During the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries, small town fire departments laboured under severe constraints of poor training, inadequate equipment, and jurisdictional disputes.
Those factors all came into play with a pair of major fires in the Elora area during May 1920.
About 2am on the morning of May 11, 1920, the Elora fire alarm woke a good portion of the population, and roused the village’s firefighters from their beds. The reason was a blaze at the store of John Geddes in Salem.
By then the fire had progressed to engulf the entire building, a brick structure with a frame storage room.
The blaze was discovered by Adam Fladd, who was walking home from Elora after spending the evening and early morning hours with cronies in Elora.
Fladd raised the alarm among his neighbours, and soon an impromptu group of volunteers was enthusiastically but ineffectually battling the blaze.
The fire was already well advanced when Fladd first spotted it.
Flames were starting to poke through the roof.
Most spent their time removing the goods and shelving from the store.
There was no significant supply of water other than the nearby Irvine River, and that was of no use because the firefighters had neither pump nor hose.
After a time someone phoned an alarm to the Elora brigade, and the firefighter who took the call rushed to the town hall to sound the alarm.
Nichol Township, which included Salem, had a fire agreement with Elora, but that document was vague about who could send in an alarm and who could authorize the fee payable to Elora.
But with the fire raging out of control, there would be time to sort that out later.
Eventually the Elora men arrived, with their ancient engine.
It had been state-of-the-art when purchased in the 1890s. In 1920 it was not quite a museum piece, but it was hopelessly outdated.
The brigade could do little to extinguish the blaze, which was then at its height.
Flames consumed the frame storage house with a fire so hot that spectators had to stand well back.
Soon all that was left were the outside brick walls of the store.
And of those, the side nearest Elora lost its gable and had a major crack through it.
Geddes had carried some $4,500 of insurance on the building and its contents.
He had not raised it for years, failing to consider what the post-World War I inflation had done to prices.
Those in the know said the insurance would not come close to replacing the building, let alone the stock Geddes had lost.
The next morning daylight revealed a smouldering ruin. It was another blow to the economic vitality of Salem.
Thirteen days later the Elora fire alarm rang again, this time a little after five on the morning of May 24. As usual the siren woke most of the village.
Many people called the telephone exchange, which in pre-dial telephone days functioned as a clearing house for information.
The operator on duty informed callers that the fire was at the Elora White Lime Company, which was then excavating and shipping the rock from what later would be known as the Elora Quarry.
Soon a crowd was sleepily making its way to the site at the eastern edge of Elora.
This time there was no jurisdictional difficulty. The company’s property had been incorporated into the village a few years earlier in order that it might get electricity at village rates. The operation was easily the largest hydro consumer in Elora.
The company had several large buildings, all of which were covered with sheet metal.
The sheathing kept the fire contained, but also intensified it. There was no doubt that it broke out in the storage portion of the main building, but no cause was readily apparent, and none was ever identified.
Firefighters were able to keep the blaze confined to the storage building, and saved the furnaces, kilns, and two of the large motors which were nearby. Much machinery, though, was lost.
Still, the firefighters managed to save a great deal.
If left to itself the fire would have reduced the whole operation to ashes and tangled metal.
There were local fears that the fire would mean the end of the operation, which was small by the standards of the 1920s.
The lime kiln had provided work to several dozen local men, and was a considerable source of revenue for the village and the hydro commission.
The extra demand created by the kiln operation meant that the Elora Hydro Commission purchased power at a lower rate than would otherwise be the case.
That produced a benefit for all hydro consumers in Elora.
The fire took the edge off the mood of celebration later that day, which was the Victoria Day holiday Monday.
Interestingly, no call for assistance went out to the Fergus brigade.
The extra help proved to be unnecessary, but that was not clear in the early stages of the blaze.
Typically in those days, such aid was agreed to only after a quick consultation between reeves.
Later that week the mood of doom lifted when company officials announced plans to rebuild, and on a scale about three times the size of the old plant.
The lime kiln produced lime for use in plaster, and there was, at that time, a huge demand created by a building boom in Toronto.
The plant produced enough plaster to ship several boxcar loads each week.
As well, the operation also shipped lime to Hamilton for use as a flux in the smelters. The flux went out as crushed rock in gondola cars.
Ironically, the fire may well have prolonged the life of the quarry.
At its old size it was a marginal operation, and might have been shut down when the high demand subsided.
Rebuilt, the operation lasted another 10 years.
A change in ownership and the drastic drop in demand with the onset of the Great Depression meant the end of the Elora quarry as a commercial operation.
The rapid response of the Elora Fire Department was certainly a factor in containing and extinguishing the blaze.
With the company inside the village boundary, there was no ambiguity about authorization and payments.
A fire at the Elora Lime Company had been a fear of the local brigade for some time, and the men had staged practice sessions there on a couple of occasions.
That no doubt helped their efforts when a real fire came.
The Elora Lime Company’s operation was not an old one. The business dated to the late 1890s on a very small scale.
Heavy production did not commence until after 1900.
Production then increased several times, with the result that the building complex was something of a ramshackle assortment of buildings, lean-tos, and sheds.
Not until later in the twentieth century did local fire departments resolve cross-boundary issues, with the mutual aid system and fire agreements between municipalities that specified procedures clearly.
Had such agreements and arrangements been in place decades earlier, damage and losses in fires such as these two might have been minimized.