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The Fire

by Phyllis Martens

Part 1

To understand the full significance of the fire which burned down Grandpa's hardware store, it is necessary to understand the character of the German immigrants to Minnesota, the structure of the buildings in Midwest towns in the early 1900's, the history of the Jungas family, the winter of 1919, and most especially the need of Mt. Lake bachelors for hot baths on Saturday night. The event which may have seemed to the onlookers a simple fire which burned down three downtown buildings was in reality the culmination of complex forces, such as the German immigration out of Russia, which in turn were caused by other forces which changed forever the town of Mt. Lake and the lives of Johann and Helena Jungas, with consequences that live on to this day. The fire was to the Jungas family history what the birth of Christ is to the Gregorian calendar with its B.C. and A.D.

Single working men in Mt. Lake needed a place to take their weekly hot bath. Hotels in those days provided jugs of water heated in the iron cauldron in the kitchen, and basins to wash in, but no hot running water. Family baths took place in zinc tubs near the kitchen stove. Bachelors, having no family, relied on other arrangements. In Mt. Lake they could go either to Olfert's barber shop or to Heppner & Dick's garage. For 25 cents they could get a comfortable hot bath, soap, and a towel.

George Schroeder was in the habit of heating up his bath water in the basement of Heppner & Dick's. Late in the afternoon on Saturday, March 7, 1919, he stuck his head out of the garage door, estimated the cold at about 20 below, and went downstairs to fire up the furnace. Winter had come in mild that year, but after January it had been nothing but blizzards with intense cold and occasional high winds. George got a good fire going, added an extra shovelful or two of coal, clanged the furnace door shut, and went home, intending to return when the water was hot.

Some time later Heppner, working on a car by lamplight, noticed what looked like thin wisps of smoke curling in under the door to the basement. Puzzled, he went over and put his hand on the door. It was hot. The wall around it was also hot. At about the same time Dick, on the other side of the garage, said, "Where's that coming from?" He pointed to the window at the back of the garage. Black smudges were drifting upward in the freezing air, visible against the glow of lights from the Jungas building across the back alley.

Heppner opened the basement door to investigate. Thick choking smoke poured in. Coughing, he covered his nose with a handkerchief and ran down. In a moment he was back. "Furnace is red-hot, the extra oil in the tin is burning," he said. "That's where the smoke is coming from."

Dick, struggling to tighten a front wheel, looked up in consternation. "Dumb thing's gonna explode one of these days, the way them guys overload it."

Heppner grabbed the small drum of water they used to wash their hands and dashed the water down the steps. "Gimme that piece of carpet," he said, and ran back down to smother the blaze.

But by that time the wooden frame of the small basement window was smoldering. Heppner hastily flung the piece of carpet over the burning oil and ran back upstairs. "Here, take the shovel and break the basement window from outside and shovel in some snow," he told Dick, and began moving drums of oil away from the hot inner wall. The tires were stacked on the other side, away from the heat. Then he too went out into the alley.

He found Dick trying to knock down the blazing window frame with the shovel. A stream of red sparks sizzled into the snow. "I'll get the ax," Heppner said.

"Should we call Jungas?" Dick yelled over the blows of the shovel. The Jungas building was behind them across the narrow alley, sixteen feet away. The telephone office was up there on the side nearest the alley, with a wooden stairway leading up to it.

"Naw, fire's just in the basement," Heppner said. "We'll get it out."

"If the sparks catch that stairway on fire, gonna be trouble," Dick objected. "Whole building is made of wood, burn like a Christmas tree."

"Too cold, it'll never catch," Heppner said, and ran in to get the ax. He found the oily floor under the workbench smoking . . . once the floor began burning, the whole interior of the garage would go up. Worried now, he grabbed the ax and ran outside. "Ask Jungas if he has water in his cistern," he shouted at Dick, who had knocked down a section of the burning window frame and was stamping out the flames in the snow. "Get some guys to hand up buckets--our floor's heating up." He began chopping at the window. Thick smoke was pouring out through the broken panes.

Dick hurried to the hardware store to alert Jungas, who immediately opened the trap door to the cistern below the store and sent his son Al for buckets. Farmers lounging inside the store pulled on their heavy jackets and gloves to set up a bucket line. "Just what we need," they joked, "a little fire to warm us up. We ought to just let it burn." Dripping buckets were passed from hand to hand, the water dashed into the garage through the big doors. Two men, eyes smarting, pushed the car Heppner had been repairing out into the street.

Heppner had succeeded in chopping away the blazing frame, but by then the garage windows just above it were burning. Dense black smoke filled the alley, driving Heppner, choking and coughing, into the street.

By this time the Saturday night shoppers were gathering around the entrance to the alley to see what was going on. The town was always crowded on Saturday nights since shops remained open until midnight, and there was a drawing for a prize at eleven, still an hour away.

Johann took one look at the alley and called the fire engine out, then ran upstairs to warn Helena. She was wiping out the zinc tub in the kitchen. The children were all in bed. She had had her own bath near the stove and was waiting for Johann to come up. On the kitchen table were six loaves of bread baked that afternoon, covered with a clean dishtowel.

"A fire?" she exclaimed. "Where?" Alarmed, she ran to the boys' bedroom to look out. She could not see the fire itself because the telephone office was in the way, but there were plenty of sparks flying up and burning out in the cold black air. "We'll burn down!" she cried. "We have to get the children out!"

"Not yet. We're pouring cistern water on the garage--the fire engine is coming--maybe we can put it out," Johann said, but agreed that it would probably be wise to get the children up and dressed. He hurried back down to the street.

(Check again next month for Part 2)