As one reads the headlines in the Clinton Herald over the last 50 years, much is learned. One thing is that there have been an incredible number of fires; secondly, that being a fireman must be very stressful. There are infinitely more headlines about fires and fire-related stories than any other topic. And, the obstacles that firemen face seem to mount with each turn of the page.
Since 1891, when a paid Clinton Fire Department was first established, the city firefighters have exclusively used artesian well water. This has been an enormous asset to the community. There have been gas explosions, numerous arsonists, heroic rescue operations, sub-arctic or scorching weather conditions, faulty wiring, careless cigarettes, false ceilings (no building code), missing or non-functional smoke alarms, and much more.
All the while, our firemen must negotiate for a living wage and, our city (at times) finds itself hard-pressed to recruit new candidates. Still, this important work has continued in a relatively smooth and fearless manner.
Let’s revisit 1958, when two major fires occurred; the effects of which are felt to this day.
On Christmas Eve of that year, a fire at the magnificent Modernistic Ballroom destroyed two of Clinton’s foremost buildings — the Masonic Lodge (that was rebuilt) and the historic Coliseum (which was lost to future generations). That had followed the Kinney Shoe Store fire on Fifth Avenue South, which could easily have taken the whole block.
On May 31, 1963, the Schneider Produce fire, in Lyons, had followed on the heels of downtown’s Giunta Bros.’ destruction in February, when that South Second Street business had been lost along with all of its productivity.
At that time, some of the firemen were: Sonny Howard, Charlie Gladhill, Louis Lund, Mel McCutcheon, Albert Stremlow and Oakley Carlson, who had graduated from the State University of Iowa in 1930. They dealt with new and ever-increasing challenges like wood burning stoves, drownings, grass fires, domestic gas explosions, garage fires, railroad tank car derailments, and increasing use of the “jaws of life” after automobile accidents. Soon ambulance calls would be added. More and more duties seemed to be foisted upon firemen.
Throughout all those years, the fire department has found time to educate our children by appearing at their schools with a fire truck to demonstrate fire safety (along with the help of “Pluggie” and other characters) in a happy, friendly manner, so that children remember to leave buildings in the event of a fire, to “stop, drop, and roll,” and also to help their parents follow good safety procedures.
Karen Burns, Barb Larson, and others of the auxiliary had a unique educational technique during the bicentennial year of 1976 of having children decorate fire plugs in patriotic red, white and blue.
Many Clintonians were trained about these rules (as well as CPR), which was noted in a special May 30, 1978, Herald article. At that time, Mayor Dwain Walters announced that Clinton was given a good rating by the ISO. Clinton’s top-flight fire department and its life and property saving procedures were judged by the Insurance Service of Iowa “to be very good.”
Over the years, pages of the Clinton Herald have chronicled many interesting surprises in conjunction with the fire department. On April 23, 1979, Officer Gary Smith delivered a 5 pound, 10 ounce baby boy. Ted Tholen led a group of firemen who, in their spare time, restored the famous pumper, “The Resolute” —which is now housed at the Clinton County Historical Society museum.
They had assistance from Bob Proost, who had studied at Stone City, with Grant Wood, during the 1930s.
The feature story of how our fire department worked with John Lang — the “world’s heaviest man” —was extremely interesting. Lang eventually shrunk to 800 pounds (from a record 1,187 pounds). Police and firemen carried him in a canvass sling to a waiting furniture truck, so that he could go to the veterans hospital in Iowa City to have surgeries. (He’s the only man ever to lose 100 pounds in an hour.)
Lang fought a long hard battle for 15 years, just to be able to walk and sit once again. It seemed, however, that as he got thinner, he got sicker. He died Aug. 31, 1982. Years later, a city official would remark, “We’d never allow the fire and police personnel to assist with that kind service today…due to liability issues.”
Clinton fire chiefs over the years were: Harold Nelson, who took over for the aforementioned Albert Krenz, in 1943; he was followed by John Hulten, in 1974; Gary Thoms, in 1979; Russell Luckritz, in 1985; and Mark Regenwether, in 2000. The highly respected William Ruddy, assistant chief, retired on Jan. 16, 1982. He had been a famous leader and organized many variety shows for charity at Yourd Gym…where thousands enjoyed such big names as Wayne King and his orchestra, Professor Backwards, and Myron Floren — who “stole the show” in 1978.
Almost every Clinton fire chief throughout the years was a vocal supporter of a building code and discussions occurred at City Council meetings at regular intervals. These often followed large fires that were thoroughly investigated and, many times, poor construction techniques had been discovered.
Some were believed to be possible arson, which is one of the fastest growing crimes in America. When Clinton annexed more land, the department’s mounting duties increased yet again, as the city’s total square miles increased to 22 and one-half.
Gary Herrity is the Clinton Herald’s historical columnist. His column appears on page 5A on Fridays.