A postcard shows Westminster’s Main Street was still a dirt road in 1924, when a series of serious fires raged across the city in April.
A postcard shows Westminster’s Main Street was still a dirt road in 1924, when a series of serious fires raged across the city in April. (Courtesy Evelyn and Caroline Babylon collection)

Fires captured the attention of the local newspapers in April many years ago. The American Sentinel reported on April 9, 1898 that a "large coal oil lamp, suspended from the ceiling of the office of Dr. John S. Mathias, this city, broke loose on Wednesday night, fell, exploded and the oil caught fire. The burning oil was scattered about, and in an instant the whole room was ablaze. A lounge, newly covered, and some chairs, medicines and surgical instruments were burned and an office desk almost ruined, while the walls were blackened with smoke.

"An alarm of fire brought out the [Westminster] Fire Department, which was holding a meeting at the time, and the fire was soon extinguished. … The loss on the building amounted to about $27.00 and the loss of Dr. Mathias was about $75.00."


Research by local historian Jay Graybeal calls to our attention two other serious fires in April 1924. One fire occurred right in the middle of Westminster in the area where the Sentinel parking lot is now located — between Liberty and Main Street and the railroad tracks.

The Farmer's Fertilizer and Feed Company's warehouse was located there in 1924. According to an article in the Democratic Advocate, the building caught fire just after midnight on the morning of April 12, 1924.

Of major concern was the fact that adjoining the warehouse was the American Sentinel newspaper office, the Farmers Supply Company, and the Englar & Sponseller warehouse, "whose buildings are large and built of wood and fear was entertained that the fire might get such a start that it would ignite these buildings. The firemen worked like Trojans and succeeded in keeping the fire in the roof."

A newspaper account went on to report, "An explosion of a coal oil tank in the building, caused the fire to spread rapidly. The company arrived promptly and Chief Shaeffer seeing that the fire was a dangerous one ordered five lines of hose run. … Fireman Samuel Helm slipped from a ladder striking his head on the concrete road. He was carried away partly dazed, but soon recovered and was back at his work again. He suffered a bad laceration to the back of his head."

The other fire occurred in the town of Asbestos. Today we know the town as Finksburg. On April 25, 1924, the Democratic Advocate reported "a rag warehouse fire at the Congoleum Company complex." The headline on the front page read, "Fire in 4000 tons of rags, Flames rage in rag storage house at Congoleum Plant Asbestos for hours – Westminster Firemen do good work – origin of fire unknown – Loss $2500."

"Fire originated in the rag house … about midnight Sunday and burned fiercely for about 5 hours before being brought under control. At 2:30 the Westminster Fire Company was called out to combat the flames. The fire company with the assistance of the plant men fought hard until 6:30 when the fire was brought under control. Reisterstown Fire Company was called about 5 a. m. and arrived in a short time." according to the Democratic Advocate.

Bear in mind this was before the fire companies at Reese (1948), Sykesville (1933), Winfield (1964) or Gamber (1964) were formed. Westminster's fire department covered much of the county at the time for fire suppression and what we know today as EMS.

As much as the fires were the talk of the town in 1924, two years earlier the tongues were really wagging in the beginning of April 1922 with particularly scandalous news from Hampstead, the quintessential small town of "Brotherly Love."

On March 31, 1922, the Democratic Advocate carried an article from the March 24 edition of the "Hampstead Enterprise," which detailed: "With plans carefully laid a Baltimore county couple started a journey that would lead to the land of matrimonial bliss…"

"The … couple started … with a stout heart and eight dollars. For such a journey the first point of interest would be Hampstead, the town of 'Brotherly Love.'

"The couple arrived in Hampstead late in the afternoon and registered at the Hotel Hampstead. But hark! The first error was made. They registered as man and wife. The plans did not reckon with manager Patterson whose watchful eyes detected an error and 'foresaw' trouble. The manager notified the county authorities.

"These officials hurried to the scene. The cruel, cruel officers notified the parents of the young lady and her father came and took her home. In the 'Annals of Sheriffdom' another elopement was recorded as smashed."

One may only wonder how Carroll County Sheriff Jim DeWees would handle such a matter today.

Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster. Email him at kevindayhoff@gmail.com.