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Notable fires in Minden’s history

by Minden Press-Herald

Throughout Minden’s history fires have often played havoc with the lives and livelihoods of local residents. In today’s column, we will look at some of the significant fires in Minden’s long history.

Soon after Minden was organized as a town in 1854, a local fire company was established. Records show that in November 1857, there were “fourteen ladders and thirty buckets” ordered to be purchased for the Hook and Ladder Company. Despite the presence of a fire fighting company in the community, over the next 60 years fires would occur with startling regularity in the business area of Minden.

In September 1860, the Baton Rouge Tri-Weekly Gazette and Comet reported a story from the Hamburg Arkansas Reporter stating that the town of Minden was entirely destroyed by fire. The story came from a “gentleman just returned from New Orleans” who stated it was caused by ten to fifteen fires deliberately set throughout the town. The next issue of the paper reported that the editor had seen a letter to a “gentleman of Baton Rouge” written since the fire was reported to have occurred and that the original story had “not a word of foundation in truth.”

The next case would not be a false alarm. In November 1871, the brick store of Chaffe, Shea & Loye, which stood on the site of what is known to many locals as the “Webb Hardware Building” was burned, but the walls were left standing. In that same fire, Mr. Gall, a German immigrant lost his business, in which the fire began. In addition, Alfred Landsburg’s saloon which had operated on that site for more than 20 years was destroyed as were several houses. A few years later Gall’s store burned again, and the old Town Hall met destruction in that blaze.

On December 30, 1872, a fire broke out and resulted in the destruction of Minden’s business center from the site of the Goodwill Store south to the Drake Store – in modern terms roughly from Gorilla Tech to the Drake Building. Buildings destroyed included John Hart’s two-story building; William Oliver’s store; F. Robinson’s store, Simon B. Miller’s grocery and Miller’s Jewelry (site of the present Miller Building); Berry & Warren’s general store; and the houses of William Holmes and the Culpepper family. The grocery store belonging to a Mr. Hill was blown up to save the Drake building. Arson was suspected as the cause of this calamity, as incendiaries were found on the scene. Despite the offering of a $500 reward, no one was ever charged in this crime.

On December 22, 1888, a fire started in Chris Chaffe’s livery stable resulting in the destruction of all the improvements on his grounds including a new residence. The Taylor Hotel and the dwellings of J. J. and H. M. Carter, J. H. Tillman and Mrs. Brown were placed at risk only to be saved through the heroic efforts of the fire fighters. Chaffe’s stable was located in the area that is today the parking lot in front of the Minden Medical Center. Chaffe’s home had been destroyed by fire two years earlier, thus the “new” residence mentioned.

Minden’s next devastating fire began on Monday, April 4, 19, at 1:00 a.m. This inferno burned the stores of S. G. Webb, wholesale and retail furniture and hardware; W. C. Ponder, Lowe & Hawkins, and Phillips & Griffith, all general merchandise dealers. Webb valued his stock at $18,000, and his building was worth $5,000; however, Webb had only $3,500 insurance on the stock and $2,500 on the building resulting in a loss of some $17,000, about $350,000 in 2002 dollars. Ponder valued his stock at $6,000 and it was insured for $3,000. His building was owned by J. R. Miller and was valued at $1,500 and insured for only $700. Lowe and Hawkins had a $7,000 stock on which they carried $3,500 insurance, their building was owned by Fred Goodwill and while valued at $1000 it was not insured. W. B. Wiley, jeweler also had his wares in that building and $200 worth of his stock was destroyed but his loss was covered by insurance. Over Phillips and Griffith store were offices, one of which was occupied by Dr. Gladney, who lost a great part of his library and surgical instruments. Thus, the uninsured losses in this fire totaled at least $32,500 or about $670,000 in current values. Investigation proved that this fire began accidentally in the Ponder’s store. Much of the area burned in 1902 had also been destroyed in 1872. In the aftermath of this blaze, which dealt a major blow to the local economy, construction of wooden buildings in the downtown area was prohibited. Beginning an era of construction for many of the downtown buildings still standing today.

At 10 o’clock on the night of Saturday, May 24, 1918, the Minden Lumber Mill was totally destroyed by fire. The local mill, owned by the Bodcau Lumber Company, had been built in 1901 and was by far the largest employer in Webster Parish. In 1917, the mill property had been assessed at a value of $350,000, and it was one of the largest lumber mills in the United States. Besides the economic impact, Minden was left “in the dark” for most of the summer of 1918. The mill had provided the electric power for the town and it took several weeks to find a new power generation source. It was rumored at the time that German sabotage was a possible cause of the fire. A mysterious worker had recently begun work at the mill. This man exhibited education and training far beyond that required for the type of job he had taken. The man disappeared the night of the fire, however, no substantive proof of his involvement was ever produced.

