the Waugh Implement warehouse, principally from the removal of contents.  Had the fire gone north, penetrating the Robertson building, George Waugh was ready to cover the front windows of his implement warehouse with sheet iron.  He had the iron all ready and the men to put it on.  Fortunately, it was not necessary.  The only danger to this stone implements warehouse would have been from the front windows as the south wall is solid stone without a window in it.”

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It was nothing short of miraculous that the four businesses located just to the north of Day’s Garage survived after the February 4, 1921 fire which destroyed 17 autos at the Ford dealership. Businesses seen in this view, from right to left are Day’s Garage, Robertson Paint and Wallpaper, Wright Barber Shop, the Cozy Cafe, and Waugh Implement Company. Photo courtesy the Dean Dunn Collection.

“Many persons, surveying the ruins the following day, could hardly believe this supposedly fire-proof building had been so completely destroyed in so short a space of time, hardly more than an hour. It was gasoline and oil that made it burn so intensely.  There were five or six barrels of oil in the workshop and every car in the building, practically, had at least a gallon or two to a tankful of gasoline on board.  A barrel of engine oil, standing near the front door, burned for a solid half hour, throwing out an intense blue flame.”

Editor’s note:  Robert Day rebuilt his automobile dealership on Main Street in Eskridge after the disastrous fire.  Amazingly, the brick storefront was salvaged and survives today.  In the rebuilding process, Day extended the garage to the south.  Day’s automobile dealership changed from a Ford to a Chevrolet dealership and remained a fixture on Main Street for decades after the fire.

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