Outside the Classroom - Three large fires within four years

by Julie Mecikalski

It was common in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries for communities to have large fires covering at least one or two blocks at a time. Most of the communities in Juneau County have had gigantic fires which have almost paralyzed these rural towns.

Two large blocks of the business section in the city of New Lisbon suffered severe damage as a result of fire in the early morning of June 5, 1903. Various sources give monetary amounts of damage, but at that time, it appeared there was about $100,000 damage (about $2.7 million in 2018).

According to sources, it seems the fire started in the back end of what was Stinson Brothers & Co.’s store. There does not appear to be an identified specific cause to the fire, but New Lisbon’s Fire Department only had about 200 feet of hose and a small chemical truck at the time and could not extinguish the fire by themselves. Fire departments from Mauston, Tomah, and other nearby towns were dispatched for assistance; however, there was too much of the buildings burned to make a big difference.

F.E. Hurd, who was New Lisbon’s postmaster at the time, barely escaped death as he was trying to remove some of the post office property when the printing press located in the Argus (newspaper) office upstairs fell through the burning floor.

Besides Stinson Brothers & Co., the newspaper and post offices, other businesses that were destroyed in the fire included the Cash Department Store, the Moore Opera House block, Wolf Mercantile Company, and a few other unidentified businesses.

Sources state that only about half of the $100,000 in damages was covered by insurance.

Ten days after the New Lisbon fire, another Juneau County community suffered from a massive fire in its business district. This time, the fire was in Hustler, only five miles west of New Lisbon.

The estimated loss was at $30,000 (about $800,000 in 2018), and included Fritz Wazwitz Hotel May, C.E. Hoten’s Hardware Store, Frank Norton’s Hardware Store, Hussa Brewing Company, Bradley and Smart Feed Mill, Gaylord’s Meat Market, T.J. Allen’s General Store, Bugbee’s Store, E.F.U. Hall, Miller’s General Store, Thompson’s Barber Shop, the post office, Terlson’s saloon, F. Foelker’s saloon, and seven residences.

Things settled down in the west central portion of Juneau County for a few years. Then, came the devastating fire that destroyed the New Lisbon High School in 1907. The first high school in New Lisbon was built in 1901. It was a three-story structure that had used red pressed bricks. At six years of age, the school building was considered to be “one of the finest of its kind in this section of the state.”

The fire occurred in the early hours of June 5, 1907. It appears the cause of the fire was thought to be due to over-heated furnace pipes.

The building was completely demolished. Various sources listed damages to the building and its contents to be between $25,000 to $30,000 (about $670,000 to $800,000 in 2018) in damages and between $18,000 to $22,500 (about $480,000 to $600,000) covered by insurance. Everything in the school building was a total loss.

Again, New Lisbon Fire Department having only 200 feet of hose and a small chemical engine was not able to save the building.

School continued to be in session; however, classes were held at the various churches throughout the New Lisbon area. A new school building was not constructed until 1908 which also included the Juneau County Normal School teacher college.

Editor’s note: Julie Mecikalski is a teacher at New Lisbon High School. She will be writing various articles about her travels around the Juneau County area and throughout Wisconsin.