On Feb. 7, 1908 the town of Monticello was visited by a fire that wiped out almost half a block of the east side of North Main across from the courthouse.
The daily Monticello Evening Journal was the first paper to report the carnage:
“The alarm of fire was sounded this morning, as early risers were beginning to stir as they were getting out of bed. Those who responded found the Thrasher’s Music Store to be ablaze. The fire was discovered by Postmaster William F. Bunnell shortly after 5 a.m. just as he was going to the post office. The flames were pouring out the windows of Marshall’s paint shop.”
The paint shop was to the rear of the Thrasher Music Store. Today, the location is just south of Necessities.
Postmaster Bunnell called out “fire” and hurried to the firehouse on West Washington Street to sound the alarm. Bunnell sent a man to the telephone exchange to notify them to sound a general alarm. Bunnell and “Daddy” Kochel had arrived and together they got out the hose cart. By this time, the whole interior of the Thrasher building was a roaring furnace.
Firemen were slow to respond to the call due to the fire whistle failing to sound. When hooking up the hose to the fire hydrant at the northwest corner of Main and Broadway, they found the hydrant to be frozen solid due to freezing temperatures.
The men then had to uncouple the hose and drag it north to the hydrant at the southeast corner of Washington and North Main Street. This created yet another delay to battle the fire. When they finally got the hose hooked up, there was little pressure to stream the water anywhere near where it was needed.
By this time, Preston Cottrell’s barber shop roof was on fire and the Harlacher building was beginning to burn. Finally, two streams of water were started. One stream was from atop the Fox building focusing on the Harlacher building and the other on Preston Cottrell’s barber shop.
Local residents had managed to remove the equipment and supplies in the barber shop as well as the Harlacher bakery. The contents were put on the courthouse square. Nothing was saved from the Thrasher Music Store as the contents were ablaze before anything could be removed.
Finally, the fire hydrant near the water fountain in front of the courthouse was thawed out and another stream was started. Water Works engineer William Hardy succeeded in getting more water on the fire with additional water pressure. By this time, there was little left to do other than douse the ruins created by the fire.
The hook and ladder men were forced to pull down the Cottrell barber shop in order to save the bank building, on the corner of Broadway and Main, which was starting to burn in spite of the efforts of the bucket brigade. When the heavy wooden beams of the Thrasher building incinerated, the entire south wall fell, burying the remains of the barber shop and crashing through the side of the bank building on the corner.
The collapse of the brick wall of the Thrasher building did more damage to the bank building than the fire itself. The Thrasher building was all brick and was built by merchant Rolland Hughes in 1850.
When the fire was extinguished, a survey of the damage was done. The Harlacher store display area was completely destroyed but the bake shop and ovens survived the ordeal.
Optimism prevailed with store owner Frank Harlacher. The floor and front wall was intact and he felt that it could be rebuilt. Harlacker’s insurance coverage would not begin to cover his losses but the inventory of baked goods could be replaced.
Max Goodman owned the Harlacher building and, upon inspection, found that the heat of the fire had cracked the brick wall 10 feet above the ground floor level. Harlacher would rebuild in the same location and was one of the most successful merchants in Monticello during his time at this location.
Both the Cottrell barber shop and White County Loan, Trust & Savings Co. were fully covered by insurance on both the buildings and fixtures. Goodman’s insurance on his building would not begin to cover his losses.
Thrasher’s Music Store insurance did not cover his loss due mostly to the fact that he lost four pianos and a large stock of gramophones along with sheet music and smaller musical instruments in the blaze.
The paint shop of William P. Marshall suffered a $150 loss for which he had no insurance. As soon as the flames were under control, the White County Loan, Trust & Savings Co. began shoveling out the rubbish and putting their room in shape.
All of the movable fixtures and furniture had been removed for fear that their building would go the way of the rest of the buildings on the block. The bank was ready to receive customers by noon that same day even though there was a huge hole in the north wall of the building and the floor was soaked with water.
So what happened to the businesses that could not reopen?
Cottrell rented the Baker Room which today is the office of Attorney George Loy. Harlacher rented the Uhl room on West Broadway next to Davis Grocery Store. Thrashers, a few weeks later, would move to the east side of South Main Street.
As to why the fire started is a mystery. They knew that the fire originated in the rear of the Thrasher building, which was heated by a hard coal base burner furnace. The Marshall Paint Shop had no fire in the stove for several days before. No specific cause for the fire could be found.
What was learned? First and foremost was the issue with the frozen hydrants and lack of water-pressure. Second, the alarm failure coupled with the lack of manpower on the ground was slower than expected. Had both of these things happened with this fire, the flames would have been confined to just the Thatcher building.
The Monticello Evening Journal noted, “The firemen did an excellent job considering everything that they had working against them.”
We probably have mentioned some names in this column you may not be familiar with. We have covered in previous columns Max Goodman and Frank Harlacher, but who was William Frank Bunnell?
Bunnell was postmaster for Monticello from 1907-1916. During World War I, he was stationed in New York as a quartermaster. In May 1921, he was appointed by the state as a deputy state fire marshal.
Bunnell traveled a large district during his tenure as a fire marshal. He would die in Monticello in 1939 and is buried in Riverview Cemetery.
Marshall was born in 1834 in Beaver County, Pa. After getting out of the paint business, he would secure an election victory and would serve Union Township as justice of the peace until his death in 1914 at the age of 79. Marshall is also buried in Riverview Cemetery.
Forrest G. Thrasher, who was financially devastated by the fire, would move the store to South Main Street, but this was short lived. Thrasher was born in Bloomington in 1876 and began selling pianos about 1900. The 1910 census shows Thrasher in Monticello selling sewing machines. Later, he worked in Lafayette for 20 years selling retail at a local piano store.
Later, Thrasher worked as a rep for a piano manufacturer. In 1939, he moved to New York where he sold pianos. Within two years, according to his WWII Draft Registration, he had moved back to Lafayette; but at 63 he was unemployed.
Thrasher would move to Grand Rapids, Mich., in the late 40s and would die in 1952, at age 76, in Grand Rapids.
Asher Preston Cottrell, who everyone called “Pete,” was a barber in Monticello for 42 years. The night before he died, he had not felt well and decided in the morning that he should drop in to see his doctor before going to work. The doctor was not in and Pete went to work at his shop on North Main. He had not been their long before he felt ill and a doctor was summoned.
The doctor had him sit in his barber chair and told him to sit there for an hour before going home. Shortly after the doctor left, Pete had a heart attack and died in his chair.
Pete was born in Clymers in 1877 and had lived most of his life in Monticello. His date of death was April 15, 1946, at the age of 67. Pete is buried in Riverview Cemetery.
While the devastating fire played havoc with Monticello merchants, the event would make way for all-brick buildings to be constructed that were much more fire resistant.
If you removed remodeling of these buildings over time, this section of the Monticello business district looks very similar today as it looked after it was rebuilt. The new brick and limestone structures held up remarkably well even during the 1974 tornado.