The big blaze: Silverberg's department store went up in flames 45 years ago

In the early morning hours of Easter Sunday, April 11, 1971, the landscape of downtown Worthington was changed forever. One of its largest fixtures, Silverberg's department store, was completely razed by a fire, never to be rebuilt.Shopping empor...

Silverberg's fire 1
The Worthington Fire Department's snorkel -- acquired several years prior but never used -- was an important part of fighting the Easter Sunday 1971 blaze. (Daily Globe file photo/John Cross)
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In the early morning hours of Easter Sunday, April 11, 1971, the landscape of downtown Worthington was changed forever. One of its largest fixtures, Silverberg’s department store, was completely razed by a fire, never to be rebuilt.
Shopping emporium
Before it became Silverberg’s, the building at the corner of 10th Street and Second Avenue (now occupied by the Long Branch Saloon) was Torrance’s Store, founded in about 1890.
The Silverberg brothers bought the operation in 1920 and added it to their regional chain. Marcus Silverberg was originally its resident manager while brothers Abe and Sol were elsewhere. In later years, Marcus’ son, Bill Silverberg, took over as manager, and he later turned it over to Harry Sowles. Abe was the last surviving brother, and he was active in the operation with Sowles until he died in the late 1960s.
Silverberg’s store was then owned by a corporation that included Marcus’ and Abe’s sons and Sowles.
Susan Sowles Nasers, Harry’s daughter who still lives in Worthington, remembers that her dad was known for his customer service and community philanthropy. Nasers would often help out at the store, running errands and filling in when her dad’s secretary was gone. She can still name the clerks who staffed the various departments.
“He always had a cigar in his mouth,” she recalled of her father. “I would go over to Meiers’ pool hall to get his cigars. … I would take pants, go down the alley to the Band Box (cleaners) to have cuffs put on the pants.”
“Silverberg’s was our life in Worthington,” shared another Sowles daughter, Mary Sowles Burchill, now of North Mankato. “We loved Uncle Abe, as we called him, and I would work summers in the office when the cashier was on vacation. … We kids were not allowed to shop during the week as it would take the clerks’ time, and Dad didn’t want that.”
Customer service was a hallmark of Silverberg’s. Comments on the “Growing Up in Worthington” Facebook site recall patrons being able to take items home on approval and return what they didn’t want, as well as other incidents of going the extra mile.
“My memory is of my father, Fred J. Doeden, going into Silverberg’s every October to pickup work gloves for harvest season,” shared Bob Doeden, now of Mesa, Ariz. “He needed an XXL size which was not carried in the store. Like magic there was always a whole box of XXL gloves with my dad’s name on them. He never had to pre-order them, Mr. Silverberg just always remembered my dad’s need, and they would be waiting there for him.”
“My mom was a very busy lady raising eight children and managing the office for dad’s construction company,” writes Bonny Schield Nelson from Anchorage, Alaska. “Too many times to count, she would drop us children off at Silverberg’s to shop by ourselves. Little did we realize just how NOT by ourselves we really were. Everyone in the store watched over us. ... Even as children we were welcomed warmly, cared for efficiently and always left Silverberg’s feeling like we were very special.”
Bob Roos of Worthington - who is celebrating his 95th birthday today - began working at Silverberg’s in the midst of the Depression, supporting his widowed mother. Roos started out in the grocery department and worked his way up to assistant shoe manager.
On a busy Saturday, Roos recalled, Silverberg’s employees would start at 7 a.m. and be lucky to get out of there by 11 p.m. because the farmers all came to town on Saturday night.
“The grocery store entrance was on Second Avenue, and the clothing had two doors - one on the men’s side and one on the women’s side,” described Roos.
Abe Silverberg was an immigrant from Russia, having left there as a teen, and first worked at a grocery store in South Dakota, where he lived  in the storeroom. The Silverbergs had a number of stores throughout the region.
“His favorite expression was ‘Jerusalem,’” noted Roos, adopting an immigrant accent. “And he’d also say, ‘Vatch your pennies - the dollars will take care of themselves.’”
The dollars that were taken in at Silverberg’s were sent up to the cashier’s office via a unique pulley system.
“There were cups that we’d put the money in, then you’d pull a string and send it up to the secretary, and she’d send back the change,” said Roos.
