Jake Roach crawled under the St. Joe’s Hotel, which was in the southwest area of Enid’s downtown plaza. He carefully cradled his bundle of 18 sticks of dynamite. Jake placed six sticks of dynamite under the east corner of the hotel, six more under the center of the hotel, and the final six under the southwest corner of the hotel. The hotel belonged to Judge Michael Roach, Jake’s father. Jake lit the fuse.
Early fire prevention
Most of the early buildings around Enid’s town center square in 1901 were constructed of hard southern pine. A few painted walls and a few brick walls were beginning to be used. Wooden sidewalks were the norm.
According to the history of the Enid Fire Department, Enid Town Council on December 28, 1893 approved the appointment of a fireman and assistant fire marshal, and every business around the square downtown would be required to keep a barrel of water for fire protection and six hand grenades (glass spheres containing carbon tetrachloride) to help put out any fires that broke out.
On February 23, 1894, the town accepted the Pabst Brewing Company’s offer to purchase a hook-and-ladder truck from Enid. The summer of 1894 in particular was extremely hot and dry, leading to fire concerns.
The citizens of Enid also purchased a large bell weighing 300 pounds and erected it on a wooden stand in the public square. The belfry was on the west side of Grand, south of Broadway. It was called “The Bell of Fire”.
The City Council passed Ordinance No. 34 regulating its ringing. A night watchman was employed for the place. Still, all of this did little to lessen the fear of fire since most realized that Enid still lacked true fire protection.
The Enid Daily Wave for Friday July 12, 1901 reports: “A huge fire broke out at 3 p.m. yesterday, 14 miles west of Enid, at Bill Haggert’s house, started by a thresher engine.”
The fire consumed three farms, destroying 2,200 bushels of wheat. Haggert lost three wheat stacks containing 1,800 bushels of wheat. The Daily Wave commented: “This is another one of those warnings (about fire).” More than that, it was the final warning.
July 13, 1901
At midnight that Saturday night, the Fire Bell was silent when a fire broke out in the back of Snyder and Long’s Secondhand Store, 721 S. Grand. The origin of the fire was a complete mystery. It could be a spontaneous combustion of greasy rags lying among cans of furniture polish or triggered by a sick arsonist.
The fire got off to a very good start before it was discovered and the interior of the building was completely covered in flames. The fire exploded moving rapidly north, south, east and west. Gensman Brothers, adjoining to the north, had a brick wall, but flames leaped through the second-story window and consumed the entire interior with such heat and so quickly that many believed the fire had started in that building .
The fire spread south incredibly quickly, completely destroying the Bee Hive restaurant building, the central hotel, the Mauldin & Son furniture store, the Perdlewitz meat market, Odd Fellows Hall, the residence of Yeakey, the forge and a small building. First, the fire completely wiped out everything on Grand Avenue south to Cherokee Avenue.
The Daily Wave recorded that the fire was heading east and totally consumed the two-story lodging house, owned by Unger and McGee, the Gensman Brothers warehouse and the home of Mrs. Dina Wahr. This part of the fire burned towards the east, destroying everything until it reached a stream and was extinguished.
Several thousand men, women and children lined the downtown streets as close to the fire as possible. Despite this, “No city on earth can produce harder and more earnest workers to a fire than Enid; almost everyone able to work was busy transporting goods or clearing buildings to put out the fire,” The Daily Wave reported.
Enid had no organized fire department, but volunteers were picked up when needed. They had a two-wheeled cart with 500 feet of pipe and a horse-drawn Pabst Blue Ribbon hook and ladder.
“There were too many fire bosses with different minds,” he summed up in The Daily Wave. The water supply was too small for a single jet of water to be applied, whereas if they had water, six jets of water could have been applied.
“One of the most amazing moves was that many of the ladies had their hair done beautifully before going down to the fire. Every baby in town was put to sleep in their little stroller, ready to flee the flames,” noted The Daily Wave. Joe Dodson was watching the fire from his office window when he noticed the roof of Battery’s warehouse was on fire, he yelled at a guy in the alley, who climbed onto the roof and put out the fire. Neither of the two men knew that the warehouse was filled with gasoline.
Mr Perdlewitz fetched his horse from the barn, while many Enid residents carried all his belongings to safety before his house burned down. He believed in keeping his money under his mattress. When he went to retrieve his bed, the $1,200 he had hidden there was gone.
