By Terry Rogers
Milford’s downtown area has literally been shaped by fire. At least five major fires on Walnut and Front Streets have led to improvements in the downtown area as well as the formation of the fire company. The first fire on record occurred in January 1891.
When General Alfred T.A. Torbert returned home from his consular post in France, Fred Voelker, his body servant came to Milford with him. After General Torbert died in August 1890 after being washed from the deck of the steamship Vera Cruz in a hurricane off the coast of Florida, his body recovered on shore a few days later, Mr. Voelker attempted to make a living as a barber in Milford. Unfortunately, he developed a taste for spirits, often sleeping in the loft of the Central Hotel. According to reports of the day, his cigar or lantern caught hay in the stable on fire. Because the stable was behind the business section of town, many businesses and homes were threatened.
According to A History of Milford written by the Milford Historical Society, the stable belonging to Ruth Carlisle Watson caught fire as did the ice house for the hotel. The hotel liquor room, less than 25 feet away, was threatened, causing immediate action as the liquor could have expanded the flames even further. Almost every man in town began a bucket brigade between the hotel and the river which was about 75 yards away.
Other roofs ignited on Walnut and Front Streets, including the Steward property and a row of stores along Northeast Front Street. Residents of Walnut Street moved household goods into the street, expecting their homes to be engulfed in flames at any moment. This was prevented through the efforts of Dr. William Marshall who captained a bucket brigade. In the book, it is reported that Dr. Marshall was heard calling for “more water, more water!” throughout the night in order to keep roofs that had not caught fire wet.
A year after the fire, Milford citizens met to plan for the organization of a fire company and a hand-drawn hook and ladder truck was purchased. Today, the company is known as Carlisle Fire Company, named for Paris T. Carlisle who was killed in action in France in World War I. In addition, the fire led the town council to vote for the installation of a public water system with a main water well located between Pearl Alley and South Washington Street.
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In 1938, another fire changed the landscape of downtown when a blaze that began in Grier Brothers Paint Shop damaged an entire block in the business district. Wind swept flames from building to building, including the Windsor Apartments and Cupid Ice Cream shop. Smoke and water damaged the Windsor restaurant and liquor store. In addition, the Oscar Ackerman, Dr. Frank E. Brereton and George Lindenkohl families were forced from their apartments.
Miss Florence Tease, who was working in the ice cream store, sounded the alarm for the fire. Miss Tease was holding $18, part of a $25 fund belonging to the Milford High School graduating class, in the ice cream shop and the money was also lost in the fire. City Manager Charles E. Banning suffered injuries while helping firefighters battle the blaze. Fire companies from South Bowers, Harrington, Dover, Frederica and Houston assisted Milford using water from the Mispillion River. The fire caused over $10,000 in damage.
In December 1939, another blaze in downtown Milford caused significant damage. The fire, which is believed to have started in the rear of the J.C. Penney store located on Walnut Street, spread quickly. W.T. Grant Company, David Coopersmith’s Ladies’ Shop and the Coopersmith Dress Factor were all destroyed in the fire.
Seven fire companies responded to the blaze and several firemen in the Coopersmith Factory had to escape quickly through a window when the fire spread. Emory Webb and Edward C. Evans, the last two men to escape, had to jump 15 feet to the ground when flames burst through the window. Mr. Evans suffered a back injury. Several other firemen were also trapped and forced to jump to the ground.
The fire was discovered by a milk distributor, Fred C. Geyer. Shortly after the discovery, a store window at the rear of Grant’s shattered, hurtling glass, dolls and other toys that were on display in the window for Christmas into the street. Albert Miller was almost killed by glass while standing in the street reporting on the fire for a local news agency.
In addition to the stores and factory, Christ Episcopal Church lost an organ and Avenue United Methodist Church lost 18 hymnals that had been used the night before for a children’s Christmas celebration. In addition, a significant amount of Christmas inventory was lost. When it appeared that the flames would spread, many people began moving property. Valuable antiques owned by Mrs. Lena Jones that were in a house rented by Mrs. Kathryn Miller were saved, although the home itself was damaged by smoke. The Odd Fellows and Rebekahs saved much of their furniture, but were unable to save a rug valued at $1,100 that covered the floor of the temple. Harry Ennis removed most of his shoe repair equipment and George Still saved much of his restaurant property.
The Coopersmith Dress Factory reopened in the old Milford Armory Building on Southwest Front Street on December 11, 1939, keeping 100 women employed. Penney’s opened in two new stores that had been added to the Hotel Norman on South Walnut Street. The company also rented a store room vacated by the Milford Merchant Tailors on Southwest Front Street to hold a fire sale of salvaged merchandise.
Another fire changed the downtown landscape in March 1960. It is believed this fire began on the second floor of Quality Market and spread to Brereton Drug Store. The fire did an estimated $140,000 damage to three businesses, according to then fire chief, James G. Holzmueller. In addition to the drug store and market, Bata Shoe Store was destroyed by fire, smoke and water. The store had just recently completed $40,000 in renovations.
It was feared that the fire would destroy the entire block as far as the Mispillion River, but fire fighters from Carlisle, Houston, Ellendale, Lincoln, Harrington, Greenwood and Frederica did a “magnificent” job of containing the blaze while Dover, Magnolia, Bridgeville and Bowers were on stand-by, according to Chief Holzmueller. Fire efforts were hampered when a frozen fire whistle delayed calling the firemen to the blaze.
The Ben Franklin tore and H.S. Saunders Jewelry Store were not damaged in the fire, despite their close proximity. As a precaution, all jewelry was removed from the store and taken to the First National Bank. Coffman-Fisher Department Store and a restaurant were also undamaged. A vacant store adjoining the burned section of town was damaged by smoke and water. Bata arranged with owners of two other vacant stores to rent one of them and stock began arriving the following Monday.
The weather was exceptionally cold during the fire and water used for to extinguish the blaze froze in the streets, requiring firemen to work on sheets of ice. The crowd of spectators was also larger than normal during the day as school children were home from school due to a snowstorm.
Finally, the 2003 fire on the south end of Walnut Street which destroyed several buildings actually led to the revitalization of downtown. Building owners and businesses began renovating and remodeling the historic area, significantly improving the downtown landscape. Organizations such as Downtown Milford Inc. and the Chamber of Commerce of Greater Milford have been instrumental in the downtown rebirth efforts.