The date was March 30, 1961, a few short days before Easter Sunday. Many folks were attending Maundy Thursday services. Most stores were closed for the evening.
The fire started in the rear of Sheplers Market which sat along Warren Avenue. We lived in an apartment above the store & stockroom. The occupants of the building were unaware of any danger. We did not hear sirens, fire trucks or any of the noise that goes along with fighting a fire.
Many folks refer to the fire as the “bank fire” when in reality, the bank was just the largest building involved in the disaster.
I was sitting in our living room watching TV, along with my sister and mother. My sister said it was an episode of “My Three Sons”. My younger brother was asleep in his crib. My brother Tom was at camp with friends.
As we watched our show, my mother said she smelled smoke. She asked us to go to the kitchen to see if our neighbor, Dorothy, who’d been over earlier, had left a cigarette burning. She had not. My mother decided to check for herself. Not finding anything in our apartment, she opened the door to see if the neighbor was burning something. That was when she realized our apartment building was on fire.
She immediately pounded on Dorothy’s door to alert her to get her children to safety. She had 4 children, and like my mother, was raising them on her own. Dorothy was crying over losing her belongings and my mother, not being a patient person, yelled at her to forget all that & worry about their lives.
The building housed 4 apartments. Our two families occupied the 2 front apartments closest to the inside set of steps. The other 2 apartments were unoccupied and at the other end of the hall was the door leading to the outside set of wooden steps.
My sister, being the oldest of all the kids, helped Dorothy by taking one of her sons. The oldest daughter took her brother and Dorothy took her other daughter. My mother gathered up my brother and wrapped him in a bedspread. She told me to hold on to her and to not let go, no matter what.
She directed everyone to follow her and it was hard to see because the hallway was smoke filled. We proceeded to the inside steps, which led to the alley known as Hildebrande Way. There were flames coming up through the steps! My mother told everyone to turn around and make their way to the end of the hall to the door leading to the outside steps. Finally! We could see and breathe again.
I can remember seeing many folks standing below watching the fire. I was barefoot and none of us had coats on. A man picked me up because I had no shoes. My mother was never one to mince words, and did ask why nobody thought to come in and warn the families.
According to my mother, it was a mere 5 minutes after we got out that all interior floors collapsed into the ruins. We lost everything we owned, but we had our lives, thanks to my mother’s quick thinking and her level-headedness.
I remember walking out of our kitchen, seeing my mom’s purse hanging on the handle of the old refrigerator door. But she had told me not to let go of her, no matter what. So I did not grab it, even though I wondered to myself if I should.
I remember we had new Easter outfits that we never got to wear; and how our apartment was set up. I remember going across Warren Avenue to Harry’s Place, probably for penny candy. I remember the opening of the new Apollo Trust. They had little souvenirs as you walked in to tour the grand new building.
What I don’t remember is the tearing down of the remains of the fire. I don’t remember if the buildings had wear & tear on them and weren’t pretty. They were an integral part of my hometown, my childhood ‘stomping’ grounds, such as they could be for a 1st grader.
I am thankful for all the pictures of that half block and the pictures of the fire being fought. I did not get to see that part of it since we were hustled away from it and taken to my aunt and uncle’s house on McKinstry Hill. We had a great view of a huge orange ball of flame that would forever change lives.
This fire changed the landscape of the little town of Apollo. It started with the building of the new Apollo Trust that took up the half block that once housed a supermarket and various other shops. Our town was now on a new path. Years later it was decided to go with urban renewal grants and the Plaza was planned. The rest is history.
I loved the look of our little town, the main street charm. So I can’t help but wonder ‘what if’? Would we have kept our main street and been like so many other little towns that have old, but oh, so charming buildings?
This is still in my memory banks, as I was just 9 years old, but not as vivid and descriptive as it is for Denise and all the others that were involved and affected by this tragedy. Just glad all escaped with their lives. Thanks Denise for this knowing how it probably transformed you right back to March 30′ 1961.
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I was in fourth grade. I remember standing at the Second Street side of Armitage’s Market and shivering and wondering if the bank’s money was burning. I remember the appeal for clothing and such for the families. My mother and grandmother gathered up clothes, including mine, and donated them. Then one day in Armitage’s I saw Sandy come in wearing my sweater: pale blue with pink and white pearls around the neck, short sleeves. Wow.
I would imagine that everyone who witnessed the fire has a different yet similar story to tell. And yes, you must ask ‘what if’ — would our town be forever quaint? Sometimes progress isn’t all that great. Thanx for sharing your experience.
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