Residents of Richland didn’t get much sleep on the night of Wednesday April 13, 1960, and into the morning of the 14th.
Marlin Stutzman was returning home from work at the Quaker Alloy Casting Co. in Myerstown, around 11:45 PM, “when I saw this big ball of fire going up in the air”. He first thought it was coming from the the Brown Shoe factory which was located a little way behind Rich Maid Kitchens, but as he got closer to the scene, he saw the fire and smoke through the windows of Rich Maid’s building.
So he turned in an alarm at the nearby Neptune Fire Company.
According to Richland Fire Chief Warren Ebling, “The fire had burst right through the roof when we arrived.” He added that the smoke was so dense that it was difficult to find the flames when the firemen arrived on the scene.
Within about 15 minutes there was an explosion attributed to lacquers and varnishes that were stored in the rear of the building. That explosion, described as a dull thud, flared up and mushroomed the flames to the front of the building.
Ray Bollinger, my classmate Mike’s father, said the fire appeared to have been smoldering for some time. “All of a sudden it started coming front. Then it rolled like a barrel. We never had a fire in Richland that threw heat like this.”
Fire companies from the surrounding communities were summoned, and they arrived with their sirens roaring. The Keystone and Goodwill fire companies of Myerstown, and the Schaefferstown and Stouchsburg fire companies all came to lend a helping hand. In addition the Salvation Army and Newmanstown and Myerstown ambulance units were also on the scene.
Fire Chief Ebling directed the efforts of the firemen to save the nearby properties after it was decided that the Rich Maid structure and the Skippy’s luncheonette were toast.
The article in the Lebanon Daily News mentions that people in nearby apartments were moving clothing and household effects for fear that the fire might spread to their living quarters, but I recognize some of the names and I know the buildings, and they actually lived in houses not apartments. I guess you can’t get everything right on deadline. (Though some of them may have been renters.)
According to the article in the Lebanon Daily News, the fire caused an estimated $175,000 worth of damage. In those days that was real money.
The Rich Maid firm structure, which was valued at $10,000, was owned by Mrs. Carrie Batdorf Layser. Alas, Mrs. Layser would figure prominently in yet another big Richland front page story a few years later.
Leon Wartluft, the vice president of Rich Maid, said his firm’s loss would be at least $150,000.
And George Zimmerman, owner of Skippy’s luncheonette, which had the misfortune to be part of the same structure that housed Rich Maid Kitchens, estimated his loss to be about $15,000.
Just to put those figures into some perspective, using the inflation calculator, $175,000 in 1960 would be roughly equivalent to $1,803,853 in 2023.
Fire Chief Ebling said a State Police fire marshal was scheduled to begin a probe on the afternoon of the 14th to establish how the fire started. I hope he took note that Rich Maid recently increased their firm’s insurance, according to the Daily News article.
We lived on the hill on West Main Street in those days, and you could just see the fire from my bedroom window. But the Gass boys, Mike and Frank, who lived two houses down from us, were out in their back lawn in their pajamas, where they could see the fire from across a wide field, maybe 150 yards or so. Even from that distance you could feel the intense heat of that blaze, and the light from the fire was nearly blinding.
The fire engines with their sirens wailing roared past our house, the neighbors from across the street clambered over into the yards on our side of the street because we had a better view and presumably were a safer distance than approaching too near to the raging inferno just across the railroad tracks, and for at least two hours the fire raged and the fireman battled to keep it from spreading.
But the thing that I most remember about that night where the fire engines were blaring and the people were shouting and the explosions and crackling flames were filling the night air—the thing I remember above above all else about that night…
…is waking up the following morning and being told that my sister and I had slept through the most exciting night Richland had ever experienced.
[All photos come from the Dale Bentz Facebook Collection.]