These are the subtitles of the different sections of this article:
A Brief History of Hillsdale Firefighting
Important Events in the History of Hillsdale’s Fire Departments
Rescuing the Seagrave
Stories from the Fire House (Tom Bates, Larry Eichler, Tony Fowler, Tom Spratt)
The Fire Station (pictures)
A Brief History of Hillsdale Firefighting
Probably for the country's bicentennial someone wrote a history and compiled a timeline of major events in the history of fire fighting in Hillsdale. Below are abbreviated (and revised) recreations of those documents. I apologize for not knowing the name(s) of the author(s). JoAnne P. Miller
Fire was an ever-present threat in the days before a formal fire department was organized. With heating by open fires and little more than a bucket brigade of neighbors to respond to a fire, many buildings burned to the ground. In 1847 an application was made to the Hillsdale village authorities from several citizens asking to organize a fire department. It was a heady time as the Neptune Fire Engine Company, No. 1 came into being with the drafting of an elaborate constitution and by-laws in which duties of members, fines imposed and a uniform took precedence over any actual plan to fight fires. The uniform actually may have been the greatest impetus toward developing a fire department. It was truly magnificent. A scarlet flannel hunting shirt with broad collar, full bosom, falling to the knees, with a pocket in each side was deemed necessary. There was a black leather belt attached to the back of the shirt, with a large buckle in front and on the back was painted in white letters, “Neptune Fire Company, No. 1. A cap matching the uniform added the final flair.
The only problem for the Neptune Fire Engine Company, No. 1 was that no money had been appropriated for a steam engine. That left Plan B: a Bucket Company. Despite the emphasis on appearance and the lack of special equipment, the organization actually proved to be more efficient at fighting fires than the usual ragtag citizen response.
In 1857 the department was reorganized into two companies, the Eagle Fire Company, No. 1 and the Baw Beese Engine Company, No. 2. That same year Charles T. Mitchell presided over a meeting that organized the Hillsdale Hook and Ladder Company. In echoes of the 1847 effort to establish a fire department, the 1857 group spent a huge amount of time drafting a complete set of by-laws, while the more important work of procuring trucks to transport their ladders and hoses was not accomplished. The fire companies, however, eventually purchased suitable engines and emerged as efficient working forces.
As Hillsdale County firefighting advanced beyond the bucket brigade, horses pulled a fire engine equipped with a tank that held water. The engine arrived at the scene of a fire and hoses were dipped into a reservoir, which were cisterns placed strategically around the village to collect rain water. Two men manually pumped the engine to draw water from the reservoir into the engine, while other hoses were attached to the engine to direct the water toward the fire. This obviously was more efficient than using buckets, but burning embers thrown up by the force of the water stream often fell back on the firemen. This led to the development of the earliest "turn-out gear:" rubber coats, pants, boots and a helmet with an extended bill in the back to protect the fireman's neck.
The firemen, romantic heroes to boys (and probably also to more than a few grown up boys) honed their skills in frequent local and state contests designed to test their ability. One of the events required the men to run eighty rods (about 5 1/2 yards), lay 400 feet of hose, attach it to the engine and pump water through it into an imaginary blaze, all within a given amount of time. The Baw Beese Engine Company proudly held the state championship for awhile.
The Eagle Hose Company was reorganized in 1871, with its name changed to the Union Hose Company, No. 1. By 1876 the possibility of buying a steam fire engine was vigorously discussed. Dr. Arvin F. Whelan was instrumental in the ultimate decision and purchase of an engine made by Clapp & Jones of Toledo. One of the old engines was given in exchange, along with two bonds of $1,000 each at 8% interest. The existing fire companies were disbanded and fire fighting in Hillsdale took a step forward. The management of the steamer was entrusted to a salaried engineer, aided by two assistants.
The reservoirs that were established around the city, including sites on Howell and Manning streets, sometimes ran dry and other fire departments needed to be summoned for assistance. This happened when John P. Cook’s hardware in the Union Block caught fire that spread quickly, necessitating calls to the Adrian and Coldwater fire companies, which arrived by train. This fire and the disastrous Hillsdale College fire led the Hillsdale City Council to seriously discuss the purchase of a steam fire engine, which was a pumper fueled by steam.
