Written by Dr. Timothy D. Hudson
During the nineteenth century across the South, most men built wooden homes and businesses, frame structures with wood shingles. Since lighting after sunset required oil lamps and heating during the winter necessitated a wood stove, devastating and deadly fires remained common throughout the nineteenth century. Like most towns of that era, most of Farmerville’s businesses lined the streets in a contiguous fashion, all connecting to one another along each city block. Thankfully, Farmerville’s founding fathers wisely laid out the town square so that wide streets separated the courthouse from all other buildings, protecting it from a potential widespread conflagration.
The first recorded fire in Farmerville occurred in 1864–1865, a raging inferno that destroyed the entire business district, including the storehouse of Brunner & Brother on the north side of the courthouse square. D. Stein & Co. took over those town lots in 1866 and operated a very successful mercantile business at that location for the next several decades.
In early 1879, an apparent arsonist seemed intent upon destroying Farmerville. He may have political motives, or he may have merely harbored a nefarious impulse to cause mayhem and destruction, without any political agenda. He struck first during the wee hours of New Year’s Day, igniting a blaze in a vacant office belonging to William A. Darby. It soon spread to adjacent buildings, incinerating a general store, Farmerville’s telegraph office, and Judge James E. Trimble’s law office, destroying a portion of his valuable library. Luckily, the blaze was contained within that block and only destroyed four buildings.
The local incendiary struck again in mid-May, this time using greater precision. The blaze he ignited just after midnight on Thursday, May 15th, caused a conflagration that incinerated Farmerville’s entire business district. As dawn broke the next morning, only the courthouse and Stein’s brick storehouse remained unscathed, towering above the smoldering ashes of what had been downtown Farmerville. In just an hour and a half, the fire had destroyed virtually all of Farmerville’s businesses, including all saloons, general stores, saddlery shop, shoeshop, barbershop, drug stores, livery stables, Mason buildings, and the offices of Farmerville’s two newspapers, the “Union Record” and “The Gazette.” Early estimates placed the total losses at about $100,000. Despite the town’s literal destruction, within a few weeks the Farmerville businessmen had already begun plans to rebuild the business district, many hoping to use brick structures. However, the cost of brick proved prohibitive, and within a few months, businesses had rebuilt once again using frame construction.
Arson seemed a pervasive problem during this period, and two years after the 1879 blaze destroyed Farmerville, another incendiary struck the town in early December 1881. He set fires in the storehouse of F. Selig and in Dr. Adcock’s drug store. Fortunately, passersby raised an alarm in time to extinguish both blazes. A similar attempt the next August again succeeded in destroying much of Farmerville. In the early morning hours of 29 August 1882, an incendiary set a fire in the store owned by J. Marx, and about 1:30 a.m., it had become a raging inferno that yet again leveled most of the town. The blaze destroyed the stores of J. Marx, D. Mortiz & Co., H. Brown, F. Selig, E. Karlsberg, Paul Otto, H. C. Glasson’s saloon and feed stable, the Farmerville Post Office, and Castle Hall, occupied by the Knights of Pythias and Knights of Honor. The storehouse of D. Stein & Co. as well as that of Simon Stein were salvaged, although fire damaged their stock and buildings. The losses from this disaster totaled $103,000, with about half covered in insurance.
Only six months later, about midnight on Monday, 26 February 1883, someone broke into Daniel Stein’s storehouse and forced open his cash drawer. The villain then attempted to crack open the safe, and when he failed, he set a fire in the loft and fled out the back window, leaving the iron shutters open. Stein and his clerks heard the alarm about 12:30 a.m. while at his residence in the block to the rear of the store. He managed to save his books, which he and his clerks threw out of the window left open by the incendiary just moments before the flames “drove the master of this fine property and his faithful clerks out of the building which had been their pride, and which had served the people of Union parish so well as a depot for their supplies when short crops were pinching the scanty purse of the farmers.”
Stein’s storehouse, worth $15,000, proved a total loss. Due to the timing of the disaster, just before planting season, Stein had an immense stock on hand valued at $114,000, of which insurance adjustors allowed him only $65,000. The brick firewall Col. Stein had built around his storehouse had saved it from the 1879 and 1882 general conflagrations that twice consumed Farmerville’s business district. This time, the firewall saved the business district from Stein’s burning store.
