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Another shot of the downtown fire on Aug. 13, 1914, shows smoke billowing out of George Peoples Confectionery and J.S. Nunn's furniture and undertaking building. Twenty-six buildings were damaged in the fire. Photo courtesy of the Becker County Historical Society

Up in flames

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Detroit Lakes Minnesota 511 Washington Avenue 56501

The Detroit Lakes Fire Department, and many times the surrounding towns' departments, were kept quite busy years ago.

Not that the current day Detroit Lakes Volunteer Fire Department isn't busy enough, but years ago, the crew fought horrific fire after block-burning fire.

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According to Becker County Historical Society Executive Director Amy Degerstrom, one major example is the area that now houses the Graystone complex, which has burned multiple times over the years.

The first time the block was destroyed was Sept. 14, 1888.

The Opera House Block was at the corner of Washington Avenue and Pioneer Street. Pioneer Street would one day become Highway 10. Buildings along the east side of Washington Avenue extended all the way to the railroad tracks, and Pioneer Street came to a "T" at Washington Avenue.

(Interesting fun fact: The Depot still has an address on Pioneer Street, the only one in Detroit Lakes. While the city says the address is considered Highway 10 West, the railroad hasn't changed it and still lists the address as 116 Pioneer Street.)

The Washington Avenue block marked development on the south side of the railroad tracks, and included a saloon owned by F. Foss and one owned by John H. Smith. C.K. Day & Co. had a grocery store and dry goods on the bottom level and the Grand Old Opera House was upstairs.

(Another interesting fact: Degerstrom said there is a fun story behind Smith's Pelican Saloon and its name. "There was a pelican statue from the Minnesota Hotel that people kept stealing and putting in front of the bar, so they renamed it the Pelican Saloon.")

According to the book "The Horse and Buggy Days at Detroit Lakes" by G.E. Teague and Ken Prentice, published in 1949, the residents who lived upstairs in the Foss building were awakened and survived the fire, but the J.A. Teague drug store on Pioneer Street and the Pioneer Store were both destroyed in the fire. The Opera House Saloon suffered heavy loss, and J.H. Bonnell lost fixtures and furniture from his business.

Jeff H. Irish lost the furniture in his law firm, but saved his law library, while J.T. Brown's law books were all destroyed.

In that blaze, the firemen were able to save the businesses across the street on the east side of Washington Avenue, and several more along Pioneer Street.

E.G. Holmes, who owned the Opera House, rebuilt the following year and was ready to open the doors again in September of 1889. Two years later, on March 22, 1891, the entire block burned down again.

Some of the businesses destroyed in that fire included First National Bank, Blanding & Smith, Brooks & Co., A. Dietlein's saloon, Teague's drugstore and multiple offices in the upper level of the Opera House.

The block was again rebuilt in 1892. Holmes rebuilt with brick instead of wood, as all the buildings had been composed of previously.

"That's when they started building with block instead of wood because they kept burning down," Degerstrom said.

The "Holmes Block" inscription can still be seen on the top of the building.

In 1914, the Blanding Opera House, which was located on the south side of Front Street, burned. The opera house, which seated 500 and was roughly located where O'Reilly Auto Parts is today, was built by Henry Dix Blanding and Charles Dix. According to historic accounts, the night of the fire, a child ran into the Blanding Department Store and shouted, "The opera house is on fire!" Blanding's reply was, "Close the door and let the damn thing burn. It never made any money anyway!"

That fire, which started in the upstairs office of the Rahm Livery Barn, was not contained until 26 buildings were destroyed, for a total of $100,000 in damages.

The fire went down in history as one of the worst, if not the worst blaze to happen in Detroit Lakes.

Yet another fire took place there in 1943. On June 17, 1943, the Graystone garage and machine shop caught fire, with 18 automobiles being destroyed in the flames.

An estimated $100,000 in damage was caused, and one man was injured in the fire.

Just down the block

While the Graystone area of town seemed plagued with fires, the entire Washington Avenue saw its fair share of fires destroying businesses.

On June 26, 1915, the Hotel Minnesota, which was located where Lakes Sport Shop is now, burned down. When firefighters got to the fire, the building was completely consumed with flames, so they concentrated on saving the library, the Baptist Church and the new county jail. No one was injured in the fire.

On Nov. 10, 1980, Bunnell's Recreation, at 804 Washington Ave., burned down. The grease in the French fry machine overheated and ignited a fire. Owner Harold Salminen said he would rebuild the following year.

The Furniture Post next door suffered smoke damage.

On June 14, 1984, Lindrud's Variety Store, located at 828 Washington Ave., was destroyed by fire. It began in the basement of the variety store and was later tied to burglary and arson.

The body of Gregory Tibbetts was found after the fire was extinguished, and items that had been stolen were found with him. It was believed that he had an accomplice that escaped the fire.

Six fire departments assisted on the fire, and four firemen were injured in the blaze. At least six other neighboring businesses were ruined in the flames.

Estimated damage from the fire exceeded $1 million.

Dynamic Homes brought in their overhead crane to knock down the upper portion of Lindrud's, for safety reasons. A city light pole was also removed because it had melted.

Woolworth's and Vanity suffered smoke and water damage, and Diamond's Surplus was ruined as well.

After the fire ruined several of the buildings in that block, the rubble was cleared and the Washington Square Mall was later built in its place.

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