Our History

History of the Richland Center Fire Department

At a meeting of the village board held August 16, 1869, a bill was brought up appropriating the sum of $800 to purchase a Babcock chemical engine for the extinguishment of fires.  Although the bill was tabled, from it may be traced the present efficient fire brigade that is always on hand.

Although the first attempt had failed, the matter was pressed.  On November 23, 1869 the trustees passed the bill to purchase a United States chemical engine.  At the next meeting thereafter held December 13, 1869, the trustees, by ballot, elected Henry St. John foreman, and William Tuttle, assistant foreman with full power to raise and organize a fire company.  At the same meeting measures were also taken that all necessary fixtures should be purchased to run the engine company and help the company in the discharge of their duty.  It would seem from the records that the chemical engine was purchased and arrived, but for some reason it did not meet the wants of the community nor the wishes of the board, and it was returned.

January 10, 1870, however, the village board passed a resolution to purchase as a substitute for it a second-hand Button & Blake’s hand engine, in good repair, at a cost of $750 and 300 feet of hose suitable for the use of the same and also a resolution to purchase of Richards & Herbert a hook and ladder truck, at a cost of $120, and a hose reel to carry the hose to the seat of conflagration.  This being done, in February 1870, there was duly organized the Richland Center Engine Company and the Richland Center Hook and Ladder Company, and all the implements for the extinguishment of fires were placed in their hand, and for the safe keeping of which they pledged themselves and also agreed to drill in the use of the same.  The town board thereupon appointed A. W. Bickford as chief engineer of the department and that gentleman has the honor of being the first to enjoy that dignity.

To the honor of the village board be it spoken that they took all measures to make this a most efficient department, and in furtherance of this in May, 1870, they signed a contract with M. D. Hankins, by which he agreed to build several cisterns at the intersection of such streets as were thought most advisable.  Three were built under this contract, but it seems from some later remarks upon the records that they had not proved quite as satisfactory as was desirable, as several more were afterwards built of brick or stone, one near D. O. Chandler’s store being let under contract to G. A. Tuttle for $225.  This was in the summer of 1873.

In the early days of the new fire brigade the engine, trucks and reel were kept in various barns and buildings rented for that purpose but in December, 1870, and January, 1871, an engine house was built by the board for the use of the department at a cost of some $300.  In 1871 and 1872, A. W. Bickford was re-elected to the office of chief engineer.  During this latter year some more hose was purchased and the engine house was removed to lot 3 in block 8, which had been purchased for the purpose by the village board of J. W. Lybrand for the sum of $175.

The engine company by this time numbered some thirty members and the hook and ladder company fifteen.  These were all, in consideration of their services in the fire brigade, exempt from paying poll tax or doing jury duty.

In April, 1873, the mode of choosing the officers of the department was changed, passing from the hands of the village board to that of the companies themselves, subject, however, to the confirmation of the trustees of the village.  Under this rule the officers chosen were as follows:

W. F. Tuttle, chief engineer;  F. M. Ott, assistant engineer;  H. Toms, treasurer;  G. N. Matteson, secretary.

In 1877 J. M. Adams was the head of the fire department.

In the year 1878 the officers of the department were as follows: David G. James, chief engineer;  Benjamin Brimer, assistant;  Henry Toms, treasurer; W. H. Pier, secretary; George Jarvis, fire warden.

The year 1879 witnessed the re-election of the entire board.  The officers above mentioned seemed to give such satisfaction that no change was made until 1881, when we find the following as the list of officers of the department:  D. G. James, chief engineer;  George N. Matteson, assistant;  F. P. Lawrence, secretary;  H. Toms, treasurer;  George Jarvis, fire warden.

At the annual election in May, 1882, the following officers were elected:  W. H. Pier, chief engineer;  H. T. Bailey, assistant engineer;  H. Toms, treasurer;  D. G. James, secretary;  O. G. Munson, fire warden.

