The early morning of March 17, 1914 was probably a little cold and clammy, a light drizzle had fallen all night would continue during the day. Andrew F. Stahl was up early. When not acting as an elected sheriff, in March 1914 he was between his two stints in office, he ran a moving, storage, and express company, and would later go into real estate. His home at the time was at 5700 7th Ave, presumably above the storefront which would later house his real estate business; it was a brand new building. In 1914, his express office was located on the block where the Orpheum Building would later be built. Presumably he was on his way to work, walking down 7th Ave to 59th Street before turning east towards his office, in the early drizzle when he glanced over at the towering edifice of the R.H. Pettit Malting Company. It was the tallest building in town, and Stahl noticed that the top of one of the grain elevators was on fire.
The M. H. Pettit Malting Company was founded in 1857, located on the west side of Chicago Street (8th Ave) between Park Street (57th) and Wisconsin (58th), and was originally fairly small and could malt approximately 50,000 bushels of grain every year. Malting is a process where grain is wet, germinated, and dried with hot air in order to convert the starch in grain into glucose, maltose, and other sugars. In nature, the starch is more efficient for storing energy the plant needs to grow, and it is converted into sugars, which are easier to use, as the seed is preparing to grow a new plant. Malting takes advantage of this natural process to create a grain product which yeasts are more eager to eat and convert to alcohol. Malt is also used in nutrient-dense foods like malted milk (developed in part by Racine’s William Horlick), and ground into malt flour. In 1868, Pettit rebuilt its facilities to process 300,000 bushels a year. At 60 pounds a bushel, that is 1,440,000 pounds of barley a year.
Milton Pettit died in 1873 and the company went through several sets of management before Milton’s son Ossian Marsh Pettit, and widow, Caroline Diana Pettit took over, with Clarence E. Remer running day-to-day operations. By the mid 1890s, they could store 500,000 bushels in their elevators (2.4 million pounds). At this point, it took up most of the square block which the Stella is now on. It shared space with several residences, including the Mrs. Bell’s Boarding House, which is the legendary home of Elmer Ellsworth, a Civil War hero, who legendarily lived in Kenosha before eventually becoming the first great martyr of the Civil War.
Stahl ran to a phone to call the police, to inform the fire department. As a Monday Morning Quarterback, we can suggest he was probably standing very near to Fire Department Call Box #8, at 7th Ave and 58th St. But found a phone instead. Regardless, response time was virtually instantaneous from the Central Fire Department on Market Square. And in that short time, the fire had spread down a runway to the elevator and was spreading widely through the building. It was a little after 5am.
So early in the morning, the water mains were kept at low pressure. As a result, as the fire department connected more and more hoses to water, the pressure dropped perilously low. As the fire spread and their hoses couldn’t reach, Chief Isermann made the call to abandon the grain elevators and concentrate on saving the brick factory building and neighboring homes. He divided his 12 hoses evenly around the block to contain the fire. Firefighters risked their lives to climb ladders against the brick edifice, with flames lapping over them, to try to keep the fire in the grain elevators.
Help was sent from Racine: Mayor Walter Goodland (himself a volunteer firefighter) personally led his best fire company south with a brand new fire engine. It made record time even with deep mud on the roads. This time of year, the soil thaws a few inches down, but there’s still frozen ground underneath. Add in rain and unpaved roads disappear. The Russians actually have a name for it: rasputitsa. It’s generally rendered in English as “roadlessness” or “quagmire season.” Their new engine made the trip in 35 minutes, counting several minutes when it was stuck in a hole and the motor died. When it arrived it was able to add three more hoses to the fight. Along with them came firefighters from the major industries west of town: American Brass and Jeffery.
As the elevators began to topple, Chief Isermann pulled his men out of dangerous areas and got ready to fight the flows of flaming embers thrown up by brick walls falling into burning grain. The newspaper described it as “like a volcano.” As the main parts of the elevators fell, the wind from it fanned up the embers, which flowed through the streets as lava. Much of it settled on roofs around downtown, but the crowds of onlookers, staring agape, were there to stomp them out.
