The Fire that Consumed the Mattox Building

Today, if you stop by 135 W. Main Street in downtown Lancaster you can enjoy a nice meal at Provisions Bakery & Deli. However, 76 years ago, the location housed a three-story building leased almost entirely by the Harpster & Helser Hardware Store, operated by H.C. Helser, and Roy Harpster.

Harpster & Helser used the entire ground floor for salesrooms and most of the upper floors were used for stock. C.H. Snoke occupied one room on the second floor as a pool room and two rooms on the third floor were used by the Knights of Pythias and other lodges. The building was owned by the Mattox family and therefore known as the “Mattox Building.”

It served as the site of a devastating fire that brought down the building and injured 8 firefighters.

Twisted fire escape above rubble from the fire-gutted Mattox Building in Downtown Lancaster, Ohio.During the early morning hours on August 13, 1947, Lancaster Police Officers Lloyd Crider and Howard Lynch were on patrol and driving downtown. Around 1:15 am, they were on the 100 block of West Main Street headed west toward Memorial Drive when Crider smelled smoke. Lynch circled the block and returned to the area to investigate. Looking up, Crider noticed smoke coming from the third floor of the Mattox Building. Lynch immediately used his radio to alert the fire department as Crider entered the building. Crider made it to the third floor before the heat and smoke drove him out of the building to await firefighters.

Lancaster firefighters quickly arrived on scene and began running hose lines in multiple directions. They utilized a fire escape on the west side of the building to reach the roof and firefighters were deployed on the roofs of the two buildings to the east and west (the Reed Drug Store and the Lyric Theater) to pour water onto the burning structure. Several firefighters also made their way inside to fight the blaze from below.

The fire continued to grow and, at one point, was described as a “roaring inferno.” However, around 3:30 am the fire was considered under control and the heavy streams of water were cut off, leaving only small hoses to douse any remaining embers.

As the fire subsided, another problem emerged.

Firefighters began to notice that the constant downpour of water had weakened the structure. Firefighters Harry Andrews, Clement Brown, and Jack Urton made their way to the second floor to investigate. They noticed beams and support pillars that were beginning to crumble. Urton began chopping a hole in the floor to allow water to escape and alleviate the weight. At this time, Captain George Keller, who was directing operations from the roof of the Reed Drug Store, began walking down Center Alley to assist in shutting off gas lines. He heard a rumbling sound and knew what was about to happen.

At 3:40 am, the weight of the water caused the top of the building to sag and force the west wall outward. That was the wall that Captain Keller was walking beside. A brick hit the back of Keller’s head as he ducked and braced for impact. Debris quickly covered the Captain and he remained still until the noise stopped. He was then able to crawl to safety and pull himself from the rubble.

The force of the collapse blew out all but one of the front windows. A police captain and store employee who were in front of the building were blown into the street as appliances were thrown out of the store and onto the sidewalk. The three firefighters who were inside the building were dropped to the first floor and covered with tons of debris. Within moments, the three-story structure was an empty shell and the west wall rested against the Lyric Theater.

Efforts immediately turned to freeing the trapped firefighters.

Firefighters, police officers, and residents used jacks and other tools to help lift the debris. At 5:30 am, almost two hours after the collapse, Jack Urton was pulled from the wreckage. Harry Andrews was freed from two large beams at 5:45 am and 15 minutes later the last firefighter, Clement Brown, was rescued. Miraculously, nobody was killed in the disaster. A total of eight firefighters were injured and taken to the hospital but all of them recovered.

The Lyric Theater and Reed Drug Store suffered little damage. Some stock in the drug store was damaged by water but the building was not harmed. The Lyric suffered minor damage to the east exit doors but no shows were canceled and both buildings opened as usual.

Newspaper ad touting new appliances available for sale at the restored Harvester & Helser Hardware Store in Downtown Lancaster, Ohio, circa 1940s.One year to the day after the Mattox Building was destroyed, a new structure opened its doors to a large and eager crowd of people. Just as it had before, the building housed the Harpster & Helser Hardware Store. This time, however, Harpster and Helser leased the entire building. The event turned out to be quite a celebration and awards were given out to some lucky customers, including a Kelvinator electric range, a Speed Queen washing machine, and Schwinn bicycles.

The store showed off some of the newest innovations in household appliances with new electric ovens, dryers, heaters, and freezers. Children were delighted to see a large toy section. The store always had an area devoted to toys but it grew substantially after the remodel. It is safe to say that the residents of Lancaster and Fairfield County were quite impressed with the open house that lasted over two days.

The cause of the fire was never discovered. C.H. Snoke, who operated the pool room on the second floor, stated that he left the building at 1:00 am and didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary, nor did he smell any smoke. There were also no meetings taking place on the third floor, which is where the fire originated. However the fire started, it is amazing no one was killed in the disaster. The story remains a testimony to a community that rallied together and the first responders that arrived quickly to prevent the fire from spreading.

Filed under: Histories & Mysteries, Life, News
Michael R. Johnson, marketing director for the Fairfield County Heritage Association based in Lancaster, Ohio.

By Michael Johnson

Lancaster native Michael Johnson is the Marketing Director for the Fairfield County Heritage Association and serves as editor of the Heritage Quarterly – a magazine highlighting local history. Michael is a member of the Sherman Rotary and the Lancaster Fairfield Chamber of Commerce’s Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging Committee. His bachelor’s degree in history education was earned at Ohio University. Michael is married to Tara Johnson and has two children, Isaac and Mia.