The department is a very efficient one and is well equipped with good apparatus and the “boys” are the pride of the village.  The present officers were elected May, 1883, and are as follows:  W. Harry Pier, chief engineer;  David G. James, first assistant engineer;  H. R. Brewer, second assistant engineer;  George Jarvis, fire warden;  I. A. Cleveland, secretary;  Henry Toms, treasurer.

Fire Record

The village has but little cause to lament the usual large proportion of fires that occurred within its limits assumed any magnitude.

The first buildings burned in Richland Center were the dwelling houses belonging to Phineas Janney and Samuel Fries.  They were both occupied by their families.  The first fire of any importance was the burning of the court house, which occurred in April, 1859.  Among other distressing fires that have occurred were the following:  Burning of J. Thompson’s house, Jones’ tannery, Walworth’s steam saw-mill, Smith, Laws & Co.’s saw-mill and furniture factory, Fries’ tannery, American Hotel, Jones’ shoe shop, Bayles’ blacksmith shop, John Heeran’s marble works, engine house, the Austin building, Daniel Rice’s store, the railway depot and A. H. Krouskop’s block.

The following is an account of the two most important fires that have occurred in Richland Center, as gleaned from the newspaper accounts published at the time.

The burning of the depot

About 2 o’clock in the morning of Sunday, October 8, 1882, two quick reports in succession, or as nearly together as to almost seem one, and loud as a cannons roar, awakened every sleeper and shook every building in Richland Center.  The startled citizens on being so rudely torn from their peaceful slumbers, in quick haste donned their clothing and sailed forth in hot haste to inquire the cause.  Ere many of them had gathered and with pallid cheek and quivering lip had asked the momentous question, the sonorous peal of the great fire bell resounding through the trembling air, told the fast gathering throng that the red fire fiend danced in their midst, and his infernal alter smoked with the incense he delights in.

Excited crowds soon filled the streets, all hastening in the direction from which the lurid flames lit up the village, and made the surrounding bluffs look like the mythical hills of brass.

    It took but a short time to make the discovery that the depot of the Pine river branch of the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul railroad was a prey to the devouring element. In the short space of time which elapsed between the reports and the arrival of the fire brigade the flames had got under such headway, that it was impossible to arrest their mad progress and save the building or any of its contents. The safe belonging to the express company was indeed pulled from the fire, owing to the exertions of the firemen, and its contents saved, but this was about all.

    Investigation showed that the reports were caused by the ignition of two kegs of gunpowder that were in the depot at the time. The roof of the building was blown off by the force of the explosion and fire thrown in all directions.

    The work of the flames was swift and sure, and in an incredibly short space of time the spot where the building stood was marked only by a mass of smouldering ruins. In addition to the loss of the depot and its contents, the baggage car and one or two freight cars that stood near on the track were badly scorched and damaged before they could be removed. The passenger coach, however, escaped with but slight damage.

Conflagration of Krouskop’s Palace Dry Goods Store.

    Between the hours of four and five o’clock in the morning of Friday, Jan. 28, 1883, the village of Richland Center was again visited by the demon of fire, which with a flaming besom swept out of existance one of the chief ornaments of the city nestled among the hills.

    At the hour mentioned above, the loud clangor of the fire bell broke upon the affrighted ears of the sleeping inhabitants of the village dissipating their little remaining slumbers. The wild alarm soon brought the whole town upon the streets. It was found, on inquiry, that a fire had been discovered, shortly before, in the frame grocery store of A H Floaten, on Center street, in close proximity to A H Krouskop’s mammoth brick block, and by the time the fire department had arrived on the ground the fiery element had gathered such headway that it was plainly evident to all that all effort to subdue it was in vain, and that the edifice was doomed to destruction.

    The extreme cold weather had frozen the valves of the engine and some valuable time was wasted by that unfortunate circumstance, upon their arrival upon the scene of action. While the firemen were making strenuous efforts to remedy this, and straining every nerve to get the apparatus to work, the flames spread to the frame building north of the one where the fire originated, also occupied by Mr. Foaten, and thence north to the building tenanted by W H Pier, as an abstract office. The main efforts of the hook and ladder company was directed toward pulling down the Pier building that endangered the remaining portion of the row. For some time it was feared that all their efforts were unavailing, and that the flames would leap the narrow distance, to the next building, and the whole business portion of the town would be devoured by the insatiable monster.