On Aug. 18, 1879, fire broke out at the E.C. Campbell and Co. planing mill, and all the skill of the fire department was called upon to fight it. The newspaper reported, “The steamer was promptly set at the reservoir near the engine house on McCollum Street and a line of hose quickly laid to the fire.” In a fateful accident that determined the final destruction by the fire, the hose broke in two places, allowing the fire, carried by the wind, to sweep through seven houses on Ferris Street. Fearing that the entire east side of Broad Street would be consumed by fire, the Hillsdale fire department telegraphed to Jonesville, Osseo, Adrian and Coldwater to send their fire fighters and equipment. Jonesville arrived first, at 11 p.m., with more hose. They traveled the five miles on the poor roads in existence at the time “in the incredibly short space of twenty minutes,” the fastest time on record. “Two splendid steamers” arrived at midnight on the train. Adrian traveled the 32 miles to Hillsdale in 47 minutes, and it took Coldwater 27 minutes to travel 23 miles. Unfortunately, two pikemen were severely burned about their faces and hands while fighting the fire.
After fires the losses were reported in detail, as well as whether the owner had insurance. Because the general public knew that insurance wasn’t widespread and that therefore goods lost in a fire were lost for good, people would willingly run into burning buildings to help remove items. The aftermath of a fire would be the smoking ruins and a pile of stuff in the street. More than once the local newspaper issued a polite request to return any stray goods from a fire that accidentally ended up in someone else’s home.
The vision of horses, manes streaming behind them, pulling a fire engine along the road with Dalmatians keeping away dogs that might otherwise try to bite the horses gradually faded, along with the valiant citizens passing buckets from hand to hand to throw on the flames. From the late 1800s fire hydrants made their appearance in different villages. Hook and ladder fire engines joined the fleet to reach upper stories. Firefighting may be more advanced technically today, but the courage and skill of those who choose to protect others remain the same.
Important Events in the History of Hillsdale’s Fire Departments
1847 - The Neptune Fire Engine Company, No. 1 was organized, but as no money was available for an engine they became a “Bucket Company.”
June 30, 1857 - Hillsdale organized “The Baw Beese Fire Company,” which was composed of two engine companies and one Hook and Ladder Company.
Aug. 7, 1858 - The Hillsdale Mill caught fire. All that was saved were the valuable water wheel and machinery in the engine room. The large building, with a stone house connected, and 1.2000 bushels of wheat were destroyed.
1868 - At the Waldron House, a three-story rooming house, the perfect conditions led to superheated air creating gases after all oxygen was consumed. A kerosene lamp exploded, precipitating other lamps to explode also. Within five minutes flames shot through the ceiling. Boarders escaped via ladders, but lost all their belongings.
1874 - The first paid fire department was organized.
Mar. 6, 1874 - A disastrous fire at Hillsdale College burned all but the east portion of the single building that made up the college.
Mar. 13, 1877 - The jail on Courthouse Square caught fire and burned nearly to the ground. One prisoner escaped.
Aug. 21, 1879 - In the Waldron Block fire destroyed the post office, insurance and law offices and the offices of two justices and the city clerk. Lost in the fire were all the records of the Union School, the records of about 400 soldiers from 1862 forward upon which their pensions were based and the records of expenses of the poor from 1845 forward. The newspaper reported the “The boys were liberally supplied with hot coffee of the most delicious flavor. For staying qualities and cool-headedness, Hillsdale firemen lead the van.”
Mar. 15, 1887 - The old Courthouse bell was taken down and a new one installed.
Feb. 10, 1891 - Buchanan’s Screen Door Factory burned.
Dec. 2, 1903 - The Hillsdale Screen Door Factory burned, with the charred bones of Joe Cawley, the night watchman, found in the ashes. He had been murdered for his money and a gold watch.
Mar. 7, 1905 - The main building and living apartments of the County Farm and Poor House on Cambria Road burned, with two lives lost.
Feb. 25, 1910 - Knowlton Hall, one of Hillsdale College’s buildings, burned.
Mar. 2, 1910 - Two barns at the County Farm and Poor House in Cambria were struck by lightening and burned.
May 9, 1913 - Fire destroyed most of the Wagon Works Plant.
Mar. 29, 1914 - Pankhurst’s Livery Stable (on Broad Street between North and McCullum streets) was entirely destroyed, with several horses killed.
Oct. 20, 2014 - The Hillsdale Screen Company, perhaps spooked by so many serious fires, installed a sprinkling system costing $7,000.
