Fires have been on my mind today. I woke up to news that Athens’ uptown area had been hit by an early-morning fire that did serious damage to four or five businesses in buildings dating back to the late 1800s. The Union, a bar that had been a popular university watering hole since the 1950s, appears to have been the most serious casualty.
The city’s “uptown” is very similar to Cape’s “downtown.” They are both constructed of buildings that adjoin each other and that are over 100 years old. Once a fire gets started, it’s easy to lose a whole block.
This fire was a lot smaller. It was in Smelterville, but I don’t recall any details.
It might have been January 1966
I found a Missourian invoice where I billed the paper $5 for a fire on January 29, 1966, but Google doesn’t have the microfilm for that day on file, so I couldn’t look up the story.
Based on the way the water sprayed on the fire has already frozen, it sure LOOKS like a cold January day.
Going back in
It appears the only thing saved up to this point was a dresser. I don’t know if that was all that was salvageable in the house or if they hadn’t started their overhaul work yet. There’s another shot that shows a fireman with a pike pole getting ready to enter. That’s what they use to tear into walls and ceilings to see if there are any fire extensions.
How many times have you been told “There are no dumb questions?” Take it from me, there ARE dumb questions. I asked one. More about that later.
The Missourian’s January 16, 1967, front page lead story was “Cake Fires Girls’ Dorm,” with three of my photos. Clothing and bedding were destroyed and smoke and fire damage were extensive when fire enveloped a room in Dearmont Quadrangle, women’s residence hall at State College, Saturday night (January 14).
Wally Sinwell looks at birthday cake
Wally Sinwell of St. Louis, right, who used hall extinguishers to contain the blaze, looks at birthday cake whose candles ignited paper, while firemen view the room.
B & C wings were evacuated
Girls living in B and C wings, in pajamas and pincurlers, were evacuated, but later returned to their rooms.
A fire which apparently started from a birthday cake Saturday night damaged a room on the fourth floor of Dearmont Quadrangle. Damage was extensive to the room and its contents. Firemen said mattresses on the bunk bed were destroyed, clothes in the two closets were badly burned and smoked, drapes on the windows were ruined and the ceiling will have to be redone.
Carroll Walker, dean of students, said the room was occupied by two freshmen, Miss Mary Lou Halliday, Shipman, Ill., and Miss Patricia J. Ham, St. Charles.
Preparing surprise birthday party
Walker said the girls told him they were preparing to celebrate the birthday of Miss Halliday. Some of the girls had taken her down the hall in order to surprise her.
Miss Martha Susan Owen and Miss Iris Anne Hargrove, both of Paducah, Ky., and Miss Patricia Ann Singrun, St. Louis, were in the room decorating for the party. Mr. Walker said they told him they were putting toilet paper on the ceiling and some was on the floor when a piece of the paper fell from the ceiling across the lighted candles on the birthday cake. The paper burst into flames and the girls said they tried to put the blaze out, but couldn’t.
Here’s the dumb question
That was the official version.
Somewhere in a box in my shed is a tape recording I did of my interview with the girls where they confirmed that they had, indeed, dangled toilet paper all over the room. With luck, it’ll never be found and played.
“When we walked into the room with the birthday cake, a streamer dropped onto one of the candles and the whole room burst into flames,” one of them told me.
My question, which I tried as hard as I could to haul back into my mouth, was, “Was it supposed to?”
I think a withering glance was the only answer I got.
Student fought fire
Walter J. Sinnwell of St. Louis, a student who was in the parlor of the quadrangle when the fire broke out, collected building’s fire extinguishers and attempted to put out the blaze.
Miss Halliday said that at one point the fire was thought to have been put out by the extinguishers, but when they went out looking for more extinguishers, some one heard and explosion – “probably a can of hair spray or spray deodorant” – and the room was engulfed in more flames than before.
Cake remained intact
Capt. Paul Kesterson said a pumper, a ladder truck and nine men went to the scene. The Seagraves pumper and 140 feet of one-inch hose were in use for two minutes.