Roos left Silverberg’s to join the U.S. Navy during World War II. Upon his return, he was once again offered a job at the store, but opted to work instead at the Daily Globe, where the pay was the same but the hours a bit better. Roos later sold advertising to Sowles.
Long after he left Silverberg’s, Roos still remembered the codes that were used on the pricetags, and some of the other store routines.
“Banking practices were a bit different back then,” he said. “At the end of the business day, the money would be put in a shoe box, and then they put it down in the shoe department. They figured no one would find it there. On the Saturday before Easter, they would have been really busy, and there must’ve been a lot of money in that box. It was a real disaster for Harry.”
The fire
All was well in downtown Worthington when a policeman did his routine check at 12:15 a.m. April 11, 1971. But on his next time around at 3:15 a.m., it was a totally different situation - the entire front of Silverberg’s store was aflame.
At about the same time, the night manager of the Adams Hotel, which was right behind Silverberg’s on Second Avenue, reported smelling smoke and hearing glass break. He stepped outside and saw that the rear of the building was also aflame. The fire department was alerted, and he began to evacuate the hotel.
According to the Daily Globe account written by Lew Hudson, Fire Chief Jim Pearson elected not to blow the regular fire whistle because he didn’t want the street full of spectators. But he rounded up all his men, as well as some retired firemen, and requested mutual aid from Brewster, Bigelow and Round Lake. Within 45 minutes of the first alarm, the fire peaked and was completely out of control. Flames cut through the roof at 4:10 a.m.
Taking the photos for the Daily Globe that appear on this page was John Cross, then a freshman at Worthington Junior College who was working part-time for the newspaper.
“Tenth Street was one-way in those days, it was just smoke-filled, like a fog,” recalled Cross, who recently retired from the Mankato Free Press after a 40-year career as a photographer. “You could smell the smoke. The firemen were mucking around, punching holes in the wall. No fire showing at that point, but then, of course, things really got going after that.”
The fire department’s snorkel rig, purchase a few years earlier, was pressed into service for the first time, dousing the building with water from above to keep it from spreading.
Kenneth Meyer, who served on the department for almost 30 years, recalls the Silverberg’s fire as one of the biggest fires he ever battled - although the worst was the 1984 Bass Market fire, due to the blizzard that was raging at the time.
Hudson’s story on the fire claimed that the amount of water pumped on the Silverberg's fire set a record for the region.
“Never before in the history of southwest Minnesota has such an concentration of water been dumped on a fire,” he wrote. “The eight pumpers were pouring 7,000 gallons a minute, most of which evaporated in the heat at the height of the fire.”
A line that pulled water from Lake Okabena was a big help, according to Meyer, but at one point the pressure suddenly dropped, spelling disaster for the firefighters’ efforts to keep the entire block from burning down. Luckily pressure was quickly restored, and the fire was contained to the Silverberg’s building, although precautions were taken to remove all valuables from the surrounding structures.
The fourth floor of the Silverberg building housed several other enterprises: Hudson Brothers Construction Co., Fritz Roofing & Sheet Metal, attorney Cyril J. Bernardy and the Worthington Jaycees.
“Hudson Brothers had just repaired a fire door a week or two earlier,” Meyer related. “If that door hadn’t closed like it was supposed to, we would have lost a lot more.”
By the time the sun rose on Easter morn, the fire was under control, but firemen continued to keep watch over the property in the days to come, as hot spots continued to reignite many days later.
The fire would be ruled accidental in nature. Nasers said it was later determined to have started upstairs, likely in the Jaycees suite where there had been a meeting the previous evening.
Although Silverberg’s was never rebuilt, Sowles continued to be a fixture in the downtown community, running the Sherri-Sue and Youthtown stores that he’d started as sidelines to Silverberg’s.

The Nobles County Historical Society is currently displaying artifacts relating to the Worthington Silverberg’s store. The museum is located in the lower level of the War Memorial Buildling (Nobles County Library), 407 12th St., Worthington. Hours are noon to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday.

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