On Jan. 12, 1888, one of the more calamitous fires in the history of Columbus took place at the armory of the 14th Regiment of the Ohio Militia.
Ohio had counted on citizen militias since the state was founded, as well as in the territorial years that preceded statehood. It was a necessity because the U.S. had no large national army and would not for many years.
In the interim, the states created and supported armies of their own. Many of these militias would be called into service in wars on distant frontiers, and they had been essential in the struggle to gain independence in the American Revolution.
After the revolution, the militias continued to meet, and the ones on the moving frontier saw action in the War of 1812 and in some conflicts that followed. By the end of the Civil War, militia units were organized or reorganized, but conflicts were few to the east of the Mississippi River, and many of the units literally became "marching and drinking societies."
Recognizing the need for a "well-organized militia" in the terms of the U.S. Constitution, Ohio reformed and reconstituted its militia system in 1878. Col. George Freeman of Columbus was placed in command of the newly restructured 14th Regiment.
Ohio was changing rapidly, and large numbers of people were coming into the state from different countries and from diverse parts of the U.S. Many of the new people got along well with established families and other newcomers – but many more did not.
When they did not, violence often followed. Such was the case in 1884 in Cincinnati, when a murder case and its resolution led to mob violence throughout the city. The upheaval had many reasons, but the murder case was the spark that lit the fire of civil unrest.
To compel a quieting of full-scale civil disorder, the 14th Regiment was sent to Cincinnati with units from elsewhere across the state. Armed with Gatling guns and fixed bayonets, the 14th was instrumental in bringing order to the city.
Returning home, members of the 14th realized they needed a permanent home. In 1886, the unit acquired and finished a large frame meeting hall on the corner of Spring and Front streets in Columbus. When not using the hall for its own purposes, it rented the space.
Such was the case Jan. 12, 1888, when fire broke out in the building at 6 a.m.
A later account described what happened:
"Fire caught from a defective flue and soon enveloped the building. The drapery and evergreen went like a flash and fell to the floor, everything going up like an explosion. There were 1,000 rounds of ammunition in the building. The cartridges exploded, the bullets flying in all directions, making it dangerous for men to work.
"Three hundred stands of rifles and uniforms of all of the men of the regiment were destroyed, as well as accoutrements and paraphernalia, excluding tents. The officers lost much of their goods. ... Other local organizations and drill corps had their uniforms in the building and lost the same.
"The Ohio Poultry, Pigeon, Kennel and Pet Stock Association opened their second annual exhibition at the armory Tuesday. There were displays from nearly every state east of the Mississippi. The value of the exhibit is estimated at over $50,000 (well over $1 million in today's dollars). All the poultry and pigeon stock and nearly all of the dogs were consumed ... In all over 300 dogs of different breeds were lost, composing the finest display ever made in Ohio. ... The stock show would have closed tonight and was pronounced such a success that arrangements had already been made for an exhibition next year."
The lost building was insured, and the 14th used the proceeds of its insurance to resupply and reequip.
In September 1888, the regiment marched proudly down High Street among the 90,000 uniformed veterans and militias as part of the 22nd annual encampment of the Grand Army of the Republic – the Union Army veterans' organization.
The 14th later would see service after other reorganizations in the Spanish-American War and in other conflicts. As part of the reorganization of the Ohio Militia under federal legislation, it became a unit of the Ohio National Guard.
The Ohio Poultry, Pigeon, Kennel and Pet Stock Association was separated and reorganized into many separate groups under various different names and organizational titles. The groups continue to meet to this day. Many of those meetings have been and continue to be held in Columbus – without mishap.
Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As It Were column for ThisWeek Community News.