If you try to recount the top 10 fires in Clinton history, you will encounter a large task and one in which choosing is very difficult. Today we will attempt to recount the biggest fires in Clinton history, but the reader will remember more.
The headlines scream weekly of house and industrial conflagrations of epic proportions where people are killed and firemen are injured. Steve Borota fell off an icy porch in 1969, five firemen were injured in the large Two Mile fire on July 12, 1969, and several others have suffered smoke inhalation problems of their own at almost every fire. Headlines and photographs are numerous and exciting like no other subject in Clinton history.
A lot has been written about the following fires, but some of our biggest were: the Taha fire on Nov. 26, 1982 when four members of the family were killed due to a faulty fireplace; the Valley Oaks destruction on June 24, 1986, which took place because of a misplaced roofing tar pot, it was noted by 5-year-old golfer Kevin Herrity while leaving that night “that is a dangerous place to leave that hot thing;” O’Leary’s Restaurant, aka Clinton National Bank, T.I. McLane Office Equipment, and several businesses on Jan. 18, 1999; the Machael Oil fire on March 1, 1971, which produced the most startling fire pictures since the Clinton High School fire; the Domestic Plumbing fire on Jan. 28, 1983; reporter Lee White did a fine job of weaving the history of the Kehoe-owned Columbia Hotel with the fire; the Flower Shoppe fire on Fourth Street on Feb. 11, 1985, which took out the Independent Optical Shoppe and several other businesses and came within inches of igniting paint and other flammable products at Clausen Hardware; the KROS fire on Second Street on Feb. 25, 1985; general manager Hank Dihlmann got the station up and running within hours; the Drive-In fire on July 7, 1969; and the wind-whipped Paaske’s fire on March 31, 1977 where friends and strangers helped businesses to remove goods. The Potts Jewelry store was the oldest store in Clinton and was next to Paaske’s.
A Clinton landmark was destroyed by fire when the Lamb home on Woodland Drive, which had been moved 15 blocks and 100 feet up the hill in 1902; On March 27, 1980, the Pierson block fire, built in 1888, on South Fourth Street drove many uninsured apartment dwellers out of their homes and firefighters using ladders rescued several people who were trapped on the upper floors in this inferno; the same year, on Nov. 12, the Port Hole on Main was destroyed. Many of these stories have been written about or are too lengthy to detail here, but all of them can be seen by perusing files at the Root Cellar in the Carnegie library in downtown Clinton.
Mixed between these famous fires were some lighter experiences that illustrate more duties of the department. On May 23, 1986, there was a “big ruckus” at the Bond-Walgreen store on Fifth Avenue South. When all the fire equipment arrived, only a few sparks could be discerned. It was always a concern that the whole side of the street might go up on these avenues where the buildings are joined. Indeed, in the Pinney shoe store fire, the Van Allen building was only saved by a wonderful firewall created by Haring Construction and Louis Sullivan when it was built.
Firemen during this era were led by the likes of fire marshall Cliff Peters, Ed Swamberger, who died in 1963 while promoting smoke alarms in his retirement years; Kent Ketelsen, who can be seen in several pictures perched in precarious spots on fire engulfed buildings; Grant Wilke and Mike Kuk, who enhanced his duty by a hobby in which he collected fire department memorabilia, have been helpful at the Clinton County Historical Museum with its excellent fire department displays.
Police chiefs such as H.J. “Buck” Fries and Gene Bienke were mentioned in fire articles because they helped lead arson investigations. In July 1968, after the CHS fire, a new rash of fires took place and one arsonist, Anthony Baresh, was sent to prison. An interesting side note, which underscores the vocation of firefighter, happened during the Macheal Oil fire on March 1, 1971. Another fire broke out at the John and Audrey Fullan home doubling the department’s difficulties. The fire was discovered by their 13-year-old son, Jim, and his friend, Mark Regenwether, who was staying overnight and they fought the fire and had their faces burned, yet turned in the alarm in the midst of the mayhem. Today they are proud firemen serving the city of Clinton.
Sometimes citizens see firemen relaxing from their duties and surmise that the job is easy or that Clinton wastes a lot of money on firefighting and protection. Yet the pages of the Herald show us the devastation and danger of fires throughout the editions. Review the general particulars of just one series of fires and you will appreciate the efforts: a smoke fire at the Lafayette Hotel in the fall of 1967; several garage fires; the landfill catches fire; the Curtis Mansion on Bluff goes up in smoke on Dec. 26; arson is suspected; more fires occur in the dead of night; fear “engulfs the citizens” and spreads throughout the town; guards are posted at all 17 schools; five young male suspects are investigated; clues are frantically sifted through, as the ashes are turned; the state fire marshals are called in to assist Clinton’s Fire and Police Departments; hundreds of investigators search for clues; and, early on Monday morning, Jan. 8, 1968, fireman Don Obermiller was the first at the scene with Assistant Chief Vernon Cook and they entered the burning Clinton High School. The “worst fire in Clinton history” continued to be fought for many hours. Later, photographs revealed the same young face at every fire and by Feb. 2, 1968, Herald headlines screamed, “Boy Admits 9 Fires.” Richard Jablonski couldn’t or wouldn’t stop the onslaught of fires, and there is no telling how many structures would have been immolated or people killed without the strong and intrepid action of Clinton’s civil servants. They have done their jobs like this over and over.
Gary Herrity is the Clinton Herald’s historical columnist.
Sources: Fire Department records and files now housed at the Clinton County Historic Museum; Bob Soesbe, Chief Mark Regenwether, former chief Russell Luckritz. Don Obermiller, Mike Kuk, Steve Borota, other firemen. Other stories about Clinton fires are available at the Clinton County Historical Society Museum.