Tuesday, January 02, 2018

"Holy mother of Israel," but wasn't it cold (1879)?

This log cabin, now on the museum campus, still was parked out along White Breast Creek in Liberty township back in 1879 when the temperature dropped to minus-26 in early January. I took this photo during the cold snap just after Christmas and even though it has nothing in particular to do with the post that follows, was determined to use it before the snow melts.

That's how Dan Baker, editor and publisher of The Chariton Leader, commenced his commentary on Lucas County's weather (more or less) in the edition he published Saturday, Jan. 4, 1879.

Not only had the temperature on Jan. 2 dipped --- according to Dan's best estimate --- to minus-26 degrees --- but a goodly share of the business district over at Lucas --- on the cusp of becoming a coal mining boom town --- had burned down, too.

So there was lots to cover and Dan commenced with the weather ---

"The Cold Thursday --- Holy mother of Israel but wasn't Thursday morning, the day after New Year, a stinger? A live Northwester began to blow the day before and by night everyone had made up his mind that the air would be a little chilly by morning, and it was. At four o'clock the mercury was down to twenty-four degrees below zero, and at eight o'clock it was down to 26 below with a slight bracing breeze from the northwest.

"People met in the streets, looked sadly and solemnly at each other as they whizzed by, and then glode rapidly away muttering to themselves, "Florida, California, Texas, Hell &tc.," as an indication of the state of mind the cold weather had engendered.

"The sun shone clear and beautiful, but the sparkling crystals fibulating in the air, and occasionally lodging on a frozen sunbeam, was a kind suggestion to the observer that he had better crawl into his hole and take the hole in after him.

"A few early birds who were accustomed to their morning nips were seen hurrying home carrying their nips in gunny sacks. Chariton whisky couldn't stand the pressure of that morning. Choice old Bouron and Rye whisky wholesaled by the crate and retailed by the pound, while pure benzine was sold by the cubic foot. Oh you bet Thursday morning was a pistol, and one that will not soon be forgotten, but we can't do it justice."


Over at Lucas, while Charitonians were preparing to take to their beds on that cold New Year's night, sparks most likely from a chimney set a substantial portion of Front Street ablaze. 

When the news reached Chariton the next morning, Dan was doubly interested. First, it was news and that was his specialty. Secondly, the flames had come very close to taking out the Baker Bros. general store, operated by his brothers, Milton P. "Quim" Baker and Jesse Clark Baker.

So Dan Climbed aboard the next west-pound passenger train and collected the information for this report, also published on Saturday, Jan. 4:

"At about 8 o'clock on Thursday morning word was received at this office that a fire had swept away the best part of Lucas, and that the loss was quite heavy. As soon as a train could carry him to the 'burned district,' a Leader ambassador was landed right in the ruins with notebook and pencil.

"There were not very many people standing around discussing the origin of the fire and relating the ludicrous incidents that happened while the red fiend was bidding defiance to their efforts to squelch him; it was too cold yesterday for even the little boys to rake in the ashes, so we sought information of the Baker Bros. whom we found rearranging their goods. Their store presented the appearance of a wrecked railroad train.

"While the fire was raging the stock had been hastily removed to the streets and as hastily carried back, so that silks and satins and calicos, and boots and shoes, and groceries and hardware were piled together in the middle of the floor and reached the ceiling. Quim Baker was as cool and pleasant as if making his toilet for an evening party, while Clark was soaking his fingers in a coal oil barrel and swearing that Cleveland would have a torchlight procession in less than a week because Lucas fired a cannon when they had a blaze over at their place. It's not right for rival towns to exult over one another's misfortunes, but it makes fun for the boys, and if Cleveland wants to enthuse, why it's all right if she does it before the mercury gets back up to zero.

"The origin of the fire is not known, but it is supposed to have caught from sparks that fell on the roof between Gilbert's hotel and Brown's drug store. It was about 9 o'clock when the flames were discovered and the alarm given, and in an incredible short time all the men, women and children of the town were using every means within their power to prevent the spread of the flames.

"With the quicksilver joker tarrying at 22 degrees below zero, it was cold work handling water and wet blankets. But nothing daunted, and with freezing fingers and ears and feet they worked to save their town. After four of the prominent buildings had been reduced to ashes, the flames were stayed, but it was by a miracle that the store of the Baker Bros. was saved. When the flames communicated with their south roof the building was in imminent danger of immediate destruction, and had it not been for the plentiful supply of water in the railroad tank, the destruction of property would have been much greater.

"The Gilbert hotel, owned by Alf. Hood, was valued at $750, on which there was no insurance; the household goods were about all saved. Brown's building and stock of drugs will make his loss over $1,000 with no insurance. Dr. Dewitt estimates his loss at $100 on building, household goods and office furniture. Next came the store of Gilmore & McCulloch, from which the stock was partially removed but very much damaged; they carry an insurance of $1,500 in a Springfield, Massachusetts, company, Frank Crocker agent.

"In less than forty-five minutes from the time the flames were discovered, what was the pride of Lucas was a blackened mass of ruins, and her people feel sore therefrom. Phoenix-like, however, she'll get up in the spring-time with a brick front and once more they will be happy and able to throw stones at Cleveland.

"Gilmore & McCullough will continue their business inLoache's new building, east of the depot, and have made arrangements so as to be able to open on this day (Saturday)."


Lucas did, of course, rebuild --- and remained a lively little city into the 20th century. Quim Baker eventually moved to Santa Ana, California, where brother Dan also reclocated and resumed his newspapering career after leaving Chariton.

Jesse Clark Baker remained in business in Lucas, founding the Farmers & Miners Bank in 1888 and establishing a family business tradition there that endured for more than a century.

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