As the children watched, they saw their father, along with several other fire fighters, run to the court house with a ladder. According to Dan Larkin, Levi was "first up the ladder and managed to scale the slippery shingles and extinguish the firs with his coat." The court house was saved, and JDL's father was a hero.
But the grim reality of the risk of fire descended on JDL and his family when, two years later, Levi battled a particularly difficult, stubborn fire, inhaling a lot of smoke leaving him quite exhausted. He quickly developed pneumonia and a short time later, at age 35, Levi died, leaving his wife a widow at age 33 and their seven children, the youngest only three months old., to make their own way in the world.
With his father gone, JDL began the circuitous route the writer has described in the past. Having learned a lot about the soap-making business from his brother-in-law, Justus Weller, when JDL worked off and on for him in Weller's factory just east of us on Seneca Street, over the railroad tracks in the area now known as the Seneca-Babcock neighborhood. When Weller decided to move his business to Chicago in lat 189 or early 1870, JDL went with him and quickly was made a partner in the enterprise. JDL lived a few blocks from the factory with Justus and JDL's sister, Mary. Chicago at that time, was considered to be the fastest growing city in the U.S.. Along with a rapidly growing population came construction of both commercial buildings and residences. Speed was
"the name of the game," with structures being built hastily and with cheap materials easy to use.
Dan Larkin, informed by the research of David Lowe in his introduction to his eye witness accounts of the great fire of Chicago, says that "Wood was used everywhere in the construction of homes, and even in the central business section, the great buildings were of wood and iron with a veneer of stone or brick to establish an appearance of unassailability permanence. South and west of the commercial citadel lay the working class residential areas, consisting for the most part of wooded cottages, an area that was, as Lowe calls it, 'a tinder-dry fuse waiting to be lit.'" (p. 36).
Weller's new soap company was off to a good start when hell literally broke out on October 8, 1871. A small fire had had started in a barn behind Patrick O'Leary's cottage (query, why did Mrs. O'Leary get blamed? And was it really the cow that kicked a lantern or was Patrick drunk and stumbled over it?) . At any rate, the O'Leary's lived just a few blocks east from the Weller Soap Co. and the family's home. Dry wind from the southwest fanned the flames toward the east into the heart of the city, much to the relief of Justus, Mary and JDL.
But they nevertheless were close enough to experience the horror of the fire. Dan Larkin writes that they would have witnessed "the deafening roar of the flames, the falling embers, the searing wind, the cries of the great crowd fleeing in panic from the city. Heavily laden wagons rushed through the streets heedless of the people on foot who were trying to drag oe carry their valuables; women and children were knocked down, and the bridged were gutted with masses of humanity struggling to escape the inferno. Another dimension of terror was added to the scene by looters who took advantage of the chaos to seize anything of value that came to hand, only to be forced in many cases, to abandon their loot and run for their lives when some building collapsed or exploded in their path. The fire lit the night sky until dawn broke over the smoking ruins and revealed the extent of the devastation to an incredulous population." P. 36
The impact of what JDL witnessed was to stay with him for the rest of his life, and benefits us in Larkinville today. All of JDL's buildings, when he returned to Buffalo to create the Larkin Soap Company (LSC), and later, Buffalo Pottery, were built to be fire proof. Constructed of concrete, brick and steel, the Larkin complex was - and continues to be - a citadel of indestructible permanence.
Despite the fortress built to protect JDL's employees and businesses, he was nevertheless unable to similarly protect his family. In 1882 JDL and other fellow business men and friends purchased a large tract of land on the south shore of Lake Erie and on the east bank of Eighteen Mile Creek (near where the Bluffs Condos and Frank Lloyd Wright - designed Graycliff were later built, the latter for the Darwin Martin family), naming the property 'Idlewood,' The group incorporated the property as an association. Members could purchase lots. JDL purchased Lot No. 8 at a cost of $100 in 1883.
Members initially camped on their lots, setting up tents on wooden platforms. Each lot made its own arrangements for cooking and often had maids present to help with domestic chores and to care for the children. The Larkin's nurse, Annie, usually was on site to help with family needs.
The families could swim in the lake, play on the beach and go fishing in boats.. JDL typically spent the week days in Buffalo to work, coming out with eagerness on weekends to play with the children on the beach. Sometimes he would bring with him his young clerk, Darwin Martin. Travel was by train from Buffalo to North Evans, where the train would be met by a carriage to bring him the rest of the way to Idlewood. Pre-
sumably arrangements were made at drop off as to when the carriage would return at the end of the weekend to take passengers back to North Evans to catch the train to Buffalo.
The Larkin family was very happy at Idlewood....Till Sunday, August 16, 1885.
