The 1880's, spurred by new found growth in agriculture, cattle, and cigar manufacturing, marked the great railroad building era in the state of Florida. Statewide population grew to upwards of 270,000. In 1883, with the help of the railroad, Ocala was well on its way to becoming Florida's fifth largest town, boasting a population of 1,895 residents.
Early Thanksgiving morning 1883, the bell at the Methodist Church sounded the alarm to the citizens of Ocala to fight a fire that raged at the heart of the city. Fire had started atop the Benjamin & Company store located on the southeast corner of Main Street and Ocklawaha.
The cause of the fire was never fully determined but it was surmised that one of the two clerks sleeping over the Benjamin & Company store had left a lamp burning when they retired and it was somehow knocked over. Since the second floor of the store was full of mattresses and furniture the fire had plenty of fuel. The town's one pump, located at the square, frantically serviced by a growing bucket brigade of townsfolk, was no match for the wind-driven fire.
At the end of the day, the courthouse, five hotels, and ten principle businesses lay in ashes. The Ocala House and The Palace Hotel, once local landmarks, were gone. The Ocala Banner's special fire edition, published Dec. 1, 1883, and printed in Palatka, because its own press was destroyed, stated, "Beautiful Ocala is no more. The fell destroyer has laid to rest, in all probability for the next ten years to come. Sad indeed do we chronicle the destruction of our town - the pride of our life and the home of our companion, friends and happiness. Is this a dream? No dear readers, but a reality."
Almost immediately, a local ordinance was established to sell Fire Bonds used to organize a fire department and purchase firefighting equipment. The town's water supply system was also improved to include two rain-catching cisterns. Reconstruction of the fire-ravaged area began at once — this time, stone and brick and iron building materials replaced lumber.
Ocala began to take on a new look, it was different from every other Florida town. It is easy to understand that, from the perspective of someone passing through during those horse-and-buggy days, Ocala soon became known statewide as the "Brick City".
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