Ashton fire of 1889

Tom McDermott
Posted 3/29/24

March 28, 1889 started out like most days in Ashton, local business owners were opening their stores and preparing to serve their customers.

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Ashton fire of 1889


March 28, 1889 started out like most days in Ashton, local business owners were opening their stores and preparing to serve their customers. H.E. Chadwick, as postmaster for the village, had opened the doors and banked the fire in the wood burning stove to take the chill out of the building. By 10 a.m. most businesses were opened and downtown Ashton was a beehive of activity. Like most small towns in the late 1880s, Ashton’s business district consisted of mostly wooden structures with wood shake roofs built closely together. In these early days Ashton did not even have a fire department, it was a city waiting to burn. At 10:30 a.m. smoke was seen coming from the roof of the Post Office. The cry of “fire”was raised and a normal Thursday would become a nightmare for the community. 

The Post Office sat at the middle of the block on the north side of today’s Main Street between Evans Avenue and Douglas Avenue. Fellow merchants and citizens joined together to fight the blaze. Buckets and ladders were hurried to the Post Office. Unfortunately, the fire was in the walls and attic thus the responders could not reach the flames. Quickly the fire burned through the roof, flames and sparks rose into the sky, the race was on. With a brisk wind out of the west burning embers were carried to the buildings to the east. Bode and Eisenberg Dry Good Store caught fire, as did their storage building. The roof of the American Hotel smoldered and the hotel barn was on fire. 

The telegraph lines jumped to life and assistance was requested from Rochelle, Franklin Grove and Dixon. Rochelle responders gathered buckets, ladders and any other tools that might be needed to fight the flames and loaded them onto train cars. Dixon Fire Company with almost 100 citizens also boarded trains and began the trek to Ashton. Franklin Grove also sent a contingent. By 11:40 a.m. more than 200 responders were on scene with ladders and buckets only to learn that there was little if any water supply. 

Bode and Eisenberg moved silks, laces, cashmeres and other stock out of their store and into the street. West of the Post Office, George Charters’ Drug Store was burning. Stock, including ammunition was removed and carried across the street. Within a short-time, embers had started the stock on fire and the ammunition began discharging, which sent people scattering. By the time responders could return to the area the fire had spread west to Harry Bly and Chadwick Butcher Shop and Peter G. Smith Shoes. In desperation the responders tore down Tom Smith’s Barber Shop next to an alley thus stopping the westerly spread of the fire on the north side of the street. 

Wind-driven fire continued to the east. Embers ignited Isaac Earls’ Grocery Store and Jack Williams Dry Goods before the Hicks building was torn down to save Oliver’s Jewelry, Geyer and Geyer Harness, and Leach Drug Store. Almost two blocks to the east the flour mill was allowed to burn as it posed no threat to the downtown. East of Leach Drug Store, the T.L. Brown and Company, Charles Greve Furniture, and Isaac Trask Meat Market fell to the inferno. John Howes Restaurant, the William Taggart building, and August Bass’s Saloon each quickly succumbed to the raging inferno. It was only at Brown Avenue that the fire stopped its run to the east.

On the south side of Main Street, the fire had jumped from the buildings on the north side to the stock which had been taken from the stores then to the stores on the south side of Main Street. William Putman’s Barber Shop and Julia C. Smith’s Book Store were the first of the south side businesses to go up in flames. Once the fire had jumped to the south side of the street the fire pushed to the west. Cornelius Bell’s Restaurant, which filled two store fronts, could not be saved. Clothiers Livery was lost, the Ashton Town Hall carried the fire to Henry Stephens Furniture and Funeral Home. A small shanty owned by a Mr. Stevens was torn down and the easterly spread of the fire was stopped. The fire spread easterly and consumed D.A. Glenn and Company on the corner of Main Street and Evans Avenue.  Delaney’s Saloon also burned. 

By 2:30 p.m. the Dixon Fire Co. had stacked their ladders and the fire was believed extinguished when again the call of “fire” was heard, the Mills and Petrie Bank was on fire. Mr. Petrie quickly placed books and records into the vault and at the last minute he closed the door. John Trestle kept guard over the safe for two days after the fire, and when the vault was opened all of the records had been saved. The bank unfortunately had the honor of being the last to burn. 

In four short hours, 28 buildings had been lost. Two were residences and the rest were businesses. Responders from out of town loaded up their gear and waited for the train to take them home. Locals began the difficult task of rebuilding. Today much has changed in the Village of Ashton but some things have remained constant. Pride in their community and the refusal to buckle during hard times. Businesses were being rebuilt and reopened as early as the next day. Ashton might have burned down, but it would not be kept down.

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