One hundred years ago, one of the most important events in the history of Franklin Square took place — Kalb’s Hotel was destroyed in a devastating fire on Jan. 30, 1923.
Kalb’s Hotel, which had been built in the 1860s, was the major stop over between Hempstead and Jamaica. Farmers on their way to market in the city regularly took a break at Kalb’s — and the hotel’s bar was named “The Farmer’s Old Spot.” Kalb’s was a classic German-American inn that also boasted a dining room, several rooms for overnight guests, a dance hall, a bowling alley, a beer garden and stables.
The hotel, a social center for the entire area, was established by Anton Staatz, and by the 1880s, it was sold to August Kalb. After Kalb’s death in 1918, his wife, Catherine, sold it to Jacob Hoffman in 1920. John and Katie Fisher then managed the hotel, and it became known as Fisher’s Franklin Inn.
On Jan. 29, 1923, the winter evening began as usual in the old hotel — a group played at the two bowling alleys, others socialized and walked about. Outside, the weather was bitterly cold, about 10 degrees above zero and windy, with some snow on the ground. Before midnight, the hotel began to close down, and the Fisher family went to sleep in private quarters. Around 2 a.m. on Jan. 30, shouts that the hotel was ablaze rang out in the chill air.
Across from the hotel, in St. Catherine’s rectory, Father Conrad Lutz heard the calls for help. He quickly arose and began to ring the church bell violently. This was a danger signal, which woke up the village. It was not hard to see where the fire was — the blaze spread quickly throughout the hotel’s old and dry wooden structure.
Strong winds whipped the flames to great heights, as local people came to the hotel quickly and formed a bucket brigade. One Monroe Street resident said, “I’m going (to the hotel) with buckets if I have to.”
The locals’ efforts to save the hotel were strong, but ultimately futile. With the strong winds whipping, the whole village could have been engulfed in flames. But a change in the wind’s direction prevented this.
Across Hempstead Turnpike, near the hotel, people poured water on the Hoffman Garage roof, which saved the building, but the intense heat partially destroyed the gas pumps. Properties to the north of the hotel also suffered some damage.
By daybreak, the hotel had burned to the ground, with little remaining.
As the townspeople sifted through the ashes, they uncovered some coins melted into clumps. They had come from the five-player pianos, which had crashed spectacularly through the upper floors. Even live trees next to the hotel had become charred stumps.
The cause of the fire was never identified and was the subject of some speculation.
The fire, however, was a symbolic end of rural Franklin Square, and 1923 marked the beginning of rapid suburban growth.
The destruction of the hotel brought other changes to Franklin Square as well. A few months after the fire, a new fire company, the Franklin Square Hose and Chemical Company, was established. The organization of the Hose and Chemical Company led to the establishment of the Franklin Square Fire District in 1924 and the beginning of the Franklin Square-Munson Fire Department, as it is known today.