90 years later: The fire that changed Onaway

factory when the fire started at 8:30 a.m. Owners believed it was started from a spark of static electricity that ran up a shaft into the blowers of a sanding machine.

Owner E.J. Lobdell Jr. reasoned that this caused an explosion in the blower system that spread into the pipes.

The front page of a January, 1926 issue of the Onaway Outlook told the news about the devastating fire.
The front page of a January, 1926 issue of the Onaway Outlook told the news about the devastating fire.

On the day of the fire, plant officials said it would likely be rebuilt. They quickly changed their minds as they found a building in Alma to house the company.

Filling a building formerly used to build trucks for the Great War, the company invited any former employees of the Onaway plant to work in Alma.

Gone were 800 jobs. The fire of 1926 proved a major setback for the community.

AWRC hired 300 for the new plant. Within a matter of days, an exodus left Onaway almost silent as workers from the plant, and the mills, which supplied the company, left town to look for work. It was a major setback for a once thriving community. Businessman wept unashamed as they watched. Many feared Onaway would become a ghost town.

A new school that may never be needed was built. Stores were stocked with no patrons to sell the merchandise to.

One of the first products of the Onaway plant was broom handles. Later, the plant made wooden steering wheels for the new auto industry, including for the hot-selling Model-T Fords, and was said to be one of, if not the largest steering wheel manufacturer in the world.

Nine decades later, remnants of the plant remains in partial build shells. Businessman and philanthropist Tom Moran developed a trail in the last few years so people can view what’s left of the ruins and remember.

Onaway has not forgot its heritage, and still clings to the motto, “Onaway Steers the World.” It’s engraved in the sidewalks and used by the new Onaway Community Chamber of Commerce. The wooden steering wheels are proudly on display at the grocery store, and of course the museum.

It was a day that changed Onaway in almost an instant, but it didn’t wipe the town from the map. As the 1939 Onaway News reported, 13 years after the fire, “There are still a few ‘weepers’ but they are outnumbered by those who have faith in the future and are conducting their business with confidence.”

Nine decades later, Onaway still could use an economic shot in the arm with tight budgets at City Hall and struggling businesses, but there is still a love for a community that once steered the world.