Fires in Brussels
With the progress of man and machine, the Brussels of today, has fortunately not seen the devastation of major fires too many times.
During the years, it had its share, however. Between 1860 and 1875, the prosperity of the town was set back no less than three times, when fire levelled the entire business section.
In 1968, Mrs. Clarke Matheson compiled a historical sketch of Brussels, which contained an excerpt regarding its pioneer days.
"I can remember my father telling of the last fire which started in the J.D. Ronald foundry. It was a hot dry season and hope for saving the factory was gone. It was felt that the river would prevent any damage to the business section. Suddenly, the fire jumped the river and practically every store in the village was burned to the ground. Rather than discouraging them, these reverses seemed to spur them on to build better and more substantial buildings. Many of the business blocks erected after the last major fire are still standing."
In the 1879 Belden Atlas it is written, "The spirit and enterprise which have met these disasters by fresh and greater efforts have given Brussels a place among the villages of the province, which many envy and any might possess with pride."
In September of 1887, the fire brigade was called to a barn fire on the Armstrong farm at the westerly section of the village. The barn, stable, 40 tons of hay, 10 acres of wheat, 10 acres of oats, a self-binder, rake, wagon, buggy and small articles were lost.
In March of 1888, fire started in the rear of an Albert St. dwelling owned by David Haiste. The cause was believed to have been a stovepipe.
The flames made little headway due to snow on the roof and the streams of water flowing from them. However, the building was badly damaged.
In the summer of 1888 on a Monday morning, A. Wilson, assisted by Walter Smith and P. Seel were repairing machinery at the flax mill, when a hot iron, used to burn a hole in some wood, ignited a wooly substance. Before the men had time to think, the flame ran up the inside of the building to the roof. Pails of water kept the fire in check until the brigade arrived.
High winds made things exciting when a Sunday morning fire in March of 1889 ignited in the inner wall of an apartment occupied by Mr. and Mrs. Ben Whittard in the Leckie block on Main St. The chemical engine was used and the fire was supposed to have been put out, but broke out again.
Once things were under control, a man was put on guard all day and throughout the night to prevent a breakout, as with the high winds, things could have been very serious.
That is precisely what happened in May 1905 in Brussels, as another disastrous fire blazed through the downtown core, attracting a train load of spectators from Wingham.
An excerpt from that issue of The Brussels Post, describes:
"Thursday afternoon about 2:45 the large barns of the Queen's Hotel took fire, occasioned by some workman putting up eavestroughing. Almost in an instant the flames levelled the building and the hay and other flammable matter burned like a torch."
The story continues that considerable time elapsed before water was thrown, while the high wind fanned the blaze into a "perfect fury".
The fire quickly spread across Thomas Street into Walter's livery barn and Plum's blacksmith shop and Westward to T.T. Thomson's residence. The livery was saved primarily because of its metal roof. The others were lost.
Flying embers spread to the American Hotel stable, then to P. Scott's blacksmith shop and the adjoining pumpworks of F. Adams. Mrs. Strachan's cottage, south of the American stables, and George Edward's stables were the next victims, as the fire soon levelled them.
Across Mill St., the fire ignited an implement shop owned by Fletcher Sparling, George Edward's planing mill, R.K. Ross's flouring mill, the home of Mrs. Grieves and the stables of Walter Lowry and the Thuell Bros.
As if this wasn't trouble enough the wind carried the fire across the river to a stable owned by Jno. Conley and the J. Cober & Sons' carriage factory.
Once it appeared as if the Queen's Hotel was also doomed. Fire caught the cornice, but men on the roof extinguished it.
Mayor Watson of Listowel was in town that day. He telephoned that town's fire and water committee chair to send its fire engine which was dispatched by special train from Palmerston. It set to work in drowning out smouldering ruins.
A shower of rain in the early evening came to help drown out much of the burning debris.
One evening in May 1909 while R. J. McLauchlin was feeding the horse, he knocked the lantern from its peg. Seeing what he had done, he made a grab for the lantern and ran outside. However once there he discovered he only had the handle. By this time the hay was a mass of flames so McLauchlin turned his attention to the mare, which he got to safety.