April 10, 1915 - The “Pie House,” located near the Hillsdale Railroad Depot, was partially destroyed by fire.
June 15, 1913 - The Corlett Lumber Yard, Ellis and Chapel, Aldrich Company and Globensky lost property on Railroad Street (now Carleton Road) valued at about $50,000, one of the worst fires in Hillsdale history. It was believed that the fire was started by tramps smoking in the area.
Mar. 10, 1914 - A serious fire beginning in the Yarick Print Shop in the Waldron Block (a.k.a. Flat Iron Block, Bank Block, Wedge) spread to other business, with a total loss of over $10,000.
Sept. 15, 1915 - The school on Courthouse Square was made fire proof (who knows how).
Dec. 30, 1919 - The new Republic fire engine was tested in its first fire.
Jan. 26, 1920 - The Waldron Block was gutted by fire, with a loss of $7,000.
April 3, 1920 - The old cattle sheds at the Hillsdale County Fairgrounds burned.
May 17, 1920 - A small fire in the attic of the Keefer House was discovered by a chambermaid. It was quickly put out by the fire department. The manager, Lyle Creel, showed his gratitude with a check for $100 to the fire department as well as inviting them all to dinner.
May 11, 1924 - A Fire Ordinance passed, forbidding vehicles to follow fire trucks closer than 500 feet or to approach nearer than 300 feet to any fire.
Dec. 18, 1925 - A new fire siren was installed at the fire hall, replacing the old fire bell.
Mar. 6, 1925 - “Spotter,” the cat mascot of the fire department for four years, was killed by a truck on its way to a fire.
May 18, 1931 - The Hillsdale Fire Department moved to City Hall and a 1931 Seagrave 750 gpm (gallons per minute) pumper was purchased.
Mar 3, 1941 - A 1941 Seagrave 500 gpm. ladder truck was purchased.
1957 - An American LaFrance 1,000 gpm. pumper was purchased for $20,000.
June 20, 1960 - A fire at Worthing Hall, Hillsdale College, broke out. Ray Lint later died of injuries suffered in this fire.
Dec. 29, 1961 - The 4-H Building at the Hillsdale County Fairgrounds burned to the ground.
June 9, 1963 - A fire at the Hillsdale Market House caused a $94,562.66 loss.
Nov. 1, 1966 - A 100-foot American LaFrance Aerial Ladder truck with a 1,000 amp. water pump purchased.
May 8, 1974 - An electrical short caused a fire at the D.C.A. (formerly Stock’s Mill) with a loss of $20,000.
July 30, 1974 - Arson was suspected in a $100,000 loss fire at the Bob Evans Farms Plant.
Sept. 24-25, 1974 - Arson was again suspected at Bob Evans Farms, with a loss of $160,000.
Mar. 1975 - A 1500 gpm pumper ordered from American LaFrance Company at a cost of $86,000 to be delivered in January 1977.
April 9-10, 1975 - Fire at the Sierra- Permaneer Plant on Superior Street was caused by an electrical arc from a power cord on the sump pump motor to a paint spray booth, with a loss of $1.12 million. Hillsdale Rural, Jonesville and Hudson fire departments assisted.
Feb. 25, 1976 - Fire at the Sanderson Hotel (next to the Elks Lodge on Manning Street) was caused by radiated heat from the fireplace clean-out pit door, which jumped to a dresser stored too close to it, with a loss of $150,000.
April 30, 1976 - The old fire bell was taken down from the courthouse tower and placed at the fire station. The Hillsdale Exchange Club and the fire department restored it, with the Exchange Club paying the fee of $180,000 for its removal.
June 13, 1976 - The 1931 Seagrave was restored and placed into service, mainly in a ceremonial role in county parades.
May 27, 1976 - The fire bell was placed in its present location.
June 30, 1976 - A stone marker and shrubs were set in place at “Old Fire Bell,” with a marker reading “Fire Bell Dedicated to all past and present City of Hillsdale Firefighters 4 July, 1976.” A formal dedication saw over 200 people ring the bell to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the United States of America.
Sept. 25, 1976 - Hillsdale won the first prize trophy at Greenfield Village for the Best Original Antique Fire Apparatus with the 1931 Seagrave pumper.
