Pearl Harbor Day
had just been commemorated in 1960. John F. Kennedy defeated Richard M.
Nixon just a month prior in an election squeaker to grasp the golden
ring of world politics. He was rapidly assembling a sparkling cabinet
of intellectuals as preparations were being made to assume the mantle
of power, making him the most powerful man in the world.
Locally, families had celebrated their Thanksgiving
feasts and were gearing up for the Christmas shopping season. The Toy
Mart was the apex of toys, as far as I was concerned. I wished for
anything with Yogi Bear, Quick Draw McGraw, or Pixie and Dixie.
Cartoonists Hanna & Barbera made a lot of money off of my folks.
Downtown merchants had their shelves bulging with
products to satisfy the Yuletide crowd. Decorations designed to place
folks in a holiday mood adorned streetlamps and storefronts. Glittery
aluminum Christmas trees could be seen inside various department stores
as the ever rotating color wheel flooded it with dazzling, NBC Peacock
The season was progressing perfectly, until one
crystal clear day, Friday, Dec. 9, 1960. Everyone was looking forward
to a weekend of Christmas programs, shopping then rest. There was just
enough time to get some last minute work done before calling it a day.
The hands on the Ol’ Timex indicated it was just
past lunchtime on this sunny but cold winter day. Things were
hustle-bustle downtown as workers returned to their respective jobs. A
group of roofing contractors continued applying hot, melted asphalt
atop the Leath Furniture Store located at the southwest corner of
Sycamore and Buckeye streets.
The old Alhambra Theater had been acquired by the
Leath Company and transformed into a furniture store of several
thousand square feet on four floors including the basement. 1960 just
happened to be the year the 54-year-old building received a new roof.
The contractors were hustling as they attempted to conclude their
efforts while clear weather prevailed.
Large metal pots contained the solid tubes of
roofing asphalt, as it was brought up to melting temperature by open
flame, gas fired burners. As one pot reached empty, another would be
transferred by the workers to the area where they were applying the hot
As this process was being repeated, one of the
workers accidentally spilled one of the pots full of hot asphalt. As
fate would have it, right on top of one of the burners. The hot asphalt
ignited. The contractors attempted to extinguish the flames through
their own methods. They rapidly lost the handle on the spreading flames
as they reached the freshly applied asphalt. Enter the Kokomo Fire
In the pre-911 days of 1960, the Fire Department
telephone number was called and the smoke eaters responded. The
Downtown Fire Station was only a block away so response time was
miniscule. As the first trucks pulled up, it was obvious they were
going to need some help, fast! All other KFD stations were ordered to
respond to the Leath Furniture blaze. Off duty firefighters were called
into the battle.
Rookie Firefighter Max Peel was assigned to one of
the ladder trucks at the Downtown Station. He said the roof was a mass
of flames upon the arrival of his apparatus. This was his first major
fire. The immediate concern (and throughout the battle) was the
businesses adjoining the furniture store and the ones across Buckeye
Street, the direction the wind was carrying the smoke and embers. Vast
amounts of paint thinner were stored in the adjoining building to the
west. If the walls were breached, this event could become a page right
out of Dante’.
Peel said the firefighters began to lay supply hoses
for the pumpers. Buckeye Street was a mass of hoses as they reached for
the nearest hydrants. The Kokomo Water Works was placed on an emergency
status to supply the thirsty pumpers. Downtown was being threatened by
a potential flaming disaster.
Vincent “Woody” Woodward was Assistant Fire Chief
that day. I spoke with the ninety-four year old Woodward about the
events of 12-9-60. He related how difficult it was to get a handle on
the blaze due to the jump start provided by the freshly applied
asphalt. He said things went from bad to worse when a gas meter in the
basement ruptured, sending a geyser of flame seventy five feet into the
air. He said this “blowtorch” column continued until technicians from
the Kokomo Gas Company cut off the supply.
The Nickle Plate Railroad became embroiled in this
developing saga. As mentioned earlier, Buckeye Street was choked with
fire hoses. Where do the Nickle Plate tracks run? Right through
downtown on Buckeye Street. The railroad workers insisted on proceeding
through the fire scene with their train. Thus, the hoses on Buckeye
Street were disconnected, the fire trucks moved and the train proceeded
through. Firefighters replaced the trucks, hooked up to the water
supply one more time, and continued.
Being a winter day, I asked both retired
firefighters about the weather conditions. They echoed the same
sentiments verbatim, “It was a cold one!” Woodward said he had icicles
on his nose. Peel said the apparatus and his personal gear were all
covered with ice.
The firefighting crews were on sight all night,
hosing down the still smoldering charred remains of the once ornate
building. Woodward said there was one good thing about this event, it
was only a block from the main fire station. The firefighters were
rotated every hour from the fire scene to the station, where they dried
their frozen turn-out gear, and warmed up with coffee and soup prepared
in the fire station galley.
During one of those rotation periods where Peel was
warming up at the station, Fire Chief Charles Craig approached. With a
bit of a grin on his face, he asked the exhausted, wet and shivering
Peel, “So, do you still want to be a firefighter?” Peel thought about
it for a few seconds, then answered in the affirmative. What else could
a rookie say?
With all the cards stacked against KFD that day, the
only building lost was the Leath at a cost of $450,000. Their efforts
paid huge dividends for downtown merchants of that period. Woodward was
quick to sing the praises of firefighters who skillfully contained the
The only casualty of the day was sustained by the
roofing worker who overturned the melting pot. He survived with burns
to his hands and arms.
The downtown merchants continued their holiday
sales... minus one. At the Leath Furniture Store, there was no cheer in
‘60. They moved to the south side, erecting a beautiful new building on
the northeast corner of Southway Boulveward and Apperson Way.
Woolworth’s took root downtown where the Alhambra once stood, offering
holiday shoppers a new reason to visit Sycamore and Buckeye.