In minutes the entire building was in flames and despite the best efforts of the fire brigade it was a total loss. Estimate of damage was $300.
Brussels had been comparatively free from fire over the previous years with the last blaze being the Livingstone flax mill on Sept. 17, 1907.
An explosion occurred on a Saturday morning in January 1909 at the home of the editor of The Brussels Post. A Kootney steel range with waterfront and attaching pipes to the upstairs bathroom blew up.
"There was a terrible noise like the firing of a cannon and, quick as a flash, the room was filled with flying missels of iron and steel, fire ashes etc, " the newspaper account read. The force of the blast blew out two windows and left the range a mass of scrap iron. Mr. Kerr and his sister-in-law Miss Kay of Winnipeg were thrown to the floor. Mr. Kerr sustained some broken bones while Miss Kay was struck on the head.
The pair had little time to think about cuts and bruises, however as fire had ignited in several spots. Water was handy, fortunately and the danger was soon eliminated.
Mrs. Kerr who had been suffering lumbago, was in her upstairs bedroom. The cause of the explosion was a frozen pipe between the ceiling and upstairs floor.
A flurry of excitement was caused in late July 1939 when a tin of gasoline exploded at the Ford garage. No one was hurt and no damage was done.
A flash fire at Bridge Motors in Brussels in 1966 damaged the interior of a two-storey garage and sent one man to hospital.
Glen Bridge, the son of the business's owner, George, was taken to Wingham hospital after suffering burns to his arms and face. He had been working around a gasoline tank of a car when an electric light bulb on an extension cord broke, exploding the gas. Brussels firefighters, led by Chief Gordon Stephenson, arrived at the scene within five minutes and had the blaze under control in a half hour.
The top half of the garage escaped with light damage. One new car, two used cars, equipment and stock were lost. The garage office sustained smoke and water damage. Total loss was estimated at $50,000
In the 1970s, fire gutted Carl's Body Shop, located at the south end of Brussels on Turnberry St. at about 10:30 a.m. Damages were estimated at $40,000 and the shop was nearly destroyed. A car and truck that had been in the building were also lost.
Carl Graber eventually rebuilt the business, which is now the site of Brussels Auto Sales.
A fire on the farm of Charles Thomas just north of Brussels, July 1976, caused an estimated $27,000 damage. Forty-two sows, all with litters, worth an estimated $12,000 or more were killed in the blaze. The barn was damaged to the tune of at least $15,000.
Brussels firefighters were called to the scene, but were unable to save the structure. Faulty wiring was suspected as the cause of the fire.
As many as eight pumper and water tank trucks from four fire departments battled a wheat field fire on Friday, July 29, 1983 at the farm of Max Oldfield, just outside of Brussels. The cause of the blaze was due to straw winding onto a shaft of a combine.
The Brussels department answered two calls within three minutes of each other, the second being on a Grey Twp. farm, owned by Murray Cardiff. They assisted the Grey department with the one Brussels pumper, while the second truck was at the Oldfield fire.
Wingham and Blyth were eventually called and Grey arrived on the scene when they had the Cardiff fire extinguished.
Chief Howard Bernard said the big concern was for the houses on the edge of Brussels and the farm buildings.
Two fires under the Brussels fire truck, caused by the exhaust, were put out with no damage to the pumper. Bernard said at the time that there had been three fire trucks lost in wheat field fires in Ontario, something that had not been a problem before.
Approximately 10 acres of wheat was lost at the Oldfield fire and approximately four acres at Cardiff's.
"The standing wheat gave us problems,"said Bernard. "It was unbelievable. The heat, smoke and speed of the fire were really something. The fire seemed to create its own draft."
The fire department was called to a fire at Charlie Thomas's just a few days later on Monday, Aug. 8. The fire on a combine was extinguished before they arrived at the scene. There was no damage and the cause was an overheated bearing.