Rescuing the Seagrave
The 1931 Seagrave pumper was a state-of-the-art fire vehicle when the Hillsdale City Fire Department purchased it for $2,000. Barely beyond of the horse-drawn fire wagon age, it was the second mechanized fire engine to join the department, newly housed in the lower floor of City Hall. For her first thirty years of service she reliably fought fires covering the full range of size and challenge.
Then other more modern and effective fire engines were acquired by the department, and the old girl was just taking up space needed for them. The 1931 Seagrave was exiled to the public works garage where it sat, collecting dust and debris.
In 1965 a $100,000 bond to build a new fire station passed. The move to a roomier facility meant that the 1931 Seagrave could once again be stored with the other fire engines. After being promoted to Fire Chief in 1974, Larry Eichler convinced the city administration to allow him to begin the process of restoring the fire engine. Although the paint, chrome and brass were intact, the truck did not run. A quest equivalent to finding several Holy Grails ensued.
Seagrave Fire Apparatus LLC is the longest running fire apparatus manufacturer in America, specializing in pumper and rescue units, as well as aerial towers. Known as FWD, it was founded by Fredric Seagrave in Detroit, Mich. in 1881. The company moved to Columbus, Ohio in 1891 and remained there until 1963, when all operations were moved to Clintonville, Wisc. It’s an old and respected company … and they didn’t always make their own engines. This, added to the age of the 1931 Seagrave, made finding replacement parts a major challenge.
With the engine torn down Larry EIchler saw that the crankshaft had to be re-ground. He found a man in the Detroit area who came to Hillsdale to work on it. (Chatting as they worked, Larry learned that this man’s grand-parents were George and Abby Slayton, who gave the land for the Arboretum to the college. Small world.) After grinding measurements were taken, Larry took the piston rods to Jones Rod service in Pontiac to have lead babbit bearings custom made. The next job was to find a new head gasket. Beginning his search by calling the Seagrave company in Wisconsin, he was told they had none that would fit the 1931 Seagrave. However, calling Seagrave again to see if they had a magneto shaft he spoke to another man. After being told that the company didn’t have a replacement shaft, Larry mentioned his disappointment that he hadn’t been able to get a head gasket from them either. The Seagrave employee said, “Well, I’m looking at one right now that will fit your pumper. I’ll send it along.” That left only the magneto shaft to replace. It was an easier task since Cambria Tool in Hillsdale was able to make one for the Seagrave.
While the engine was moving closer to running shape, the fire department personnel carefully restored the chrome and brass to its original luster. Finally, the truck was polished, taking care not to damage the hand-painted murals and gold leaf that enhanced the beauty of the truck.
Larry was given permission to take the Seagrave to Greenfield Village to enter it in competition. But there was still a hitch. One of the events required the truck to be able to draft water, pump it through fifty feet of two and a half inch fire hose and then knock over a target. Unfortunately, the Seagrave’s fire pump couldn’t draw a draft. Larry, knowing that the Detroit fire department used all Seagrave apparatus, contacted them. The Apparatus Chief generously donated the drafting clutch that the pump needed. In the competition, the Hillsdale City Fire Department crew and 1931 Seagrave pumper were able to complete the draft-and-shoot event in the unheard of time of eleven seconds. Current pumpers are hard pressed to be able to draft in less than a minute. The old girl was back!
At Greenfield Village in 1976, Hillsdale’s 1931 Seagrave pumper won the first prize trophy for the Best Original Antique Fire Apparatus. After returning to Hillsdale hundreds of school children came to the station during Fire Prevention Week Open Houses to see her and hear stories of her life as a fire engine. Through the years hundreds of people delighted in seeing this relic of the past in parades, awed by her hand-painted pictures and trim.
But this story doesn’t end happily ever after. Although she was valued for her role in the history of fire fighting in Hillsdale, the other fire engines were the workers and, of necessity, received the care they needed. The Seagrave spent the next twenty years mostly in a far corner of the fire station, where her engine gradually gave up the ghost. Part-time fire fighter Ed Minihan, who joined the Hillsdale City Fire Department in 1950, was named to head a 1931 Seagrave fire truck restoration committee. Ed praised her for her years of service as the only pumper until 1957, her ability to pump up to 1,000 gallons per minute when she was designed to pump only 750 per minute and her hard work going to all the fires in town without breaking down. The fundraising effort became a personal goal for volunteer firefighter Greg Elliot. His dad had been a firefighter at the department also, and Greg joined after high school. As he neared the end of his life as the result of a brain tumor, Greg asked that memorials be made to a fund he started to help restore the engine. Mechanic and volunteer firefighter Sgt. Bill Benson spent his free time working on the Seagrave. “Despite its heavy workload and age,” Bill said, “it remains in surprisingly good shape.”
