Steam Powers its Way into Visalia
There is an old expression that says “cleanliness is next to Godliness.” It’s a phrase that has its roots deep in world history, but to those who know Visalia’s past, the saying could easily have originated here.
Early Visalians had a passion for cleanliness, especially for clean clothes. Laundry businesses were established early and often, and were usually small and family-owned like the tiny 1860 American Laundry at the corner of Garden and Center streets, or the family-run 1859 San Sing Laundry at Courthouse Square. By the end of the 19th century, however, the Visalia Board of Trade recognized the need for a more modern laundry. With the blessing of this booster organization, Visalia was poised for a big laundry upgrade.
On July 20, 1899, a group of Visalia businessmen led articles of incorporation for the Visalia Steam Laundry, a new type of cleaning business using steam. The steam generated would not be used to clean clothing directly, but rather it would be the power source that drove the cleaning machinery, a big improvement over a hand laundry.
One hundred shares of stock were issued for the new venture, with local businessmen snapping up the shares quickly. Walter J. Peacock, one of the shareholders, was named plant manager and the first board of directors consisted of S.C. Brown, E.O. Miller, A.G. Wishon, S. Mitchell and E.C. Farnsworth.
The company purchased the best equipment available and installed it in the existing brick building that sat on the southeast corner of Center and Cottonwood (now called Encina Street), a building formerly owned and occupied by the Visalia Gas, Light & Heat Co. On Sept 14, the new company invited the public to preview the facility and its operations. The crowd gathered, the switch was pushed, and the equipment worked like a charm. Everyone was impressed, including a reporter for the Visalia Daily Times, who wrote, “It is gratifying to know that we have now the best equipment plant in the San Joaquin Valley.” Four days later, the doors opened to the public and the new business began.
Visalia Steam Laundry started with four employees, but quickly grew. It was a popular company and for the next three decades, it developed an enviable reputation. The business added more and more services until it became a full- service operation, including wagons for garment pickup and delivery.
But the early years were not without problems. In 1914, W.J. Rinehart, a company delivery driver, was kicked unconscious by his horse while he was currying the animal. He survived, but the incident left him with a broken hip and lacerated scalp. Three years after that, the company had a close call when soot buildup in the smokestack caused a roof re. Fortunately, the re was quickly extinguished.
By the early 1930s, Frank O. Riddle and Herman A. Claberg were the new owners, and the company had grown to 25 workers. The laundry was on a roll, but the momentum was about to come to a dramatic halt.
At 4:15 a.m. Aug. 22, 1936, disaster struck. While Visalia Police Officer Paul Finley was on patrol, he heard a loud explosion and saw flames shooting into the sky in the area around the laundry. At the same time, Leroy Owings, the night attendant at the Signal service station, heard the explosion and saw the flames. He sounded the alarm and firefighters responded quickly, however, the massive blaze had already engulfed the building.
For three hours, firefighters battled the inferno, desperately trying to keep the flames from spreading. Despite their valiant efforts, burning embers drifted for nearly 10 blocks, causing two small structure fires and igniting several telephone poles. Fortunately, the other fires were quickly extinguished.
When the fire was finally out, it was clear that the laundry was a total loss. All that remained were a few brick walls and a massive pile of tangled and disfigured metal, including the remnants of three company trucks and an automobile. There were human casualties, too. Walter Wood, a firefighter, stepped on a nail, which pierced his foot, and George Row, another firefighter, twisted his knee. None of the injuries was serious.
Property loss was set at $35,000, but fortunately, no one was killed. Several people commented that if the explosion and fire had occurred during a laundry work day, many lives would likely have been lost. Fire Chief Bert Williams was not able to determine the cause of the fire.
The laundry owners had insurance, but they chose not to rebuild. Instead, they retired and a new company was quickly formed under the name Visalia Steam Laundry & Dry Cleaners. The new owner, Edwin V. Nelson, quickly developed plans for another plant in the 500 block of East Mineral King Avenue. Construction on his building was to begin in November.
It was finished in 1937 and filled the entire block. It was a first-class structure made of brick and steel measuring about 100 feet by 125 feet. Nelson, like his predecessors, wanted only the best modern equipment to provide complete dry cleaning and laundry service. He purchased many pieces of equipment, including two “mushroom” Zarmo-American presses; a Huebsh handkerchief, napkin and small linen ironer; six Monel-metal washers; a Hoffman motor-driven extractor, and an air tumbler. It was a state-of-the-art facility with all the equipment approved by the American Institute of Laundering.
By 1940, the laundry employed 35 people and it had 11 trucks operated by uniformed drivers. In the mid-1950s, the company dropped the word “Steam” from its name. Today, the building is home to Mission Linen & Uniform Service.