Fire of 1964
The fire siren rarely blew in our small Ohio village, except at noon on weekdays to signal the lunch hour.
If there was a siren at another time during the day a real alarm to summon the volunteer fire department my mother would hear it at our house on the east side of town and would phone my father at work to make sure that it wasn't his business that was burning. This became a routine. The siren would go off, the business phone would ring, and someone would laughingly answer it, "No, Mrs. Thomas, the fire isn't here."
So when the siren blew at 1:40 pm on Wednesday, June 10, 1964, my mother made her usual call. But this time, the phone on the other end did not ring. She knew something was wrong.
Our family had moved to Richwood in late 1952. My father had been an accountant, business manager, and sales manager for two different Chevrolet dealerships: first for nine years in Falmouth, Kentucky, and then for 14 years in Cambridge, Ohio. Finally he got the chance to own his own business, buying a dealership in Richwood and renaming it Vernon M. Thomas Chevrolet.
According to a 1982 sesquicentennial edition of the Richwood Gazette, there had been a Chevrolet dealership in Richwood since 1926, when William Jerew was a "car broker." Three years later, Kenneth Davis opened Davis Motor Sales in an actual building. It was located where the NAPA store later stood at 209 North Franklin Street. Paul Curl bought that business in 1935. In 1950, Mr. Curl extensively remodeled a farm implement sales building at 153 North Franklin and moved P.M. Curl Chevrolet there, selling the dealership to my father two years later. (See a larger picture here.)
The "garage," as we called it, had a showroom in front that was barely big enough to squeeze in three cars. Behind the showroom was a small office and parts department, and behind that was the service department where vehicles were repaired. Other cars and trucks were stored in a lot alongside the building.
In 1952 the garage was a small operation that didn't sell very many units at all. My father hired a second salesman: his brother-in-law, my uncle Jim Buckingham. For seven years, Jim traveled up and down the country roads around Richwood, meeting and talking to all the farmers. He convinced many of them to come to town on Saturday and see what kind of a deal they could make on a new car or a pickup. (Forty years later, when they encountered my father, some of those old customers would still mention "Buckingham.")
With Jim's energetic salesmanship, the addition of an Oldsmobile franchise in 1955, and a reputation for honest dealing, Vernon M. Thomas Chevrolet soon was selling far more cars and trucks than one would have expected from the small size of the town. Many of the buyers came from the nearby city of Marion. Uncle Jim moved to Florida in 1960 and was replaced by a local salesman, Tommy DeGood. By 1962, our family was prosperous enough to build a new house on Blagrove Street.
On that June Wednesday in 1964, I had completed my junior year at Richwood High School. As usual, I was spending the summer working at the garage. I had just finished washing an accumulation of grime off the interior wood paneling on part of the showroom wall, and now I was starting to apply a stain to some newly constructed shelves in my father's office.
Back in the service department, mechanic Gary Thacker was working on a car, replacing the sending unit. That's the part of the gas gauge that fits inside the gas tank. To see what he was doing, he was using a droplight, a long cord with a light bulb at the end inside a protective metal cage. But the cage offered no protection when a drop of gasoline fell from the gas tank onto the hot light bulb. The bulb broke, and the gasoline ignited. Thacker put his arm over the gas tank but received second-degree burns. Fellow workers helped to pull him from under the car.
One of the workers, Vic McFadden, tried to use an extinguisher on the fire but was unsuccessful. The shop was saturated with grease and paint dust and other flammable materials accumulated over the years, and it didn't take long for the fire to spread. Tommy DeGood tried to take another extinguisher back to the shop but was driven out by the heat. As the flames reached gas tanks on other vehicles, they exploded; the Marysville Journal-Tribune reported that there were 18 gasoline explosions in all.
In the office, Gene Cheney told us that there was a fire in the back and that maybe we should leave the building. So I went outside, leaving my jacket behind. Betty Wilcox left her purse. I went to the corner of Oak and Franklin streets, where I could see thick black smoke coming from the service department. "Well," I thought to myself, "that wall paneling is going to have to be cleaned again after this is over." But it was only a minute or two until the paneling itself started to burn.
Service manager Red Connolly reported to my father, who had been outside on the lot when he heard the fire siren, that the blaze was out of control. "What's the most important thing that we should save from the office?" he asked. My father chose a filing cabinet with 27 small drawers containing corporate papers. They carried it out. (Today, I use that same filing cabinet in my apartment.) Someone else rescued the cash register. There wasn't time for another trip inside. But the workers drove about 30 cars away from the burning building.
By that time, the fire trucksand my motherhad arrived on the scene. When she saw me, she held out her hand, glad that I was safe. My father was there too. But little could be done.