The charred brick walls surrounding Stein’s store towered high above the neighboring establishments on the courthouse square, including the saloon of his neighbor, Hugh C. Glasson. After the fire, several residents expressed concern that the brick walls, damaged by three serious fires, might crumble and fall, possibly injuring passersby. After the 1882 fire, Glasson had rebuilt his saloon for the second time, again a frame structure with a wood roof now dwarfed by the lofty, charred remains of Stein’s firewall. A month after the fire, on April 21st, a very strong line of thunderstorms passed across Louisiana and Mississippi, spawning several severe tornadoes. About 3 o’clock in the afternoon on April 21st, an especially severe thunderstorm passed over Farmerville, and to escape the deluge, a large group of men on the streets took shelter in Glasson’s saloon. As the worst of the storm appeared to have passed, most of the men wandered out of the saloon, back onto the street in front of the courthouse, leaving Glasson to tend the saloon with only his brother-in-law, Farmerville Mayor William A. Darby, F. M. Jones, Thomas Dawson, and Marion Shultz inside. Suddenly extremely strong winds blew from all directions, something akin to a twister. Weakened by the recent fires, the gusts blew the remains of the brick firewall down on top of Glasson’s saloon, completely wrecking the building. As the bricks began to fall, Jones reacted instantly, leaping through the saloon doorway into the street and out of harm’s way. Glasson and Darby attempted to follow Jones, but the falling walls and bricks crashed down around them, crushing Glasson’s head and breaking Mayor Darby’s leg, five ribs, crushing his torso, and injuring his head. Dawson attempted to leap over the falling wall, but falling bricks severely injured his hip and back. A mass of bricks and mortar buried Shultz, but miraculously, a broken piece of timber created a pocket of life-saving protection for his head and torso under the mound, and he escaped with minor bruises.
Rescuers quickly uncovered Glasson and Darby from the debris and removed them to Julius Arent’s store, where Drs. Barnes, Hines and Hodge attempted to provide the men with medical aid. Both were insensible, with Glasson still breathing but bleeding profusely from the mouth. He lived for ten minutes after the tragedy. Initially semi-conscious, Mayor Darby revived after about fifteen minutes and began to breathe regularly, but complained of severe leg and stomach pain. He was moved to his nearby residence, where he died quietly at 8:30 that evening. Five days after the tragedy, the grand jury then in session in Farmerville indicted Daniel Stein for assault and battery over the deaths and injuries caused by the collapse of his brick firewalls. He was arrested and posted bond of $200. The men’s wives, both sisters, also soon filed a civil suit against D. Stein & Co. for damages over their husbands’ deaths. Stein erected a tombstone in the Farmerville Cemetery for Mayor Darby.
As if to compound these calamities for Stein, a few months later, his wife, Caroline, died while visiting her sister in New Orleans. Regarded as one of Farmerville’s most respected and charitable ladies, the town’s citizens remembered the former Caroline Shlenker “for many acts during the war and was a never failing friend to the poor.” Stein spent much of the next year in court, battling with insurance companies over the settlement for his loses from the fire and responding to the court cases stemming from the deaths of Darby and Glasson. The District Attorney motioned for a continuance in Stein’s criminal case during the next several court sessions, so Stein’s case did not go to trial until July 1884. He entered a plea of guilty, with the court sentencing him to a fine of $1.00 plus costs of prosecution. Due to the financially unfavorable outcome of the litigation with insurance companies, and perhaps disheartened due to the previous year’s personal tragedies, Stein closed his store and filed for bankruptcy in October 1884. He never reopened, choosing instead over the next two decades to remain a silent partner in support of the business operations of his relatives, including his sons, Abe and Jacob, brother, Simon, and his brother-in-law, Julius Arent, the husband of Stein’s sister, Helena.
Two other tragedies struck Stein’s business interests during the 1890s. A blaze that originated in J. M. Hicks’ restaurant shortly before midnight on 29 December 1891 turned into an inferno that once again consumed Farmerville. This time, only the courthouse and the brick building of the Farmerville Mercantile and Banking Company escaped the flames. The fire leveled not only the frame stores of Col. Stein’s relatives Abe Stein and Julius Arent, but also those of M. Yushring, J. Marx, M. Haas, G. Hartman, F. Selig, Edward Baker, S. Marx, and Hicks & Lowe, causing damages of $60,000. For many years, Stein had operated a steam sawmill at the junction of Bayous D’Arbonne and Corney, about one mile west of Farmerville. Shortly after noon on Monday, 21 December 1896, one of the large boilers exploded, showering workers with boiling water and hurling pieces of steel and other projectiles in every direction. The explosion hurled two black men working nearest the boiler, Abe Fields and Dred Bass, some forty yards, horribly mangling their bodies, and it blew off the top of Field’s son’s head, killing all three instantly. It crushed Henry Mason’s head and broke his legs and shoulder, and he perished two hours after the disaster. The blast wounded Will Smith, Sidney Futch, and Frank Karby, but miraculously, the mill manager, J. H. Lindsay, escaped without a scratch, and his young children playing under a wooden shed that collapsed around them only received bruises. As the explosion occurred during lunch hour, the mill was not running at the time of the accident. Since the boiler only had a small amount of steam at the time it exploded, no one had any explanation for what caused the blast.
Dr. Timothy D. Hudson is the mathematics department head at Southeastern Louisiana University and an avid historian on Union Parish. Dr. Hudson is a Union Parish native and graduate of Farmerville High School.