Fergus and Elora experienced fires in May of 1930

Earlier in 2014 this column noted fires seem to occur in clusters.

This week’s column deals with a couple of blazes from May of 1930 that caused significant damage in Elora and Fergus.

Early on the morning of May 13, 1930 the Fergus fire department received several calls reporting a blaze on St. Andrew Street East at the chopping mill operated by Robert C. Burns. It was a little after 5am, but a surprising number of people were up and on the street at that hour.

Several people called the Fergus telephone exchange to report the flames, knowing that the operators there would know who to contact. One of those was a truck driver who noticed the flames as he drove down Highway 6 through the town. A couple of neighbours also reported the flames. One man attracted the attention of the night fireman who looked after the boiler at the Beatty Brothers Grand River plant. He immediately sounded the fire alarm at the factory, and that attracted the attention of much of the town. A member of the Fergus fire brigade responded by ringing the bell at the fire hall.

The Fergus Fire brigade was soon on the scene. They first used their chemical engine, but failed to make much progress because the blaze was already a major one. Flames threatened John Graham’s shop next door to the chopping mill, and the firemen concentrated on saving it.

Soon they had two lines of hose in operation, connected to the water line that had been installed by the Beauty firm to fight fires in the downtown core.

The upgraded fire fighting capacity of Fergus served very well that morning. The men had the blaze under control in 15 minutes, and completely extinguished in about 90 minutes.

The fire was yet another setback for the mill owner, Bob Burns. A few weeks earlier he had badly injured his hand. The previous day he had been in the Kitchener hospital sitting with his wife who had undergone major surgery. While he was away his employees had brought a carload of grain from the nearby cross-town railway spur line and stored it in the second floor of the mill.

Burns always put in extra supports for the floor when he had large quantities of grain stored. His employees neglected that step. At about 11pm the floor collapsed under the weight of the grain. It appears that the crash had pulled electrical wires loose, resulting in the fire, which smouldered away, eventually flaring up as a major blaze a few hours later.

Burns carried fire insurance of $5,000. His loss included most of the machinery in the mill. Also lost were 600 bags of various feeds and supplements, the carload of grain, and other feedstock worth, in total, about $3,000.

Despite his string of bad luck, Burns announced a few hours after the fire that he would rebuild at once. As soon as the ruins had cooled he was on the site clearing away the scorched grain, salvaging what he could. He told the press that his new mill would be larger and more efficient than the old one.

Three days after the Burns fire in Fergus it was the turn of Elora. At about 2am a woman living near the town hall was awakened by a crackling sound. She looked out her window and saw flames at the stairs at the back of the town hall. Those stairs gave access to the meeting hall upstairs. She immediately turned in an alarm.

The firemen could not have had a shorter trip. The fire department was housed in the back of the building, only a couple of feet from the fire.

The pride of the force, the 1928 Brickle fire engine, at first seemed in danger, but the firemen quickly pulled it out of the building and used it to fight the fire. Elora in 1930 had no water system, but there was a large underground tank beside the building which provided a sufficient supply of water to fight the fire.

The firefighters soon had the blaze under control and then extinguished. Little damage could be seen on the outside, but the interior suffered significantly. The staircase to the upper floor was badly damaged, as well as the meeting hall upstairs. The first floor suffered water damage, as well as a lingering smell of smoke.

The building dated to the 1870s, but it had not been built well, as the council of the time tried to cut as many corners as possible during construction. Originally it was a market house, with offices for grain merchants and stalls for meat and vegetable vendors on the first floor. The upstairs was always a single room, but originally was used by farmers to show samples of their grain to grain buyers.

Over the years, with the decline and demise of Elora’s agricultural market, the function of the building changed. At the time of the fire the front part of the building had offices for the clerk and hydro-electric commission, and for the one-man Elora police department. The rear of the main floor provided storage for the fire department’s truck and other supplies. The upstairs room was used largely as a meeting hall and as the location of sessions of the village council.

An insurance adjuster looked at the damage a couple of days later, and allowed $1,500 for repairs. Council called a public meeting to consider alternatives for the structure. The meeting, which was sparsely attended, heard a wide range of proposals, and in the end recommended that a bylaw be submitted to the ratepayers authorizing a major rebuilding.

On June 2 council approved a plebiscite for a $2,000 debenture, which, with the insurance payment, would finance major renovations to the structure. Approval of the vote, though, became stalled at Queen’s Park in Toronto.

Three weeks after the fire, at 3:30am on June 7, two delivery men working for Chapman’s Dairy noticed flames at the rear of the building, at exactly the same place as the first fire. They raised the alarm, and soon three men working at the nearby Shaefer’s bakery were on the scene. Two of the men happened to be firemen. They removed the Brickle truck from the building and put out the blaze with chemical extinguishers.

The second blaze, and its similarities to the one three weeks earlier, convinced authorities that both were deliberately set. The Ontario Provincial Police conducted an investigation, but were unable to identify any suspects. 

Meanwhile, council authorized the necessary repairs to the structure to make it usable. As might be expected the repairs were done as cheaply as possible. There was a noticeable sideways slope to the repaired staircase, which remained dangerously narrow, and the floor in the upstairs hall had a pronounced spring to it.

In that condition the building served Elora for another 30 years. Demolition came in 1961, over the loud protests of many residents. The building by then was in wretched condition, due in part to decades of deferred maintenance. It was replaced with a cheaply-constructed building using a surplus accumulated by the Elora Hydro-Electric Commission.

Today the town hall, housing Centre Wellington’s municipal office, stands on the site.


Stephen Thorning