On the evening of Feb. 6, 1931, Fergus experienced a serious fire on its main street.
The victim was Robert Kerr, the tinsmith whose pioneering work in conservation has been the subject of this column on several occasions.
Kerr lived in an apartment above his shop, which had been a fixture on St. Andrew Street for decades. As he grew older Kerr had cut back on his work, and the bulk of the first floor was rented to Grigg’s Department Store. The fire started in the kitchen of Kerr’s apartment on the second storey. Kerr had gone out for the evening.
He was 70 years of age, and increasingly disliked the cold. To have a warm refuge when he returned home later that night, he filled the kitchen stove with coal before he went out for an evening of socializing with some cronies at the home of John Malcolm.
The coal burned better than Kerr expected. The stove overheated, and soon set the kitchen on fire. Flames spread quickly to the rest of the building.
The Fergus High School held its annual commencement ceremonies that night. People returning home from the event noticed the flames and smoke. Fergus lawyer J.A. Wilson turned in the alarm. The time was about 9:45pm.
By the time the volunteer firefighters arrived, smoke was belching from the windows of Kerr’s second floor apartment and from the windows in the largely vacant third floor. There was also smoke in Grigg’s store, which was directly beneath Kerr’s apartment.
The fire was concentrated at the rear of the building. That made it difficult for the firefighters, but they soon had their hoses unreeled and in use. The fireman on duty at the Beatty plant across the river fired up the pumps to draw water from the Grand River and into the piping system that offered fire protection for the Fergus downtown core.
Kerr himself was soon on the scene, and made an effort to enter his apartment to retrieve some papers and personal possessions, but he was driven back by the heat and smoke.
The Fergus firefighters realized at once it was a serious blaze that, if not contained quickly, might spread to adjoining buildings.
Kerr’s building was in the middle of the block, with structures on both sides. Flying sparks threatened buildings on the other side of St. Andrew Street and the Beatty plant across the river. Fortunately, there was no wind at the time, but nervous property owners and storekeepers watched closely, and pestered the firemen to try harder to extinguish the fire.
To help placate the critics, an SOS message went to Elora. That village’s firefighters arrived soon after with Elora’s almost-new Bickle fire engine. A while later Reeve W.L. Ham called Guelph firefighters to help out when he feared the Fergus men might not have the skills to deal with the blaze.
With all their equipment in use the Fergus men had five streams of water pouring onto the fire. The pumps at the Beatty plant were up to the task, and they supplied ample water during the following two hours or so. The pump on the Elora truck could not be used. The firefighters discovered, to their dismay, that the couplings used by the Fergus and Elora brigades did not match. Nevertheless, the Elora men assisted where they could, after a futile attempt by them to draw water directly from the Grand River at the rear of the building.
A huge crowd gathered to watch the fire and the firefighters, but there was little to see. The fire was a smouldering one, with plenty of smoke but few flames, and it burned away at the rear of the building, out of sight of the crowd on the main street. As well, the firemen blocked all the doors and windows in the building to prevent drafts that might fan the blaze.
Elora Reeve Dick Mills was in Fergus that night along with a number of Elora men, attending a Masonic meeting. They were soon on the scene as spectators. Three Guelph firefighters, answering the request from Reeve Ham, were on the scene an hour after the alarm was first turned in. The reeve asked them to provide advice and guidance to his own force.
The Guelph men provided excellent advice and soon the Fergus force, assisted by the men from Elora, began gaining on the fire. Still, despite all their efforts, and the streams of water pumped onto the blaze, it was midnight before they had it more or less extinguished.
Some of the men then went home to warm up and rest, while a skeleton crew remained on the scene to deal with sparks, embers and occasional flare-ups. They declared the fire out at about 3am. It was a hard night for them. Many had become drenched with water, and the thermometer hovered near the zero mark on the Fahrenheit scale.
The next morning, there was very little evidence of the fire from St. Andrew Street. Almost all the damage was at the rear. The fire had spread slightly, into the adjoining building owned by J.J. Johnston and used by him as a store, with his residence above.
Johnston had plenty of warning, and was able to remove most of his stock to nearby stores. The fire burned through the roof of the Johnston building, though not to the extent suffered by the Kerr building.
Insurance adjusters showed up the day after the fire. Unlike many property owners, Kerr carried adequate insurance on his building, and that permitted quick repairs and reconstruction. Work crews appeared on the Monday following the fire, undertaking repairs to the roofs of the buildings. They wished to close off the structures to the elements in order to work in relative comfort repairing and rebuilding the interiors, which had suffered both fire damage and considerable water damage from the tons of water pumped into them.
Both Johnston and Grigg worked hard during the following weeks to clean up their stores and prepare them for reopening, scheduled for about six weeks later.
The fire should never have happened. Kerr realized that filling up the stove with coal and then going out was an extremely foolish thing to do.
The fire might well have spread in both directions, claiming a major portion of the Fergus main street. The town was lucky with the weather, which was windless that night, though extremely cold. And much credit must go the Beatty Company and W.G. Beatty. He had a paranoid fear of fire, and pushed for improved fire fighting capacity in the downtown years before Fergus had a municipal water system.
And finally, much credit must go to the fire brigades, which had begun co-operating with one another informally in fighting major blazes. Those measures would eventually lead to the mutual aid system in place today. The firefighters themselves realized they would require better training to deal with future disasters. Officials were rather red-faced with the discovery that their hoses could not inter-connect with those from Elora due to mismatched couplings.
Co-operation among the various forces had come along way since the 19th century, but there were still important and vital improvements to be made.