Man’s greatest friend … and worst enemy

The 1913 fire in Peotone destroyed over half the town.
The 1913 fire in Peotone destroyed over half the town.

By Sandy Vasko

If there is one thing that everyone shares, urban or rural, today or 500 years ago, here or in another country, is the fear of fire. It is a nondenominational, non-racially biased, non-caring enemy, and perhaps man’s oldest.
Today we are traveling through time and through the county to look at fire’s various attacks.
From June 6, 1865, Joliet Signal, “On the morning of the 29th ult., a destructive fire occurred in the town of Mokena in this county. A number of buildings, including the fine residence and harness shop of Henry Book, the residence of George Boeck, and the store of Raush & Bros. The loss is estimated at $12,000 ($236,000), which is but partially covered by insurance.”
From May 29, 1874 Wilmington Advocate: “We learn that Elwood has again been visited by the devouring element. On Wednesday night a fire broke out in the midst of the business portion of that place and played havoc generally. It is said that the flames originated at Nicholson’s hardware store and soon spread to adjoining buildings.
“Later – the fire broke out at about midnight and raged until daylight, destroying all in its path. On account of the scarcity of water and everything being dry, the people were nearly powerless to stay the progress of the flames. In fact, nothing was saved except a few agricultural implements, a few store notions, and a small quantity of bedding from one of the dwellings. Among the buildings burnt, are the following:
Nicholson’s hardware store and contents.
Cook’s hotel
Gifford & Son’s store and grain office; owned by Jno. Linebarger. No insurance.
Keth’s grocery’ building owned by John Lichtenwalter.
Nelson Blatt’s meat market
Kenny’s grocery and dry goods store; building owned by H. Snoad.
Boot and shoe store of H. Snoad
Ridge’s drug store and milliner shop
Gifford’s dwelling house and barn, reported insured for $1,000
Rich’s drug store; building owned by Mr. Kingman. Total loss.
The origin of the fire, is unknown, so far as we can learn.”
From May 29, 1877Joliet Signal: “Just too late for insertion in our last Tuesday’s paper the intelligence was received of a disastrous fire that occurred at midnight on Monday night, the 21st, on the farm of Harlow N. Higginbotham in New Lenox township four miles east from this city.”
“The barn, stables, corn houses, hog pen, store building for farming tools, in fact everything about the premises, except the dwelling house, together with their contents, to wit: Five horses, a fine Durham bull, eight hundred bushels of corn, four hundred bushels of oats, hay, three wagons, four sets of double harness, eight shoats, reaper and mower, sulky hay rake, corn cultivators and two plows were all consumed.
“The contents of the buildings destroyed were the property of Andrew Gillespie, a hard-working industrious tenant on the farm, who barely succeeded in rescuing two horses from the burning flames. “No insurance on the buildings or their contents; and the loss falls very severely on Mr. Gillespie, thus so suddenly stripped of the means of making an honest living It is supposed the fire was accidentally or perhaps maliciously kindled by tramps.”
From September 18, 1877 Joliet Signal: “Lockport was ablaze last Sunday morning about three o’clock, and the reflection of its big bonfire was so great that the fire alarm for the first ward was sounded and the department called out for action. Finding the nearer they approached the northern city limits the farther the fire appeared, a hasty retreat was made. We have not learned the full particulars of the fire in Lockport, but have ascertained that the block of wooden buildings, three in number, just west of the canal bridge, and belonging to Timothy O’Brian, was entire consumed. The block was one of the oldest in the village. For some unexplained reason the wonderful water works of Lockport were not brought into requisition. Mr. O’Brian’s loss is estimated at $2,500 ($70,500); insured in the ‘Phoenix’ of Hartford, for $1,500 ($42,300), M. Walter, agent.”
From December 2, 1879, Joliet Signal: “The new depot at Peotone was discovered on fire last night about 11 o’clock, by the engineer of a passenger train, who gave the alarm. They succeeded in getting out the safe and valuable papers, and in preventing surrounding buildings from catching fire. It was hard work, but everybody present worked like heroes. The depot could not be saved, and it was burned to the ground.”
From August 31, 1883, Wilmington Advocate: “On Monday night at 11 o’clock, during the rain storm, the barn owned by Jas. Shipley, in Florence, (the Jno. Linebarger place) was burned by lightning, together with about 70 tons of hay which it contained, involving a loss of about $2,000 ($64,400). Upon the barn $700 ($22,500) insurance was held in the continental of New York, and upon the hay $200 ($66,450). A heavy shower at the time only prevented the fire from spreading to other buildings and the grain fields.”
From October 1, 1886, Wilmington Advocate: “The farm residence of John Thompson, in Florence, was entirely destroyed by fire on Wednesday night between the hours of nine and ten o’clock. Nearly all of the contents of the house were also burned, and to make matter worse, the property was uninsured. The reflection of the flames upon the sky was witnessed by many in this city. Mr. Thompson stated that at the time of the alarm the family had gone to bed, and when the inmates were aroused it was too late to save anything on account of the stifling smoke and rapidly increasing flames. He thinks that the fire originated from a defect in the chimney below the roof, from which sparks must have escaped. The property belonged to his mother, Mrs. Main Thompson, and was but recently put in good repair in the way of painting, papering, etc.”
From January 19, 1917, Wilmington Advocate: “The fine farm residence of Mr. and Mrs. Erwin Goodwin in Wesley Township, located six miles south of this city, was destroyed by fire Tuesday afternoon last. The fire is thought to have caught from sparks from a chimney.
“The fire was discovered by their little daughter Marion who had just returned home from school. She ran to the house and notified her parents. Neighbors were hurriedly called, but the flames had gotten too much of a start and the neighbors realizing it was useless to extinguish they turned their attention to saving the other surrounding buildings and the household furniture. A bucket brigade was formed and after a hard fight all the other buildings were saved and the furniture, with the exception of a few articles in the basement.
“The Goodwin home was a two-story building and one of the largest and finest in Wesley. This building was constructed by Mr. Goodwin and the interior was finished and paneled in native cherry, walnut and oak from timber grown on the Goodwin farm and can never be replaced. The loss is over $5,500 ($129,300). Mr. Goodwin carried $3,000 ($70,500) insurance on the building.”

The former Barrett’s Hardware store in Joliet burned in 1908.

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