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Fires Shaped Early Denton

by Shelly Kneupper Tucker on May 6, 2013©

[As I dig through Denton's history at the museums and the Emily Fowler Library, always in search of tales for a history/mystery tour of Denton, I have become fascinated by the fires that shaped our town and its history. In the years from 1860 to 1895, there were fourteen major fires on the square that sometimes destroyed an entire block of businesses and homes. While all of them were devastating, a few of the fires had such an impact on the community that they deserve mention.]

“FIRE!” That was a common cry in the early days of Denton, when most of the buildings were constructed of wood and people illuminated their homes using kerosene lamps and candles.

leather fire bucketWhen the shout rang out, someone pulled out their “hip pocket alarm” — their pistol — to shoot it in the air to call the volunteer firefighters to action. On Saturday nights in this rowdy frontier town, there was plenty of danger of a “false alarm!” In the 1870s, when the alarm sounded, men rushed to the blacksmith shop. It wasn’t what we would consider a “fire station,” but it was what they had at the time. It was located on the west side of the corner of North Locust and McKinney Streets (across the street from the current Post Office). They grabbed their collection of three-gallon leather buckets, such as this one that is preserved at the Denton Firefighter’s Museum, to begin a bucket brigade to battle the blaze.

Firefighters formed two lines from the nearest water source (which wasn’t always very “near”). One line of men passed full buckets of water toward the blaze to douse it; the other line passed the empty buckets back to the well or cistern to fill them again. It was always a difficult task … and often fruitless. Frequently an entire side of the square succumbed to the blaze.

1860 FIRE ON THE WEST SIDE

According to some, the most memorable fire occurred on a Sunday afternoon, July 8, 1860, when the town of Denton was only three years old. It was 110° that day, and most of the shops were closed. Although there were no “Sunday laws” to prevent them from opening, there was a big religious meeting being held. In the early afternoon, fire broke out, beginning in the store of James Smoot (on the southwest side, where the Sherman building stands) and spreading to a store nearby, which stored 25 kegs of gunpowder. As you can imagine, a huge explosion sent fragments of burning timber, chains, and metal shooting in all directions. Nearly every building on the west side of the courthouse square was soon engulfed in flames and burned to ashes. While it was a huge loss for the businesses, amazingly no lives were lost in the blaze.

However, on the same day, there were unexplained fires in several North Texas towns, including Dallas, Pilot Point, Waxahachie, Jefferson, and Austin! You can bet, with the country on the verge of a Civil War, that conspiracy theorists came out of the woodwork. It was called The Texas Troubles. Some claimed that the fires were started by abolitionists or that it was a slave revolt.

Vigilante committees across the state laid plans for the detection, arrest, and eradication of abolition agents, horse thieves, and suspicious characters. Many people were punished for these conflagrations across the state — until it was discovered some months later that it wasn’t a conspiracy at all. The fires had been set off by the automatic combustion of a new kind of match recently offered for sale in the area! The “Prairie Match” head was dipped into a sulphur preparation, it would ignite on its own in the heat, and strong winds wouldn’t blow it out.

Nevertheless, that fire in Denton, and the ones across the state that day, caused panic for people into the fall of the year and helped whip up the sentiments of Texans to secede from the Union. It also cost 30-100 innocent people (depending on which account you believe) their lives at the hands of vigilantes.

THE FIRES THAT CONSUMED COUNTY HISTORY

Three notable fires in the 1870s destroyed many of the county records and written history of our area. For any historian, these fires were immeasurable tragedies. Even though no lives were lost in the flames, valuable historical information was gone for good.

  • At Christmas time in 1875, the Denton County Courthouse went up in flames, taking most of the county records. At that time, the central portion of our square (where our iconic courthouse now stands) was just a patch of grass and weeds, and the Courthouse was a wooden structure on the north side in about the middle of the block. No one really knows how the blaze started. Although some blamed it on “carpetbaggers” who were trying to destroy evidence of their “fraud and corruption” during Reconstruction, others blamed the outlaw Sam Bass and his gang who were supposedly trying to destroy records against themselves.
  • Somebody might have been trying to destroy records, however, because what was left was moved to the Cumberland Presbyterian Church (at West Oak and Bolivar Streets), and IT burned in 1877.
  • In January of 1878, even more recorded history was lost when one of the newspapers, The Denton Monitor, caught fire on the South side of the square. Supposedly a type setter fell asleep, allowing a candle to burn down into a wooden box. The building and the records were a total loss.

1890 FIRE ON THE EAST SIDE

As the years passed, and fires continued, the people of Denton improved their fire department. By 1884, the city had a horse-drawn hook and ladder wagon, built by the W. J. Lacy Blacksmith Shop and the latest model LaFrance steam engine (which cost a whopping $6,000). Unfortunately, that steam engine was in Fort Worth for repairs on July 15th, 1890.

At 3:10 in the morning, fire was discovered in the back room of a barber shop, and within thirty minutes every building on the east side of the square was enveloped in flames. Strong winds from the southeast made the work of the firefighters more difficult. By morning light, every building had burned to the ground on the east side of the square except the Paschall Building on the northeast corner. It was the only building made of stone, and had been protected by a “wall of salt.” There was a tiny gap between the Paschall Building and the next building to the south of it. Years before that gap had been filled with salt to act as a fire break. During the blaze, water was poured on the salt … and it’s believed that may have saved it from burning.

Certainly that fire was the most disastrous to that date for the citizens, at least in terms of dollars. The total loss was expected to be in the amount of $80,000-$100,000 (which would be a major fortune in today’s dollars). However, once again, no lives were lost in the blaze.

Fire Department in 1900s

Although fire ravaged the city of Denton many times, brave volunteer firefighters battled the blazes to protect the citizenry. Each time buildings were destroyed, the hardy settlers who pioneered this town just “hitched up their britches” and built again. Each time they rebuilt, the town just got better.

By the 1900s, the fire department had moved to a location on the corner of Oak and Bolivar Streets. Above are the horse drawn carts pulled by Nip and Tuck (the hose cart) and George and Henry (the hook and ladder truck). The men in the picture are Hub Bates and William Middleton Woods. I was amused that at the Denton Firefighter’s Museum the horses were named, but the men were not! The men were listed in the Portal to Texas History. Obviously, the firefighters running the museum are animal lovers, for they even preserved information about their mascot from the 1930s — Snooky the Fire Dog.

Much more interesting information can be found about Denton’s fascinating firefighting history by a visit to the Firefighter’s Museum, located at the Central Fire Station at 332 E. Hickory. The quality and scope of the displays are amazing. Although the fires in the 1800s destroyed much of the interesting historical records, thanks to the Firefighter’s Museum, the Emily Fowler Library, and the work of our Denton County Historical Commission we can still catch a glimpse of what life was like for the pioneer settlers of Denton.

{ 4 comments }

Susan May 10, 2013 at 8:45 am

I wonder how many cities or towns were defined by fires early on in their history. In Norfolk our city is built around all the waterways so we were defined by our ports and the progression down from Jamestown but I can imagine how hard many towns had keeping fires under control when out in the middle of the country. Interesting article.

Bernadine May 19, 2013 at 2:28 pm

Wow, superb blog format! How long have you ever been blogging for?
you make running a blog glance easy. The entire glance
of your web site is magnificent, let alone the content material!

Christi June 4, 2013 at 12:46 pm

Love this blog– Thanks Shelly for this. I was always wondering why I couldn’t find much on our town history.

Shelly Kneupper Tucker June 4, 2013 at 1:30 pm

Thanks, Christi. I know how frustrating it is to be searching for history around here only to find that it went up in smoke!

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