    But fortunately there was no wind to fan the fire and help it spread and this fact, added to the almost superhuman efforts of the firemen, and it might be said, the whole number of the inhabitants as well, and that the roofs of all the buildings were deeply covered with snow, kept the fire in due limits, and its further progress was arrested in that direction. All this time great volumes of flames, fed by the combustable nature of Floaten’s store and stock, of which a considerable quantity of coal oil formed a part, rolled up against the side of Krouskop’s block, heating the iron cornice and setting fire to the rafters underneath the roof, and joists of timbers running around back of the cornice. The engine, having by this time been put into good working order, stream after stream of water was poured directly upon the devouring element, but with very little visible effect.

    Owing to the height of the building, the engine could not throw a stream up to the cornice with force enough to be effective. The fire still kept creeping insidiously onward at this point in under the roof. A number of men were inside fighting the flames with pails of water, and after the efforts of the firemen were found to be useless outside, the hose was taken up through a window in Black & Burnham’s law office, and an attempt was made to reach the attic with it and turn a stream of water against the flames, but the attempt miscarried and the whole scheme abandoned.

    Still being unwilling to give the matter up, the firemen went along the hall on the second story and extinguished the fire that had caught in the windows and casings, on the north side of the building. The fire in these rooms had been previously put out several times, but the heat was so intense that the wood-work rekindled almost as soon as they were cleared of the fire. Those inside finding how futile were their puny efforts against this hydra-headed giant, and seeing no possible chance of saving the building, reluctantly retired, and left the magnificent structure to its fate.

    Hushed now was the clamor, and all stood spell-bound, like the sailor as he watches the fast sinking vessel he has just left, watching the gradual triumph of the element over the boasted work of man. The flames now had an unmolested chance and their progress was swift, sure and deadly. With terrible steps the invader stole downward from the attic to the second floor, stair by stair, then onward to the first floor, devouring all on its way, and then as if deeming it still not enough went still downward in its irresistable march even into the cellar. As each floor, with its timbers and contents gave way and fell crashing to the one below, the flames rolled higher and higher and danced in infernal glee over the wreck and ruin below.

    By seven o’clock the element had exhausted its force, and what was a few hours before a superb building was a heap of smouldering ruins and tottering, ragged, smoke scorched walls. Parts of the latter had to be battered down as their wrecked state imperiled the passers-by and some have since blown down, leaving an unsightly wreck, a blot upon the face of the fair village.

    During the progress of the conflagration, the explosion of a keg of powder in the store of A H Floaten created a lively sensation, as there were people in the building at the time engaged in carrying out goods, and the proprietor was, even then, engaged in a search for the powder and was within a few feet of it when it exploded. The glass in the windows of the buildings opposite was nearly all shattered by the concussion. Much of the goods in both buildings were saved, but in a damaged condition.

    Various conjectures as to the origin of the fire were rife, at the time, but it seems to be the general opinion that it caught from a defective flue in the Floaten store. The loss can safely be put down as fully $75,000, on which there was an insurance of $48,700.

    An account of this Krouskop block will not be out of place in this connection, as the structure was the pride of the citizens of the village and of the county generally, as well as of the owner, and was said to be the finest building of the kind in the State, west of Milwaukee. The block was 44×125 feet, with a wing 34×74 feet in dimension, all two stories high, and was built of pressed brick, with cut stone trimmings and handsome iron cornice. Large plate glass windows adorned and illuminated the front, and all the interior wood work was executed in hard wood, principally walnut. Mr. Krouskop commenced the erection of the edifice in 1876; the material he had been collecting for ten years previously. It was finished during the year 1877, and he moved into it in January, 1878, and occupied it at the time of its destruction.

Richland Center Fire Department apparatus in the 1960's