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Remembering the 1905 cereal plant fire in Cedar Rapids

People walk past the wreckage of the American Cereal Plant in Cedar Rapids after the March 7, 1905, explosion and fire.
People walk past the wreckage of the American Cereal Plant in Cedar Rapids after the March 7, 1905, explosion and fire. The plant, the largest cereal plant in the world, was rebuilt and eventually renamed Quaker Oats. It still is the largest cereal plant in the world. (The History Center)

On March 7, 1905, the largest cereal mill in the world exploded and caught fire, causing $1.5 million in damage to the American Cereal Co. plant in Cedar Rapids.

George Wordon was in the hull grinding room at 7:30 p.m., when the explosion — attributed to spontaneous combustion — threw him 20 feet across the room. He escaped the fire that followed, but two others died — Joseph Skvor, who was walking by the plant when hit by a flying brick, and F.J. Lawrence, first reported missing and later assumed dead.

At the time, Cedar Rapids did not have a modern fire engine, and the fire threatened the downtown business district. Surrounding cities sent firemen and equipment, pouring water on surrounding buildings for hours. Even the neighboring lumberyards survived.

The American Cereal Co. had been part of Quaker Oats since 1901, when four oat mills merged. Within two weeks of the fire, owners were rebuilding the mill, pledging to stay in Cedar Rapids and rebuild bigger and better than before.

The Quaker Oats plant today, with 20 buildings on 15 acres, remains the world’s largest cereal plant.

Tara Templeman is curator at The History Center.

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