September 19th, 1886 was a beautiful Sunday morning when the residents of Council Grove awoke. No one had any inkling of how disastrous the day would prove to be before the sun set. At about 2 in the afternoon an alarm of fire broke out and was soon echoed by the church bells.
The fire started in a warehouse at the rear of McCollom’s hardware and grocery store located approximately two doors west of the Hays House. The fire must have been burning for some time before the flames suddenly burst through the roof making itself known to those in eye shot. Everyone was on hand in a futile attempt to extinguish the blaze. The women formed a bucket brigade down to the river. People were removing awnings on buildings across the street and hanging up wet quilts over the windows in an attempt to keep them from cracking. They also sprinkled the roof tops with salt and water to keep other blocks from catching fire. Unfortunately the heat was so intense many of the plate glass windows on the opposite side of the street shivered.
Attempting to keep the fire contained, a vacant building (formerly a barbershop) on the west side of the Hays House was torn down as well as a tailor’s shop and residence on the east side. Amazingly enough, the Hays House survived, it was reported in the paper that the old ‘Hayes (sic) building’ had a charmed life. Everything to the west of the Hays House was destroyed in the fire, all business houses and the homes that were in the back of them.
To everyone’s surprise a shed that contained 100 barrels of kerosene was saved, the town folk were anticipating an explosion any moment as the shed had caught fire and was extinguished several times. Some gunpowder in McCollom’s store did go off but not the fuel. A large tank of gasoline was rolled into the Neosho River, I assume to save it. When it rolled into the water it burst leaving the river in flames nearly as far up as where the Kaw Mission is. “What in the world did they use gasoline for in 1886?” you may ask. Well, I’ll tell you as it just so happens I know. Mr. McCollom sold Lyman gasoline heating stoves in his store, so it follows he should have a good supply of gasoline to sell as well.
Many of the businesses took a huge loss, either by the destruction of their building and inventory or, as in the case of businesses in nearby blocks, by moving all their stock out to save it and then receiving damage in the street. Many of the businesses were under-insured. McCollom took the heaviest loss as two two-story buildings, warehouse, elevator, and stabling were destroyed. His wife lost a valuable and irreplaceable library of rare books as well as all household effects. In the paper he was calling on all those who had unsettled bills to come pay him soon as he was in great need of it. Many of the stores had Fire Sale ads in the paper following the disaster.
Other losses included O.S Munsell who owned the Morris County National Bank building located directly west of the Hays House. The bank was only slightly inconvenienced as all the valuables were in the safe. He lost two store rooms and the Republican newspaper office located above the National Bank. All of the bound volumes of the Republican from the first in 1872 to 1881 were destroyed in the fire. At some point replacements must have been made because the Historical Society does have a few volumes from those years but not all. The only things saved were the subscription books. All three newspapers suffered. The Cosmos and the Republican were total losses and the Guard lost its forms in the Republican office. During the conflagration one woman was heard to say, “Oh my, both printing offices are burning, what will we do now for bustles!”
The dentist, Dr. Davis, lost all household effects as well as his dentistry equipment. E.S. Bertram lost his barn and stabling. Mr. Gardom’s family lost their entire household. The Ancient Order of United Workmen lost a very valuable public library and the G.A.R. located in the same hall only saved their post flag and records.
Comments upon the fire were printed in the following paper and it was stated that there were about two dozen men in Council Grove that ought to be tied hand and foot the next time a fire broke out. I guess they must have made a nuisance of themselves. It was also stated that a few people went home to change their clothes before assisting with the extinguishing efforts. “They must have figured old clothes would burn as well as new ones.” One person charged that, “some men became so excited in carrying out a load of goods and never stopped until they reached home.”
After the fire there were a lot of ‘I told you so’ letters in the paper, such as, “a good system of water works would have saved three times their cost, and confined the fire to the building in which it originated.” Folks were complaining that combustibles were allowed to be kept downtown in poor storage buildings. Others were calling for a proper hose and ladder company to be organized.
Ever since I have lived here I have been told of an East vs. West attitude in Council Grove that has existed for many years. I cannot say that this feeling prevails today, but I found it interesting that the paper made a remark concerning this rivalry after the fire. Apparently business-men on the east side of town were making a push to get McCollum to open his new store on their side of town, but the west side wasn’t too willing to give him up either. To my knowledge he ever rebuilt.
Well, downtown eventually rose from the ashes and many rebuilt. James Watkins was preparing to rebuild his two buildings at the corner of Main and Neosho when the National Bank offered him $3,500 for the 25’x67 ½’ lot. There they built the present Morris County National Bank building we have today. Before construction ever began they had people lined up to fill the building. A real estate office faced Neosho Street while the bank occupied the front. The upstairs was occupied by offices. At the same time the Farmers and Drovers Bank purchased the ½ lot on the southwest corner for $3,000. About five years later they would build their new bank building.