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Evansville
Monday, December 5, 2022

Lost History

Evansville’s largest fire brought down an important piece of the city’s manufacturing past

THE DRAMATIC FIRE that occupied the news for several days in mid-October 2022 marked the destruction of one of the most significant industrial sites in Evansville’s history. Over a period of 120 years, these buildings played a large role in the city’s commercial landscape, and their demise was big news to citizens and investors alike.

On Jan. 2, 1903, the Evansville Courier newspaper’s front-page story was the annual tour by streetcar of proud citizens exploring the new Hercules Buggy Factory just north of Division Street. More than 500 men and women braved the cold to tour this new plant referred to by leading industrialist and president of the Hercules Corporation, William McCurdy, as “the best manufacturing site in the city of Evansville.” Formerly the Brighton Buggy Company, the plant was relocated to Evansville from Cincinnati in 1902.

Throughout the years, the building was added on to, most importantly in 1906 and 1914, when the Morton Avenue facility was remodeled. On Aug. 25, 1925, The Evansville Journal broke the story that William McCurdy was heading up a move to transfer ownership of the large plant to Servel Incorporated, which intended to convert the factory to make household refrigerators and ice machines. During World War II, the plant converted to making wings for P-47 Thunderbolt planes. After the war in 1947, Servel added significantly to the plant and returned to making refrigerators. Joining Seeger and other industrial powers, Evansville became known as the “Refrigerator Capital of the World,” and an exhibition football game, the “Refrigerator Bowl,” was played annually at the Reitz Bowl from 1948-1956 (see Final Detail, page 128).

The facility, which had been serving as a warehouse since Servel shut down operations in 1957, caught on fire in the early hours of Oct. 17. More than a dozen units responded to the emergency, which wiped out hundreds of thousands of square feet of the building that spanned several city blocks. As of press time, the investigation into the cause of the fire is still ongoing.

PHOTO PROVIDED BY STEVE SCHAEFER

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