That morning JDL's children, Edith, age 6, and John, Jr. age almost 8, were playing on the beach without supervision. Family nurse, Annie, may have been busy with Harry, age 2 ½ , elsewhere. Apparently Edith and John. Jr. got bored skipping stones and hunting for shells on the beach. Dan Larkin says they decided to build a fire. Edith, wearing a frilly Victorian-style dress, got too close. Her dress caught fire, causing her to run in terror , uphill towards the camp. She was intercepted by John, Jr. and he and another boy got her down to the water's edge where they put out the flames in her dress and splashed water on her head and torso.
JDL and Frank (his wife, (Frances, known as Frank) were frantic. They carried her back to the camp and provided whatever first aid they could. There was no way to communicate with anyone, no emergency services, no burn treatment centers, no Mercy Flights, not even cell phones to call for help. It was not till Monday that they were somehow able to get word to Frank's brother and JDL' partner, Elbert Hubbard, who was apparently at work that Monday in Buffalo at LSC. He sent Darwin Martin to Hubbard's home in East Aurora to take care of his home. Hubbard then took a train to North Evan's, arriving at Idlewood either late Tuesday or early Wednesday. Edith died at 6:00 a.m. August 19 at Idlewood. Hubbard then returned to Buffalo where he instructed Darwin to bring his carriage from East Aurora to Buffalo to meet the funeral cortege arriving in Buffalo by train. From the Depot, (probably the one on Seneca Street) the procession drove to Forest Lawn. A funeral was held in the Chapel where Edith was placed in a vault on August 20.
Forest Lawn records indicate that on September 23, 1885, JDL purchased a large burial lot in Section 8 to accommodate a family monument and at least 20 individual graves. Edith was then buried in grave No. 1 with a small headstone bearing her name and birth and death dates. Eventually JDL was buried beside her. Her mother, Frank, though dying before JDL, is buried the other side of him, perhaps because JDL wanted to be between both his best girls."
Dan Larkin mentions in his biography of JDL, that JFL continued to be a member of the Idlewood Association as a board member till he sold his lot in 1892. Frank could not bring herself to ever return to Idlewood.
In 1899 the Larkins began to look for another get-away residence. Both JDL and Frank had become increasingly enamored with the Niagara-on-the-Lake area. After months of exploring, they settled on a beautiful spot on the top of the gorge, a short distance from N-O-T-L. The house, built in the i830's in classic Colonial style was very attractive. The property included farm buildings and had much room for gardens. They named it 'Glencairne.' It was from this property that JDL was to eventually remove a huge bolder and transport it to Buffum Street, down Seneca a ways from the LSC complex. There it was installed as a monument complete with bronze plaque in gratitude to and in honor of the Seneca Indians who had done so much to aid the Irish immigrants years before.
But fire was to follow them to the Larkin's new refuge. The "Buffalo Enquirer" newspaper of August 18, 1906 reported that the large barn and other related structures at Glencairne. There was little that the fire company could do because the water supply was very low because water tanks used for fires had been emptied the day before to furnish water for the threshing process.. Though the farm buildings were destroyed, JDL swallowed hard and rebuilt - including concrete silos!
A fire occurred next to the Power House in 1911. Traditionally, huge piles of coal were amassed behind the power house and toward the railroad tracks. Scoops extended from the back of the building to move coal into the huge boilers inside. The "Buffalo Courier" reported on November 4, 1911 that "Fire has been discovered in the immense coal pile that contains thousands of tons of boiler coal which supplies the Larkin plant in Seneca Street. It is a frequent occurrence when the weather turns cold for these piles to catch fire. The Larkin fire is of the same nature as that in the coal piles at the waterworks."
Since the article says no more, I conclude that the fire did not require dousing and was more like a smoldering, not endangering the power house building nor any other structures nearby.
JDL undoubtedly became more cognizant of the wisdom of his decision to build a fireproof complex for his company on January 21, 1923 when Iroquois Door Co., located on the SW corner of Exchange and Larkin Streets. A photograph Buffalo Fire Dept. and located in the archives of the Buffalo Historical Museum shows a fully involved brick building with many hoses trained on it. It must have been a very cold day, because ice from the hoses coats everything. I could find nothing indicating JDL's reaction, but it must have been one of hope that he had adequately protected his company and its employees from that kind of destruction.
Fortunately JDL had passed by the time the one and only building of the LSC complex caught fire. It was March 8, 1954. The company had gone downhill economically after JDL's death, and parts of it had been sold off. One of the buildings sold was the Warehouse building in which manufactured products had been stored, till they got moved to the Larkin at Exchange building from which they were shipped. Now the building was owned by Bison Waste and Wiper Co. It had been located on the corner of Exchange and Van Rensselaer.