PORTAGE PATHWAYS: Hahn's blaze destroyed a Kent landmark 40 years ago

By Roger J. Di Paolo | Record-Courier Editor Published:

The flames that tore through Hahn's Fine Foods in downtown Kent destroyed much more than a bakery and restaurant.

The South Water Street business that Roscoe Hahn opened in 1924 had a reputation for beautifully decorated cakes and other baked goods, but it also was a gathering place for breakfast, lunch and coffee breaks. And, for many Kent residents, a trip to Hahn's became a familiar Sunday morning routine as they picked up sweets after church.

The family-owned business also was a close-knit one, with many employees working alongside members of the Hahn family for decades. "We were kind of like a family," Hahn's daughter, Kathryn "Kay" Burgess, recalled.

And, in the wake of the blaze that destroyed Hahn's on Sunday, Sept. 16, 1973, that family attitude helped the bakery to reopen shortly afterward at a location next door to its original site at 116 S. Water St., where the fire occurred.

Mrs. Burgess' 14-year-old son, Mike, a ninth-grader at Davey Junior High School, discovered the blaze during the early morning hours. A grandson of Roscoe Hahn, he was learning the family business and was in the bakery because the night baker was unable to work.

Mike Burgess noticed smoke coming from the basement door of the bakery. Unable to get out of the rear exit on Franklin Avenue, he ran to the front of the business and telephoned his parents; the line went dead as he attempted to summon firefighters. He broke a window and jumped to safety, unharmed.

The fire, whose origin was undetermined, raced from the basement into the bakery and restaurant area. Flames and smoke shot several hundred feet in the air as spectators watched.

Firefighters arrived shortly before 3 a.m. and battled the blaze for four hours until it was under control. They remained there for most of the day, keeping hot spots in check. Two Kent firefighters, Don Ashton and Ed Clark, were injured when the front windows of the business blew out.

Hahn's was a total loss, with damages estimated at about $150,000 -- the equivalent of more than $750,000 today.

The fire was the second major blaze in downtown Kent in a little more than a year. The landmark retail block at Main and Water streets had burned on Aug. 27, 1972, in the biggest blaze in the downtown area's history.

Roscoe Hahn was a Palmyra native who learned the bakery trade as an apprentice in Ravenna when he was 14 years old. He opened his own business on April 1, 1924, after purchasing Black's Bakery on South Water Street in Kent. He remodeled the location in 1933, enlarging it to carry Isaly's dairy and ice cream products.

A restaurant was added and Hahn's eventually stocked a line of specialty foods, including a gourmet section added in the 1960s that included novelties such as chocolate-covered ants and grasshoppers as well as less exotic fare and gift items.

Roscoe Hahn's three children learned the business at an early age, Mrs. Burgess recalled. "When we reached 12 years old, our allowance was cut off and we went to work, frosting cupcakes and doing other jobs at the bakery."

Following Roscoe Hahn's death in 1962, his son, Kenneth, took over the business. At the time of fire, Hahn's employed 37 workers and supplied baked goods for the Captain Brady Restaurant at Main and Lincoln streets, which Kenneth Hahn owned.

Kenneth Hahn told the Record-Courier that he would relocate his business and that there was "a real possibility" of rebuilding at the site where his father had opened shop nearly 50 years earlier.

"The ovens and mixers had settled into the basement," Mrs. Burgess recalled, "and he had a crane there to lift them out."

Employees pitched in to clean up equipment and salvage what could be saved. A location on College Avenue was turned into a bakery, and Hahn's remained in business.

The bakery permanently relocated next door to its South Water Street site. Although Kenneth Hahn hoped to rebuild at the original location, that wasn't possible because of a zoning issue, Mrs. Burgess recalled. That made it impossible to reopen the restaurant.

Hahn's remained a fixture on South Water Street for 60 years until it closed in 1984. Its original location remained vacant for decades, overgrown by trees, until it eventually was acquired by Zephyr Pub, where it now is a popular outdoor venue for bar patrons 40 years after a teenaged baker noticed smoke coming from the basement.

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