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Redbud City: Conflagration sweeps down on Shawnee Mills

Clyde Wooldridge
Contributing writer
Many fighters and observers merged upon the scene of the August 11, 1934, fire at the Shawnee Milling Company.
Hundreds of citizens converged upon the scene on south Broadway to observe this fateful event of the destruction of the Shawnee Milling Company.

The worst fire in the history of Shawnee, raging through the Shawnee Milling Company plant in the 300 block of south Broadway Street, shortly before 6 A.M. on Saturday, August 11, 1934, did an estimated damage of more than $300,000. Loss was sustained by the milling company, Davidson-Case Lumber Company warehouse, and the O.C.A.&A Railway Company.

Cause of the fire, which was discovered on the third floor of the flour mill about 5:45, was undetermined. The night crew of flour mill workers first discovered the flames, but alarm to the fire department was delayed because of damage already done to telephone wiring in the building.

Injuries were sustained by seven members of the fire department and an employee of the railway company, but none proved critical. Work was started that afternoon, under the direction of J. Lloyd Ford, president of the milling company, on plans for rebuilding the portion of the plant that was destroyed. The total property was valued at $600,000, with the loss by the flames tentatively estimated at $250,000.

Loss to the Davidson-Case Lumber Company warehouse was set at $50,000 by A.O. Cowan, manager. The railway company loss was estimated by R.C. Whalen, local agent, at less than $1,000.

Included in the milling company departments destroyed were the flour mill, the feed mill, offices, and supply rooms. Extent of damage to the concrete elevators, and the grain they contained, could not be estimated by Ford until an inspection was completed the following week. The alfalfa mill, on the east side of the milling company property, was not damaged by the flames.

The concrete elevators were 165 feet high and had a capacity of 600,000 bushels of grain. They were almost full at the time of the fire. They contained mostly wheat and corn, with a quantity of oats, kaffir, and other grains. Wheat in the south bins were scorched, but not damaged beyond use for certain grades of feed.

Manager Cowan of the lumber company said detailed figures on the loss of his company would not be compiled until later. Included among the building supplies stored in the warehouse were a large quantity of creosote, roofing materials, shingles, paint, coal tar, posts, piling, walnut finish, and other supplies.

The tar and creosote barrels in the warehouse exploded from the heat, shooting flames 150 feet into the air, but did not cause injury to the hundreds of persons who crowded the streets to witness the blaze. The railway company loss was to the scales house and scales and the industrial track. Two freight cars loaded with new automobiles were removed from the south side of the passenger station before they were damaged. The windows in the station were broken by the heat.

Managers of the three firms that lost property in the fire said insurance was carried on all buildings and stock that was lost or damaged.

One room on the third floor of the flour mill was aflame when discovered and the flames spread over the entire floor in less than a minute. The entire flour mill building was in flames and almost ready to fall in flames when firemen arrived. The flames spread to the office and feed mill buildings, and though eight streams of water were poured into the fire, it was impossible to extinguish the fire and members of the fire department turned their attention to saving adjacent buildings in the vicinity.

The Bell Lumber Company across Broadway west of the milling company, the office of the Illinois Oil Company, first door north of the lumber company, and the railway passenger station were saved only by streams of water being poured on them.

A strong south breeze fanned the flames at the outset, but later lessened, and was not sufficiently strong to cause the fire to spread into the business district. Burning embers floated into the business district, however, and several awnings were set fire, but were extinguished before damage resulted.

The heat was so intense that all members of the fire department suffered blistered faces in fighting the flames. Four sections of hose strung in the middle of the street, caught fire from the heat and several hundred feet of hose was destroyed. One of the fire trucks, parked close to the building when the fire started, was driven away by Wallace Collins, just as the leather on the seat started smoking. A few moments later and the truck would have been lost.

J.W. Roy, section foreman of the O.C.A.& A. Railroad, probably was the worst injured of the several who suffered from the heat and smoke. He was rushed to a local hospital for emergency treatment when falling glass from the passenger station window cut his arm. He also was overcome from heat and loss of blood, but he was in stable condition at the hospital. Many other fighters received minor injuries and heat exhaustion while battling the flames.

The Rock Island Fire Department was called out to assist in controlling the flames and received praise for their work by Fire Chief W.W. Wicker. He gave them credit for saving the passenger station. The flames raged for more than an hour and were brought under control by 8 A.M. The fire department continued to spray the smoldering ruins throughout the day.

About 55 Western Union and telephone lines, that were strung along the railway right-of-way, were burned by the flames and communications between Shawnee and Dallas on the south, and Oklahoma City on the west, were disrupted.

By noon, scores of pigeons who had been on a forced diet due to the drought, were feasting on some of the wheat grains not destroyed by the fire. They made quite a spectacle flying through the smoke and flames.

The fire caused the heaviest loss in the history of Shawnee. Second to it was the fire at the Rock Island shops 10 years earlier, which reached a quarter of a million dollars. The Choctaw Oil Mill that burned in 1920, also ranked high among the fire losses in the city.

Approximately 125 were employed at the mill and they were given work in the clearing of the debris and rebuilding. The portion on the east side of the mill was still intact and was not damaged.  

“Hundreds of friends in Shawnee made personal calls on us Saturday and offered us office equipment and facilities in the emergency,” said Ford. “It gave me and officials of the company deep feeling of gratitude for the consideration of our friends.”

Ford also lavished high praise on City Manager T.E. Thompson, who arrived with the firemen and aided in directing the fire fighting. “Thompson, directing the fire fighting with Chief Wicker, when taken into account of all things, more than earned the salary the city was paying him,” Ford added.

All the officials of the company were active in civic affairs and took a big part in the building up of Shawnee. The company manufactured Climax flour and meal, Shawnee Best Flour, and Climax poultry and alfalfa feeds were also manufactured.  Their trademarks were known all over the world. The capacity of the mills was 8,000 bushels of grain daily.

Ford also expressed his appreciation to radio station KGFF for broadcasting to merchants and consumers in the local trade territory plans of the company for continued distribution to retail trade in products of the company.

(This story appears on pages 508-510 in Volume Three of the “Redbud City” six-volume series of the history of Shawnee. The first three volumes are available and can be purchased by going onto the Pottawatomie County Historical website, or by calling (405-275-8412). Volume Four, (1970-1989) is now with the printer and should be available for purchase soon. Volume Five, (1990-2009) is scheduled for October of 2021. Volume Six, (2010-2022) is about 75 percent finished and should be ready in early 2022.)