The Plano Blaze in March 1881
Originally published in the Kendall County Record, March 31, 1881
Edited and compiled by Elmer Dickson
A ruthless blaze leveled a row of seven buildings. The total loss is set at $15,000.
A little before 6:00 a. m. last Thursday, the fire alarm was again sounded on our streets raising anxiety in the hearts of the people. All were eager to determine what disaster had struck.
Some trainmen were passing through and noticed the smoke pouring from the basement of the Excelsior Hours in Kendall's cider saloon. William Bradley heard the fire alarm and started downtown and observed the smoke. He tried to open the saloon door but it was locked necessitating the breaking in of the door. When access was gained it was found the room was full of smoke and there was a fire on the floor. The exact location of the fire could not be pinpointed due to the density of the smoke. He immediately attempted to extinguish the fire and was soon joined by a crowd. However as soon as the doors and windows were opened the flames, which when discovered were somewhat confined, began to spread and envelope the whole building.
The Excelsior Hotel was a large building, seventy-four feet in length. There were three stories in front and two stories on the rear part of the building. At the time of the fire, George M. Wheat used the rear portion of the building for a harness shop. It and Kendall's saloon in the southwest corner of the basement were the only parts of the building occupied. The hotel had been built many years before and was as dry as tinder. It burned down amazingly fast.
J. B. Robbins frame barn and livery stable stands just across the alley about twenty feet north of the hotel. This made if difficult to hold the fire back and save the livery stable. Lawson's meat market a one-story frame building was within six feet of the hotel on the west side. Dewey's office, with a frame storehouse at the rear was twenty feet beyond Lawson's market. The northwest wind was favorable to save those buildings.
A large force had gathered at the fire and began work in earnest. The women, young and old, came out in force and industriously applied themselves exhibiting as much coolness and presence of mind as the men.
Lewis Steward telegraphed to Aurora for the fire engine. The Sandwich Fire Company was also sent for. However, because there was no rail transportation available the Sandwich Company did not come. The Aurora Company came but not soon enough to be of any service. They did show their good will, as did the Sandwich boys, which was appreciated.
The intense heat of the burning hotel, and the fact that it was three stories high, made it more formidable and the flames and heat leaped across the street towards the Jones, Shults, and Morris block. Five frame stores were in a row with one in the rear. All were burned. Jones' building was occupied by Mandeville Bennett as a restaurant and tin shop on the first floor and residence on the second floor. The next building on the east was C. M. Morris' grocery store. The third building east was Dr. Lord's drugstore; the fourth building was W. R. Lowe's grocery and bakery. The fifth building was F. W. Lord's grocery. Miner Smith occupied the north store fronting west, for cabinet furniture. As all of the buildings were frame buildings the fire made quick work of them. It was immediately clear that only the contents of the buildings could be saved. People applied great effort and everyone worked heroically. Robbin's and Dewey's buildings were only saved by Herculean effort. Carpets were wet and plastered on the exposed parts. The huge piles of snow, which melted almost instantaneously, were utilized to fight the fire. It was only by the grandest effort that the buildings were saved.
Cook's block south of the frame row seemed to be in great danger, as the window frames and cornices were of wood. The vigorous application of snow and water defeated the fire. Had these building been engulfed in flames, it would have taken only a slight veering of the wind to ignite the reaper factory. Henry Pfingsten's tailor shop and dwelling stands sixty feet west of the frame block. At one time it was in danger, but the vigilance of the workers saved the building. Mrs. Connelly's dwelling is about 100 feet northeast and caught fire twice. A team of workers was soon rallied and that too was saved. While the fire was melting away the buildings, the citizens removed as much of the goods and property as possible from the buildings. The greater part of the stocks was saved.
Excitement is good for some people, making them strong and quick for the time being. For others it renders them unable to accomplish what they ought to do. It was noticeable that the ladies bare a conspicuous part in defeating the fire and deserve credit for their coolness. They rolled out carriages; one getting between the thills and another pushing from behind moved the buggies to a safe distance.
Lewis Steward was in the front of the battle and exposed himself to considerable heat and flames. Chris. Dirks, Dr. Allen, Dr. Bennett, George H. Steward, Miner Smith and scores of others did their level best. They worked like tigers. M. C. Dewey was cool as a cucumber and uninsured. The owners of the property did all they possibly could to save it. Peleg Jones and Samuel Morris deeply regret the loss of that cherished old checkerboard. Among the heaviest losers are J. C. Barber. His hotel was uninsured. J. J. Shults lost the stores occupied by Dr. and Frank Lord, neither building was insured. Samuel Morris owned two of the stores, only one was insured. Stephen Winans is said to have sold his store, so the loss fell on his purchaser. Among the losers of stocks of goods are Dr. Lord who lost stock of drugs, notions and jewelry; C. M. Morris, who lost groceries and crockery; W. R. Lowe, lost groceries; Frank W. Lord, lost groceries; Miner Smith, lost cabinet ware and wallpaper; and Mandeville Bennett, lost confectionery and tinware.
There was considerable damage done to Cook's brick block by the breaking of glass in the front. The seven stores burned were valued at from $1,000 to $2,000 each, although some of them cost a lot more than that. The Excelsior Hotel was valued at $3,000 by the owner. It is difficult to estimate the damage on stocks of goods. Smith, Lowe, Frank W. Lord, and Bennett had no insurance on stocks. Mr. Smith had allowed his to expire. Cyrus Morris had some of his wedding presents stored in the burned buildings and they were not saved. John Morris had carpenter kit and joiner tools, which shared the same fate. Mandeville Bennett had no insurance and feels the loss severely. Charles Russell, who lives over Lowe's store, lost some property as well. Most of the owners of the real estate declare their intention to immediately build good brick buildings to replace the old frame structures. The Excelsior Hotel will not be rebuilt.
The fire had not been extinguished before all the traders were up and at it again. Dr. and Frank W. Lord both occupied the brick store next to the Plano House. C. M. Morris is in the south side of Thorp's store. Lawson is cutting steak next door to Dewey's. Lowe is housed at Henry Pfingsten's. Mandeville Bennett is in the Caveny store, and Miner Smith is in Mrs. Hadden's, next door west of Dewey's office.
The fire seemed to originate in Kendall's saloon and was in all probability accidental. At the moment no one seems to know how it originated. The damage is estimated to be about $15,000.