A major fire occurred in Brussels downtown in October of 1983. Two families were left homeless after fire ravaged the Olympia Restaurant and Turnberry Upholstery. Damage, which included smoke damage to several neighbouring stores, was estimated at $150,000. Firefighters were at the scene for 11 hours.
The call came in at 10:10 p.m. after the owner of Turnberry Upholstery, who lived above the business, noticed smoke coming into the apartment.
By the time the firefighters arrived the restaurant was engulfed in flames. Wingham, Blyth and Grey Twp. fire departments were called in to assist.
The cause of the blaze was unknown, though the Ontario Fire Marshall at the time determined that it may have started in the false ceiling in the rear section of the restaurant.
The Protopapases, who owned the restaurant, were visiting family at the time of the fire.
Local people offered food, clothing and lodging. "The town has been super," Gus Protopapas said at the time.
"I feel sorry for my neighbour because the fire started in my place. I'm grateful nobody was hurt, but it's still a great loss for everybody."
In July of 1988, fire broke out in the Brussels Legion. For several hours while the Brussels firefighters fought the dangerous blaze, officers from the Wingham OPP were hot on the trail of the two men they believed responsible.
Shortly after the fire department was called at 2:20 a.m., police were notified as a break-in was suspected from the start. A downstairs window had been broken and the firemen had determined that the front door had been forced open.
"Nobody would have minded the little bit of liquor they took, it's the stupid vandalism that put my men's lives at risk," Fire Chief Howard Bernard told The Citizen.
Volunteers were at the scene until 6 a.m., several times donning special breathing apparatus in order to enter the smoke-filled building.
Two former Brussels residents were later charged with one count of break, enter and theft and one count of arson. The first man was arrested just hours after the fire broke out, while the second was arrested the next day.
Estimates of damage to the building were between $150,000 to $200,000. Most of the lower floor of the Legion was gutted while the entire building suffered heavy smoke and water damage as firemen fought the stubborn blaze. Exterior damage to the steel-clad building was minimal.
The Legion has since been rebuilt.
Other fires in Brussels recalled by local residents include Cal Krauter's Plumbing and Heating, which was gutted twice, the 5¢ to $1 store, Bob Krugeman's furniture store, St. John's Anglican Church and Phieffer's barn, where Pete Cardiff carried water in buckets to extinguish cinders on the barn roof.
Fire – controlled it can be a source of warmth, a thing of beauty, but raging out of control it is, at the least, unpleasant and at its worst, terrifying. It almost certainly always causes damage and often mean loss of some type or another.
When the late Gordon (Doc) Stephenson retired from the Brussels Fire Department after 38 years, in 1983, he recalled the challenge of fighting fires and winning. Sadly, he remembered three times there were loss of lives as well.
"I was acting fire chief when three small boys died," Doc told The Huron Expositor. "The other fires claimed the lives of two elderly sisters and the mother of three children. These are the worst fires. They really stick in your mind."
The Expositor wrote "Doc shudders when he thinks of the three boys who died. 'Their mother tried to rescue them. She had taken the boys to a second storey window. She lifted the window and was sucked out of the house. The boys didn't have a chance'." This fire occurred at the home of David Firby, 670 Elizabeth St. on Dec. 31, 1959. Though the house was gutted, the top storey was removed and the remainder remodelled as a cottage style home, now owned by Wallace and Jean Bell.
The Firby's had built a new house next door, which they had planned to move into soon. It is the home today of Lloyd and Mabel Glanville.
Doc also remembered the death of two elderly sisters, Janet and Jane McNair in a house fire in December of 1951.
A report in the Dec. 19 issue of The Brussels Post from that year states that it was believed the younger sister, Jane, 78, had died trying to rescue her bed-ridden sister, Janet, 80. The fire was believed to have started in the kitchen stove, while Jane was at the barn of the Grey Twp. property. She saw the house on fire and tried to get to her sister, who was in the upstairs bedroom.
Brussels firemen were summoned by neighbour Ray Seiling. By the time they arrived, the frame home was a raging inferno.