By 1899, Reading, MI was a thriving community. Shops, offices and stores lined up, side by side, on Main Street. Across a narrow alley behind the buildings on the west side of the street was a row of closely packed stables and sheds. Unfortunately, despite repeated calls from various citizens, what Reading, MI didn't have was a "water works," a municipal system of pipes running from a water tower.
During the night of August 30, 1899, a small fire broke out in the stable belonging to Hollingshead and Berry. Bert Hollingshead, sleeping in the second story loft, was awakened and called to his helper, who was asleep on the first floor. After failing to smother the fire with blankets and water from a horse bucket, the two cut the horses free and drove them out of the barn, then fled for their own lives. Within minutes the stable was an inferno.
The wind quickly spread the fire along the line of stables and sheds, fed by the abundant straw. Then it leaped the alley and ignited Teeter's Restaurant. From there it spread along the shops, offices and stores on the west side of Main Street. Men, women and children frantically ran into the burning buildings, attempting to remove their stock before the fire destroyed it all. The Reading Hustler reported that "Such a conglomeration of goods was never seen in our streets before and it is to be hoped it will never occur again." Burning embers were carried by the wind to houses on a side street and almost a mile into the country, setting fire to a field there.
The Reading Fire Department couldn't get their engine pumper to work initially, and twenty barrels of salt were dumped on the fire by enterprising townspeople. Eventually, five reservoirs in the village were completely drained in the fight against the fire as thousands of buckets of water from private wells were used by the volunteers. Phone calls were made to the Hillsdale and Jonesville fire stations. The Hillsdale fire engine was disabled, but the Jonesville engine and several firemen made it to Reading in 17 minutes on the train, arriving just as a sudden heavy rainstorm helped to quench the flames and wet those buildings that had been repeatedly assaulted by flying embers. The Reading Hustler reported that they had been "VISITED BY THE FIRE FIEND! Fire was the dread visitor and its work was swift, sure and awful." Twenty-two buildings were destroyed, only two or three business owners could immediately commit to rebuilding and those who had called for a water works said "I told you so." Referring to the quantity of belongings that had been frantically removed from burning buildings, the Hillsdale Leader implored its readers, "If you run across any stray goods it will be an act of kindness and honesty to make an effort to restore them to their owners."
Fire, a "dread visitor" no matter when it occurs, was a greater danger before the modern era. This was due to living conditions at the time and to the equipment, transportation and communication that was available with which to fight fires. The use of candles and kerosene lamps was an invitation for fire. In Hillsdale, the Waldron Block,* the row of buildings bounded by McCollum to the south, Howell to the west and Broad to the east, burned twice. The 1868 fire began in the Waldron House, a three story rooming house located in the middle of the Block. According to the Hillsdale Standard, a kerosene lamp in the lamp room exploded, and, fed by the abundant kerosene stored there, superheated air created a pressure that blasted straight to the top of the building, sending residents running into the street with only the clothes on their backs. Firemen used ladders to evacuate those on the third floor.
The second fire at the Waldron Block happened in 1879. The businesses, post office, city clerk and two justice offices, as well as insurance and law offices were completely destroyed. One wall remained and was pulled down immediately for safety. With the 1879 fire, as well as with each of the fires reported, the newspapers published a detailed list of who lost what, the value of the items and whether there was insurance on the losses. These lists give the impression that insurance was luxury affordable only to the wealthier business people like Henry Waldron and John P. Cook, each of whom had multiple buildings damaged or destroyed by fire. The smaller business owners had to hope that they could remove their stock before the fire reached it, saving at least a little of their investment.
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 (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. This uniform was far superior to the original outfit decided upon by the 1847 Neptune Fire Engine Company No. 1, a group that spent more time developing a constitution and planning their uniform than on training to fight fires. The Neptune firemen wore a flamboyant red flannel shirt that hung to the knees, with a black belt and two pockets. A matching hat completed their dashing appearance.
Finally two working companies were formed in the village of Hillsdale in 1857, the Eagle Fire Company, No. 1 and the Baw Beese Engine Company, No. 2. 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. On 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.
Fire department competitions were a favorite feature of the Fourth of July and other celebrations and drew a large crowd. However, nothing could beat seeing the "boys" in action. The inherent excitement generated by the bell from a church announcing a fire and the gong on the engine that clanged incessantly to warn people to get out of the way tended, instead, to bring them out. Invariably, the fire engine created its own one-vehicle parade as it dashed along the streets with dogs and small boys running alongside as an impromptu honor guard.
There was (mostly) a friendly, if intense, rivalry between the No. 1 and No. 2 Fire Companies. It was kept (mostly) on the field of training competitions. However, sometimes the competitiveness manifested itself in a race to be the first to get to a fire and put it out. That in itself was a good thing. But at least once the rivalry got completely out of hand. There is an unconfirmed story that a boxcar was reported on fire. Both Companies rushed to the scene, and, taking their rivalry to a new level, ended up having a tug of war with the boxcar, each pulling it toward themselves and away from the other company until it burned to cinders.
Most roads, even those in the villages, were not paved. Large fires that required the assistance of other fire departments needed the men and pumpers quickly. The extensive Hillsdale County train system played an important role in fire fighting. When the need for extra men and equipment arose, it was a common practice to telegraph (and eventually telephone) additional fire departments, which would then load their pumpers and men on a train hastily prepared for transport to the fire. The considerable cooperation needed to pull off this assistance was impressive.
Shortly after the Hillsdale College fire on March 6, 1874, and another in the village of Hillsdale in the Union Block on Howell Street, Hillsdale City Council discussed the purchase of a steamer. The steamer replaced the manual pump with a steam-powered pumper that enabled the firemen to have a greater volume of water available.
The steamer was in service in 1879 when the E.C. Campbell and Co. Planing Mill, Sash Door and Blind factory in Hillsdale caught fire. The building was on Ferris Street, parallel and just east of Broad Street. The steamer was promptly set at the reservoir near the Fire House on McCollum Street and a line of hose was laid to the fire. Unfortunately, the hose broke in two places and the fire took hold, aided by a wind that carried the flames through seven houses. Fear that the entire east side of Broad Street would be burned led to telegrams being sent to the Adrian and Coldwater Fire Departments. They arrived by train with "two splendid steamers" and many men. The Adrian Department traveled to Hillsdale, a distance of 32 miles, in 47 minutes. Coldwater traveled 23 miles in 27 minutes. The Jonesville Fire Department had been called earlier and came five miles by horse and fire engine "in the incredibly short space of twenty minutes, the fastest time on record with the same load," according to the Hillsdale Leader. Osseo also responded with 25 firemen.
Although things have changed dramatically in the way we fight fires, the praise expressed in the Reading Hustler for the firefighters after the devastating Reading, MI fire remains true no matter what the era. "The boys... did valiant service and a grateful community will always hold them in high esteem."
*The term Block had a different meaning in the early days of Hillsdale County villages and towns. At that time it referred not to the area between one cross street and the next, but to a building or buildings erected by an individual or group. In all our county towns it's easy to see where one or more buildings were erected as a block by the difference in their architecture. The Waldron Block was an anomaly in that it did stretch from one intersection to the next.
JoAnne P. Miller