Epidemic of barn fires in 1930 stirred fire marshal

Last week’s column described a few of the series of fires in Wellington County in the summer of 1930, most of which claimed barns, and at great cost to several farmers just as the Great Depression was tightening its hold on the country.

Major fires, where the assistance of a municipal fire department was called in, required a report to be filed with the provincial fire marshal.

That official, a man named Heaton in 1930, grew increasingly alarmed at the number and severity of barn fires in the summer and fall of that year.

He totalled up the number of reportable fires in the months of August and September in Ontario. The tally showed a total of 54 farm fires, which claimed seven houses, 53 barns and three haystacks.

The total loss amounted to some $367,000, of which only $209,000 was recoverable through insurance policies. It was the worst cluster of losses since the fire marshal’s office began operating in 1914.

Heaton was determined to get to the bottom of the matter. He called a conference for Oct. 1 of 1930, and invited representatives of threshing machine operators, makers of threshing machines, and spokesmen for the insurance industry.

Many farmers were covered by small mutual insurance companies, and a couple of major losses in a short time could cripple them. Heaton was serious. “The loss has been appalling this year,” he said when he opened the meeting.

In a lengthy address, Heaton told those assembled that he had investigated 35 of the fires thoroughly. In only four of them could he trace the cause to the engine, either a gasoline tractor or a steam engine. Sparks from engines, he had believed, caused the majority of fires, but the facts proved him wrong.

He said that in more than 80% of the fires, the blaze had originated between the fan and the blower mouth of the threshing machine. That confirmed the observation of many operators who claimed that flames had issued from the mouth of the blower as a “ball of fire.”

Some of the farmers and insurance men present disputed Heaton’s conclusion that the fires started from some mysterious source between the fan and the end of the blower.

A popular theory was that the fires had started from men who were careless with the “strike anywhere” matches that were popular at the time. They also pointed a finger at men who were smoking while working around threshing machines, and urged that farmers should pay closer attention to the activities of threshing crews working on their farms.

Representatives of Culross Mutual of Teeswater and North Waterloo Farmers Mutual presented resolutions that pressured farmers into exercising greater control of the men working for them. That raised the level of disagreement at the meeting, and provoked a lengthy discussion.

The secretary of the North Kent Mutual considered it quite improbable that matches could start a fire in the separator of a threshing machine, or that any fire could start in the blower. The separator removed the kernels of grain from the straw, and the blower removed the straw with a fan and blew it out so that it could be piled nearby but out of the way.

John Houston, who represented the Threshers Insurance Company, dismissed Heaton’s conclusions. He said that he had repeatedly fed matches, both lit and unlit, into a threshing machine, into both the separator and blower, “and not one came through alive.”

Contradicting Heaton, Houston said not a single threshing crew had seen fire come from the end of the blower pipe. Houston said that he had personally investigated many of the fires, and they seemed to have started where the straw from the blower hit the mow or the stack where the discharge was being directed.

He reported that in two cases he had seen fires started by gas tractors, one by hot exhaust and another where the tractor was driven into a pile of loose straw, which ignited from the engine heat.

Speaking in more general terms, Houston said that fires related to threshing operations had been very numerous in 1922 and 1923 across North America.

In 1923, he reported, more than 300 tractors had been destroyed in threshing fires in Nebraska. At that time there was a theory that many fires were caused by static electricity, and in 1923 that state passed a law requiring threshing machines to be grounded.

Houston’s estimate was that there were 74,000 active threshing machines in Ontario, a number that astonished the fire marshal, who thought that many more fires were likely in coming years.

R.S. Oliver from Galt rose and claimed that he was the oldest and most experienced thresher in the room, but he was soon contradicted by Bill Watson of Auburn, who claimed 50 years in the business and who still used steam.

Oliver took the floor, and gave the meeting the benefit of his experiences. He scoffed at the idea that fire came out of the blower. He recalled that 20 and more years earlier there were few fires at threshing operations. In essence, he put the increase down to lazy and careless practices, and no preparation for any fire that might break out.

He noted that a barn burned down near his home earlier that summer. It had started in a mow, and could have been extinguished easily with a bucket of water. But the farmer had no water in the barn, and no ladder to climb into the mow. Consequently, the barn burned to the ground.

Fire marshal Heaton brought the focus of the meeting back to the question of fire coming from the end of the blower pipe, which had been dismissed by several speakers.

J.H. Woods of Waterloo and A.L. Easton of Ayr offered some interesting evidence. At a serious fire near Waterloo a man managed to catch a ball of fire that had issued from the end of a threshing machine blower pipe. He examined it, and found it contained a partial box of half-burned matches. Easton offered other apocryphal accounts of matches being found in burning straw coming from a threshing machine.

William J. Fasken of Elora, representing the Nichol Mutual Insurance Company, urged that at every threshing operation there should be a barrel of water and a couple of buckets placed near the threshing machine. He said that throwing a bucket of water in the blower will create a mist that will extinguish any fire in the pipe or in the pile of straw.

Bill Watson, the 50-year veteran thresher from Auburn, was dubious. He said, “I am going home tomorrow [to] try that stunt.”

“Let me know what happens,” replied the fire marshal.

The meeting concluded with a discussion on the use of spark arresters on steam engines. Several farmers said that many operators of steam engines disconnect them because they plug up easily and frequently.

The subject did not receive a great deal of attention that day. By 1930 steam engines were becoming something of a rarity with threshers, and in any case, neither steam nor gas engines seemed to be a major cause of threshing fires. And besides, by then the meeting had gone on for more than four hours.

The meeting reached no conclusions on the cause of the rash of threshing fires in 1930, nor any methods or policies to minimize them.

But it probably succeeded in making farmers more conscious of safe practices. And it served to educate the fire marshal in agricultural practices, an area of knowledge where he seemed to be deficient.


Stephen Thorning