As the years passed, once again more space was needed at the fire station for the working fire engines. The Seagrave found herself still loved by the school children who came to see her, but in the end she was just in the way. Assistant Fire Chief Kevin Paukin decided to search for museums that would display her. She went to the Michigan Firehouse Museum in Ypsilanti, Mich. in 2009.
Fast forward to 2016. Once again taking up space, the Seagrave was sold to a private collector of old fire engines. He carefully and faithfully worked to return her to running order. This entailed having specially ground parts manufactured to replace non-functioning parts that weren’t made anymore. The collector, too, found he had inadequate space to store the Seagrave. When he made the working fire engine available, the Hillsdale County Historical Society took advantage of the renovation. With the generous support of many in the community, as well as those who no longer lived in the county but still felt connected, the 1931 Seagrave came home to Hillsdale.
The drive to purchase of the 1931 Seagrave fire engine caught the attention of a local family who offered to partly fund a new, weather-tight and temperature-controlled barn for her storage. Preliminary plans include a building large enough to also house additional antique vehicles owned by the HCHS, including the Deal buggy from Jonesville. With the Will Carleton Poorhouse, the General Store (formerly the hen house) and the new, more usable, barn Hillsdale County citizens will have an expanded look into its past.
Stories from the Fire House
In 1922 Wilbur P. Bates opened the Bates Oil Company on the corner of Howell and Sharp streets. His son, O.H., followed him in the family business that would span three generations and extend to four or five gas stations around Hillsdale County. Wilbur’s grandson, Tom, was the last of the Bates men to work at the station, with an interruption during World War II when he joined the Navy and was attached to the Marines as a corpsman, fighting in the Pacific.
Tom began working at the three-pump station when he was a teenager and worked there for over 20 years. The Bates Oil Company was sold in 1969. Tom had other jobs, including positions at the post offices in Hillsdale and Jackson, as a corrections officer at Jackson Prison, at the employment office helping others find jobs and then back to Jackson Prison again before he retired.
Gas stations served an important purpose beyond keeping cars gassed, oiled and running properly. Just as women gathered in each other’s kitchens to chat and gossip, the gas station provided a place for the guys to shoot their masculine bull. Some of the men who gathered at the Bates Oil Company were volunteer firemen. They were fun guys, and Tom was convinced to join the fire department as a volunteer in 1953 when Yank Robison was the chief. The monthly meetings were sacred, with men assuring that their work schedules wouldn’t interfere with them … or the after-meeting activities (which remain a mystery to all but those involved!). The volunteers received $300 a year, but the chance to save someone’s home or livelihood, as well as the camaraderie of their group, made up for the low pay. Interestingly, the chief wasn’t a full-time employee. That designation belonged to the four drivers, two of whom were always on duty at the fire station. In the 1960s a change was made, and one of the full-time drivers was named the chief. As happens today, the volunteers kept their turn-out gear with them at home so they could arrive at the fire prepared to go into action. The 1931 Seagrave fire engine was equipped with fireman’s helmets, which Tom Bates swapped for the construction helmet he wore to the fire. The volunteers were notified of a fire by hearing the fire whistle blow and a personal call on their home phones told them where the fire was located. This rather slow process was replaced when each volunteer fireman was given a walkie-talkie radio.
During Tom’s time Harry Payne was the chief and there were 10-15 volunteers. Harry, George Whitson, Gabby Gaberdiel and Delbert Ellis (who was Larry Eichler’s father-in-law) were the full-time firemen, working as drivers two at a time. Max Hoover was the substitute driver.
Tom stayed with the Hillsdale Fire Department until the 1960s. When he realized that it was possible for the Seagrave fire engine to be purchased and returned to Hillsdale County he became a major donor. His personal history with this truck made that decision an easy one.
Larry began his firefighting career as a volunteer and ended as Chief. The latter designation began in the spring of 1974 and ended in December of 1995. He had an Assistant Fire Chief (George Whitson), and an additional five full-time engineers (who drove and operated the trucks), as well as numerous volunteers he had trained. During Larry’s career fighting minor fires to major blazes, he may be unique in having three fires occur within a block of his home during his time as Chief.
