‘Bowser Building’ may soon be gone, but history won’t forget Bowser was a top industrialist in the early 20th century.
Barring a miracle, the faded but still grand six-story office tower and two far less impressive industrial buildings in the 1300 block of East Creighton Avenue will come down this summer, to be replaced with nothing but grass and some sort of commemorative marker.
Not much of a legacy for a man whose company first made it feasible to visit a gas station, and whose personal rags-to-riches-to-rags story is one of Fort Wayne’s most inspiring, idiosyncratic and, ultimately, sad.
Empty since the Fort Wayne Police Department moved out in 2012, the building doesn’t look like much now. But for decades it was the headquarters of the S.F. Bowser Co., which had been founded in 1885 by the man who had recently invented the world’s first self-measuring pump. That man – Sylvanus Freelove Bowser – was one of the city’s top three or four industrialists in the early 20th century, according to History Center Curator Walter Font, but with the demise of what remains of the plant the name will be relegated to a few Bowser Street signs, a granite marker in a small nearby park and a History Center display about Fort Wayne’s glorious industrial past.
And what S.F. Bowser accomplished was indeed glorious, but also tinged with eccentricities that contributed to his undoing.
Born 8 miles north of Fort Wayne in 1854, Bowser went to draw water from a well one cold morning in 1885 only to discover that frozen mist on the rope made it difficult to raise the bucket. So while on the road to Decatur he envisioned a pump that would produce a constant amount of liquid with each stroke of the handle. Although the invention turned out to be impractical for deep wells, it was perfect for measuring kerosene, oil and – with the advent of the automobile several years later – gasoline.
After fires consumed the original plant in 1894 and its supposedly fireproof replacement three years later, Bowser rebuilt again, despite the misuse of company funds by employees in 1898 that left the firm in dire financial condition. By 1923, however, sales had soared to $12 million – more than $297 million today. Much of the remaining plant was destroyed in 1997 when thousands of old tired being stored inside caught fire.
That kind of growth had convinced Bowser to build his office palace six years earlier that was so grand it ended up costing three times the original $350,000 estimate. As former History Center Executive Director Michael Hawfield noted in a 1984 News-Sentinel column, the Bowser Building boasted executive offices and a lobby finished in red mahogany, a central marble stairway and a specially designed “heavy artistic marquise” at the entrance. The ventilation system was extravagant for its day, designed to “wash the air thoroughly before entering the workrooms, and completely changed every 15 minutes.” In summer the air conditioning kept the temperature inside 15 degrees below that outside. The sixth floor was dominated by a large assembly hall.
Unless a last-minute plan to save and renovate the building materializes – unlikely, given the multimillion-dollar cost – it will all soon be reduced to rubble. Which, in a sense, is a fitting metaphore for what ultimately happened to the man who built it.
One word used to describe Bowser over and over again is “paternalistic.” As Hawfield noted, the building was “designed to extol the paternal role of the company management. It was meant to be the embodiment of the Bowser concept of ‘a business built on the idea of liberality to all – a happy institution working under conditions which make for peace.’ He also sought to instill his religious ideals on the employees. No dancing, chewing tobacco, drinking, card-playing or smoking was allowed. He sponsored evangelistic meetings on company time, (and) no female employee was allowed to wear her skirt higher than 8 inches above the floor.”
Bowser was also anti-union, and his policies backfired in the form of a long and bitter strike in 1919. The company recovered, but Bowser’s personal slide continued. More and more erratic, he was persuaded to resign as president of the empire he created and, his last years marred by family court battles over his competency, died in 1938 at the age of 84. By then, having spent much of his fortune on “trips, inventions and agitation to reorganize the church,” his multimillion-dollar fortune had dwindled to $11,000.
That’s way too much to fit on a plaque. Fortunately, history has a good memory. Despite the closure of its plant in 1961, Bowser’s place in the Fort Wayne story is secure – as it deserves to be. <br>
<i> This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at email@example.com or call him at 461-8355.</i>