One simple spark can erupt into chaos for a town.
On a cold January morning in 1945, near where the Hatch Public Library in Mauston sits today, five buildings on State Street became engulfed in flames. According to contemporary files from the Juneau County Chronicle and the Mauston Star, the Denizen barber shop, Saemisch’s Bakery, Gamble Store, All-State Cafe, Mauston Dress Club and Vorlop Drug Store, were “completely ruined” by the fire.
Although the origin of the fire is unknown, it was rumored by locals that a man by the name of Geo Peters had been in the All-State building “thawing out frozen pipes with a blow torch.” Peters denied the rumors.
It was 10 degrees below zero that night.
Juneau County Historian Rose Clark remembers the fire well.
“I was just a kid and my step dad had gone to town,” Clark said. “And he came home and he said, ‘Half of downtown Mauston is burnt.’”
The total cost of the fire was estimated to be $75,000 to $100,000, or $1 million to $1.4 million in today’s money.
“It was very devastating, not only for the businesses themselves, but the town,” Clark said. “Back then, people shopped in town, so the loss of a bakery or the loss of any of the other buildings… it was quite tragic.”
But rather than eliminate one business in Mauston, the fire wiped out six.
“Right in the heart of downtown,” Clark said. “It left a big void there for a while.”
Rebuilding what was lost took significant time.
“That day and age, it wasn’t just a quick put up,” said Mauston Fire Chief Kim Hale, whose father was at the fire and helped keep it from spreading.
The building housing Saemisch’s Bakery was owned by Florence Loomis, wife of Orland S. Loomis, who was the last Progressive Party gubernatorial candidate for Wisconsin. He was a Mauston native, lawyer, and World War I veteran.
There was also a fire in 1874 that destroyed almost the exact same section of downtown Mauston.
The Mauston fire chief at the time was John R Smith. The Mauston Star called the 1945 fire “the fiercest in the history of the city.”
Four trucks responded to the call.
“That was before I was even born,” Hale said. “That time it was hook and ladder… You can imagine what the hook and ladder was like and what the engine was like.”
Firefighters from Mauston, Lindina, New Lisbon and Wisconsin Dells assisted in the effort to control the fire. The absence of wind that day was a factor that helped contain the flames as well.
Reedsburg Big Store fire
It had been the pride of Reedsburg for decades, but one summer night in 1957, it tragically burned to the ground. The Big Store fire in Reedsburg is “probably the biggest fire of Reedsburg’s history,” said Reedsburg Historian Craig Braunschweig.
“That one had multiple fire departments coming to help with the assistance of it — Baraboo, Portage, La Valle, Lake Delton, Rock Springs, North Freedom,” Braunschweig said.
The Big Store was located where the Panda Garden is today. The Panda Garden sticks out from its neighboring buildings. The one-story Chinese restaurant is dwarfed by the older multi-story brick buildings on the same block.
“That building was a big building and when they replaced it, they made it more modern,” Braunschweig said.
According to Bernadette Bitter, one of the authors of the book, “Images of America—Reedsburg,” flames were discovered at 2 a.m., but “the flames could not be controlled until 9 a.m.”
The fire affected not only the Big Store, but neighboring buildings as well.
“The heat from the Big Store fire was so intense that the apartments across the street had to be evacuated, and the front of the apartment building was charred,” Bitter said. In addition to the Big Store itself, Big Store Shoes, Berning Garage, Reedsburg Quality Hardware, Struck & Hawkins Taver, Meistad & Sale Barber Shop and Connor’s Bar “were either destroyed or badly damaged by fire.”
Before the fire broke out, night watchman Paul Schrank had seen flames near the meat cooler of the Big Store, but no official cause was ever determined
The total estimated damage of the fire was $2 million, which would be more than $15 million today. The store had passed a fire inspection just two days before the fire.
The fire “wiped out the whole city block right downtown Reedsburg,” said Don Lichte, who was the fire chief of Reedsburg for 30 years. “That was a historic fire.”
But not all historic fires have taken place in downtown centers.
