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Century after Douglas Starch Works disaster, memories live on

Events this week recall deadly Cedar Rapids calamity

Lynn Schmidt of Merrillville, Ind. touches the lettering of his grandfather’s uncle E. Schmidt, one of the victims of the Douglas Starch Works explosion during a ceremony marking the 100th anniversary of the explosion at a memorial honoring the 44 people killed in the explosion at Linwood Cemetery in southwest Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Monday, May 20, 2019. Lynn Schmidt isn’t sure of the first name of his relative and records from the period only have his first name as E. Lynn Schmidt says that his great uncle emigrated from the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Lynn Schmidt of Merrillville, Ind. touches the lettering of his grandfather’s uncle E. Schmidt, one of the victims of the Douglas Starch Works explosion during a ceremony marking the 100th anniversary of the explosion at a memorial honoring the 44 people killed in the explosion at Linwood Cemetery in southwest Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Monday, May 20, 2019. Lynn Schmidt isn’t sure of the first name of his relative and records from the period only have his first name as E. Lynn Schmidt says that his great uncle emigrated from the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Growing up, Denise Marti-Wyatt and Lisa Marti remember their grandmother talking about the pain of being separated as a child from her sister.

Ruth Moss, their grandmother, was only 5 when an explosion at the Douglas Starch Works factory in Cedar Rapids killed her father, Mike Schultz. Her mother already had died of influenza and the May 22, 1919, blast left Ruth and her two siblings orphans.

They were separated — Ruth and her brother were raised by one family, while her sister, who later died as a teen, was sent to another house.

“It’s what she always talked about,” Marti said of her grandmother.

Ruth didn’t share many memories of her father with them, the sisters said, but did pass on a pocket watch to their uncle. Though Schutz’s body was never found after the explosion, the watch was, with just a slim crack across its glass face.

The Schultz family was not the only one torn apart that day. Forty four people died in the explosion, with the force of the blast sending a plume of smoke and debris a mile into the sky — reports said it was visible as far way as Iowa City — and knocking out windows across town. One of those killed was a baby across the river, thrown from a couch. The explosion began as a small cornstarch fire.

On Monday, to mark the centennial of the disaster, members of the public, including the Marti family, along with local officials gathered at Linwood Cemetery, where a monument to the victims stands.

It was erected by the Douglas family, which owned the plant and also the Brucemore mansion, which is now a museum.

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Brucemore staff organized the ceremony, which included a wreath laying, remarks by officials including Mayor Brad Hart and spoken word poetry performed by Akwi Nji.

As we approach the 100th anniversary of the deadly explosion at the Douglas Starch Works in Cedar Rapids, we can consider the story of one family whose sorrow was doubled.

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Sharing the stories of the victims is central to Brucemore’s mission, said museum Executive Director David Janssen.

“Historic preservation isn’t about buildings. Historic preservation isn’t about a mansion, a neighborhood district or a battlefield or a birthplace. Historic preservation is about humanity. It’s about our shared story,” he said.

He said as much as Brucemore tells the stories of wealthy families that lived there, it should also tell the stories of the factory workers who built that wealth at places like the Sinclair meat packing plant and the Starch Works factory — which was rebuilt and now is Ingredion.

“We also know as historians at Brucemore that our story is not just about the powerful or the enfranchised or the well documented,” he said.

Many of the workers were immigrants and black families moving to Iowa in search of a better life.

Marti-Wyatt’s daughter, Misty Beltz, said seeing the care paid to her great-great-grandfather’s memory was powerful, especially since she and her mother and sister had little more than sepia-toned photos and that cracked pocket watch to remember him by.

“I’m just glad these people weren’t forgotten after all these years,” she said.

On Wednesday, Brucemore staff and volunteers will spread across the city to mark in chalk locations impacted by the explosion. Those include homes where the victims once lived and buildings damaged from the force of the blast.

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Also, there is a 6 p.m. Wednesday bell ringing and reading of names of those who died in the explosion, to be held at the Jean Oxley Public Service Center, 935 Second St. SW, Cedar Rapids.

And immediately afterward, The History Center will host a walking tour led by Rob Cook of areas affected by the explosion. It leaves from the Jean Oxley center and costs $5 for History Center members and $7 for non-members.

l Comments: (319) 398-8339; alison.gowans@thegazette.com

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