The three-story Horner Retail Store was considered a landmark of the community. It was known as the tallest building in Eaton Rapids at 65 feet plus another 12 feet for the cupola on the roof. The building stood 60 feet long and 40 feet wide. Built in 1882 as a flour mill, it was used that way until 1936 when the Horners bought it and converted it into their salesroom. It contained woolen yard goods, apparel, and their famous woolen blankets. Fire wiped out the interior of the top two floors on March 29, 1964, causing a $100,000 loss.
It took half an hour before the fire department was able to control the blaze. An aerial truck arrived from Charlotte and was able to direct water above the flames, bringing the fire under control. The Charlotte Fire Department had also assisted in another major fire just a week before at the Gibson-Rider automobile dealership, just down the street. That fire took thirty men from Eaton Rapids and Charlotte six hours to put out, and created a $100,000 loss to that business, as well.
The fire at Horner’s was caused by a wiring failure, Detective William Shideler of the State Fire Marshal’s office determined. The fire started on the third floor, which was empty and unused. It spread quickly into the cupola on the roof and down through the second-floor ceiling. There were no signs of foul play.
The top two floors were destroyed, and none of the merchandise in the building was saved. The merchandise was either burned or suffered smoke and water damage. Charred piles of wet merchandise were all that remained.
Helen Weed, manager of the showroom, and Lillian Jennings were working on the second floor when they saw smoke coming through the ceiling. They managed to grab the sales records and the cash register before leaving the building. No one was injured in the fire.
Carol Williams of Eaton Rapids remembers the fire. “I was working at the National Bank of Eaton Rapids at that time. It was located where PNC bank is now, at Main and Knight Streets. We watched the fire from the bank windows. My biggest memory is there was a fire truck, which I believe came from Charlotte, that had the extended ladder with the bucket, and they used it to shoot water into the cupola on the roof. I had never seen a truck like that, it was impressive. It was a majestic building.”
Dennis Swan of Eaton Rapids had an antique shop in the building from 2006-2009 and is familiar with the building’s history. “The date 1882 is carved in one of the upright posts in the building,” he said, which refers to its construction date.
“We rented the building, and the wiring was a maze,” Swan said. “It had everything from the old knob-and-tube to modern. There were wall switches that we never knew what they were for and old timing switches that would suddenly turn off and on. The old hand squared wood beams were held together with wooden pegs that I bet are hundreds of years old. It is still an amazing building.
“The owner showed me where the water used to be channeled under the building and where the old water wheel was. This was done to prevent the wheel from freezing in the winter,” Swan explained.
The building is currently sitting unused.
Do you have a memory of an Eaton Rapids event from the past that you’d like to see in the paper? Contact Deb Malewski with your suggestions at email@example.com or call 517-256-9460.