Fire - Friend or Foe?


By Gordon Cornell
Broadalbin Historian

The following article is transcribed below with permission, kindly donated to the 
web site by the author. 

Since the beginning man has found uses for fire, especially to provide heat for comfort and for cooking.  Fire for use as entertainment is used often as well.  Fire can also be our foe and it is in this form that we offer this account.  No one knows when the fire fiend might have first visited Broadalbin, but we do know that on November 18, 1877, a very disastrous fire consumed the Baptist church, its horse sheds, three homes, four barns and various animals plus hay, tools, etc.  Broadalbin had no organization at the time to combat fire.  It was in the wake of this disaster that the citizens formed a Fire Company on June 8, 1878.

On or about January 19, 1879 at 26 degrees F below zero a fire broke out in the business block of North Main Street.  Sixteen places of business were destroyed before the fire was brought under control.   A young man named Louis Lee was awakened as smoke filled his second floor chamber.  He soon determined that an immediate exit was required and he slid down some icy planks from his window above the store of W. W. Finch.  From there he hastened to the Baptist church yelling "fire" as he went.  When he arrived at the church he began to ring the church bell so as to awaken the residents.

Broadalbin's next "big blaze" occurred on Friday, the thirteenth of April, 1894.  This fire on the site of the 1879 fire was discovered by Asa Close, a watchman at the knitting mill who noticed the southeast corner of George Manning's grocery store ablaze.  The steam whistle at the mill was immediately sounded to awaken the residents and firemen.

All indications were that the fire was of incendiary origin.  Property owners and store proprietors suffering losses included J. W. Carpenter (dwelling), M. Earl (store occupied by George Manning), Mrs. Mary J. Tymerson (store occupied by George Brimmer), Alex Merrill (store occupied by John Dye), Finch and Lee.

Probably the most serious fire economically occurred on November 29, 1905, when the four story wooden building, housing the Broadalbin Knitting Company, burned to the ground at a cost of 140 jobs.  Since "out of town" employment was virtually unheard of, this dealt a serious blow not only to employees, but to the owners, and the local merchants.  An interesting story, not confirmed by this writer, tells of an old mother cat moving her litter out of the building only hours before the fire was discovered.

A smaller fire but with disastrous potential occurred on July 12, 1910, when the house of Charlie Wilkins and his attached box factory burned to the ground.  Although nearby structures caught fire from the intense heat and/or firebands they were extinguished each time.  It was reported that numerous times the wooden shingles on the Methodist Church roof two doors down caught fire, but men and boys with ladders and pails of water extinguished each blaze.  Many of those who were at the fire remembered that horrible night when the Baptist Church burned and grave fears were expressed that a recurrence was about to happen.  Had the church burned, there is little question that several other structures would have been lost as well.

The next fire of note was small but it left residents with heavy hearts.  It was late afternoon, October 19, 1910, that the ladies of the Methodist Church were preparing an oyster supper.  It was determined that the stove needed refueling and it was during this process that a fire and/or explosion ensued.   Two ladies, Mrs. Alfred Sawyer and Mrs. Edward Smith were burned partially but not seriously while Mrs. Mary J. Tymerson received extensive and fatal burns.  It is a miracle that the church still stands today, but the whole community mourned the death of "Grandma Tymerson" as she was affectionately known.

It was on January 28, 1914, that the next major fire happened in Broadalbin, this being the third time the North Main Street business district burned.  The fire alarm sounded by the blowing of the steam whistle at the mill and the ringing of the bell at the Methodist Church.  While this was going on, Floyd Barker, the local telephone operator, made contact with each home that had a telephone, awaking them from sleep, and requesting their assistance at the fire scene.  The fire was first noticed in the barber shop of W. J. Shaw.  It then spread to the Gifford Meat Market, into the lodge rooms of the Niskayuna Tribe of Red Men, to Broadalbin's Post Office, Ferguson's Fruit Store and then to the Bemis Feed Concern.  The Bemis store was a two story wooden structure adjoining the "brick block".  Fire Chief Amos Benedict and his men literally removed the second floor of the Bemis building before the fire extended that far, thereby reducing the fire damage and stopping advance of the flames.  Other business lost to the flames were W. A. Burr, grocer, the rooms of the Citizen's Band, and the shop of the shoemaker "Handy".  Fires can cause serious upheaval in the families affected  - and such was the case of the W. A. Burr family.  W. A. (Bill) Burr packed up his family and moved to Michigan soon after the fire.

A fire of unknown origin started in the dry goods store of K. and M. Allen on January 30, 1921and in spite of the prompt and heroic efforts of the firemen, the building was completely destroyed.  Only the brick walls were left standing.  At the height of the fire it was feared that the grocery store of Charlie Van Vranken on one side and the meat market of Dennis Gifford on the other side could not be saved, but the firemen managed to save the adjoining structures.  Also lost in the fire was the second floor pool room run by Bert Deuel.