My parents sat on the bank on the east side of Franklin Street and watched the family business burn. Smoke rose 500 feet in the air and could be seen as far as Waldo, 12 miles away.
The heat melted the electrical wiring in the cars inside, shorting out their horns, which began blowing continuously. My mother imagined a burning barn, with the animals trapped inside and screaming. "Spectators witnessed an eerie scene," the Richwood Gazette reported. The "fire sirens, the roar of the blazing building, and the shorted-out horns of fifteen automobiles put a chill over most everyone present."
Fortunately, no people were trapped inside, and the only injury was Thacker's burned arm. The other 15 employees were unhurt, as were the firemen from Richwood, Marysville, Green Camp, Prospect, LaRue, Raymond, and Magnetic Springs. They poured water on the building, especially on the office where the records were kept, until the fire was under control around 3:30 that afternoon.
Parked cars that had been backed up to the south wall of the service department were heavily damaged when the wall collapsed on them. Completely destroyed were eight new cars, six customers' cars, and six used cars.
The building was reduced to rubble.
The loss was estimated at about $150,000, making it the largest single fire in the history of the village.
According to the Marysville paper, "insurance underwriters from Marion and Columbus worked until nearly midnight investigating the inventory and records to determine the loss. John Cheney handles the insurance for Thomas Chevrolet." And that evening, John and his family invited our slightly shaken family to dinner at his house.
We were slightly shaken by what had happened. But we were not traumatized; there was no crying or wailing.
We had experienced a sudden and unexpected event, like the death of a president. But our lives still went on.
We had had our lives changed in a dramatic moment. But the disruption would not be nearly as great as, for example, moving to a new town.
We had lived through the fire. Now, what was next?
In the words of the song, it was time to "pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again."
My father was almost 55 years old. Was this a good time to retire? No. He decided immediately to rebuild. The losses were practically all covered by insurance, and he could keep the business operating for a while even without a building.
The business leased one structure untouched by the disaster, a body shop over beyond Richwood Lake at 301 Grove Street, which was owned and managed by Ray Webb. In 2012, Ray rememembered the day of the fire. "Vern got the employees together and with tears in his eyes, he told us, 'This will not stop us. You guys that can, report to work tonight, and tomorrow there's work to be done.' Some of us guarded the remains that were roped off all night. ...[The body shop] had three stalls to work in, and mechanics moved in with us."
Within days, we had also rented the Pure gas station on South Franklin Street (seen in the left background below) and the Sinclair station at the corner of Clinton and Blagrove in order to use their repair bays.
Other Richwood auto dealers offered space, tools, and equipment. We added another structure, a temporary "office building," by parking a house trailer on the south side of the used car lot.
Most of the records of the dealership had survived, although some were partially burned. I set up shop in the basement of the Masonic Temple, a big gray building near our office trailer, and spent weeks doing conservation work on the scorched paperwork. (In the process, my summer job description changed from part-time janitor to part-time clerk, which suited me better anyway.) Some invoices had burned along the fold and could be taped back together. I had to retype others, straining to make out the black letters on the fragile dark-brown ashes. I still remember the smell of burned paper and wood that filled that basement that summer.
I remember one other thing: a lump of metal from the coin box of the soft-drink machine that had been inside the service department of the garage. The zinc that had lined the galvanized-steel box had melted and flowed down to surround the silver and nickel coins. I looked up the melting points of the various metals in my high-school textbooks and calculated that the fire at that point had exceeded 787° F (hot enough to melt the zinc) but had not reached 1,761° F (because the silver was still intact).
My father took the opportunity not just to rebuild his facilities, but to make them bigger and better. To do so, he needed more than just the insurance money. Among other sources, he needed to mortgage our new house. This disappointed my mother; the house had been free and clear when we moved in. But as I had learned from playing Monopoly against my father, sometimes you have to borrow money now in order to make more later.
He bought two houses that stood across Oak Street from the old garage. The new building would be erected there. The site of the old garage would be left as parking, doubling the size of the used-car lot.
He visited recently-built dealerships in Urbana and Johnstown and Lakeview to get ideas for his new building. On one trip he took along Lee Kelly, the mayor of Richwood who was also an electrician. I drew a perspective view in pencil to illustrate the proposed design.
By October the land was cleared. By December the steel frame was erected. (More details and pictures are here.) The building was enclosed by January, 1965, and by the end of March, it was open!
The neon signs on a pole that had stood in front of the old building were still in place. And the concrete floor of the old showroom, including its steps and ramp, remained as part of the used car lot.
Operating now with the most modern of facilities, Vernon M. Thomas Chevrolet enjoyed eight good years until it finally was time for my father to retire. In 1973, he sold the business and the property, and since that time it has operated as Mills Chevrolet-Oldsmobile-Pontiac, right there on North Franklin Street in Richwood, Ohio.