A fire with limited property damage, but great human loss occurred on February 15, 1923. During the Mardi Gras pageant held at Minden High School a sparkler held by one little girl ignited her dress and created a fatal blaze. Eight of the girls in the pageant were burned and five of these young ladies eventually died. The fire spread as several girls attempted to help the original victim put out her burning dress. As the other dresses ignited the girls attempted to run and the wind produced fanned the flames. The tragedy that night ended Minden’s Mardi Gras celebrations for more than 50 years.

As Minden grew in the late 1920s, it was decided that the time had come to increase the amount of fire protection in Minden. The old Hook and Ladder Company had ceased to operate in the early 1900s, and for about 20 years there was no formal fire fighting organization in Minden. In 1926, the voters of Minden approved a bond issue to construct a new fire station and city hall and equip a volunteer fire company. Over the years this volunteer fire department has been expanded into a part professional, part volunteer group that is one of the finest in the region. Minden has one of the best fire prevention ratings and our citizens and businesses enjoy low fire insurance rates and security. Nevertheless, we have seen large fires in the years since 1926, but most have been limited to a single business.

An exception to my previous statement was the first big fire after the Minden Fire Department was organized. On the night of February 25, 1933, a fire erupted in the rear of the Crystal Cafe on North Broadway or Main Street. A. W. Biggs, a night watchman discovered the fire at 2:10 A.M. The Crystal Cafe was located in a group of storefronts formed by subdividing one larger building. This 160-foot row of stores was contained within the second oldest commercial structure in Minden, the Goodwill Building.

Constructed in 1882 by Captain Alfred Goodwill, great grandfather of former Gov. Mike Foster, the Goodwill Building had originally housed one enterprise, a general merchandise store. It was the largest store in the state of Louisiana. The Captain built this structure in anticipation of Minden’s designation as a point on the Vicksburg, Southern and Pacific Railroad. The subdivision of the Goodwill Building came after Goodwill’s death as the family closed the business and rented the available space. At the time of the fire, seven separate businesses stood within the original walls of the Goodwill Building.
As the fire alarm sounded throughout Minden, the fire raged, fanned by a stiff north wind. When the Minden Fire Department arrived at the scene, the blaze had already reached an intensity greater than the local department’s capacity to contain. Chief B. F. Turner issued a call to area fire departments for aid. The first help arrived within nineteen minutes (the Gibsland Fire Department); however, while this group provided more men, their fire fighting equipment was no better than that of Minden.

As the fire continued unabated, a new crisis arose, Chief Turner suffered a severe heat stroke that caused firefighters to take him to the Imperial Hotel for medical aid. By this time all hope of saving the Goodwill Building was gone; furthermore, the firefighters were also losing the battle to save the adjoining structures. The two departments on the scene had fourteen large fire hoses, but lacked a pumper that could supply enough water pressure to extinguish the inferno.

Shortly after 3:00 A.M., both the Homer and Shreveport Fire Departments reached Minden. The Shreveport crew had brought a thousand-gallon pumper to use in fighting the fire. Their arrival proved to be the salvation of the surrounding businesses. Captain S. J. Flores of the Shreveport department took control of the fire fighting operations, and his efforts combined with the power of the pumper truck turned the tide, and eventually contained the fire around 4:00 A.M. In putting out the fire, the various crews had used over 1,000,000 gallons of water.

The damage caused by the fire was extensive. Flames destroyed the seven firms in the Goodwill Building. These businesses were: Minden Bakery; the Specialty Shop, ladies’ millinery; Crystal Cafe; Flewellyn’s Men’s and Ladies’ Furnishings; Whiteway Barbershop; City Shoe Shop; and Minden Hardware and Furniture Company. In addition, the Scout Theater, next to the Goodwill Building suffered heavy damage. The owners of these three buildings, Thomas Crichton, Rollin Williams, W. R. Fogle, Jr., and W. T. Gleason, estimated damages at approximately $125,000, about $1.5 million in today’s money. Due to the state of the nation’s economy, it was not clear if reconstruction would occur. So, Minden was left with a large part of her business district in ruins. Eventually, other buildings were built to replace the burned structures, and Minden survived. However, even today if you examine the relative heights and style of the buildings on Main Street, you can notice the area where the later reconstruction occurred.

Since 1933, Minden’s major fires have mostly been isolated to a single business or residence. Most of these fires have occurred in connection with chemicals used in industrial processes. Several fires at local boat manufacturers and the huge blaze at Fibrebond in 1998 are part of the risks involved with the presence of such industries. However, glancing back at our history, local residents can be grateful for the excellent fire protection we have here in Minden. The capable fire fighters we have among us have helped make the large blazes that destroy entire sections of our town an Echo of Our Past.

Minden Historian John Agan’s column appears Tuesdays in the Minden Press-Herald.Special to the Press-Herald.

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