One of the largest fires to attack our village started on the evening of October 18, 1922.  The fire was first noted in a barn at the rear of the Earl Hotel on West Main Street shortly after 7 P. M.  Fanned by a 50 mile gale, the fire spread with lightening speed.  Lost almost immediately were four barns, two sheds, five valuable horses, a mule and a quantity of hay.  Also lost in those barns were eight head of cattle and several hogs.  The barns of Dr. H. G. Hawley (dentist) and Dr. B. E. Chapman (physician) were next although the doctors' vehicles were removed in time.  The fire then jumped to the Glen Telephone Co. building.

As soon as the magnitude of the fire was realized, calls for help were sent out to the Amsterdam, Gloversville, Johnstown and Mayfield Fire Departments.  A report, not found in the newspaper, stated that it took two able bodied men to remove Mr. Barker from his burning telephone office.  He wanted to continue making calls for help regardless of the fire around him.  Also lost was a vacant building formerly used by Littauer Bros. as a glove shop, an adjoining building occupied by Eaton's Restaurant and pool room, and two brick buildings owned and occupied by George Stever as a furniture store, undertaking parlour and living quarters.  Meeting rooms for several of the local civil and fraternal organizations were also lost.  The Earl Hotel, well known by the "locals" as well as traveling public, was a total loss and hence another of Broadalbin's landmarks was removed.  During the course of the great fire various buildings were ablaze but the firemen managed to save them.  The homes of Dr. Chapman and Dr. Hawley received substantial damage.  The article in the Morning Herald states that 12 buildings, animals and many smaller items were lost.

For those not familiar with the names and places of days gone by I would mention that the Earl Hotel stood on the plot of land where the Village Municipal Building stands today.

On November 23, 1923, fire struck again and destroyed the saw mill and box factory owned and operated by Fred Cloutier, Sr. and sons.  The high wind at the time along with the close proximity of several buildings prompted the Broadalbin firemen to request aid from Gloversville, Johnstown and Mayfield Fire depts.  Also requested was an engine from the Railroad to move several railroad cars that were near the burning building.  Unfortunately, the Johnstown fire apparatus did not arrive in Broadalbin in time to be of assistance as it was involved in an automobile accident while en route.

On December 5, 1923 another serious fire struck our village.  The buildings were the Broadalbin Garage, conducted by Henry Coulombe, the grocery store of Fred L. Lockerby and the grocery store of Richard Bartlett.  The shoe store of Samuel Betor's was heavily damaged.  The fire started in the rear of the Broadalbin Garage and was discovered about midnight by persons returning home from a card party being held at the high school on School Street.  A telephone call was placed to the local operator, Floyd Barker, who once again did our community a great service.  All of the automobiles stored in the garage that night were safely removed.  The fire was considered to be the work of a firebug, especially since a resident from across the street said she saw what she thought was a flashlight appear several times in the rear of the garage about 30 minutes before the fire was noted.  Since the Cloutier fire of five days earlier was also suspicious, the inhabitants were becoming "nervous".  Some months earlier the purchase of an "automobile pumper" had been approved but delivery had been delayed.  Had this been in town it is believed the damage might have been considerably less.

Found in a scrapbook with a date of December 14, 1923, is an account of the fire at the Delbert Coons farm on Saratoga Avenue, near the corner with Bridge Street.  Lost was Mr. Coon's large barn with contents.  This was the third large fire in two weeks and there was no logical explanation for any -- except the "firebug" theory.

From a newspaper clipping dated November 16, 1925 we find an account of the fire that swept through the lunch and newsroom of John Green, the post office and part of a vacant building adjoining the post office.  This was yet another fire within the North Main Street business block.  Through the efforts of the Broadalbin and Gloversville Fire Departments the remaining businesses were saved.

Another Main Street fire started on May 1, 1927, and for a while threatened the entire business section of the village.  The fire was labeled "suspicious" and probably of incendiary nature.  The buildings burned were the Broadalbin Post Office (once again), the Broadalbin Drug Co., a store and lunchroom conducted by Absalom Hess, and some damage to the men's furnishing store of Herbert Sawyer, adjoining the lunchroom.  A heavy explosion occurred in the Drug Store during the fire and the concussion from the blast smashed three panes of glass in the Broadalbin Bank across the street.  The fire was so intense that the heat generated caused the cornice of the bank to catch fire and the pillars were badly blistered.  The telephone pole in front of the bank also was in flames for a short time.

The installation of the village water system in 1928, helped in the efforts to curb these serious fires, as did the erection of more brick buildings, and improved fire equipment.

On March 2, 1969, Myzal's Market on the corner of N. Main and School Street was badly damaged by fire.  This was the first time in years that such a fire could be remembered in the village.

Large fires in areas around the village as well as Vails Mills have not been included in the account.


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Copyright , 1999 Gordon Cornell
Copyright , 2002 Jeanette Shiel
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