CEDAR RAPIDS — One hundred years ago, just after the night shift started at the Douglas Starch Works plant on the banks of the Cedar River, a small fire ignited cornstarch inside the factory.
“It caused an explosion that resonated throughout Cedar Rapids,” said Melissa Porter, museum program manager at Brucemore.
It was May 22, 1919, and across town, glass windows were blown out and homes and buildings rocked. At the factory located on First Street SW, just off C Street SW, walls collapsed and smoke billowed. Forty-three workers died, and 30 others were injured. Across the river from the plant, a young child was thrown from a couch and died as the explosion rocked the city.
It was just six months after World War I’s end, and some were convinced the city was under German attack.
The plant, which would later be sold and become Penford and is now known as Ingredion, was started by brothers George and Walter Douglas. George Douglas was the second owner of Brucemore mansion, now a museum.
Brucemore staff are planning activities to mark the 100-year anniversary of the explosion, including a community conversation Monday and a wreath-laying ceremony May 22 at Linwood Cemetery.
The community conversation will include panelists from the African American Museum of Iowa, the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library and the University of Iowa Labor Center, who will discuss ideas about race, labor and immigration related to Cedar Rapids’ history and Douglas Starch Works.
“These events didn’t occur in an isolated environment,” Porter said. “It happened at the plant, but it really impacted people across Cedar Rapids.”
In the 1970s, the Labor Center had collected oral histories of local workers, including people who had worked at the plant and remembered the explosion. The explosion took place during the Great Migration — when African American families were moving to Iowa and other northern states from the South in search of work. Some found jobs in Cedar Rapids. Other plant employees included Bohemian and other immigrants.
Walter Douglas died on the Titanic in 1912, but his brother still owned the company when the explosion hit. The plant employed 650 to 700 people in 1919 and was a major employer for the city.
When the explosion hit, George Douglas and his wife, Irene, were at dinner. He rushed to the scene, while she went home and started preparing the Brucemore mansion to be used as a hospital in case the casualties overwhelmed local hospitals. Thankfully, that was not the case, though it would be a long time before recovery efforts were complete. More than 200 homes were damaged, and the Cedar Rapids Chamber of Commerce established two committees to aid rebuilding efforts and support families who lost loved ones. In the immediate aftermath of the explosion, people poured into town to help with rescue efforts.
“Restaurants ran out of food in the days following the explosion, because so many people came to help,” Porter said. “The story itself is so relevant and relatable. It’s a story about people, a story about our community, and it’s a story about resiliency and the ability to rebuild.”
To commemorate those who died, the museum will host a wreath laying at a monument to the victims in Linwood Cemetery.
The ceremony will feature thoughts by Cedar Rapids Mayor Brad Hart, Brucemore Executive Director David Janssen, Brucemore Board of Trustees President Kay Hegart and spoken word artist Akwi Nji. Murdoch Funeral Homes will host a reception following the ceremony.
Museum staff also are coordinating a public chalking project for May 22. Volunteers and staff will mark locations around Cedar Rapids that were effected by the explosion, including the places where victims lived.
“We wanted to do something that could explore the impacts across the city,” Porter said. “We have the opportunity to place this history in our modern world.”
University of Iowa history and American studies associate professor Stephen Warren has had some of his introductory history students researching those stories, looking into the lives of those killed or injured in the explosion.
“Another perilous story is what happened to the women who survived,” Warren said. “Only 20 percent of Cedar Rapids women worked in 1919 outside the home. Most of the survivors were dependent on male breadwinners. Their lives were really difficult as a result.”
He said the disaster tells a story about the impacts of industrialization on society in Iowa and the country.
“In 1919, Cedar Rapids was very much a working class city and income inequality was just as big a deal as it is today. There were lots of really important questions that emerged as a result of this event, such as that Iowa needed to improve workplace and fire safety laws and protocols. For the most part, these factories were really loosely regulated at that time,” he said.
Students will produce podcasts to tell stories from their research, which will, hopefully, be released in May. They also are planning to display an exhibit at the Cedar Rapids Public Library and present their research at Brucemore’s Visitor Center on May 4.
“It kind of tells the story of laissez faire capitalism and some of the perils of that. Even if they had survived, those workers probably still would have suffered early death from inhaling the dust related to the creation of starch. Their lives were really difficult,” Warren said. “I think it’s really important to think about Iowa’s labor history.”
• When: 6 p.m. Monday
• Where: Cedar Rapids Public Library, 450 Fifth Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids
Student presentations on history research
• When: 10 a.m. May 4
• Where: Brucemore Visitor Center, 2160 Linden Dr. SE, Cedar Rapids
Wreath laying ceremony
• When: 3 p.m. May 20
• Where: Linwood Cemetery, 520 Wilson Ave. SW, Cedar Rapids
• RSVP requested: email email@example.com. People who want to be involved in the chalk project also can email here.
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