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Crippen: Great fires are horror, but, Hey! Would you look at that ballgame

Editor's note: Former longtime Daily Globe Editor RayCrippendied Dec. 27, 2015. We will continue to publish previously run "Isn't That Something" columns on Saturdays, until further notice, as a tribute to Crippen and his knowledge of local and r...

Editor’s note: Former longtime Daily Globe Editor RayCrippendied Dec. 27, 2015. We will continue to publish previously run “Isn’t That Something” columns on Saturdays, until further notice, as a tribute to Crippen and his knowledge of local and regional history. The following column first appeared Jan. 31, 2004.

WORTHINGTON - London burned in 1666. Second day of September.

Chicago burned, beginning on the night of Oct. 8, 1871. Oct. 8 is my brother’s birthday but, of course, the great fire came many decades previous to that event; 1871 is the year my grandfather was born.

San Francisco burned after the horrendous earthquake that shook hundreds of thousands awake at 5:13 on the morning of April 8, 1906.

Nearly every human community has a fire story. Worthington’s downtown business district has been plagued by fires. The biggest was the 11-11-11-11 fire - 11 p.m. on the 11th day of the 11th month of 1911. Much of the block lining 10th Street opposite the courthouse turned into smoke, soot and ash.

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The west side of Lismore’s main street burned in 1926. Ray Burreau will remember the date for the night of the great elevator fire at Brewster.

Amid all these fire stories and fire dates the fire which burned Lake Wilson has remained a singular legend. Although personal memories are largely gone, the great Lake Wilson fire was recalled instantly after the rending explosion shattered that community earlier this month. The date for the Lake Wilson fire was May 11, 1911 - 5-11-11.

(What is it about these 11 dates? Besides the infamous 9-11 of 2001, there also is the celebrated 11-11-11, the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918 that brought the armistice for World War I.)

North Lake Wilson was separated from south Lake Wilson by the CStPM&O railroad tracks, the old Omaha railroad tracks. Robert Forrest, the gentle, wise publisher of the Lake Wilson Pilot, remembered, “… the north side of the track had all the elements and all the businesses of a western town.”

On that historic morning of May 11, a gale swept across the village from the northwest. A blaze erupted in a barn at the rear of the Grier Store; this detail was reminiscent of the Chicago fire.

Publisher Forrest remembered, “… in less time than it takes to tell, the town was a mass of flames.” Ten Lake Wilson businesses all were burning at the same time: a harness and shoe shop, butcher shop, bowling alley, drug store, restaurant, department store, bank, furniture store, barber shop, real estate office and - most certainly not incidentally - two lumberyards that sent up spectacular flames as great heaps of lumber caught fire.

In addition, a sight which onlookers had not seen duplicated, the fire swept the railyard. The depot began to burn, and the inferno pushed on into a grain elevator. Soon two railroad machine sheds, two coal sheds and three boxcars were aflame. Then an engine house. The flames and the heat overwhelmed two water tanks and two ice houses. Finally, five barns near the rails were also consumed.

It was the most extensive destruction ever experienced by a community of the local region. There was nothing firefighters could do. Hundreds of people from the region spent the afternoon watching flames lick away the town.

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It interests me that in a history he wrote of Lake Wilson, Robert Forrest actually devoted more space to a baseball game than to the fire disaster. This, I think, was the spirit that brought Lake Wilson back. The town took its misfortune in stride.

The baseball game which had Forrest’s attention was a contest between the Sod Grabbers, “a team from over Buffalo Ridge way,” and “the town lads, decked out in pants of blue, yellow and scarlet.”

“The Grabbers wore overalls and their catcher had feather beds for mitts. He had one for each hand, big affairs they were, stuffed with chaff and feathers.”

The crucial difference was contributed by Bill Mooney, who brought his nephew, Hugh Mooney, from Iowa to pitch for Lake Wilson that afternoon. Hugh Mooney “was a curve ball pitcher, and a good one.”

The Grabbers’ catcher had trouble pushing off his feather bed mitts. Publisher Forrest recalled, “He had to stop and take off one mitt and then the other, and by that time the runner was on third.”

It was a notably uneven contest.

Final score: Lake Wilson 67, Sod Grabbers 3.

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