It burned so hot and so fast that by noon the fire seemed to be dwindling. Isermann credited the valor of his own firefighters and the skill of the volunteers which came in from all around for getting the fire under control. Only one man was injured on March 17th. Charles Hartung, one of Kenosha’s volunteer firefighters, cut his hand slightly. But it wasn’t yet put out. It would burn for several more days. Firefighters remained in smaller numbers, 24 hours a day, pouring water over the smoldering grain. Remember: 500,000 bushels.
The next day the weather changed and freezing temperatures made the job miserable. Thick ice formed over the glowing, smoldering grain, which had to be quite a sight. Every so often, the grain would explode into flames again and reinforcements would arrive to push it back down.
What came next was a complex game of firefighting, insurance investigating, and the company trying to recoup losses. The fire was still glowing, but the insurance folks needed access, and the company began salvaging grain that hadn’t been burned yet. The result was a minor disaster on the 25th, as men working to clear debris within the ruins had walls collapse on them. None died, but two were hospitalized. As a result, Chief Isermann peremptorily ordered the remaining walls pulled down.
Pettit Malting sold everything it could from the remains of the malt house. A million feet of timbers were sold as firewood, a few thousand for building timber. Burned barley was sold to the Milwaukee Salvage Company for some unknown purpose. Unburned barley was divided between what could be sold as feed and what could be sold to other malt houses. All the while, the fire department played water over the smoking piles. The loss was over $150,000; when only accounting for inflation that equals $3.9 million today. That doesn’t take into account costs expanding well above inflation over time.
It might not have been the end of the company, though. They tried to make a go of it. In June 1914, while trying to get the product on the malting floors finished, the plant was robbed. Edward Gormley, the bookkeeper and cashier, was beaten and locked in the toilet while thieves broke into the company safe and stole all of their cash on hand (over $300, a small amount but recovering from a major fire wiped out their funds). Police suspected the thieves believed there would be a large amount of cash on hand from insurance payments. Gormley was apparently so stricken by the combination of events that he chose to walk away from everything. When he went missing he left letters intimating that he would commit su***de, however his family and friends and employer doubted that he would kill himself. But his fate is apparently still unknown. For several years, every dead body found near Kenosha was rumored to be Gormley but they never were.
Eventually, Clarence Remer purchased all of the stock of the company with the intention to rebuild. But it never came to fruition. When he died in Massachusetts in 1930, he was apparently still the sole stockholder of the dormant company.
The lot on 8th Ave wasn’t destined to be home of the Elks in Kenosha. Initial plans saw the city decide to clear the lot and use it as a public parking structure. Even in the early days of cars, downtown parking was an issue. It was for the best, though, that the Elks Club raised over $60,000 to buy the land. It remained their home until the early 1990s, when it was sold to private hands and became known as Heritage House Inn. After closing in the 2000s, it was abandoned and fell into severe disrepair. It had its own fire in 2008, which nearly doomed the building. A raze order was delayed by citizen action; the Elks Club became listed on the NRHP in 2017. And in 2018, it was purchased for redevelopment. And The Stella Hotel & Ballroom opened in early 2019.
The photo was taken by William D. Sydney, whose home and photography business was at 1118 56th Street (468 Market). The photo was taken on 8th Ave, just north of 57th Street, looking in a southwesterly direction. There was a C&NW spur line which ran along 55th Street to Bain Wagon, and then east to the power plant and to Simmons and south to the Malt House. The people on the right foreground are on a train car on that spur line. The timing of the photo appears to be after the elevator was abandoned and firefighters turned to preventing the fire from spreading. A hose is dousing Mrs Belle White's boarding house on the SW corner of 57th and 8th (251 Chicago Street, there is no modern address for this), as steam rises from the roofs of buildings due to the vast heat being thrown off the fire.