Time Machine: Family sorrow doubled in Douglas Starch Works explosion


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.

Forty-three workers died in the mammoth explosion May 22, 1919. Thirty others were injured. Across the Cedar River from the plant, a young child was thrown from a couch and died. More than 200 homes were damaged.

Among the dead were brothers-in-law, James Newbold and Percy Ramsell, both of them workers on the late shift. James’ wife, Elizabeth, was Percy’s sister.

Percy Ramsell


Percy Ramsell was born June 27, 1886, in Manchester, England. He came to America in 1906 with his parents, John and Susannah Ramsell, and their five other children. They settled in Hiteman, a Monroe County city in south-central Iowa, in 1909. Susannah died in 1911 of cancer.

One of the Ramsell children, William, started taking a course in advertising while continuing to work in an Iowa coal mine. He would take his books into the mine to read during dinner hour and sometimes stayed up all night to study. The Cedar Rapids Republican newspaper hired him as its advertising manager in 1912.

Four years after his mother’s death, Percy and Jean Critchett were married on Thanksgiving Day at Jean’s home in Ottumwa. They moved to Cedar Rapids in 1913 and lived in a house on 14th Avenue West, several blocks away from the Douglas Starch plant.

Percy worked at the plant. Jean worked at Quaker Oats.

Percy was musically talented and often sang at Calvary Baptist church in Cedar Rapids. He and his wife had no children when he died at age 32.

After the funeral, his wife moved in with her mother, who became the minister of the East Moline Watertown Baptist Church in November 1919.


James Newbold

James Newbold was 24 when he died. He had married to Elizabeth Ann Ramsell on Nov. 8. 1916. Their daughter, Wilma Eileen, was 2 at the time. Their son, James Edgar Newbold Jr., was born after his father died, on Aug. 7, 1919.

Another plant employee, a Mr. Fellas, said he had been talking to James just before the explosion.

“Fellas was blown to safety, and Newbold was buried alive,” The Gazette reported.

James’ body was found at about 1 a.m. May 29 in the ruins of the packing building. His body “was easily identified by his relatives by means of a signet ring which he wore on one finger of the left hand. The body was not burned badly, and the left hand scarcely at all. It seems that Newbold met his death from falling concrete.”


A double funeral was held for the brothers-in-law at 5 p.m. May 30 at the Beatty Chapel. Percy was buried in Albia beside his mother. James was buried in Linwood Cemetery in Cedar Rapids.

A “card of thanks” was published in the newspaper’s classified section on June 3: “Mrs. James Edgar Newbold and family, also Mrs. Percy Ramsell and family, wish in this manner to express to the Douglas Co., the Red Cross workers, also to their neighbors, friends and all who have exhibited such magnificent spirit in their expression of sympathies, and in personal manner assisted us in the hour of great sorrow caused by the death of our loved ones, Mr. James Newbold and Percy Ramsell, in the recent disaster in our city which affected so many homes. Please accept this expression of our gratitude.”

Newbold’s Son

James Newbold Jr. — whose mother remarried in 1921 — had an active childhood in Cedar Rapids. He earned a perfect attendance award in 1930 as a fifth-grader and a penmanship award as a sixth-grader at Lincoln grade school, attended Camp Wapsie-Y in Central City for a couple of years, was in a seventh-grade cooking class at Wilson Junior High and in eighth grade became a member of Explorers Club, a literature club started in Manchester, N.H.

He graduated from McKinley High in 1937 and took a job in the offices of Penick & Ford — the new owners of the starch plant — working there until he was drafted in May 1941, a few months before the United States entered World War II. He was stationed in Ireland and Scotland before being sent to fight in North Africa.

He was on one of the first barges to land in north Africa when the American invasion began in the fall of 1942. He was promoted to sergeant.

In January 1943, he notified his mother he had been captured by the Germans in Tunisia. When the British took over the prison camp 36 hours later, he was released.

He told his mother that had he been captured earlier, he might have been on a shipload of prisoners taken out of Africa. As it was, he was waiting to board the next ship when the British troops arrived.

Sgt. James E. Newbold came home in March 1945. He received a medical discharge after serving nearly four years — 30 months of it overseas. The young Newbold, who never met his father, was 83 when he died in 2003.

Events commemorating the Douglas Starch Works explosion:



• What: Ceremony to honor those who died in May 22, 1919, explosion of Douglas Starch Works in Cedar Rapids

• When: 3 p.m. Monday

• Where: Linwood Cemetery, 520 Wilson Ave. SW, Cedar Rapids, by the monument to explosion victims; reception following at Murdoch-Linwood Funeral Home

• Remarks: Cedar Rapids Mayor Brad Hart; David Janssen and Kay Hegart, from Brucemore; spoken word artist Akwi Nji

• RSVP requested: Email volunteers@brucemore.org

Chalking our story

• What: Volunteers will chalk Cedar Rapids sidewalks in areas affected by explosion, including homes of victims

• When: Before 9 a.m. Wednesday

• To participate: Email volunteers@brucemore.org

Bell ringing

• What: Bell ringing and reading of names of those who died in explosion

• When: 6 p.m. Wednesday

• Where: Jean Oxley Public Service Center, 935 Second St. SW, Cedar Rapids

• Cost: Free

Walking tour

• What: History Center Walking Tour, led by Rob Cook, of areas affected by Douglas Starch Plant explosion

• When: Immediately following 6 p.m. bell ringing, leaving from Jean Oxley Public Service Center

• Cost: $5 History Center members, $7 non-members; pay at start of tour

Comments: (319) 398-8338; d.fannonlangton@gmail.com