Mendon’s Darkest Day
Kalamazoo Gazette, October 1, 1961 (45 –Years Ago article): “Mendon, Michigan – The sun was bright in the cloudless sky but the sharp edge of autumn was on the wind that bristled out of the southwest.
Mothers poked a couple extra sticks of wood into their kitchen ranges to take the chill off and remarked that it was about time to get the long wool underwear on the children as she sent them away to school.
Merchants along the Main Street stirred life into their stoves when they opened up for the day. They didn’t expect much business be cause it seemed that nearly half of the village’s 900 or so residents were planning a trip to the Kalamazoo Fair.
It was a perfect day for an excursion. The top attraction in the city was scheduled to be Jack Williams, “The Human Fly.’ He was brought to Kalamazoo by the Gazette-Telegraph.
It was October 4, 1916.
Before it ended, the day was destined to become the darkest in Mendon’s history.
By auto, for those who had them, the trip to Kalamazoo was a long ride over dusty back roads. The easiest way to travel was on the train and by mid-morning most of the fair-goers had started out.
At noon the usual quiet had settled over the village. Some merchants had gone home for lunch. Others, such as the young barber, was eating his mid-day meal at his place of business.
Down the street from the barbershop, Billy Williams, a clerk in Royers Butcher Shop was rendering lard in a big kettle at the rear of the shop. He was alone and had to keep his eye out for customers at the same time.
Without warning the lard boiled over and caught fire.
Williams shouted an alarm. In the excitement the kettle overturned and flaming grease spewed over and through the wooden floor.
One fiery tongue licked at the pile of firewood stacked behind Sampson’s Bakery nest door and the flames crackled higher
Mendon’s business district, as it had grown from the time the town was platted in 1843, was doomed.
At the same time the burning oil was spreading on its destructive course, many of the Mendon town folk were in Kalamazoo watching the “Fly” climb the six-story Edwards and Chamberlain Building, now occupied by the Super Bargain Center.
With the volunteer fire department short-handed, it remained to those who had stayed behind tending the stores to do their best to save the town.
In those days Mendon’s fire equipment consisted of a horse-drawn team-operated pumper and a hand-drawn hose cart.
When the fire bell clanged draymen jerked the pins out of their whipple trees and raced for the fire hall, anxious for the privilege of pulling the fire engine and the $2 the village paid for the first team on the spot.
From the start, the volunteer firemen ran into bad luck.
What they needed to extinguish the burning lard was sand. They didn’t have it, or didn’t think of it, or didn’t have time to get it.
Then the bright brass and red pumper was dunked into the St. Joseph River and put out of commission. Stationing the pumper on a concrete pier in the river, lines were set and nearly ready to go when Doc James Barnaby’s barn caught fire nearby. It was decided to move the pumper for fear its wheels would burn off.
The men tried to back the fire engine down the bank to the river. The unwieldy vehicle broke loose from the straining men and plunged into three or four feet of water.
The fire got its foothold at the baker’s woodpile and chances for stopping it were slim. The bakery burst into an inferno and flames spread to Dailey’s General Store and then down the entire block on the south side of the street.
As the general store raged the southwest wind hurled a bridge of flames across the street and the buildings on the north side became tinder for the fire.
Telephone operators, with the inferno bearing down on them, sent out hurried calls for help and then fled
Kalamazoo and Sturgis loaded their equipment on railcars and the trains highballed to Mendon in record time. It took two hours for Kalamazoo to get one of its horse-drawn pumpers loaded and down to the conflagration.
Sturgis firemen stationed their pumper on the Nottawa Street Bridge and Kalamazoo hooked their up to a huge cistern. It was a valiant try, but too late to save the heart of the village.
By evening 41 businesses and three residences lay crumbled into ashes.
Losses were estimated at $250,000. Insurance covered about $75,000 worth according to old accounts of the blaze.
One of the most amazing aspects of the day was the fact that no one was injured. Old-timers today chuckle and relate how one resident was hurt when he was looting the burned out stores later that night. Charred flooring gave way and he plunged into the basement, either breaking or spraining an ankle.
Some of the visiting firemen were the worse for wear when they got home. Mendon at the time was dry, however druggists carried stocks of liquor for prescription.
At the pharmacy Estes started lugging out his most valuable drugs. His father, he says, told him the fire would never reach the drugstore.
“The hell it won’t”, “I told him”
Estes carried his stocks to the southeast corner of Main and Nottawa and added them to growing piles of groceries, clothing and other merchandise and equipment.
Estes tells of seeing one man, Vern Taylor, carefully remove his coat and put his gold watch and money in its pockets. He hung it on a peg in Auton’s Tin shop on the north side of the street. The shop was the first to go when the flames leaped across.
The 24-year-old barber who was eating his lunch in his Main Street shop also remembers the fire. He is Don Olds, now retired from his hair-cutting business.
“I had a two-chair shop. In the back I had a couple of pool tables,” he relates.
“As soon as I saw the fire I knew it was going to get my place. The butcher shop was six or seven doors down the street.”
“A couple of fellows and myself knocked the windows and wooden front out of the shop and we carried the barber chairs and pool tables out,” he says.
The men even carried the stove out of the barbershop.
After it was over, Mendon was without food supplies, without communications and without the other necessities of life.
Wagonloads of merchandise were brought in and merchants started back into business, making the best of makeshift shops in their homes.
Despite the tremendous losses, not a single merchant gave Mendon up as a lost cause.
Like the Phoenix of mythology, it rose out of the ashes.
Note: The estimated $250,000 loss in 1916 equates to $4,867,489.71 in 2009 dollars.