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What really caused the disastrous November 1909 Minton House fire?

May 16, 2017
By Marybelle Beigh - Westfield Town & Village Historian , Westfield Republican

While researching the mysterious upstairs room at 42 North Portage, some possibly related discoveries were unearthed using names written under the white-washed walls and on the mystery paintings.

One of the first names researched was "BROOKS" as it was the possible signature of the artist who did the "BRUCE" fishing painting shown in the previous BeeLines story about the discoveries of a possible "saloon" and unknown artwork. Although very little was initially discovered, sometimes clues are buried in quite innocuous articles such as obituaries. For example, the only "Brooks" located in the early 1900s digitized Westfield Republicans was Alice Marie Brooks, whose obituary and memoriam articles in the Nov. 10 and 24, 1920 issues describe her death and burial at early age of 18.

"Miss Alice Brooks, eldest daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Brooks of Erie PA, died suddenlyfollowing an operation for peritonitis" Miss Brooks was born in Westfield, NY in 1902, and had lived there until the last two years before her death. "She was a member of the Barcelona Sunday School The remains were brought to the home of her grandmother, Mrs. Ellen Holbrook, at Barcelona, where the funeral was held survived by her parents, one sister Charlotte, grandmother, and many other relatives buried in Westfield Cemetery." The memorial article notes that the pallbearers were six young men who had attended school with her, but unfortunately none were named.

Article Photos

Submitted Photo
This photo shows firefighters and smoldering remains of Minton House fire of November 1909. Photo (1909) courtesy Patterson Library archive.

However, the name of Holbrook, in Barcelona, came up again, when researching another name found on the walls of the mystery room - that of Laura Anthony - as did connections with Erie, Pennsylvania, which appears in several other articles about other family names on the wall. The name, Laura Anthony, appears to be both the name of a mother and a daughter, both of whom resided in Westfield. Miss Laura Anthony, the daughter, was a high school student in 1906, as noted by regents scores in a WR.

Laura Anthony, similar to Alice Brooks' surgery for peritonitis, had surgery for appendicitis in 1909, but at the Chautauqua Sanitarium, a small hospital that was located on South Portage in the early 1900s. In 1910, Laura Anthony and sisters, Florence and Evelyn, visited relatives in Wesleyville and Erie; in 1911, Laura Anthony and Arthur Kester were guests in Sherman. Then, according to a Personal note in May 22, 1912, WR, friends of Miss Laura Anthony held a surprise kitchen shower for Laura; and in the following week's newspaper, there was a notice: "Married in Westfield NY, May 22, 1912, by Dr. A.H. Owen; Arthur Kester and Miss Laura Anthony, both of Westfield."

The April 2, 1913, WR had a line in Real Estate Transfers lately recorded: "Laura Anthony to Irving Holbrook, Barcelona. This had been much earlier preceded by a February 15, 1893 Real Estate Transfers recently recorded: "John Lloyd to Laura Anthony, Westfield, $600." But a very puzzling notice in June 5, 1918, WR, regarding Red Cross Member renewals included Miss Laura Anthony and Florence Anthony; perhaps they had not yet updated Miss Anthony's marriage to Mr. Kester?

Two other names on the wall - Bertha Spencer and Earl Saunders - have added "spice and excitement" to the mysterious upstairs room at 42 N. Portage investigation. Although Bertha Spencer was one of the earlier names investigated, we will leave that research to a later BeeLines, since one of the last names Earl Saunders provided what appears to be some closer connections to the "Fresh Lager Beer and Cigars" sign on the wall behind the locked door with "Keep Out Of This Room" painted on the outside. And even Earl Saunders' story will be shared in a later BeeLines, since the story is quite long and convoluted. BUT, Saunders' story led to the clarification of why Westfield had quite a number of arrests for selling liquor in 1910-1914, well before the Prohibition amendment was passed and implemented from 1919-1933.

In late July 1911, an Italian grocer, Tony Lasante, whose business was on Market Street, Westfield, was arrested for selling lager beer without a government license, which Lasante denied. A couple weeks later in early August 1911, Cheny Saunders, about age 60, was also charged with Selling Spirituous Liquors without paying the government tax, and incarcerated. This story commented that "Westfield is a dry town now," so more research was done to find out when Westfield became a "dry town" and for how long that continued until the entire country went "dry" during Prohibition.

In the Sept. 13, 1911, Westfield Republican, a front-page article "EXCISE RAID" noted that "Westfield has been a dry town in name for nearly a year, since October 1st, 1910" The article went on to say that three places were recently raided, in addition to at least 12 previous individuals (including the above Lasante and Saunders); these places were "Westfield House" near the depot, "Shadyhurst Hotel" on Clinton Street near Franklin, and the "White House Cafe" on the east side of N. Portage.

Although the mysterious room on the west side of North Portage was not implicated at this time, the September 1911 article did lead to finding an article in the Oct. 5, 1910, issue of the Republican, in which it was stated, "The saloons of Westfield were voted out in November, 1909, to take effect at 11 o'clock p.m. September 30, 1910." It lists four propositions: 1. pertaining to Saloons, passed for DRY; 2. Stores (grocery, liquor), passed for DRY; 3. Drug Stores by prescription only, passed for WET; and 4. Hotels, passed for DRY. A later paragraph noted that seven saloons were in center of village - four on Portage, two on Main, and one on Market.

But the second paragraph says something that leads one to possibly ask the question that titles this BeeLines - "What REALLY Caused the Disastrous November 1909 Minton House Fire?" Quote: "It is no secret that many think Westfield would not have gone dry but for the abuse of their license by one or more hotels, principally the unsavory Minton House (It is generally safe to speak ill of the dead)." As many BeeLines readers may recall, the Minton House hotel burned in November 1909, as well as all the businesses on Main Street from the Methodist Church to Market Street.



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