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Historic Village Fires


Editor's note: this article originally appeared in the Interlaken Historical Society Newsletter in January 2007. It is reprinted here with additional pictures and other data added.  

      In looking for pictures for the 2007 Historical Society calendar the committee selected fires as one of the pages. Did we have enough pictures to do a page, what fires were they, what did we know of them? Such questions quickly send researchers to the photograph collection index and picture files, the newspaper indexes, and then to the microfilm collection to find further information on the rest of the story. We found four pictures, a newspaper article and its accompanying headline.


     Nelle D. Bradley’s January 1952 article “So As By Fire” details the December 1880 fire that in one long night destroyed multiple buildings on both the east and west sides of Main Street. It is interesting that we don’t have any pictures from this 1880 fire in the Society collections. What we did find were pictures of the 1891 American House (Gambee House) fire, the 1916 Weager Mill fire, the 1939 Robinson Hotel fire and a newspaper clipping of the O’Malley Hotel fire at Kidders in 1972.

Shown above is an undated slide of the

Clarence Miller  Barn Fire.

Does anyone know more about this fire? 

    No doubt many people reading this article recall where they were in 1972 when they heard that O’Malleys had burned. The stories of the good times at the hotel would fill an entire newsletter and we would certainly enjoy reading some of them.


Interlaken Fire Department 

     What do we know of the other fires? The Farmer Review carried a report on the American House fire, and later the Interlaken Review had reports on both the Weager Mill and Robinson Hotel fires.

1913 Boyer Opera House Fire
1928 Main at Railroad Fire

       “About 3:10 Tuesday morning last the fire alarm was sounded…” so begins the 1916 article on the Weager Mill Fire at the corner of Main and Orchard Streets. How often has the sound of fire bells and sirens or the sight of flashing lights rushing down the street made us stop and wonder who, what and where?

Fire Chief List      

    Under the main headline of “The Weager Mill Burned,” and set in smaller type were the lines, “Several Buildings Destroyed, Others Ruined. Loss About $10,000.” The early morning blaze on April 18, 1916 forever changed the southeast corner of Main and Orchard Streets.


      The original building on the corner “was formerly a Methodist church, moved here from south of Lodi village.” This move was done by Ryno & Almy in 1866 and used as a machine shop in addition to their foundry. More recently the buildings were owned by Ryno & Longstreet and later by others. They served as machine shop, basket factory and finally a feed mill. The mill machinery was owned and run by S. D. Grove, who “had no insurance and his loss on machinery will be about $500.”


      The article continues with details of losses by people who had belongings stored in the various buildings, and the nearby homes. A barn to the east and damage to the Longstreet house were reported. The “Hancy’s house was little damaged, the Longstreet house shielding it.” Also saved was the barn of Yager & Halstead. The fire was so hot that it broke windows and blistered the paint of the then Reformed Church Parsonage, across Orchard Street on the northeast corner.


     Many of us have seen the hand pumper proudly owned and displayed by our Interlaken Volunteer Fire Department. It was used to pump water from reservoirs around town. So it was used that night, men working hard to save buildings by raising and lowering the handles on either side. “Just as the barn fell in and the Longstreet house was afire…the reservoir gave out and [the] hand engine had to be moved to the creek west of the church. The men were about tuckered out after pumping hard for an hour and it looked as if the whole south side of the street was doomed.” The houses and St. Francis Solanus church were saved by the timely arrival of the Trumansburg automobile fire engine and 18 firemen. They soon had the situation under control when members of Ithaca Fire Co. No. 1 arrived. This hardy group of men had made the trip from Ithaca to Interlaken in 35 minutes including a stop in Trumansburg to refuel.

     Once the site was cleared several new homes were built on that corner. Facing Main Street was the home owned by Anna Slaght in the 1920s, later by Willard & Evelyn Georgia. Around the corner, facing Orchard Street are the homes of Ernest & Grace Hildebrant now owned by their daughter Faith, Edna Johnson’s home (now Bob Holman’s), the Larsen’s home would appear to be the rebuilt Longstreet home. Also new on the block was Mrs. Pritchard’s home, now home to the O’Donnells.

One of the houses built after the 1916 Weager Mill fire.
1920s photo courtesy of Howard Slaght 2005

           St. Francis Solanus church was saved by the arrival of the Trumansburg Fire Department. In the same issue of the Interlaken Review as the description of the fire is this card of appreciation dated Trumansburg, April 19, 1916:

The members of the congregation of St. Francis Solanus church wishes to thank the Interlaken and Trumansburg fire departments for saving the church property from destruction by fire, and also one company of the Ithaca Fire Department for their good will incoming to help, had any thing remained for them to do. Very sincerely,

T. J. Harrington, Pastor.


      Moving back in time to February 1891, Farmer Village had settled into the many new brick buildings which fronted on Main Street following the December 1880 fire. The headlines from the February 14, 1891 Farmer Review sums up the situation following the hue and cry of “Fire” from the previous Tuesday evening.

