Ernest Pfaff, the assistant manager of the J.C. Penney department store in downtown Lock Haven, seemed somewhat reluctant to call the fire department over the little back room blaze his wife had discovered a few minutes earlier.
A trash box filled with empty shoe boxes had caught fire somehow, and Pfaff was busily using the chemical fire extinguishers mounted in various spots throughout the building to put the fire out. He had already gone through two fire extinguishers and was about to move on to a third - and then a fourth - when the fire department was called just "as a precaution" at about 4:20 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 21, 1954.
The Christmas shopping season had only just begun, and the J.C. Penney store window was filled with holiday merchandise, particularly children's toys, including the miniature, pedal-controlled pickup truck that Ernest Pfaff's young son, Stevie, was especially interested in.
Next door, to the Penney store, the W.T. Grant department store windows were similarly stocked with holiday merchandise, while a few feet further west, Grossman's apparel shop was showing off all of the holiday dresses on display mannequins.
On the opposite side of Penneys from Grant's and Grossman's was the Shaffer, Candor and Hopkins hardware store. As Pfaff battled what he then considered a minor fire in the back room of Penney's, hardware store manager Joseph Umbrell, unaware of the fire at the adjoining retail establishment, was getting ready to leave the shop and head home for the day.
Now smoke was beginning to fill the rear storage room of Penney's. Pfaff became seriously concerned when the fourth fire extinguisher was exhausted and yet the fire continued to grow. As the smoke began to thicken, he ordered everyone out of the store.
At 4:35 p.m. the fire sirens began to blare all over town, and continued to blare until every possible volunteer was rounded up.
It was the beginning of what would later be called Lock Haven's Million Dollar Fire, which impacted an entire city block downtown, from the corner of Mill and Main streets, where Grossman's (now the location of Reese's Print Shop) once stood, to Vesper, where the First National Bank Building (now home to Sovereign Bank) was once located.
"I still can't figure it out," Pfaff told The Express. "It seemed like a trifle. It was amazing the way it quickly took hold."
And take hold it did. From Penney's, the fire traveled horizontally east and west, in an air chamber located between the tin ceilings of the retailers and the permanent wood and plaster ceilings located a few feet above it. It roared through the upper and lower floors of some of the most valuable real estate in the city.
Retail employees and occupants of second-floor offices and apartments rushed to salvage what they could before fire (and water hoses) destroyed their property. Dentist Richard Callahan managed to grab a metal file containing patient dental records. The Clinton County Draft Board, located on the second floor of the Kreamer Building, then-home to JC Penney, was able to salvage the massive ledger containing the names of draft-eligible men in the county. Photographer M.W. Zimmerman fretted over his large collection of original negatives, all extremely flammable and all containing some small fragment of a client's memory.
"Three of the city's principal retail stores, crowded with holiday merchandise which had gone on display simultaneously with the heralded arrival of Santa Claus, bringing the official opening of the holiday shopping season, were a fire-twisted shambles," The Express reported on Monday, Nov. 22. "Ironically, Santa Claus had been escorted through the city only a day before the outbreak of the fire, leading a parade of youngsters, sponsored by the Retail Merchants Bureau."
Eventually more than a dozen fire departments were summoned to fight the blaze, including three from Lock Haven, two from Renovo, and one each from Lamar, Avis, Bellefonte, Flemington, Wayne Township, Beech Creek and Mill Hall.
An hour after the fire was reported, smoke was blotting out the early evening sky and flames illuminated the homes and businesses throughout the area. That's when the rubber neckers started to show up in force.
The Express conservatively estimated that at least 5,000 spectators lined the sidewalks and alleys surrounding the fire scene, resulting in trampled hedges and plantings in privately-owned garden lots, and at least one tree which was stripped of its lower branches as gawkers attempted to climb it for a better view of the conflagration.
"While the aerial ladder trucks positioned themselves on Main Street to bring hose streams down on the roof through the front windows, an army of firemen first attacked the fire from Jordan's Alley (to the rear of the Penney store)."
