Saturday, October 01, 2011

Old Betsy Saves the Day

It would be hard to find anyone in Lucas County not familiar with Old Betsy, the Chariton Volunteer Fire Department's pride and joy since 1883, whose most recent public appearance was in last Friday's homecoming parade.

 Old Betsy, a Silsby engine, was bought new this time of year during 1883 after an unfortunate Sept. 9 fire that  burned the city engine house and took with it the steamer's predecessor, the hook and ladder wagon and other equipment. She arrived in town on October 3 --- 127 years ago this coming Monday.

Firefighting was even more of a challenge back in those days than it is now. There was no municipal water system. Cisterns around the square provided enough water to get started. If the cisterns ran dry, Old Betsy was hauled down to what now is Yocum Park, where Lake Como was located, and water pumped up from there.

The thing about Old Betsy is, she's a remarkably efficient piece of equipment, as capable of pumping water if needed now as then.

That durability came in handy during February of 1930 when she was called out of retirment to save the day as a fire in the massive Temple Building threatened to wipe out the east half of the south side of the square and most likely take the southeast corner of the square down to the post office with it.

That's the Temple Building in the center of this postcard view, with third-floor bay windows overlooking the square, located in the spot where the one-story building built for Woolworth's that now houses Hammer Medical Supply stands. (Note that there had been many south-side changes between the time this post card view was taken and 1930; now, only the Dewey Block at far left, where Chariton Floral is located behind a big blue false front, remains.)

The Temple Building, in 1930 the largest commercial building on the square other than the Charitone Hotel, was owned by Walter Dewey, grandson of John Branner, that tortured soul from East Tennessee who had made a fortune speculating in Lucas County land prior to 1870.

It housed the Lincoln Theater, one of two theaters located in the same half block (the Ritz was the other), as well as the Lincoln Barber Shop owned by C.L. Johnson and employing George W. Thomas, Cecil Hawk and Vincent Carmody; Lucille's Vanity Shop, operated by Miss Lucille Coxworth; the Lincoln Cafe, owned by C.W. Wolf; and the offices of Dr. C.B. Hayden. There also were several apartments on the second floor and the building was crowned by the lodge rooms of the Knights of Pythias, who also were minority owners of the structure.

The fire, which started in the Temple Building's basement, first was noticed at 5:30 a.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 26, when smoke was noted in the Lincoln Cafe. No one was too worried, however, because it seemed like a containable blaze and Chariton had a new Pierce Arrow fire truck that had proved to be remarkably effective.

About an hour into the fight, however, the big Pierce Arrow pumper just gave out, becoming completely inoperable and leaving the firefighters in a real bind. Although emergency calls for aid were telephoned immediately to Russell, Albia, Ottumwa and Indianola, very little could be done until help arrived. Tank pressure moved some water through hoses, but not enough to deal with the flames.

The worst hour for Chariton, according to newspaper reports, was between 7 and 8 a.m. when the Temple Building became fully engulfed and flames spread to the east.

"The Temple Building," the Patriot reported, "was a blazing furnace."

"Flames and smoke poured from every window of the three story structure and shot into the air 50 feet above the roof. Brands from the burning building carried across the square, burning awnings in front of Corzier's store, Tate's harness store, Almquist's grocery and the Quality Bakery. Roofs of some of those buildings were also fired, but the fires were extinguished by bucket brigades."

Some brands landed on the roof of Yocum Hospital, a block to the northeast.

Dynamite also was brought in to blow down walls in the hope of stopping the fire, but that didn't work especially well.

Flames spread east through the Harry Cramer Building, the Ritz Theater Building and the Walter Brewer Building until only the Dewey Block on the east end, housing Morris Gendler's grocery store below and apartments above, remained uninvolved. If that building caught, it seemed likely the fire would jump Grand Street and take out the buildings built primarily of wood from the corner south toward the post office.

It was at this point that Old Betsy came to the rescue. Hauled onto the square by firefighters, a fire was lighted under her boiler, hoses attached and soon enough pressure was available to stall the eastward advance of the flames.

The Albia Fire Department arrived on the scene a little after 8 o'clock, followed in short order by trucks and men from other departments. By 10:30 a.m., the fire had been stopped. But it was Old Betsy that had prevented one of Chariton's most disastrous fires from becoming even worse.

We'll see her again, sparks, steam, whistle and all, behind that big team in the lighted Christmas parade just after Thanksgiving. When you do, think of the day when Old Betsy --- now beautifully repainted and restored and highly polished --- saved the day.

(Much of the information here is taken from reports in The Chariton Patriot of Feb. 27, 1930, and The Chariton Leader of March 4, 1930.)

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