When Café 225 and its neigh-boring businesses burned to the ground in December 2018, I started thinking about other fires in Visalia’s past and, like most old towns, we had many. Although blazes occurred all over town, there was one particular area that seemed to be especially vulnerable — at least to the bigger ones. That area today is in the heart of downtown, specifically on the north side of Main Street between Court and Locust streets.
In the mid-1880s, Fred S. Holt — a man who was part of the well-known Stockton family that developed the Caterpillar Tractor — built an impressive commercial structure on the northwest corner of Court and Main streets. It stretched west along Main and covered all the space north to the alley. The building so dominated the area that both the building and the block became known as the Holt Block. For decades, the name stuck.
Construction began on his grand building in about 1885, and it became the first structure of any consequence west of Court on Main. It was a mile-stone project and the Tulare County Times, obviously pleased, reported, “The business of Main Street is rapidly extending westward. The Holt Block … has proved such an excellent addition to our town and is one of the finest structures in Southern California.”
Even though Holt’s building was solid and well-built, it was not immune to vicious attacks by fire. The first big one struck on Monday, June 26, 1893, when at about 2:30 a.m., nightwatchman Byrd was alerted to flames coming from the second floor. He ran to the firehouse at Church Street and Acequia Avenue and notified the firemen. In just a few minutes, firefighters were racing to the scene, and people were gathering to watch all the excitement.
Within seven minutes, they were on the scene shooting “four streams of water” on the blaze. In less than an hour, the flames were extinguished and the crowd gave the firemen “a yell of triumph … that could be heard for blocks.”
Thanks to the valiant effort of firefighters, the Holt building was saved and no lives were lost. However, the contents of many of the offices and businesses inside didn’t fare as well. A number suffered heavy losses. C.A. Myers, photographer, was hit the hardest. The fire had started in his second-floor studio and his entire gallery was destroyed, including all
of his negatives. Except for one box of instruments, architect N.P. Rogers lost everything, including his accumulation of architectural plans. Other businesses lost equipment and supplies, but flames weren’t the only destructive weapon. Many items not damaged by heat were destroyed by smoke or water.
An initial estimate of damage to Holt’s building was set at $3,500, all of which was covered by insurance. But his tenants were not as lucky. Some had no insurance, while others had inadequate coverage.
But despite the town’s loss, the community was thankful. The quick response by the fire department and the effective suppression efforts were credited with containing the damage. The Tulare Valley Citizen newspaper reported what the thankful people felt: “The Visalia Company, by their prompt and efficient work at the fire in the Holt Block, saved the city from great disaster.”
The Visalia Daily Morning Delta also heaped praise on the department: “It is safe to say that there is not a fire department in the state … that could have done better work than our little, but effective, department. Visalians are proud of them; they have shown their value time and time again.”
Fred Holt surveyed the damage to his building and started making plans for repairs. The grateful man made a generous $50 donation to the fire department “in testimony of his
appreciation of their services.”
Forty years later, another big fire would visit, and this time the Holt building would not be as lucky. While making his rounds early Sunday morning on Sept. 24, 1933, Visalia Police Officer Bob Williams noticed flames coming from the structure. He turned in an alarm, then he and fellow officer Paul Finley alerted residents who were living in the second-floor apartments.
The fire had been burning for quite some time before the fire department was notified, so when firefighters arrived, the two-story building with eight stores, 10 offices and apartments was engulfed in flames. Firefighters attacked the blaze with their two pumpers with some success, then the oldest one — the department’s first motorized fire vehicle purchased in 1913 — “broke down” under the strain. Flames began to take over the building again. Fearful of the stubborn blaze, they requested help from the Fresno Fire Department. They dispatched one of their pumpers, but as it got to Selma, it “threw a rod through the cylinder head.” The rig was out of commission, so Fresno sent another.
By the time the Fresno rig and crew arrived, there wasn’t much that could be done to save the building, so efforts were concentrated on containment. They contained the fire, but the Holt building was destroyed. The second story was totally burned, and the ground floor was littered with charred debris and damaged beyond repair by water and smoke.
No one died in the three-hour battle, but there were injuries. Earl Evatt wrenched his shoulder when he jumped out of his second-floor apartment window to escape the flames, and Rupert Hunter, George Keck and Dudley Hadley, all Visalia volunteer firemen, suffered minor injuries.
Soon after the fire, Grace Holt Enquist, the building owner, came to town to survey the damage. She met with the eight merchant tenants and discussed with them their future business needs. City records don’t confirm what happened after that, but eventually the structure that now stands on the block was built.