The Hilb & Turkington building holds the line

The great Chicago fire occurred in 1871. By that time, Rochelle had already suffered three major fires. The first two, 1860 and 1861, led to the hanging of Thomas Burke. Ashton lost its downtown to fire in 1889 and Creston burned in 1896. Those are stories for another time. 

For Rochelle, the third major fire took place on Dec. 10, 1870. The business district consisted almost exclusively of wooden buildings with little or no room separating the structures. The lone exception was the Hilb & Turkington building. Emanuel Hilb came from Germany and finally settled in Rochelle in 1854. Emanuel and his brother Adolph immediately opened business in Rochelle and finally settled into a very successful clothing business. In 1865, Emanuel purchased an empty lot on Washington Street (today’s Lincoln Highway) and erected a two-story wooden structure for his growing business.

By 1870, Emanuel was doing so well that he removed the wooden building and with George Turkington erected a two-story brick building to house his clothing store at what today is 306 Lincoln Highway. Hilb and Klein Clothing would play a major part in saving the downtown on three separate occasions.

On Dec. 10, 1870 at 3:30 a.m. a small fire broke out in the back of John Rae’s Fruit and Grocery Store. Rae’s was located two stores north (approximately today’s 310 Lincoln Highway) of Hilb and Klein. The fire grew rapidly in the wooden building and spread quickly to the buildings to the north and south.

Rochelle’s volunteer fire department responded quickly with water buckets and their Number Two Button fire truck. The heat was so intense that buckets of water could not be thrown far enough to reach the fire. The Button fire truck was a hand-pulled cart with large pump handles on each side. Firefighters would physically pump water by hand from cisterns or water troughs. The pumpers would push down on the handle on their side, raising the handle on the other, then that side would pump down, each pump pulling water into the fire truck and spraying it on the fire.

The firefighters fought bravely, but the fire was out of control and would remain so until it ran out of fuel. The fire raged through the night and the next day reached the corner of Lincoln Highway and Fourth Avenue to the north and died at the corner for lack of fuel.

The spread to the south was deterred when the flames ran into the Hilb and Klein store. The brick building, with its metal roof, would not burn and the fire could not breach the building to reach the last three wooden buildings on the block which sat south of Hilb and Klein.

Seven buildings housing 14 businesses were destroyed. By 1919, Hilb and Klein had become Carney and Longenecker Clothing and stood at the south edge of a rebuilt block. Due to new city ordinances, all of the new buildings were made of brick, wood was banned from the business district.

At 3 a.m. a train on the Central and Northwestern line was shocked to see flames shooting from the roof of a downtown Rochelle business. The engineer stopped his train and laid hard on his steam whistle. The constant wail roused the local citizenry.

Jay Maxson was baking bread in his store one building south of Carney and Longenecker. Jay had smelled smoke earlier and checked out his bakery, finding nothing, he returned to baking. The train whistle drew Jay out of his building. He was shocked to see the building next to his on fire.

The 1912 fire truck arrived on scene and the firefighters threw themselves into the fray. Carney and Longenecker lost all of their merchandise and suffered severe structural damage, but the brick walls had held the fire within the one building. Hilb’s building had saved the downtown from its own fire. Carney and Longenecker remodeled and reopened the store and were still in business in 1973 when fire took its next run at the block.

On Feb. 17, 1973, a fire broke out in a trash can in the Del Mar Restaurant. The Del Mar was located in the store south of the old Hilb building or Carney and Longenecker. One of the last three wooden buildings was on fire and the results would be eerily familiar.

The fire grew rapidly spreading to the Lincoln Lounge building to the south. Ira Clue would see his building burned to the ground. The last of the wooden buildings had housed the Highway Lounge, it too would fall before the onrush of the flames. The fire failed to move to the north.

Carney and Longenecker’s building constructed by Emanuel Hilb and George Turkington in 1870 had again held the line. 103 years after the Great Rochelle Fire of 1870, the circle closed. Fire had consumed the entire block from Lincoln Avenue to Fourth Avenue with only one building still standing.

Tom McDermott is a Flagg Township Museum historian and Rochelle city councilman.


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