50 years ago today, Penn Yan firefighters faced the biggest challenge of their time - a fire that destroyed their Main Street Engine House and the two buildings on either side — an A&P Supermarket and Thompson Furniture Store.
Fifty years ago, in December of 1967, the Penn Yan community was looking forward to the Christmas season. The Chronicle-Express reported that the Walkerbilt company had been recently cited with an architect’s award for the library furniture that they installed at a school in Voorheesville, New York. It was announced that cable TV has been installed in the northwest section of Penn Yan and homeowners could apply for installation for service at $5.50 a month.
Trombley Tire on East Elm Street advertised Philco color television sets as low as $300 and promised to throw in a free year of cable TV. Loblaw’s on Liberty Street was advertising hamburg at 49¢ a pound. A.E. Covert’s dealership on Lake Street was advertising the all new Plymouth Roadrunner. Newberrys on Main Street was advertising the Veg-O- Matic (as seen on TV) for $7.77. As Christmas approached, Fire Chief John Banach warned the public that there was an increased danger of fire during the holiday season. How timely…
On Wednesday morning, Dec. 20, just after 8 a.m. Chief Banach was at his barber shop on Elm Street when he heard the fire alarm. He rushed to the firehouse on Main Street and was stunned when he saw the station itself was engulfed in flames. A few other volunteer firemen also responded quickly. One was able to reach inside the front door and pull the cord that allowed the air horn alarm to give one final blast. Another reached in the back door and pulled out a few lengths of hose before the heat grew too intense. The chief called the county sheriff to summon mutual aid from neighboring fire departments. Then all the Penn Yan firemen could do was helplessly watch their station burn while they had no equipment with which to fight it.
Before mutual aid arrived, a bizarre moment occurred when the main door of the building was opened, out rolled one of the fire trucks onto Main Street, fully inflamed. It had been left in gear and as the fire progressed, it shorted out the wiring to the starter which started the engine. People on the street placed a heavy trash barrel against the curb across the street which stopped the truck. “It was all those present could do to stop the vehicle and prevent it from running into the building across the street occupied by the Beaumont and Stork Insurance Agency,” according to the article published that week in The Chronicle-Express. That truck and one other which was able to be towed out of the building were taken a few blocks away and people were kept at a distance in case the gas tanks blew.
Fire departments from Dresden and Benton were the first to arrive at the scene. As the morning progressed they were joined by fire departments from Geneva, Bellona, Dundee, Branchport, and Wayne. The fire was basically out of control for three hours as more than 100 firemen fought the blaze with 16 pieces of equipment in 29-degree temperature. It attracted a large group of spectators — local businessmen and employees, kids on their way toschool, and as word spread through the community, a large number of local residents. Brought under control around noon, embers from the fire continued to flare up from the debris well into the next day.
The fire had completely destroyed the fire station along with four fire trucks, other fire fighting equipment, uniforms, mementoes of the department’s history, and personal belongings of the volunteers. The adjacent A&P Supermarket was also a total loss, as was the adjacent Thompson’s Furniture store on the south side of the station. Its firewall sustained heavy damage and the contents of the store had smoke and fire damage. The total loss was around $350,000.
The massive cleanup of the fire site was well underway before the end of the year.
The immediate concern for Chief Banach was making sure that Penn Yan had adequate fire protection until his department got back on its feet. “There were more than 65 offers of equipment from within a 200 mile radius of Penn Yan. Trucks were loaned by American LaFrance, Himrod Fire Department, Rochester Bureau of Fire and Greece-Ridge Fire Department (a 1948 pumper with hose, coats, boots, breathing apparatus, and other equipment.)
Penn Yan borrowed hose from Dundee and Geneva fire departments and some nozzles were able to be salvaged from the burned trucks.” (Chronicle-Express Jan. 1, 2003) The Penn Yan Express trucking company offered to have the loaned trucks stationed at their location on Route 54A.
Everyone looked for answers as to the cause of the fire. Chief Banach reported in the paper: “What happened? We may never know for sure. After early investigation, we believe the fire started in the basement in the area of the boiler. However, the boiler did not explode. Our investigation is continuing.” It was later determined that the boiler had indeed overheated.
With four fire trucks destroyed in the blaze, the Penn Yan Village Board quickly authorized the purchase of new equipment. In addition, a Fireman’s Fund was set up by the Penn Yan Chamber of Commerce to go toward replacing uniforms and personal property that were lost in the fire. The community was reassured by Chief Banach that fire protection in the village was as effective as ever.
The week following the fire, Penn Yan Mayor John Tusch wrote in The Chronicle-Express:
“We extend our sincere sympathy to the courageous firemen who suffered injuries, to the entire department for the loss of some irreplaceable trophies, relics, pictures, etc., which constituted a history of our century-old Department … Some people have referred to Dec. 20th as ‘Black Wednesday.’ In the early and mid-morning it did appear to be just that. But out of the black smoke of disaster there blossomed a bright radiance of warmth and kindness from human hearts which will surely be remembered as long or longer than the black smoke. How does one say thanks to so many who did so much?”
The disaster accelerated a plan which had already been underway to build a new fire station.
Early in 1967, village voters overwhelmingly approved a bond issue of $225,000 to build a new station. Ironically, two nights before the fire, the village board voted to put construction of a new fire station out for bids. At their first meeting after the fire, the board gave the go-ahead to acquire land on Elm Street. They also voted to seek bids for new fire trucks and other equipment. After bids were received in early April it was decided that an additional $30,000 was needed to build the new firehouse. Voters approved that later that month and a contract was awarded. Ground was broken on Elm Street in May 1968 and it was expected that the firehouse would be completed by early 1969 but it wasn’t ready for occupancy until that March. The formal dedication took place on Sunday, June 1, 1969. It took 527 days, but the Penn Yan Fire Department had a new home.
Thompson Furniture, that had been in that location since 1961, relocated to the Four Corners in Penn Yan - the building now occupied by Cam’s Pizzeria. Their grand opening was in late March 1968. A & P wanted to secure another location in the downtown area but was unable to and as a result never did reopen in Penn Yan. Meanwhile, Acme, Loblaws, Morgan’s and Super Duper picked up the slack.
In the spring of 1970 a new business block was under construction on the 1967 fire site — a block that now houses the Elks Club and the Town of Milo offices.