Memories of Yankeetown: Fires And Firefighters
A. Frank Knotts
Andrew sent some pictures of Yankeetown's impressive new fire truck,and it looks like space age technology compared to the town's original equipment. In the beginning the main, the only, piece of equipment consisted of a large rusty circular saw blade about three or four feet in diameter. It was spiked to a tree on the north side of Riverside Drive at 63rd. On a wire next to the blade hung an iron rod for banging the blade. For better results one could bring a hammer. The understanding in the community was that the gong should be rung only in case of fire.
It made a pretty impressive sound which could be heard over the central part of town, but probably not in "Old Yankeetown," i.e. east of the public boat slip, nor as far west as J. O. Dowda's fish house--the one at the horseshoe bend in the river, sometimes called the Little Eddy. Rarely, someone would give the blade a single swat just to hear how it sounded, but I don't know of anyone ever turning in a real "false alarm."
We kids would sometimes throw rocks at it on our way home from school and we would get scolded. That blade was pretty much it. I have a vague recollection of a large reel of fire hose which sat in the shed over by the old water tower, but I believe it rotted without ever seeing service. In fact, I doubt that the water system provided any place to connect such a hose. If the gong sounded, citizens would drop whatever they were doing, grab any tool that might be handy (axe, crosscut saw, hoe, bucket, hose, or whatever) and come running. The two times that I can recall during the thirties when the citizen services were needed, many came but the effort was futile. Structures burned to the ground in both instances. There may have been more successful events but I don't recall any.
There was no organized fire protection whatsoever until the early forties when a group of citizens organized into a volunteer group of firefighters. I'm not sure who they all were and hesitate to start mentioning names because surely I would omit some. Then, at the end of World War II they procured a surplus engine of sorts from the decommissioned army airfield east of Dunnellon. If I recall correctly it was an olive drab Dodge 6x6 with not a whole lot of firefighting power, but infinitely better than nothing.
Now here is where my knowledge becomes really spotty, since I was only in town on visits. On one of those visits, maybe around l960, my brother-in-law, Ollie Lynch asked me to drive him to Williston to pick up an engine which they were replacing and which the Yankeetown firefighters had acquired. He was so excited, like a kid with a new toy. I drove him over to Williston and followed him back at breakneck speeds, as high as forty-five miles per hour. Remember, this engine was probably built in the twenties or early thirties.
But Ollie was obviously tickled by the town's getting it. As soon as he turned off 40 onto 63rd he hit the siren and made his grand entry, and a nice little gaggle of admirers turned out to see the REAL engine--all painted red and everything.
And this is as far as I can take you regarding fire equipment. However, I can report on three notable fires: the First Lodge Fire, the Pruitt & Powers Fire, and the Wells Store Fire.
By the way, the Lodge did have some firefighting equipment as required by law. There was a reel of two inch hose on the upper floor of each of the two buildings, and there were perhaps a half-dozen of the old copper and brass soda-acid extinguishers placed about. Some of you may remember that type of extinguisher. They each contained about two gallons, maybe three, of baking soda dissolved in water, and a separate container, inside, containing about a pint of concentrated acid. When the extinguisher was inverted, the acid and soda mixed together making a powerful chemical reaction which generated a lot of gas and created considerable pressure, forcing the liquid out through a nozzle in a strong stream. We kids loved it when it came time to recharge those extinguishers, because they first had to be discharged, right! We loved squirting them around.
One of those instruments saved the Lodge.
It was, I guess, 1933. On a winter morning just before dawn I heard a banging on my parents bedroom window and Chick Pruitt shouting, "Gene! Gene! the dining room is on fire!
Dad was up and out like a shot with Mom close behind in her nightgown. By the time I got to the scene, Chick and a few others were standing around while Dad crawled under the building with one of those extinguishers to get to the base of the flame. An iron had been left on overnight and it burned its way down through the floor. It left a three-foot hole in the floor and destroyed all the clothing in the room. Had Chick Pruitt not gone to Dunnellon early that morning to meet the Southland, the Lodge almost certainly would have burned sixty or so years sooner than it finally did. There would have been nothing to save it.