The Timme’s Mill Fire
Timme’s Mill was a historical building on Mirror Lake for 95 years. It was owned by the local Kaminski family and produced grain, feed and flour, among other things. But in February 1956, the Mill was the site of one of the largest fires in Lake Delton’s history.
A contemporary report from the Wisconsin Dells Events wrote the fire was “considered by those who remember it to be the department’s worst.”
Lake Delton Fire Chief Darren Jorgenson said that up until recently, damage done to the nearby bridge served as a haunting reminder of what had taken place there decades earlier.
“A new bridge is there now,” Jorgenson said. “(But) after the fire, until 1986 almost 30 years later the original bridge was there. And it was damaged by fire, so that you could only drive one vehicle at a time one direction across that bridge until it was finally torn down.”
The cause of the fire remains unknown.
The cost of the Timme Mill fire was estimated to be $175,000. In today’s dollar value that would amount to $1,524,467.
“The fire was so hot the Lake Delton (firefighters) and others who had come to assist from Reedsburg, Baraboo, Rock Springs, Roxbury, Lyndon, Badger and the Dells, could not get near the fire,” The Dells Events reported. About 100 firefighters from the area responded to the call.
The dry winter that year had left no snow on the ground, making what would have otherwise been a damp forest far more flammable. Sparks kept flying into the surrounding woods and setting the trees and foliage on fire.
The firefighters had to work under the threat of the grain dust in the mill igniting, causing catastrophic and likely fatal damage to those in the immediate area.
Ultimately they were able to keep the flames from spreading to three nearby residences and a resort nearby.
The owner of the mill, said insurance only covered $63,000 of the costs of the fire. “No, we have no plans at all for rebuilding, Frank Kaminski said after the fire. “For us, it would be financially impossible. I’m afraid this must be the end of the Timme mill, which has so long been identified with Lake Delton.”
Sauk City fires
Sauk City has had numerous historic fires, the first of which spurred the city to create the first organized volunteer fire department in Wisconsin.
“In 1854, Sauk City had a major fire in its downtown,” said Sauk City Firefighter Mike Wipperfurth. “And in that time, most of the buildings were made of wood. And they lost about six buildings in Sauk... That’s what prompted them to start a fire department.”
The Sauk City canning factory was a major employer for the area in the early 1900s.
“It was a big business for Sauk,” Wipperfurth said. But in 1921 the factory burned down.
The loss affected not only the employees of the factory, but local farmers as well.
“They used to grow a lot of peas around Sauk City, that’s not done much anymore,” Wipperfurth said. The close proximity to the canning company made growing peas feasible. Without it, farmers turned to other crops.
The factory was eventually rebuilt, but tragically burned down again in 1990.
“The second time it burned, they decided it was electrical,” Wipperfurth said.
The fire could be seen as far away as Wisconsin Dells.
Materials within the factory proved to make the firefighters’ job more difficult.
“Every floor was tarred,” Wipperfurth said. “There were multiple layers of tar on that building… And they were just getting ready to tar the roof so they had lots of pales of tar up there.” When water is improperly applied to burning liquid tar, it can cause a violent reaction.
The building was ultimately lost and the canning factory never returned. Prairie Plumbing and Heating sits in its former location today.
The most recent of Sauk City’s historic fires was only four years ago, in May 2013. The McFarlane’s manufacturing building on Water Street suffered a fire that forced the company to relocate.
“It was a large metal building that had been added on to many times,” Wipperfurth said. “They kept expanding.” The cause of the fire remains unknown.
When firefighters tried to attack the flames from within the building, the roof collapsed and they had to retreat. The possibility of a chemical explosion, and winds fanning the flames made the firefighters’ job more difficult.
“The reason we lost that building was because of the winds that night,” Wipperfurth said.
The company manufactures and sells hardware, small engines, and tires. Since the fire, it has moved to a different location in Sauk City.
The owner, John McFarlane, described the event as difficult to watch, but said he was “blown away by the level of service,” provided by the fire department.