The increasing skills and training of Wellington County’s volunteer firefighters in the early 20th century, along with the use of better equipment and the construction of municipal water systems, allowed local fire brigades to control and extinguish blazes that a few decades earlier would have been major and costly disasters.
One of the curiosities of history is that similar events often occur in clusters, and that is particularly so with fires. One such cluster made a two-week period in the summer of 1929 a very busy one for Wellington County firefighters.
On July 20 of 1929 Earl Cadwell, a driver for Imperial Oil, was filling his truck from a tank at the Canadian National Railway yard in Palmerston. In those days gasoline and other bulk petroleum products were shipped by rail. Local distributors maintained bulk storage facilities for gasoline and oil.
It was a Saturday afternoon, and Cadwell had filled his last truckload for the day. As he drove off he felt a shock. He discovered immediately that the rubber hose he had used to fill the truck had burst into flames. It appears that when he started the truck a spark had ignited some gasoline that had spilled, and the flame immediately spread to the gasoline that remained in the hose. Within a couple of minutes the flames spread to a second rubber hose.
Cadwell feared an explosion, and he immediately called the Palmerston fire brigade. The firefighters arrived in only a few minutes. Cadwell urged them to not spray water on the flames, which he feared would spread the fire rather than extinguish it. Instead, he grabbed two fire extinguishers from the fire truck. In short order the flames were put out. The firefighters then took over, drenching the tank, hoses, and surrounding area with water.
Palmerston’s water tank was low, and the firemen did not have much water pressure at their disposal. Several of the firemen busied themselves keeping the public well back from the tank. It might easily have exploded into a fireball, and the flames could have caused much damage and loss of property.
As it turned out, damage was restricted to the loss of the rubber hoses on the tank, and the burning of one of the tires on Cadwell’s truck. The firefighters, and Cadwell especially, received much praise for their cool heads and their bravery in preventing what could easily have been a significant disaster.
Three days later it was the turn of the firefighters in Mount Forest. At about 9pm Mr. and Mrs. Agar were returning home, and as they ascended the hill on Egremont Street they noticed flames coming from the main building of Flett’s Greenhouse complex. They notified Flett, who became very agitated, and ran around to assess the fire before turning in an alarm to the Mount Forest firefighters.
The delay and confusion proved to be very costly. When the brigade arrived on the scene the blaze had grown in size and was quite beyond control. And like the Palmerston force three days earlier, they had to cope with low water pressure and a nearly depleted supply. They attempted to use two hoses on a four-inch water main. A couple of the men complained that the nozzles on their hoses were too large for the available water supply.
One of the men went to the town’s well and adjusted the pump to increase the pressure. That helped the situation a little. But by then it was too late. The greenhouses and auxiliary buildings were all made of wood, and were dry and easily combustible. The blaze was spectacular, and the flames could be seen for miles from the town.
It was a fairly quiet night in Mount Forest, and the fire provided the only excitement that evening. People from the country motored into town, swelling the crowd of onlookers to an estimated 3,000.
Though largely forgotten today, Flett’s Greenhouse was, in the late 1920s, one of the largest in the Dominion. The business specialized in potted plants, which were shipped across the country, making the firm the leading rail customer in Mount Forest in the 1920s.
Flett had built the business up from nothing to a complex of greenhouses several acres in size, with an additional area for growing plants on the fields adjoining.
The fire spelled the end of the business. Flett carried no insurance on his buildings. As well, he lost thousands of plants in pots, both in the greenhouses and lined out in rows near the buildings. It appeared that the blaze had started in a pile of old newspapers. The fire ended the business permanently. It also resulted in a re-examination of Mount Forest’s fire fighting capability due to the difficulties with the water supply and the hoses and nozzles used by the fire fighters.
A week later, on Aug. 1, it was the turn of Fergus to deal with a fire that might have turned into a major conflagration. At about 8pm a couple of workmen discovered a fire in the wood piled up in the yard to the west of the Beatty firm’s Grand River plant, now the parking lot of the Fergus Market.
Will and Milt Beatty had a paranoid fear of fire, and had gone to extraordinary measures to provide an in-house fire fighting capacity. The men at work blew the fire siren at the factory and then phoned in an alarm to the Fergus fire brigade. Due to some sort of error, the fire siren at the large Hill Street plant was also sounded, resulting in confusion. That infuriated Will Beatty, who abhorred such situations and inefficiency.
In any case, the Beatty employees at work that evening managed to extinguish the blaze before it spread to other piles of wood or to the building itself. The next morning Will Beatty insisted that the town check its fire alarm system. They found a defect that had caused the Hill Street alarm to sound, and made the necessary corrections.
This was one of several close calls at the plant. The Beattys had installed a sprinkler system in the building, one of the first in the area, and had installed a large pump that could be hooked to the municipal system to increase the firefighting capacity of both the firm and the town.
The following evening a fire broke out in the top floor of the Elora Mill. Fire had claimed the original wooden mill on the site in 1854. The rebuilt mill, constructed of stone, burned three times, in 1859, 1865 and 1870. Subsequently there were several close calls, where fires were extinguished before they could claim the building.
Luck was with the building in 1929. Alison Maitland, who lived in the large house above the mill surrounded by the famous high stone wall, happened to glance out a window, and noticed a little smoke coming from the top storey of the building.
She immediately turned in an alarm to the Elora firefighters, and to the mill, where several men and the mill owner, Udney Richardson were at work.
The men in the mill soon got the blaze under control before it could spread. It originated in an overheated bearing on the conveyor belt system. The men in the mill had not been aware of the danger. The bearing was out of sight, below the current roof but above an older roof that remained from one of the numerous alterations made over the years.
Those were four fires over a two-week period in the summer of 1929 that might have been major events in the history of the county. They are examples of improved fire fighting practices combining with old fashioned good luck to prevent disaster.