First published Jan. 24, 1985:
Big jobs were completed in very short time back in the days when many men worked many hours without the help of modern tools and equipment. The rebuilding of the Armour and Company plant after the horrible fire of Oct. 13, 1918 is an example of that kind of achievement. The three-story building on Franklin Street was totally destroyed in a fire that started on a Sunday morning about 6 a.m. The loss was estimated at about $200,000.
It was "pressing season" and the plant was in operation 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That is the reason a workman discovered the fire in the northwest corner of the cellar so early on a Sunday morning. A number of men from the plant could not get into the cellar because of the dense smoke, but they opened the windows from the outside and "played" a water hose through these. Poor pressure kept the stream from doing much good. Poor water pressure also hindered the fire department after they arrived at the scene. Only a four-inch water main was available on Franklin Street. Other streets had 8- or 10-inch mains. There was a gale blowing and the walls of the building began to fall in at about 8 a.m. At about three o'clock in the afternoon the firemen dynamited parts of the walls and only a small corner of the boiler room was left of the entire building.
Patterson Library file photo
The old Armour and Company grape juice plant on Franklin Street in the process of being rebuilt after the 1918 fire. In the background is the Millitello Antique Shop. The printing on the long building says, “High grade cement blocks and ornaments, columns and other designs in building.” The photo is dated May 3, 1919.
The plant was formerly the property of Fenner Grape Juice Company which had been built 20 years before. Byron Fenner, longtime Westfield resident, constructed the plant. He sold it to Armour and Company of Chicago in 1910. An addition was built to the building in 1911 and 1912. About 400 tons of grapes in the plant, ready to be pressed, were destroyed in the fire.
Ten days after the fire, J. Vernon Wantshouse met with a painful accident while engaged in razing the remains of the Armour and Company factory. He was treated by Dr. G. L. Hunter. Night watchman Samuel Kingan also met with an accident later that night.
By Christmas 1918, the Armour Company was planning to erect a new fireproof factory. Plans were ready for bids about Feb. 15, 1919. Mac Culver, plant manager, said that the new building would be bigger and better and would use other fruits as well as grapes and would be a leader in putting up fruit products. Two temporary buildings had been erected within 10 days after the fire to be used in bottling the juice pressed before the fire. It was announced that the new plant would be completed by July 1, 1919.
"With this good news the growers should feel encouraged and be willing to put forth extra effort to redeem their vineyards and get the business back to where it was a few years ago. It can be done if the growers will feel that they will be taken care of in the future as in the past."
The Westfield Republican of April 23, 1919 announced, "Westfield is to maintain its reputation of being the greatest grape juice town in the world." Armour and Company had begun work rebuilding its factory. "Westfield is certainly in luck during the present surplus of labor to have so large a structure erected this summer."
On June 11 it was announced that the Armour Plant would be ready to receive grapes when they were ripe in the fall. All summer the work was being rushed.
On Oct. 1, Armour and Company opened for business and started to press grapes. There was only a slight drawback in starting the plant's operation and Manager Culver was right on the job, donned an oilskin suit, and soon had the difficulty remedied. The plant was a credit to the town.
By Oct. 22, 1919 the pressing season was practically closed and the prices had ranged high. Armour's closing price was $100 per ton.
I can't help wondering how long it would take to build a large three-story factory building in 1985. My guess is that it couldn't be done in just a few weeks.