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Source: Kokomo Perspective

COLUMN: No holiday cheer

by Craig Trott

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 brilliance.

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 gooey mass.

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 Department.

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 blaze.

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.

-That’s 30-

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