LIMA — It was an average winter day, but it turned out to be much more unusual than anyone would have thought.
Passersby noticed smoke at the Allen County Courthouse on Jan. 7, 1929.
“Two Lima firemen were killed and the Allen County Courthouse damaged to the extent of more than $100,00 in a fire that started at 10 a.m. Monday and appeared to be of little consequence until part of the roof collapsed, carrying two men to death,” a Jan. 7, 1929, story in The Lima News reported.
“At 1:15 p.m. it was announced the fire was under control. The dead: John Wolfe, 45, captain of No. 5 department. John Fisher, 29, hoseman at No. 1 station. The injured: Hod Murray, Bluffton. Severe bruises about legs and body. Condition not serious.”
How did a small fire become such a large problem? When it was first found on the third floor, it didn’t appear to be such an issue. Half an hour after the first alarm, it started getting away from firemen. Chief Mack turned in a second alarm as a precautionary measure, the papers reported.
“Inadequacy of Lima’s fire fighting equipment, which was demonstrated a few weeks ago in the American Bank building fire, again was shown when the conflagration in the courthouse became serious Monday. Firemen stood helpless holding dribbling hose in an attempt to throw water into the second story windows of the building. Only the Stutz pumper, which did such valuable service in the American Bank building blaze, was of importance in throwing water. It did good service and was responsible for holding the fire down, which other pumpers appeared to be able to add little to the pressure regularly maintained in the city mains,” the story reported. A pumper came up from Wapakoneta, as did many other pieces of equipment from surrounding departments, and the fire was in hand in a few hours.
“The big aerial truck ran true to form and was out of commission. A half an hour after the first call for equipment to the courthouse, it was stalled in front of Gregg’s store on North Main St.,” the Jan. 7, 1929, story reported, explaining that was but two blocks from the fire station.
“Wolfe and Fisher were working under the dome of the courthouse when the roof collapsed, carrying them to the floor below and burying them under tons of debris. Four other firemen, including Chief Mack and Frank Kinzer, had been working on the same floor until a few moments before the crash. Two firemen left on other duty and Chief Mack departed to make a round of inspection. Kinzer just reached the door as the roof fell. Murray was injured when he feared being overcome by smoke and slid down a rope from the third floor of the recorder's office. He landed so hard that he suffered injuries requiring treatment at City Hospital where it was said his condition is not serious,” the story reported.
The fire drew crowds, with some people scurrying about trying to rescue records while people were standing in shock.
“Mrs. Wolfe, wife of one of the men who was carried to death with the collapse of the roof, learned of the tragedy at her home and hurried to the fire where she pleaded with the firemen to do something to bring out her husband. She was hysterical from grief,” the story reported.
The prisoners held in the county jail panicked, and they were moved to the city jail at about 11:30 a.m. in the melee. The people trying to save records were hampered by a lack of boxes and the fact that the sidewalks were frozen solid from hose spray and the hallways were rivers. And through it all, a persistent rumor: The fire was caused by someone using a torch to thaw a frozen waterline.
The cornerstone was laid July 1, 1882, for the courthouse, the third in the county.
The Lima News immediately started a fund for the families of Wolfe and Fisher, donating $50 to get it started. In the end, it raised more than $2,000 with help from a night of vaudeville entertainment.
Wolfe was married, and the funds went to help support his widow and her children. Fisher was not married, but he supported his widowed mother. Wolfe was a Spanish-American War veteran, and Fisher had come home from fighting in World War I. The fund was quickly renamed the Hero Fund.
After the fire was squelched, firemen turned their efforts to recovering the bodies of their fellow men. They had to use an acetylene torch to cut through steel crossbeams to clear the room, and they also had to “make hasty retreats when the heavy timbers and beams fell to the floor,” a Jan. 8, 1929, story reported.
Both men were buried at Woodlawn Cemetery. It was the first fatalities the Lima Fire Department had experienced.
State fire officials made their way to town and began an investigation. All the current records were saved by citizens and courthouse workers, although the oldest records and old newspapers in the attic were a complete loss. Citizens also made an outcry for better firefighting equipment.
The west part of the courthouse was ruined, but fire inspectors deemed the building safe to use. The newly installed public elevator was also cleared for reuse. Workers set to cleaning out the corridors and stairwells, removing all the steel, brick and mortar dust that fell.
County commissioners okayed architects Hulsken and Strong to remodel the west wing. Insurance would cover the cost.
“It is the plan of the commissioners to utilize the fourth floor of the building, which at present is not used for county offices,” a March 5, 1929, story reported.
Lyman T. Strong also made plans for some type of memorial for the firemen, and he settled on a bronze memorial tablet in a second floor corridor.
The rededication of the courthouse was in April 1930, and every office inside had an open house for the event. Memorial services for Wolfe and Fisher also took place.
Walking through the Allen County Courthouse today, it’s difficult to imagine there was ever a fire. But on the second floor near the elevator is a bronze tablet that reads: “This tablet was erected by the citizens of Allen County in grateful memory of John S. Wolfe and John Fisher, Lima firemen killed while on duty in the courthouse fire on Jan. 7, 1929.”