Remembering the Case’s Hardware Fire

It has been fifty years since a disastrous fire destroyed Case’s Hardware, one of downtown Rochester’s most beloved and iconic businesses. The store burned on December 12, 1968, in what long-time residents still remember as one of the most difficult and dangerous fires ever to hit Main Street.

Case's Hardward on Main Steet stands wall to wall with other businesses with several 1960's model cars parked along the street

Case’s Hardware in the mid-1960s – Photo Courtesy of the Walter and Marjorie Dernier Collection

Case’s Hardware stood on the west side of Main, just south of the bank building on the corner of Fourth Street. The business started around 1872 as Reimer & Thompson, and passed through a succession of partners before Harvey J. Taylor bought a half-interest in the hardware store in 1888. Two years later, Taylor moved the store from its original location on the east side of Main to a brand-new three-story building at 335 South Main.

Eventually, Taylor sold the business to his nephew, Charles W. Case, who named it C.W. Case Hardware. In the twentieth century, Case’s was Rochester’s “go-to” place, not only for hardware, but also for small appliances, radios, ammunition, and custom sheet-metal work.

After the death of C.W. Case in 1944, the hardware store stayed in the family. Case’s sons, Mason and Vern, succeeded their father. After the sons’ respective deaths, Mason’s wife, Leah, and her son-in-law, Dale Cypher, took over. Seeking to boost the store’s long-term profitability, Dale Cypher made many improvements, among them the addition of a plumbing section and a popular toy store in the basement. These moves increased sales, and Case’s paid off its mortgage in October 1968. With their debt cleared, the owners were looking forward to reaping the rewards of a profitable business for years to come.

Old photo showing Case's Hardward standing by itself with horse and buggies parked out front and Main Street is dirt

Case’s Hardware in the early twentieth century – Photo Courtesy of the Rochester Hills Public Library

The store’s owners enjoyed their new financial position for only two months, because disaster struck during the early hours of December 12. A resident of the apartments located over the bank building awakened to smoke and an unusual crackling sound. He roused his neighbors from sleep and called the fire department. When Fire Chief Lyle Buchanan arrived on the scene about 4:20 a.m., he saw that the fire was so advanced that additional help would be needed. Ten minutes later, trucks from the Brooklands and Avondale fire departments joined the fight, and soon thereafter Lake Orion’s truck arrived to lend assistance.

Fires in the Main Street business district always bring with them concerns about neighboring structures. Firefighters worried that the buildings adjoining Case’s might be at risk. According to William Cahill’s history of the Rochester Fire Department, that threat intensified about an hour into the fight, when Rochester’s 1937 Seagrave pumper blew a hose line. Chief Buchanan then called in the fifth and final alarm, bringing the Troy Fire Department to the scene. The arrival of Troy’s brand-new aerial ladder truck, not yet used on an actual fire scene, turned the tide in favor of the firefighters as it threw water on the building from high above the blaze.

Attacking the Case’s fire was a difficult task, due in large part to the type of goods found in the hardware store. Combustible stock like paint and paint thinners fueled the blaze, and extreme temperatures exploded live ammunition, turning the area into another kind of war zone for the responders.

When the fire was finally out after a morning-long battle, the neighboring buildings had been saved and no injury or loss of life had been recorded. For Case’s Hardware, however, the fire was a deathblow. Not only was the building a total loss, but the disaster had happened at the height of the Christmas shopping season, while the store was at peak inventory. Unfortunately, the store’s new insurance agents had not followed a long-standing practice of making a seasonal adjustment in coverage to allow for increased holiday inventory. The resulting shortfall in the insurance settlement meant that, after paying off suppliers and cleaning up the site, there was not enough money to rebuild.

Dale Cypher’s son, Steve, was a college student in 1968 and worked in the family store. In a recent e-mail, he told Rochester Media how he learned about the fire: “I wasn’t in town the night and morning of the fire, as I was a freshman at Western Michigan University that year. I was planning on coming home that weekend, and tried to call the store to let my mom know I was coming home. Needless to say, I couldn’t get through. I finally located my brother at a friend’s house and he was the one who told me about the fire. I got to Rochester at 8 p.m. that night and all that was left was a smoldering ruin of a store my family had owned for over 80 years.”

Because the fire had incinerated nearly everything, investigators could never pinpoint the cause of the blaze. A one-story structure was eventually built on the former Case’s site, and today it is the location of the Hibachi House restaurant.

About Deborah J. Larsen

Deborah J. Larsen recently retired after 34 years as local history librarian at Mount Clemens Public Library. She currently serves as the research chairperson for the Rochester-Avon Historical Society, and writes on a wide range of local history topics.

Comments

  1. June Hopaluk says:

    Debbie, thank you. I remember the fire but didn’t know about the history of the store and of the family.

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