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100 years ago: Inferno in DL

Nunn's Furniture and undertaking goes up in smoke during the largest downtown fire in Detroit Lakes History. The fire, which burned for just over two hours, leveled or damaged 26 businesses in 20 buildings in the downtown area. No lives were lost in the fire, though. Aug. 13 was the 100 year anniversary of the tragedy. Photo courtesy of The Becker County Historical Society

One hundred years ago on Aug. 13, 1914, at 12:07 p.m., the face of downtown Detroit Lakes changed dramatically.

With just the right winds and wooden buildings lining the streets, in about two hours, 26 businesses in 20 buildings were lost or damaged in a massive fire.          

The fire started in Rahm’s Livery, which is where the post office now sits. Though they were never sure how the fire started, speculation was a lantern.

“And because it was a livery stable, it went pretty quick,” said Becker County Historical Society Executive Director Amy Degerstrom.

It took about 15 minutes and the livery was leveled, and with winds blowing from the northwest, the fire spread quickly. The worst part was one of the next buildings about to burn was the fire department.

Located in the area where the school administrative building now stands, the fire department members were only able to save a few pieces of equipment before the fire engulfed their building.

Knowing the damage would be great, the fire department quickly requested mutual aid from surrounding towns — Frazee, Lake Park, Audubon and even Moorhead.

“They knew the wind was going to be a problem,” Degerstrom said.

Frazee was the quickest to respond. They loaded their equipment on train cars and brought it in via the railroad, getting to Detroit Lakes in 32 minutes.

Also leveled was the city hall building, which was located where Marco now stands.

Now remember, back in 1914, Highway 10 didn’t exist and Washington Avenue ended at a T at Pioneer Street, just south of the railroad tracks. So all of these buildings were lined up next to each other.

Next in line was the Greystone building, but it didn’t completely burn — causing controversy later.

Inside the Greystone block was Teague’s Pharmacy, which burned, and E.G. Holmes’ bank and Blanding’s Department Store.

“I think E.G. had a lot of money to pay people to wet down his building,” Degerstrom said.

Later, there were editorials written in the newspaper, expressing concern over the fire departments not treating the businesses equally and trying to save those of the wealthy first.

“There were editorials about the fire department serving all members of the community equally,” she said.

Worried about Lake Avenue businesses, where Wilcox Lumber was located, fire departments “focused efforts to keep the fire from moving that direction.”

Degerstrom said she learned after reading through various accounts of the fire, fire departments concentrated on keeping the rooftops wet so sparks wouldn’t start them on fire.

Pioneer Street extended east to where Veterans Park and Highway 10 eastbound now sit, and the street ended there. In that area, a couple houses, a millinery shop and a blacksmith shop all burned.

Down Washington Avenue, where Ace Hardware sits now, First Security Bank didn’t burn, but next door was Peoples Bazaar — which carried candy, tobacco, etc. — and it went up in flames. That was where Price’s Jewelry sits today.

Next door was Nunn’s Furniture and Undertaking (the area where Barbara’s Hair and TLC are located), and it burned as well.

The fire continued behind First Security Bank to the Sheridan Hotel, Blanding’s Opera House — which is where O’Reilly’s Auto Parts sits now — and Blaisdell Mill, which is the north side of Veterans Park now.

“That’s where it finally stopped,” Degerstrom said, adding that it could have been because that’s where the buildings stopped or because the fire departments were finally able to get it under control by then.

By 2:30 that afternoon, the fire was out, though buildings continued to smoke.

Some of the major businesses were spared in the fire including Norby’s, Blanding’s and the Holmes block.

Degerstrom said one of her favorite stories from the fire was that a young kid ran over to Mr. Blanding to tell him the opera house was on fire and his reply was, “close the doors and let the damn thing burn. It never made any money anyway.”

Along with the upstairs opera house, there were several businesses on the main level of the building that burned as well.

In 1914, the estimated damage to the town was $3 million. According to an inflation calculator with the Bureau of Labor Statics, that figure would be about $71.5 million today.

Of the 26 businesses that were affected, at least half were total losses — and most didn’t have insurance.

When the fire got close to the businesses, the owners would run into their buildings and throw products out into the street in a last ditch effort to save it. After the fire, many businesses held fire sales, trying to make a little money to rebuild their stores.

Many of them relocated temporarily after the fire, and within about a year, most had rebuilt. There were several, though, that either found permanent homes elsewhere in town or decided not to open back up at all.

Degerstrom said one thing to remember about this time period is that the fire department operated with horses and mostly hand-powered pumps. There were a couple steam-powered pumps, but mostly everything was done by hand. There were several injuries during the chaos, but no lives were lost in the fire. She said the damage would have likely been much worse if the fire hadn’t been during the week and during the day when everyone was at work and out and about in town.

After the fire, the city council made several changes to ensure a devastation of that magnitude wouldn’t happen again.

It changed the location of the fire department away from the downtown to Lake Street, across from where the mall parking lot is now. The fire department also had more firefighters on call after that.

All of the buildings that burned were built of wood. It sparked (excuse the pun) the city council to make new regulations on downtown businesses. After the 1914 fire, any building going up downtown had to be constructed of masonry or concrete.

Supports were also added to existing buildings to ensure more stability.

“It’s an interesting story because it’s still really present and how we see our downtown, and we’re still following the laws that were put in place (after the fire),” Degerstrom said.

It’s also a sign of united community, she added, because of the photos and accounts of how everyone pitched in to save what they could of the downtown.

Though mutual aid from neighboring fire departments was practiced, after the fire, the practice became more formal with contracts and agreements.

For a limited time, some of the businesses that now sit in the path of the 1914 fire have histories of the fire in their windows for the public to see. The museum also created a display in honor of the anniversary of the fire, which will be up until Oct. 17.

Degerstrom said the museum is always interested in pictures, stories or other memorabilia from families involved in the fire.

Follow Pippi Mayfield on Twitter at @PippiMayfield.