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Fire that damaged county courthouse started in attic

By Henry Timman • Dec 1, 2017 at 11:00 AM

A number of short stories have accumulated on the heap of paper in my office so I’ll share some of them with you.

It’s a well-known fact of local history that the Huron County courthouse, which had been built in 1881, was damaged by fire on July 9, 1912.

The fire started in the attic where records were stored and firemen were stymied in fighting it by the tin roof and the small windows for outside access. They had to wait until it burned forward to the clock tower and then burst forth. Meanwhile, the common pleas courtroom and second-floor hall were gutted.

Another hindrance to firefighting that night was the lack of a motor driven engine to enhance the water pressure. An engine was on order after several months of arguing and disagreement by city council and arrived several weeks after the fire. This replaced eventually the steam-powered pumper then in use.

In the meantime, the LaFrance Engine Co. sent a “loaner” for the city in case of another serious fire. Sure enough, the following Sunday a call came of a house fire at 244 W. Main St. (a house torn down in later years). Sparks from the chimney had ignited the roof and eventually the blaze was extinguished with minor damage.

The company man sent by LaFrance to teach the firemen how to drive the truck happened to be at the situation (the old one which preceded our soon-to-be old one on Whittlesey). The department then used Linwood Avenue as its egress and when the engine reached East Main Street, a number of firemen were waiting and boarded. The driver accelerated and reached a speed of 52 mph. Can you imagine?

The engine’s “squawker” and alarm bell let everyone know it was a genuine run. And a large crowd gathered to see a motor-driven fire truck in action. When it reached the scene, the horse-drawn equipment was only as far as Pleasant Street, showing how much more quickly motor-driven trucks could respond.

Concerning the damaged courthouse, there was much delay after the fire in rectifying the situation. The undamaged woodwork was removed from the building but it was allowed to stand for several months with no covering. Moisture got into the walls and with no heat there was great damage to the brickwork. There also was a movement to remove county government from Norwalk to North Fairfield — much nearer the center of the county. This same issue had come up in 1881 when the courthouse which was damaged had been built. In both cases, the matter was settled by the commissioners saying that they were only repairing the former building, not building a new one. The present building was first occupied late in 1913. A few parts of the 1837 building (enlarged in 1881) and some stonework of the 1881 building can still be seen in the present courthouse.

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REMEMBER: My “Just Like Old Times” books are on sale at Colonial Flower and Gift Shoppe at 7 W. Main St. in downtown Norwalk. These preserve my earlier columns in permanent book form.

 

Henry Timman, an authority on Firelands history, resides in rural Norwalk.

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