Stop the big fire
The fire had spread down Grand Avenue to a large building called The Opera House. It became a mass of roaring, smoldering flames, which leaped high into the heavens and lit up the whole city; throwing burning embers overhead, some of which ignited still-burning homes in Kenwood Addition, eight blocks away. The fire spread south and west, destroying the Satterly Bakery buildings within minutes and leaping across the driveway to embrace the condemned St. Joe’s Hotel.
Judge Roach, his sons minus Jake, and the neighbors were working hard to save their home on the south side of the hotel. It was an incredible scene. Two blocks completely ablaze, the Opera house shooting fire into the night sky, thousands of people of all ages in the street, wooden sidewalks taking flames to look like a guardrail before the buildings then become an explosion totally unexpected mass of fire and wood as Jake’s 18 sticks of dynamite blew up the St. Joe’s Hotel.
The hotel shattered and collapsed with a huge crash. Jake had placed himself and the people of Enid in extreme danger. But, in the end, no one was hurt and the fire stopped heading south. Jake became a hero because he had stopped the fire, saved his family home and possibly Enid.
The Daily Wave noted: ‘Walking west of the Opera House, the fire leapt from building to building in rapid order, destroying Mrs. Hassler’s Building, the Armor Packing Company, the Conservatory of Ike Hirschfeld’s Sheepskin Clothing, Ferguson’s Law Firm, Jobe’s Restaurants, Hotel Montezuma – the best hotel in town, – the Clevenger Building, the Weatherly Building and the building occupied by Bray’s Coming Events. The shacks next to Bray, belonging to Mrs HE Lee, were demolished by residents of Enid. They did their job so well that they stopped the fire from spreading further west.
Only two buildings remained standing on the south side of the square and they were heavily damaged. Two city blocks were a smoking ruin and 30 businesses, homes and buildings were completely destroyed. Amazingly, there were no injuries or loss of life. Mayor Faubion ensured that the still burning ruins were guarded on all sides to prevent the fire from reigniting.
The losses added up. Gensman Brothers lost $37,500, St Joe Hotel $2,000, Central Hotel $1,800, Odd Fellows Hall $2,500, Randels and Grubb $5,000 and Wholesale Grocery $8,000, to name a few. .
Snyder’s thrift store, where the fire started, showed a $900 loss with no insurance, so he lost it all. The loss estimate was $97,900, with a total insurance coverage of $20,000. Most had no insurance. Insurance companies would pay after 60 days, but could pay immediately if the insured accepted the money at a discount (received less money).
Rise from the ashes
The people of Enid literally rose from their ashes. Gensman Brothers opened in a tent. They had their safe dug into the hot ground. Randels and Grubb built a rough temporary shed on the scorched earth right across from their burned-out store. The Buggy Shop reopened at noon. Tents and temporary shelters sprouted everywhere and no one talked about stopping. Grant Yeakey began building a permanent wood-frame blacksmith shop and was told to quit. He pointed a gun at the town marshal and was knocked down with the gun taken away, and no more frame buildings would be allowed in that area. Judge Michael Roach would rebuild the St. Joe’s Hotel into a three-story brick building.
It was painfully clear to all that Enid needed an organized fire department. Volunteer firefighters burned several sections of valuable pipes simply because no one was responsible. Keys and other accessories from the pipe cart were left everywhere. A set of buzzards was still in Gillespie’s living room. Three days after the fire, a special session of city council met to discuss the formation of a volunteer fire department. On December 6, 1901, the city council made the hero of the fire, Jake Roach, the volunteer fire chief. On March 20, 1902, the phoenix finally rose from its ashes when the city council approved the formation of the Enid Fire Department. The first leader was LO Pillsbury.
The prize for the most positive outlook and spirit of this entire event would go to the Decker Brothers on South Grand Avenue. They decorated the roof of their business with many beautifully painted barrels filled with water to use in case of fire. Attached to the barrels were large jugs of “Red Top” and “Old Mack” whiskey for the boys throwing water on the fire. As the Daily Wave replied, “That’s a momentous idea indeed!”
Hats off to Aaron Preston, Archivist of the Cherokee Strip Regional Heritage Center, for his help in writing this article.