One was at Sierra-Permaneer on Superior Street, which produced pressed wood furniture. A maintenance worker was using a sump pump to clean a spray painting booth. Seeking perhaps to save himself from having to stoop, he pulled the power cord, pulling it loose from the pump. This resulted in an electrical arc causing the fire that quickly got into the concealed area between the ceiling and the roof. The presence of approximately 400 55-gallon drums of lacquer paint and lacquer thinner created an immediate urgency, but an instant, vigorous fire was inevitable. Old wood at the front of the building, including the barrel ceiling, had been permeated with oil mist from years of production. It, too, provided excellent fuel. The fire ate its way to the back of the building where the flammable wood construction changed to cinder block. There, the firemen were finally able to extinguish the blaze.
This happened on a Wednesday night, a “fire meeting night” when the firefighters all gathered at the station. That week Red Loose, Assistant Fire Chief of the Coldwater department, was conducting training. When the fire alarm was sounded the Hillsdale department, accompanied by Loose, rushed to Permaneer. Larry Eichler, a firefighter for many years but Chief for less than a one, was grateful Red Loose was present. Larry competently assumed direction of the fire fighting campaign, but to this day he remains grateful that Loose was present. That backup gave Larry the confidence to know that, if necessary, he had expert assistance in decision-making for this major fire.
What ended up being a $1.12 million loss for Permaneer required calling in additional fire departments. This concept is called “mutual aid” and provides additional firefighters and equipment when a fire exceeds the capacity of a single department to fight it. The Hillsdale Rural, Jonesville and Hudson departments were called to help the Hillsdale department at Permaneer. This meant that other fire departments needed to act as back-ups for them in case a fire broke out in their jurisdictions. It sounds like a complicated chain, but all fire departments have procedures in place so that the response to requests for mutual aid leave continued fire protection for all areas.
The Hillsdale City Fire Department also provides mutual aid for other departments. A fire in downtown Adrian threatened enough of the businesses that other departments were called in. Additional aerial support was needed, and Hillsdale responded with a ladder truck. The Adrian Fire Chief assigned specific areas of the blaze to the responding departments. The chief of each responding department determined how to fight the blaze and then reported for another assignment when his area was safe. In that horrendous fire, Hillsdale succeeded in extinguishing a greater area than the host department … but at a serious price.
When enlisting mutual aid the host department replaces the fuel used by the assisting departments while the cost to repair any damage to equipment or vehicles is borne by the visiting department. Hillsdale’s aerial ladder truck had a bed section and three “fly” sections, with a total extended length of 100 feet. Moved by hydraulic cables, their tremendous weight is eased by “babbits,” a strong, extremely smooth lead surface. Unbeknownst to the Hillsdale firefighters, a roofing nail somehow found its way into one of the babbits of their aerial ladder. As the fly sections were moved, it relentlessly tore up the hard surface of a babbit and caused $22,000 in damage.
Ah, the cost of being a good neighbor!
Two fires close both to Larry’s home and to his initiation as Fire Chief were at Bob Evans Farms. The first occurred while he was eating supper with his wife, Diane. Larry responded to notification of the fire at the plant by sprinting across his back lawn to direct the fire fighting operation that centered in the warehouse area. Bob Evans was able to rebuild after the suspicious fire that caused $100,000 in damage and returned to production just in time for a second fire in September that caused $160,000 in damage. This fire, following so closely on the heels of the first, reinforced the concern that both had been products of arson. The State Fire Marshal was called in from Lansing. His report of his findings was as suspicious as the two fires: the blaze was “accidental.” In a report with convoluted reasoning (and very little basis in probability), the Marshall concluded that plastic wrapping used to encase packages of Bob Evans sausage was stored too near a steam pipe. The plastic fell over on the steam pipe and caused the fire. It was an unlikely scenario and one that bothered both Chief Eichler and Dan Evans, son of Bob Evans, who flew to Hillsdale from his home in Ohio as soon as he was notified of the fire.
In 1984 two fires dealt a serious blow to the downtown area of Hillsdale. In March of that year the former Smith Hotel, which once boasted the best billiards room in town, sustained such intense damage that the third floor had to be removed. Marsh and Diane Miller, the owners, had replaced the J.C. Penney store with their own hardware. The State Fire Marshall and insurance adjuster agreed that the fire probably started in the rear storage area near the back entrance where the Millers’ son was working on his motorcycle. A short circuit under the gas tank ignited flammable materials, and the blaze was soon out of control.