He said one of the girls was concerned because a radio her mother had given her Christmas was damaged. Through it all, he said, the birthday cake remained intact. It had some dirt and water on it, but was still in one piece on the hallway floor.
Photo gallery of women’s dorm
I have to admit that charging into a women’s dorm was a lot less exciting than I thought it would be. I never knew there were so many different forms of pincurlers. Click on any photo to make it larger, then click on the sides of the photos or use your arrow keys to step though the images.
I’ve given up chasing sirens, but I couldn’t help but notice a big column of black smoke in town this afternoon. (Click on the photos to make them larger.)
A few years back, I pointed to smoke off in the distance to a friend of mine who was married to a newspaper photographer. She said, “There are two kinds of people in the world who see smoke: firefighters and photographers.”
The Cape fire department has been doing some practice burns, so I assumed that’s what it was until I got closer and saw it was coming from near the middle of Southeast Missouri State University. The school has a propensity for tearing down landmark structures to build parking lots, but it usually doesn’t turn on its own.
When I first rolled up, the plume of smoke was fairly localized, but it didn’t take long before it looked like it might be spreading. It had the look of a roofing tar fire to me. They burn hot and black and spread as the tar turns to liquid. I was told the building was undergoing some maintenance work, so that wouldn’t surprise me.
They had positioned the ladder truck where they could get a look at what they were dealing with, but hadn’t tied into a hydrant yet.
There was a white-shirted officer standing with his back to the pumper when it started backing up. I kept waiting for him to move, but there was so much noise he must not have heard it coming, and he must have been in the truck’s blind spot. At the last second, I hollered “HEY!!!” as loud as I could and the truck stopped. Either he became aware of the man behind him or he heard my shout.
A bystander commented, “I thought he was going to run over that guy.” So did I.
Where are my Missourian buddies?
I kept looking around for Fred or Laura from The Missourian, but didn’t spot them. I made a courtesy call to Fred, but got his voice mail. “Maybe I’ll have a chance to make the paper”, I thought.
I’d love to frame a $5 check from The Missourian for old times’ sake. It would drive the accounting department crazy when it didn’t clear.
I was living at home when I worked for the paper, so I had minimal expenses. Every few weeks, John Mehrle from accounting would come up and ask me to cash my paychecks so they could balance the books. That was the LAST time I ever had that luxury.
The high point of the day was when a cop came and pushed the onlookers back, but walked right past me. I guess carrying real cameras still makes you look like you belong.
Once they got the master stream playing on the fire from the ladder, the black smoke quickly turned white, then disappeared. It was all over except for mop-up and investigation.
I stopped by to see Editor Bob Miller, who liked a couple of the shots. “Are you giving them to us?” he asked.
“I’d like to get the same token $5 per shot I got in 1963,” I said.
“We can give you credit”
“We can give you credit,” he countered.
“That’s my problem: I have lots of credit. I just don’t have any money to pay the credit card bills when they come due.”
When I shot my first real newspaper photos in 1963, I got a front page byline and a check for $10 in the mail the next day. I wonder if I would have been ruined for honest work had that unexpected check not come? Bylines are cool, but bylines and money will hook you faster than crack.
Fred’s blog said the building was constructed in 1915. In 1937, Harris Motor Car Co. razed the adjoining Dr. Adolph List house, built in 1888, to expand its operation. Another story noted that the List house was modeled after a German castle.
Turned into apartments in 2001
I couldn’t find a story about the fire, but there was an ad in the Dec. 3, 1965, Missourian saying to watch for the Grand Opening of Harris Motor Car Co. The 1968 City Directory listed Harris Motor Car Co. at Highway 61 North and Independence.
In 1968, Charmin, which was building its new plant near Neely’s Landing, leased space in the “former Harris Motor Car Building.” In 1971 the paper reported that the building had been converted into an apartment complex by Vernon Rhodes.