Merchants quickly relocated after December 1923 fire razed a block

By Linda Emley

The year was 1923 and Calvin Coolidge was President. On Feb. 16, 1923, Howard Carter opened the door of King Tut’s tomb for the first time and the curse of King Tut became part of modern day history.
The first issue of Time magazine was published on March 3, which started a weekly contest to see who would grace the next cover. The first baseball game was played at Yankee Stadium on April 18 and insulin was introduced as a treatment for diabetes. It was a normal year in the life of our country.
By the time December 1923 rolled around, it looked like Richmond was going to have a nice quiet holiday season, but that all changed on Tuesday the Fourth day of December. A huge fire started in the rear of the Frank Sloan’s grocery store and wiped out the whole Hughes Block of stores in downtown Richmond.
The Missourian newspaper on Dec. 6, 1923 told the following story: “Hughes Business Block is Now a Smoldering Ruin. Loss of Buildings and Business Stocks Equipment Estimated in Excess of $250,000  – Little Insurance Was Carried.” The first three columns of the newspaper gave a very detailed account about how the fire spread and listed all the businesses that were lost. The hardest hit was the Hughes Investment Co., which owned the block.
The Banking House of J.S. Hughes opened temporarily in the E.W. Patton building on the north side of the square. The business ran an ad a few days later announcing its new location. J.S. Hughes also told everyone that the records, safety deposit boxes and valuables in the bank vault were undamaged by the fire. The patrons of the Hughes bank could still draw out money for their Christmas shopping.
The Richmond Post Office was one of the buildings that burned. Several pension checks were destroyed, along with some parcel packages that had just arrived. My first thought was “who lost their Christmas packages?” But then I realized the pension checks were more important. The post office moved to the Elks Club, which we remember as the “Women’s Club.” They had to get a back-up mail carrier to take over the full-time job of hand delivering mail to all the merchants around town that normally had a mail box at the post office. So there was one mail carrier that had some extra money to spend for Christmas in 1923.
Forest Smith’s Jewelry Store burned and he lost all the holiday goods that he had unpacked just a short time before the fire. He had just received three pianos and they were destroyed. The pianos had all already been sold and were scheduled for delivery on Christmas morning. He was lucky that he had stored his most valuable items in his safe, which survived the fire.
Two men from Kansas City came to town on Wednesday morning as representatives of the Safe Cabinet Co. and opened all the safes that had been damaged by the fire. They had to crack open the bank vault, Forest Smith’s safe and the safes of three law firms that had been damaged. Forest Smith did not waste anytime restocking for Christmas. Two days after the fire, he went to Kansas City and picked out his new stock and made arrangement for it to be delivered to his new location in time for Christmas shopping.
Mrs. Julia Duval lost her millinery business in the fire and opened up for business in the building with the Littmans. W.H. Encoe moved his photo shop to the former American Legion building on West Main. W.H. Bryant had a barber shop in the basement of the bank building. He set up shop in the Richmond Plumbing and Heating location. Around 12 businesses were destroyed and all but one had a new place to continue their business by Dec. 13. The town of Richmond really pulled together as a team and found temporary locations for everyone so no one got left out in the cold due to the fire of 1923.
The Missourian also reported that “Three of the largest law libraries in Ray County were wiped out completely by the fire. The Library of the firm of Clark and Garner contained many early law books, which are now out of print, as well as the original library started by Col. Alexander W. Doniphan, and the library of the late C.T. Garner. It also included Albert Clark’s personal law library.
The library of Judge George W. Lavelock was the largest of the three, and it, too, contained many valuable texts. Neither Judge Lavelock, nor Albert Clark would approximate their loss. The library of Crowley and Jacobs was also destroyed. John Jacobs stated that their loss was estimated at about $8,000. They carried $1,000 insurance.”
It broke my heart to hear about all this wonderful old books burning but there were some interesting stories that soon followed. The law firm of Clark and Garner set up temporary quarters in the office of Probate Judge Ben Shotwell and recorder M.R. Waller’s office in the Courthouse. Lavelock and Kirkpatrick found a temporary home in the office of Prosecutor Farris’s office, also in the courthouse. The firm of Crowley and Jacobs had to settle for a new office in the Duval building.
I’m sure they felt a little left out since the other four lawyers got to set up shop in the courthouse. It did not last long, because by Dec. 27 the four lawyers were out of the courthouse and started a new law firm together. They moved to a new location and combined their resources and started a new law library for the firm.
The moral of this story is that Richmond residents pulled together and saved Christmas for their local merchant friends. But there is one more chapter of this story that has a funny little twist.
The Missourian went on to tell more about the fire. “As soon as the telegraph office opened in Richmond on Tuesday morning, telegrams began to pour in from wholesale houses in Kansas City, St. Louis and Chicago offering aid to businessmen.
“The first report of the fire, sent out by an undetermined source, reported that practically the entire business district, including the courthouse, was doomed, and that the fire was being fought by a bucket brigade. A later report made to the Associated Press and to The Kansas City Star corrected the misstatements concerning the fire. The correct report of the fire reached the Kansas City Times too late to stop the garbled account which had already been placed in the first edition.”
There was no “bucket brigade.” Richmond did use a fire hose hooked to a fire hydrant. The next big misconception was that the courthouse and most of Richmond burned, which was not true. So the second moral to this story is, don’t believe everything you read, at least not in the Kansas City Times.
In the good-old days, The Kansas City Star was the evening paper and the Kansas City Times was the morning edition. In 1990, the Times ceased operations and The Star became the new morning newspaper in Kansas City.
I would love to know who the “undetermined source” was that sent out the message that Richmond had burned to the ground. It had to be sent by phone or telegraph, both of which would have been easy to trace in 1923. There were not too many telegraph offices in Richmond and any phone calls had to be connected by the local operator.
This one will remain a mystery unless we happen to find a follow-up article in the Missourian someday. I will be sure and let you know the rest of the story if I ever find it.
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