Checker Records, owned by John Spiteri, was located in a store located behind the Miller Building. Quickly notified of the fire, John was able to remove most of his vinyl records. The city wasn’t so lucky with Christmas lights and garlands that were stored on the third floor. Carefully laid in rows after the Christmas season to keep them untangled for the next year, they created a tripping hazard for the firefighters working there.
A collapse of the rear portion of the building necessitated the use of a crane to remove fire debris to enable a determination of cause and origin of the fire. Due to the extensive damage, the third floor was removed.
The Miller building reopened with offices for rent. The silver lining to this fire was that Diane Miller created a lovely two-story enclosed garden in the back. Narrow openings on Bacon Street allowed passers-by to see the extravagant display of wisteria blooms in the late spring, while renters and patrons of the coffee shop occupying part of the ground floor had access to the natural setting.
In 1982 Bill and Jane Nash purchased Hennesy’s Drug Store and restored it to its turn-of-the-century elegance. In August of 1984 their labor of love was destroyed, with “not one thing salvageable” according to Bill. The raw fuel for this fire was a pile of boxes, tossed out the back door after being emptied of stock. Entering the Palace Cafe for a 3 p.m. coffee break with some of the part-paid firefighters, Larry Eichler saw this hazard and expressed his concern to Bill Nash. In what may have been a feeling that it could be taken care of the next day, no one got around to removing the boxes.
Unfortunately, under the boxes was a gas meter. In the middle of the night two young boys searching for mischief to make found what they were looking for behind Nash Drugs. Once the fire ignited the boxes, the plastic piping on the gas meter melted, and gas under pressure sprayed toward the building. Intense heat kept firefighters from getting close. The fire spread as the gas company, summoned to turn off the gas at the street, couldn’t find the shut off for the underground piping. By the time it was located on McCollum Street, candles stored in the basement of Nash Drugs had created another hard-to-extinguish fire. The melted wax floated on the layer of water from the fire hoses, acting as a wick for the fire. It was a challenge to put out the fire on the water.
Bill and Jane Nash, watching their dream being destroyed by fire, smoke and water damage, were joined by others drawn to the conflagration, including the arsonists. Exhibiting unbelievable arrogance, one of them asked Jane if he could borrow a quarter to call home from the public phone on the southwest corner of Courthouse Square.
But the destruction of their building didn’t defeat the Nashes. Within three months they had rebuilt and reopened their drug store.
Most young boys are thrilled by the spectacle of a fire engine in a parade. Tony Fowler was no different than the other kids. Many times he looked forward to seeing the 1931 Seagrave fire engine from the Hillsdale Fire Department moving slowly down the street with its gleaming red paint with gold trim and the picture of an Indian chief.
It was another matter entirely to have the Seagrave, with sirens blaring, show up a few doors down from his home in Cambria in the middle of the night. Tony was 12 or 13 years old at the time and the town consisted of several small businesses including a barber shop, a country store, a couple gas stations, a doctor’s office, a mechanic’s garage and a mill. However, it was the large brick hardware store that was ablaze with a serious fire. Several fire departments responded and did their utmost to bring the fire under control, but it wasn’t enough. The building burned to the ground and was never rebuilt.
Tony’s mom prepared sandwiches and coffee for the firemen and Tony saw the working side of the firemen and their Seagrave. It was a lot different than their almost storybook appearance in parades.
Jerry Spratt knew a lot of people. Because of this his son, Tom, had experiences that very few little kids did. He had rides in an ambulance (by volition, not accident) and in a hearse (alive, not dead). Tom remembers none of the specifics of being able to slide down the fire pole at City Hall, but he does remember the total awesomeness of the experience when he was in fourth or fifth grade.
In 1932, the same year the 1931 Seagrave fire engine was purchased by the city of Hillsdale, the fire department moved to City Hall. The fire engines exited from the bottom floor of the building, while the firemen had their quarters on the floor above. No doubt the fire fighters felt a rush of adrenaline when a fire alarm was called in and they slid down the pole to the fire engines. It was probably nothing compared to the reaction Tom had to his fast descent down the pole.