There was a funny side to that story, too. You have to realize that in emergencies Dad could become extremely focussed on what had to be done. That morning he must have gone from deep sleep to full speed ahead in about five seconds. That's how he arrived at the fire wearing only his pajama top so when he got down on elbows and knees to squirt the fire, he cut quite a fine figure. Mom, handling the flashlight for him, had to try not to illuminate his rear end while others pretended not to see. You could say that he presented a seldom seen aspect of himself on that morning. We had a lot of good laughs through the years at Dad's expense, but he took it very well. The town took it well, too; it was not long after that when he first got elected mayor.
In the late thirties, I'm guessing about '38, two dwellings burned. Again, Chick Pruitt was involved though not so happily. His house was the first to go.
Chick and Ada Pruitt along with Lovell and Irene Powers had come to town in the late twenties from West Virginia. Soon they built homes next to each other on the north side of Riverside drive just west of the old post office. Ada and Lovell were sister and brother as were Irene and Chick. The families were quite close, and the kids, of course, were double cousins.
One summer afternoon around one o'clock a rear room at the Pruitt house burst very rapidly into flame. Someone sounded the saw blade and people came In a matter of a few minutes, the Pruitt house was completely aflame and beyond any human effort to save any of it or any of the contents. Fortunately no one was home. For a while some squirted water from garden hoses on the roof and sides of the Powers house even though it was clearly a hopeless act. Some brave souls extricated a couple of pieces of furniture, I recall a couple of dressers, before that house went up.
Then there was concern for the post office even though it was over one hundred feet away. Cecil Woodburn and C. I. Wells got a two-man crosscut saw and quickly felled one or two trees fearing that they could go up and spread the fire to the east. In retrospect, I doubt that the green trees would have burned very much. I think that the guys were frustrated by their inability to do anything for the two houses and had to do something with all the adrenalin.
Since no one was at home at either house, there was no loss of life. The two families, however, lost just about everything they owned.
It is believed that the fire began from a hot plate inadvertently left on in the Pruitt kitchen.
Note: I have pictures that I took of that fire and will forward them as soon as I figure out how.
Mrs Wells' store stood on the "street" just north of Riverside Drive at (I'm guessing) at 60th. "Street" is in quotes because in the original platt of the town it was to be an alley. Nonetheless, it became developed as a street with two stores, a knickknack shop and some residences. We called it "The Alley." I wonder what it's called now.
The structure consisted of a simple rectangular two-story building (the store) and an attached one-story residence for Mrs. Wells, all of it frame construction. Can you guess what's coming? (Clue: Mrs. Wells used a lot of extension cords to power refrigerators and other equipment.)
I was not present for this one. I suspect that I was at school. Anyhow, the whole shebang went up one fine day in the middle of the afternoon. Somehow, it did not spread, as best I can recall, and no one got hurt and no one could do anything about it. I do know that it made quite an impressive amount of smoke which my Dad spotted from out on the Gulf where he had taken a fishing party. He was somewhere west of the lighthouse when he saw the plume. From the size of it, he assumed that it was the lodge going up. He came home as fast as the old Mary Lucy could go (about 13 knots) and I happened to be on the dock when he landed. Where else would a smart-ass kid be when full of such momentous news?
Dad had the most amazing mixture of relief and concern on his face. Relief because he could see the Lodge standing. Concern for what else might have happened. "What burned?" he asked.
C. I. Wells was a very energetic guy who really got things done. In very short order he had refurbished the two-car garage behind his house into the new Wells' Store. That's the one that Shorty Saulz later bought and ran for a long time. If I remember right there was an apartment above that garage for his mother.
I'm sure that there were other fires that while I was away and don't know about. For example, the Whitehurst house in Old Yankeetown burned up and I have a single picture of the blaze from Dad's collection, but I have no recollection of that blaze.
A. Frank Knotts
Mr. Knotts may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org