Tuesday, February 21, 2017

February 21, 1889: "Drum Shop On Fire"

February 21, 1889 began as a pleasant day in the Berkshire foothills village of Granville Corners. 68 year-old Noble & Cooley co-founder James Parsons ("J.P.") Cooley awoke at 8 AM and went about his day, remaining at home due to a bout of what in those days was called "neuralgia." His son, 32 year old Ralph Brown ("R.B.") Cooley had become one of the driving forces behind Noble & Cooley but J.P. was still a tireless worker who came to the factory at every opportunity right up to his death in his office at 42 Water Street later in 1889.

The morning of the 21st consisted of a visit from Jackson and Emeline Marvin of Westfield, who stayed for dinner [lunch] after which J.P.'s wife of over 40 years, Celia, went for a ride with Emeline ("Emmie"), stopping at the Granby Road home of neighbor James Rose. There they met with a number of other local ladies, returning home where Celia visited with "Mrs. Case from Canton [Connecticut]" and other neighbors at around 5 PM. Orville Noble, the 26 year old son of co-founder Silas Noble, who had died in January 1888 at the age of 63, was in Hartford on business.

At 6 PM the fire bells sounded and news came that the Noble & Cooley drum shop was on fire.

The Cooley home was (and still is) located across Main Road from the location of the present day Granville library, just a few stones throws up Granby Road from the Noble & Cooley factory, which was located across from the intersection of Water Street and Granby Road (Route 189). The map below shows the locations of the Cooley home, the J.O. Rose home, and the old Noble & Cooley factory which had been built adjacent to the home of Silas Noble. Click on the map for a larger image.

Imagine the state of fire protection in Granville in 1889 and apply that meager resource to a large timber frame woodworking building with few if any fire cutoffs, no sprinkler system, and little else besides fire buckets. By 6 PM darkness was falling and by 7 PM Noble & Cooley was reduced to glowing embers and charred timbers, with nothing remaining except iron machinery sticking out of the rubble. It had to be an eerie and disheartening scene as the cold New England night set in.

Celia Cooley had begun faithfully keeping J.P.'s diary due to his difficulty writing, and she describes his reaction to the fire: "J.P. was cool and collected." A crowd had gathered at the site of the fire and no doubt many were N&C workers concerned about their jobs and the future of the company, but relieved to know that nobody was injured in the fire.

The following day The Republican newspaper, published in the nearby city of Springfield, reported on the catastrophe:


Noble & Cooley's drum factory at Granville caught fire Thursday evening at about 6 o'clock and was totally destroyed. The paint shop and the barn were also burned, little of their contents being saved, but the blacksmith shop and lumber yard and other adjacent buildings were not touched by the flames, thanks to an efficient volunteer department. The fire is supposed to have started from the boiler. The main building was 100 by 30 feet and three stories high, and 100 hands were employed in the busy season.

The business, which is a profitable one, will be continued but whether at Granville or not has not yet been determined. In any case, the fire is a great disaster to the village, as this was the only manufacturing industry.

The total loss is about $30,000 [ed. note: about $800,000 in 2017 dollars] and the insurance amounts to $19,350 divided as follows:

Insurance Company of North America at Philadelphia, $750; North British and Mercantile, $1500; Anglo-Nevada, $1250; German American, $1450; Aetna, $1500; Queens, $675; Hanover, $375; Fireman's Fund, $675; Phoenix of Hartford, $525; London, Liverpool and Globe, $1350; Traders of Chicago, $750; Liberty of New York, $750; Commerce of Albany, $575; Phoenix of London, $1500; Westchester, $1500; Phoenix of New York, $525; Springfield, $1250; First National of Worcester, $1250; National of Hartford, $1100."

To modern eyes the insurance arrangement probably looks strange but in the 19th century it was common for many companies to spread the risk by each insuring only a small percentage of high-risk properties. With the wood frame structure, boiler, woodworking, and volunteer fire protection Noble & Cooley was about as high risk as it got. Even with this elaborate arrangement Noble & Cooley was still underinsured. A year later (1890) Industrial Risk Insurers (IRI) was formed in Hartford by multiple insurance companies to provide a simpler and more reliable insurance pooling arrangement for higher risk manufacturers like Noble & Cooley.

On the 23rd The Republican updated their story, adding more than a little self-serving editorial commentary:

"Our Granville neighbors are in sackcloth and ashes, literally as well as figuratively, because of their big fire Thursday night. It is a crushing blow to the little town from which it may not recover, for the property destroyed constituted practically the business life of the place, employing 100 hands and quite half a hundred families depending on it for support... [Noble & Cooley's] name and fame for toy drums has gone far and wide and the business is too valuable to give up, but it is not unlikely, now that every vestige of the plant is destroyed, that some place with better facilities for transportation may be selected, and if so we have two or three factory buildings [in Springfield] now unoccupied, either of which would give the concern ample quarters. Were there a certainty of the proposed railroad from the Hudson river being pushed through in the near future, without doubt the business would remain in Granville, for there can be more easily procured than in a place like this the lumber used for making drum-barrels, and this measurably offsets the nine miles of teaming finished goods to reach a railroad for shipment."

The Noble and Cooley families received many overtures from other cities and towns inviting them to abandon their friends and neighbors in Granville and move to "some place with better facilities" but community loyalty prevailed and the obvious "right business decision" was set aside in order to do the right thing.

The company was able to recover the cast iron steam box from the old location and move it to the new shop where it not only symbolizes Noble & Cooley's survival, but is still the most important part of the present day drum-making process. Many famous drums began their life in the crucible of Noble & Cooley's steam box and have travelled to the farthest corners of the world.

And the railroad? Nope, it didn't come through Granville either so forever after, the considerable daily production of Noble & Cooley was loaded up in Granville and trucked to "the big city" for transportation across the country. By the mid-20th century Noble & Cooley was producing over 1/2 million drums annually and operated a semi with a full-time driver to make the daily runs to Springfield, until globalization and market changes made it economically unfeasible to continue manufacturing toy drums on a large scale.

In spite of all that, to this day former Noble & Cooley employees come to the factory for old times' sake to help knock out some of the small number of toy drums still produced in Granville on the same machines they ran back in the day, proving that small town loyalty and sense of community are still alive and well.

So how did Noble & Cooley manage to stay in Granville? Stay tuned for the next installment......