As the fire fight raged on, there were occasional moments of surreal humor, as when employees of Grossman's dress shop carried dress mannequins high above their heads, through the dense clusters of onlookers.
"At Grossman's store at the corner of Mill and Main streets, merchandise was hurriedly carried out, the window mannequins looking grotesque as they bobbed above the crowd's heads, carried on someone's shoulder," The Express reported. "They took up safe shelter in the windows of Pursley's store, their pale faces lighted by the flames."
According to a 1960 city directory, Pursley's was a furniture store then located on East Main Street.
For seven hours fire fighters battled the blaze, often succeeding in extinguishing it at one location, only to have it pop up at another, a few hundred feet and a floor or two away. Roofs where firemen struggled with hoses and axes were made unstable by fire and water damage. Rivers of water ran down stairwells, onto Main Street and into sidewalk gutters, and still the fire persisted.
Finally, around midnight, the fire seemed to have been gotten under control. The crowds of onlookers dispersed and property owners and retailers went home to fitful sleep, but the damage was extensive.
Milton Grossman, owner of the Grossman's dress shop, estimated loss of stock in his store and adjoining storage building of at least $60,000, the equivalent of over $480,000 in today's dollars, according to the Consumer Price Index.
Charles Edwards, manager of W.T. Grant's, estimated damage to goods and fixtures in excess of $125,000, or over $1 million today. Joe Anderson, the manager of J.C. Penney, estimated damages to his store of more than $100,000, or over $800,000 today.
The basement of the Shaffer, Candor and Hopkins hardware store contained about three feet of water the day after the big fire, where two garbage cans "bobbed in the basement seas" according to The Express, and "a pile of sleds stood in one corner with water halfway up their runners... cartons containing toys were either water logged or covered completely."
The street-level hardware store itself suffered less significant damage than some of its neighboring properties, but upper floors of the Shaffer, Candor and Hopkins building, where the fire had leapt from the adjoining Kreamer building, were severely impacted, particularly on the third floor, where walls and ceiling timbers were charred to such an extent as to weaken the building's roof.
Interestingly, the building had only eight years earlier - in 1946 - been badly damaged by another fire, and during the rebuilding process, its owners had constructed a thick brick "fire wall" which likely kept the conflagration from continuing its eastern trajectory, The Express reported, thus saving the First National Bank Building from significant fire damage.
The next day The Express reported, "Business was 'going on as usual' at both the Shaffer, Candor and Hopkins hardware store and the Klewans Store, at the east end of the fire scene. Neither had suffered any damage except for water in the cellars."
The Klewans department store, according to a 1960 city directory, was located at 21 E. Main St., where radio station WBPZ is located today.
Today the Shaffer, Candor and Hopkins building is owned by Lynda Carey, whose "Lynda's Upscale Resale" consignment shop is located where the hardware store once stood. She is currently renovating the long-vacant second and third floors. A recent visit to the third floor found 55-year-old fire damage still obvious, with charred rafters supported by steel construction beams.
Carey says she's planning to convert the upper floors into apartment dwellings.
Ah, but tale of that stubborn fire of 1954 still had one more chapter left to write. On Monday, Nov. 22, just one day after the conflagration had supposedly been squelched, fire fighters again raced to the Kreamer Building, when reports of a renewed blaze reached the Hope Hose Company's headquarters.
"Another alarm of fire called out the ladder truck this morning to put a hose stream to a renewed burst of flame in the ruins of the Kreamer building, which had been all but destroyed Sunday night in the 12-hour, million-dollar fire on East Main Street." The Express reported. "While the firemen were putting out this postscript fire, part of the walls nearby collapsed."
The cause of the original fire, according to later editions of The Express, was defective wiring above the plywood ceiling of the JC Penney store, which caused bits of flaming cinder to drop into the refuse containers holding the empty shoe boxes in the storage room below.
