Big fires threatened Sheboygan’s heart

Echoes of our past
William & Joy Wangemann • for The Review

The winter of 1859-60 had been an endless string of subzero days. January 1, 1860 was no exception.

At 3:30 am on that bitter cold New Year’s morning an alarm was turned into the fire department stating that the three-story Otten Block on 8th and Center Avenue was on fire.

The building was one of the largest in downtown Sheboygan in those days. On the first floor could be found a large dry goods store and a hardware store. On the 2nd and 3rd floors were numerous County Offices.

The Sheboygan County Court Room was located on the 2nd floor along with the County Treasurer, the Register of Deeds and the 3rd floor included the Probate Judge’s office, Clerk of Courts office, County Clerk’s office and the Sheboygan County Sheriff’s office.

Practicing attorneys also kept several offices in the Otten Building along with at least one insurance Company. The Sheboygan Theater Association also kept rooms in the building where they had an office and rooms in which they stored scenery and stage props that they used in theatrical productions.

The fire tugboat Peter Reiss, after a desperate struggle through mud flats up the Sheboygan River, pumps water on the Garton toy company plant. The fire tugboat Peter Reiss, after a desperate struggle through mud flats up the Sheboygan River, pumps water on the Garton toy company plant. The Sheboygan Journal at that time reported that within minutes of receiving the alarm fire fighters and their equipment arrived on the scene.

They had no sooner begun pumping water on to the building, which was now totally enveloped in flames, then the bitter cold weather froze their pumping equipment solid.

With no water to fight the fire Fire Fighters could do little but helplessly stand and watch the building being destroyed.

It was noted that as soon as the fire fighters arrived, even at this early hour spectators began to gather.

The county Sheriff, who was one of the first people at the scene ,rushed into the blazing building, ran up to his 2nd floor office and gathered up his records and ran from the building with his books and papers intact

Spectators seeing his brave action then ran into the building and began bringing out whatever they could carry.

Immediately next door to the Otten Building was a harness shop which stood next door to another multi-floored office building. Fire fighters feared that the harness shop, which was a wooden building, would catch fire and would spread to the building next door which would then set the entire downtown area ablaze.

Firemen, along with the help of spectators, began ripping down the walls and the roof of the harness shop; much to the dismay of its owner.

Once the fire in the Otten building burned out it was found that the fire never did spread to the harness shop, the loss of that building had been totally unnecessary.

The value of the Otten building, which many people considered the finest building on 8th Street, was placed at $22,000; Mr. Otten carried no insurance on the structure.

The dry goods store on the 1st floor which had been completely burned out placed their loss of merchandize and store fixtures at $20,000, they also carried no insurance.

The hardware store which was a total loss as well carried an insurance policy of $6,000 which helped to soften the blow of the loss of $10,000 in store fixtures.

The very next day Mr. Otten announced he would rebuild the building. Tenants of the building moved to other quarters and many were back in business in a matter of weeks.

Sheboygan County Government was the big loser in the loss of all their vital records. Over $40,000,000 tax due accounts had to be recreated. It took a long time for county government to function normally again.

Another fire that looms large in the history of Sheboygan was the enormous Garton Toy factory fire.

May 31, 1929 was a bright, clear, warm and windy spring day. Little rain had fallen that spring and conditions were dry, perfect for a fire.

At 1:00 pm the alarm bells clanged in fire houses across the city; a general alarm was coming in.

Fire fighters were directed to the American Hide and Leather Company that stood on the banks of the Sheboygan River near Niagara Ave. The first truck to arrive was from nearby station #1 on N.9th and Center Ave.

Fire fighters found that the bark house (bark was used in the tanning process) of the American Hide and Leather Company which was filled with tinder dry bark had burst into flame.

Soon nearly the entire Sheboygan Fire Department was on the scene. Strong west winds threatened to drive the flames eastward into a residential area and downtown Sheboygan.

The situation had become truly serious.

Flames now threatened the nearby Garton Toy Company and homes just across the street as the roaring flames sent flaming embers high into the sky.

A desperate call was sent out to all available fire departments in the area. Soon fire trucks from Manitowoc, Elkhart Lake, Plymouth Sheboygan Falls, Kohler, and from as far away as Milwaukee were speeding to the scene of the growing conflagration.

Even the harbor tug Peter Reiss responded. The tug had to fight a desperate battle to reach the fire scene as she had to use every bit of energy her powerful engines could generate to push through mud banks to reach the fire scene.

It seems that the Sheboygan River had not been dredged that far up for many years.

As soon as she was near the fire the tug began to pump three powerful streams of water on the flames. Suddenly the worst fears of the firemen were realized; the huge Garton toy company plant burst into flame.

Flames quickly spread across the roof of the big four story frame building.

As the flames roared out of control showers of firebrands came down on homes and businesses in the area.

Frantic residents in the path of the fire began carrying their possession from their homes. It seemed as though the entire heart of Sheboygan was doomed to become a smoldering ruin.

To add to the problems the desperate fire fighters faced, thousands of spectators descending on the scene.

Cars were parked helter-skelter all over the fire area. In some cases blocking streets as their drivers hastily parked and ran to the fire scene.

Every available Police Officer from both the City of Sheboygan and the Sheboygan County Sheriff’s Department, some of them mounted, were rushed in to handle traffic.

Volunteers grabbed garden hoses and put out fires on roofs in the area.

Hours passed and the flames continued to rage on. Then to add to the problems of the weary firemen darkness began to fall.

All power in the downtown area had been knocked out by the flames, and the firemen had to work in the dark. The only light available to them was the lurid glow of the burning buildings.

When nearby Kohler Company learned of the situation they immediately responded with several generators which they hurriedly installed on flatbed trucks.

Within a very short time the generators were on scene and running flat out, as a series of flood lights came on and illuminated the scene for the beleaguered firemen.

Throughout the long night the restaurant of the Sheboygan Dry Goods Company kept the firemen supplied with hot coffee and sandwiches.

Then a seeming miracle happened. The wind changed direction 180 degrees, blowing straight out of the east. The sparks and firebrands now were blown harmlessly into the river.

The threat of the fire spreading to the downtown area was over. The most fortunate part of this story was that just two firemen had been injured; only one required hospitalization.

As a new day dawned it became clear that the firemen had won their desperate battle to keep the flames from burning out the heart of Sheboygan.

The next addition of the Sheboygan Press carried the very good news that the Garton family had already decided to rebuild the factory, the jobs of 450 Sheboygan workers were secure.

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