     This fire, discovered about 7:15 in the evening first appeared on the roof of the Gambee House. The newspaper report notes that “Farmer Hall was nearly full of men awaiting election returns, and they were soon on the scene, some attempting to stay the flames, others removing property to a place of safety.” The article goes on to describe the fury of the fire, the attempts made by many people to both control the fire and the methods used to prevent other buildings from burning.


     Within 30 minutes of being discovered “the house was a fire from cellar up and had communicated to Dr. A.M. Mann’s wooden block on the south…nearly all the contents of this building were carried out.” Four businesses were housed in that wooden block building: George Mosher’s harness shop, J.D. Wiggins’ jewelry store, M. Chandler’s paint shop and W. L. Witt’s blacksmith shop.


  The next building south was W. E. Peterson’s residence. The volunteers covered the north side of the house with carpets and hoped the space between the Mann block and the house would help stop the fire. It was a hard fought battle, and at one time appeared lost. Several men “stuck to the peak and fought for all they were worth and gained control again, saving not only the house but the rest of the buildings. When the damage amounts were tallied it was noted that Mr. “Peterson’s damage is fully covered by insurance. The adjusters were here yesterday and settled with him.”


    As shown in the picture taken the day after, carpets were also used to save the buildings on the North side of the hotel. “While all the hard work was going on south, the men on the north had their hands full to save Collver’s barber shop and hotel barn.”

     An on-going debate prior to this 1891 fire was the need for a fire department and fire fighting equipment. The second paragraph of the article makes the only reference to this lack, but it makes the point, loud and clear, “Had there been even an apology for a fire engine there isn’t a question but the flames could have been extinguished here.” The new fire department was organized and equipped within weeks of the Gambee House fire. And that organization made the difference in 1916 when the Mill burned.  

      The last fire depicted in the 2007 calendar, is the February 1939 fire at the former Hotel Robinson. Newspaper styles had changed considerably by then and a single two-line headline proclaimed, “M.S. Wiggins’ Building Nearly Ruined by Fire.” This fire, noted as the first serious fire in eleven years, “broke out shortly after four o’clock last Thursday afternoon, February 16.” The blaze, at the Wiggins store and gas station, started near the boiler in the basement and spread so rapidly that the building, an old land mark, seemed doomed. The three-story structure was filled with smoke and no attempt could be made to remove anything from the first floor business places or the living quarters on the second floor.” The residences on the second floor were empty, and Dr. Thompson left his second floor dental offices through the front window to the porch and down a ladder to Main Street.

     Mutual aid from Trumansburg and Ovid fire companies arrived and at one time seven streams of water were being poured into the building. The fire was the first real test of the village water system, and “unquestionably, without an unlimited supply of water the building would have burned to the ground and adjoining structures probably would have been destroyed.” The fire fighters were hampered therefore not by a lack of water, but by the cold weather. “…ice forming on ladders, making climbing very hazardous. The roof, covered with snow and ice, helped to keep the flames in, but also made treacherous footing for firemen working there.” Snow on the roof and surrounding areas is visible in the picture taken the day after from the roof of the Saddlery building across the street.

     As in the past, we are all grateful for the efforts of the volunteers who still respond to the call of “fire!”


Fire Chiefs who have served since the

creation of the Fire Department


1891 S. A. Drake

1896 Frank W. Kennedy

1900 S.A. Drake

1905 Frank W. Kennedy

1908 Halsey P. Minor

1910 Arch D. Chadwick

1914 John V. Villemonte

1919 Seward Case

1920 John V. Villemonte

1922 Roy R Haskins

1940 Albert Redman

1941 Timothy J. Mahoney

1943 Edward Burr

1945 Robert Hitchcock

1946 Homer Stewart



1947 Vernon Meerdink

1948 Harold Hand

1949 Ernest Petterson

1951 Franklin Bassette

1952 Ernest Petterson

1953 Adrian Dickerson

1955 James B. VanNostrand

1957 Elwood Mather

1960 Arthur Thayer

1964 Donald McGuire

1965 Alfred “Pete” Jackson

1973 Dewey Albro

1982 Leon Stannard

1985 Robert MacCheyne

1994 Dale Stannard




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