"I always wondered how those buildings survived on Main Street," said Leonard Parucha, 97, who in 1954 resided on the corner of Mill and Water streets in Lock Haven, about a half-block from the fire scene. "Those buildings are just tinder boxes, all of them. But the only fire they ever had was that one, right there."
Parucha, who then specialized in painting and wall papering, was a regular customer of JC Penney and W.T. Grant, and also did some work in the offices and apartments of the upper floors of the affected buildings.
"I went by there not long before the fire and didn't see anything at all, and then all at once it was burning," he said. "These fires, you know, once they get started smoldering and they get a good draft, it goes pretty fast."
In the days after the fire, the most severely impacted buildings were cordoned off by police and Civil Defense workers were put on 24-hour guard duty on site. The owners of the Kreamer Building - the structure that sustained the most serious damage - told The Express they were awaiting word from insurance adjustors and were only happy there had been no fatalities reported.
Meanwhile, managers of Grossman's, JC Penney and W.T. Grant all began exploring new sites in which to temporarily house their businesses until renovations to the devastated buildings could be completed. It was, after all, the holiday shopping season, when as much as 60 percent of the retailers' business would be conducted.
Horace "Buck" Hanna was a teacher and part-time retail employee in 1954. He said he remembered the JC Penney fire vividly.
"That was a pretty good fire," he said. "I was around somewhere watching it. It got pretty hectic there for a while. Afterward, Penney's had to move up to what is now Unkel Joe's Woodshed.
"The guy that ran Penney's used to have a thing inside the store that he called The Woodshed, which was the bargain section. His name was Joe Anderson. So after the fire he moved it up to what had been Jim Webb's construction building up on Bellefonte Avenue. Webb did roadwork and stuff like that. He had this hell of a big room, which is right now the Woodshed store. Unkel Joe Anderson took Penney's up there. He had to do something real quick because Penney's was in bad shape.
"So they went up there, and he did so well up there that he stayed when Penney's wanted to reorganize downtown. Joe just stayed there and called it Unkel Joe's Woodshed and it's been that way ever since.
"I worked there for a while, while I was teaching," Buck added. "Back then teachers didn't make good money to speak of, and every teacher I knew had another part-time job. That's what I did. I worked at the Woodshed."
Hanna described Anderson as "a classy guy, an ideal boss... Any woman who'd come in the store, he'd give them a big kiss and just make them feel like they just came home to daddy. He had a great way about him.
"He did his radio ads and he made a career out of fracturing the King's English in a comical way, with a lot of 'them thars' and things like that," Hanna added.
"There weren't too many guys who worked there. It was mostly ladies," he continued. "So once or twice a month, Joe would walk around about two minutes or three minutes to nine - which was our closing time - when we'd be covering everything up and getting ready to shut down, and he'd say, 'Come on upstairs and have a beer.' And I'd sit around and shoot the breeze with him."
Did he ever talk about the great fire of 1954 during those easy-going beer sessions? Well, yes, Buck says.
"After a while, if anybody talked to him about the fire, he'd say, 'When it happened I thought it was the biggest disaster of my life. As it turned out, it was kind of a lucky break for me, because here I am in my own operation.'
"That fire, when it happened, it seemed like the end of the world, like Unkel Joe said. But when he transferred the operation up to Jim Webb's building, he turned it into a real operation in no time flat.
"He was the kind of guy who, when he's involved in a project, don't stand in his way, because he'll drive like hell to get it done, no matter what it takes.
"He was a real workhorse, a real vibrant guy."
POSTSCRIPT: After reading last week's "Peek at the Past" about train conductor Ed Zerbe and the letter he carried with him for over 70 years, a Zerbe relative contacted me and asked me to mention three local women who were Ed Zerbe's granddaughters. They all still remember Ed giving them dimes for the movies back in the years before his death in 1937. They are Bette Summerson, 94; Jane Clark, 91; and Geraldine Stehman, 88.
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Matt Connor can be reached at email@example.com. Two of the original "Peek at the Past" books are available for purchase at Ross Library.