Academic journal article Urban History Review

Berlin, Ontario, in the Age of the ABC

Academic journal article Urban History Review

Berlin, Ontario, in the Age of the ABC

Article excerpt

Between 1890 and 1910, the town of Berlin, Ontario, adopted special-purpose bodies, such as water commissions and park boards, with enthusiasm. Why did Berlin's civic leaders respond to these institutions so enthusiastically? This paper suggests that internal diffusion, fuelled by an argument about municipal capacity, was at work in Berlin at the time. The paper also critically examines two alternative explanations for the town 'c enthusiasm, one grounded in Wilsonian reform, and the other in elite self-insulation.

Entre 1890 et 1910, la ville de Berlin, en Ontario, a instaure avec enthousiasme des organismes specialises, tels que la commission des eaux et des parcs. Pour quelles raisons les dirigeants munici-paux de Berlin ont-ils reagi de facon si enthousiaste ces institutions? Cet article suggere qu'un processus de diffusion interne, alimente par un debat au sujet des competences municipales, etait a L'oeuvre dans Berlin h cette epoque. L'article examine egalement deux explications que l'on donne de cet enthousiasme, la premiere fondee sur la reforme de Wilson, et la deuxieme sur le mouvement d'isolation de Mite.

I

Late on the evening of 12 November 1896, workers at the Hibner Furniture Company in Berlin, Ontario, were cleaning up after a long shift. In the paint shop on the factory's third floor, workers dipped their hands in benzine and began to scrape the evidence of the day's labour from their skin. Gas light illuminated the room. One worker, a boy of fifteen, was irritated by a gas flame near his face, and he reached up absentmindedly to push the flame away.

The boy's hands, still coated in benzine, immediately caught fire. He shook wildly, desperate to extinguish the flames; tiny missiles of burning benzine launched from his hands and streaked across the room. One tiny fireball landed in a bucket of benzine on the floor, which promptly exploded. The room was now in flames.

Six buckets of water sat near the door, along with a box of sand, prepared in advance for just such a scenario. A large tank and a length of hose stood ready for use a few steps away. But the boys in the paint shop, frightened by the intensity of the flames, fled from the room and the fire began to spread.

What followed was a sequence of events so extreme in their accumulated incompetence that it is tempting to picture the scene in the crackling black-and-white of a Buster Keaton slapstick: the town's alarm bell fails to ring; the fire brigade, when it finally arrives, finds its hoses clogged with mud and dirt; after ten minutes of frantic scraping and poking, the unclogged hoses release a stream of water so impotent that it does little more than to splash meaninglessly upon the factory's superheated walls; the fire brigade, overcome by heat and frustration, finally surrenders the building to the flames, training the sad dribble of their hoses on the surrounding structures as the main building burns to the ground. (1)

For a despondent Daniel Hibner, the factory's owner, the fire was the latest in a long list of frustrations. "The winter is upon us," Hibner complained in an interview the next day. "Berlin's shipping facilities are not the best and I may decide to go east." (2) Inevitably, the vulturine enticements poured in, from Trenton, Brantford, Paris, and beyond. A town outside Montreal kindly offered Hibner a fully equipped woodworking factory, along with a $15,000 bonus, if he moved his business there. (3) Hibner said loudly that he would need at least $5,000 to rebuild in Berlin. The town's leaders sprang into action and rallied to pass a bylaw providing Hibner with his requested funds. (4)

So Hibner remained in Berlin. But what about the wider concerns? What about the faulty alarm system, the incompetent fire brigade? In a letter to the local newspaper, an anonymous writer proposed a solution: "The Fire and Water Committee will always remain the same as long as it is in the hands of men that have to be elected by the people. …

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