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Time Passages: A fire and the lost bound volume

Over the years there have been several major downtown district fires in my hometown of Fairfax that have destroyed businesses and buildings.

Most notable among them was the St. Valentine’s fire of 1963 that wiped out four businesses, the Corner Drug Store blaze in 1941, the Red Star Cafe in 1944, Fairfax Auditorium in 1953, the Fullerton Lumber fire in 1955, The MarkEtt in 1982, Fairfax Creamery building right across the street from the fire department in 1986, Mike Johnson Trucking building in 1988, Jandl Cabinets in the former VFW structure in the ‘90s and most recently a tattoo business building on west main street a few years ago.

As editor, publisher, sportswriter, photographer and sometimes just about do-all everything guy as owner of the Fairfax Standard weekly newspaper for nearly 30 years, I covered and photographed many other major fires in the towns and rural coverage areas that were bravely fought by the dedicated volunteer firefighters.

And then there was the Good Friday inferno 50 years ago in April 1968 that devoured Fairfax’s Inn Town Furniture Store and threatened several other businesses along east main street.

The Inn Town Furniture store during the blaze. Photo compliments of Fairfax Standard

It was a Friday night when the fire department siren blew at 10:20 p.m. alerting firemen to answer the call to battle flames that had quickly burned out of control. At least eight surrounding towns, including Franklin, Hector, Sleepy Eye and Gibbon, sent firefighters, water tankers and equipment to assist with containing the fire and saving three nearby buildings.

The threatened businesses were Hadley’s Plumbing and Heating and the Fairfax Standard newspaper office on the north side of the furniture store. On the south side was a house occupied by Anna Bregel which sat next to the Municipal Liquor Store building.

With the fire raging about 30 feet away on the other side of the neighboring Hadley business, the Standard was in danger and soon became a part of the developing story. Romie Athmann, who owned a cafe directly across the street and who was burned out in the 1963 fire, knew what he had to do.

Romie had come to Fairfax from Melrose with a printer’s background and worked part time operating a Heidelberg printing press for Standard publisher Fred Sheire. When the fire broke out he ran across the street and started removing financial and subscription records, paper printing stock, other movable items and the all important bound volume books.

About 10 minutes later Fred arrived on the scene, and a brigade of volunteers was organized to form a line from the Standard office across the street to pass the bound volumes hand over hand to Romie’s Cafe and the Fairfax Bowling Lanes for safe keeping. Or so it seemed.

The newspaper’s bound volumes are virtually the town’s record of history, as every edition ever published since 1898 are contained in them. If you are in the newspaper business and have a disaster plan in place, usually one of the first things that’s done if the building is in trouble is to remove the yearly archives of the town’s history bibles.

In the fog of war, as they say for the military or in this case the chaos of a devastating fire, not all of the bound volumes were returned to the Standard office after the fire subsided. It’s not known what happened, but for some reason, one of the bound volumes went missing and was forever lost.

The Bregel home had some roof damage and was later torn down to make room for a new furniture store. When it went out of business the building became home to the big ADC manufacturer who stayed into the mid-1990s followed by other businesses.

Aerial view of the remains of the Inn Town Furniture store on East Main Street the morning after the fire on April 12, 1968. The Fairfax Standard was right next door. Photo compliments of Fairfax Standard

Hadley’s ended up with some roof, water and smoke damage but survived, and the Standard had some minor roof damage too. Several cars parked in front of the furniture store when the fire started had paint scorched. One car also had a broken windshield when the heat from the fire blew out the store’s front window.

Water hoses that the fire department ran through the Standard from the front door to the back of the building and out to the alley behind the furniture store were removed the next day while workmen restored damaged power poles and electrical lines.

The hardworking firemen were congratulated for an outstanding effort to save so much property from destruction. Fairfax eating places also helped out by keeping their doors open to feed the firefighters lunch and coffee during the firefight.

Although the furniture store was in ruins, at an estimated loss of $70,000 to $100,000, and the Standard was missing a bound volume, the newspaper still was in good shape to print the next edition of the paper in the following week.

And the fire story is still available to read today in the 1968 bound volume edition.

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