I have not completed my research on 535 West Water Street, but I already know the City of Princeton Historical Walking Tour plaque contains at least a couple of errors. The lot was the site of Princeton’s 15th store – a three-story stone building built by Christopher Krueger in 1859 that was replaced by the present two-story concrete block and brick building sometime after 1904 and before 1914.
The plaque states that the building was built in 1910, but there are photos that indicate it was probably built in 1907.
The writer also states that the building was saved from “a large downtown fire” because it was made of brick. But the building that the plaque says was built in 1910 would not have existed in June 1897 when the fire in that block occurred. Also, the fire was three and four buildings to the east of 535, destroying two buildings and affecting three businesses. With the wind blowing in a northeast direction, the stone building at 535 Water was not in any danger.
Princeton Republic, June 17, 1897: “About 1 o’clock Tuesday morning, fire was discovered in the rear of the two-story wooden structure in which John Budnick’s saloon is situated. It was far past extinguishing before the fire department reached the spot. John Hennig’s adjoining building on the east had to go, leaving a gap of smoking ruins from (F.T.) Yahr’s store to Demell and Hennig’s block. … The west room was occupied by Wm. Whittemore, as a jewelry and bicycle shop. The next room east was occcupied by John Budnick as a saloon. The next room farther east was owned by John Hennig and occupied by Harry Tucker as a barber shop. … Happily, there was no wind to urge the flames – just enough to carry the smoke and cinders over the buildings in a northeasterly direction, cinders dropping clear over as far as Merrill’s livery stable (north end of Washington Street at Main Street).”
Surprisingly, the late area historian Elaine Reetz also misreported the incident, and the only major error I’ve found in Princeton’s downtown historic district listing in the National Register of Historic Places involves the same fire.
Reetz included a few paragraphs about the fire of 1897 in her history of Princeton published in the 1981 book “Come Back in Time: Volume I: “It was in the stillness of the night that the dread call of ‘Fire’ was heard on the main street in 1895.”
First mistake: The fire occurred in 1897. We’ll attribute that to a “typo.”
The second mistake was the claim that the bakery of John Hennig (located in the Wright brick building) was enveloped in flames. It did not burn. The fire was contained primarily because it was sandwiched between the Wright building on the east and the F. T. Yahr brick-and-stone building (525 West Water Street) on the west.
The third mistake: “There were living quarters over Hennig’s barber shop; in one room, Bill Knobloch was confined with a broken leg. Men managed to go up the back stairs and carry him to safety, just as the wall collapsed into smoke and fire.”
Wow, what a story! Unfortunately, according to the Princeton Republic of the day, it’s not true.
The Republic noted, “Happily, no families occupied the rooms above as they were recently vacated.”
And what about Bill Knobloch? William Knobloch, 54, who had previously owned the Buckhorn bar and then lost it at sheriff’s auction, had been terribly injured in December 1896 when he fell from the top of the stairs of Hennig’s bakery. “His spine was badly hurt, and from that hour he has lain utterly helpless, unable to move,” the Republic reported. He died on Feb. 11, 1897, four months before the fire in the 500 block.
Some people will claim that I’m “bashing” Elaine by pointing out errors regarding dates and names. I disagree. I have nothing but the utmost respect for the historical work done by Elaine Reetz or any of the other local historians. However, I believe Elaine, as a journalist, would agree that any factual error should be admitted and corrected.
In “Come Back in Time,” Reetz summed up her approach to historical writing this way: “While dates and names are important in a chronological history of any community or city, it is the nostalgic memories that most people enjoy reading and talking about.”
That does not mean she did not attempt to get facts and names correct. It simply means she relied more on oral histories – interviews with older residents, many of whom were relating their family stories secondhand – than fact-checking in the pre-internet days.
That leaves us with one more error related to the fire of 1897 to clarify.
The Princeton Downtown Historic District report, released in 1997, claims that the building at 521 West Water Street was built “pre-1885.” But we now know the building was built in 1891, destroyed by fire in 1897 and rebuilt the same year.
Princeton Republic, Sept. 9, 1897: “The Hennig building, just west of the bakery, is well along and fills at least a portion of the burned district.”
Princeton Republic, Sept. 30, 1897: “John Hennig’s new building is rapidly approaching completion. The rooms are very nice and will be occupied by his son, Edward Hennig, who will conduct a barber shop.”
Ed Hennig took over Tucker’s old spot and opened a new, fine barber shop described in the 1897 “Industrial Review of Princeton” and repeated in the national registry report: “It is finished in natural wood and the best barber furniture and fixtures used. Two bath rooms which are fitted out with porcelain tubs provide comfortable means for residents to keep clean.”
The rest of the “burned district” didn’t get filled until 1901 when William T. Yahr purchased the lot (523 West Water Street; now Green 3 Retail) and erected a two-story brick building with two rooms on the first floor, one for furniture and caskets, the other to be rented.