Elora Loyal Orange Lodge No. 2055
Elora, Ontario, Canada
About the Lodge
A major blaze threatened downtown Fergus in 1953
The Wellington Advertiser, January 19th, 2024
On the evening of June 3, 1953, the members of the Fergus chapter of the Orange Lodge ended their regular Wednesday meeting shortly after 9pm. They owned the building on the west side of St. David Street, just to the north of the Marshall Block which still stands at the corner of St. Andrew.
Their second-floor lodge rooms were shared by the True Blue Lodge and the Fergus Chapter of the Eastern Star. The Fergus Orange Lodge was then one of the thriving organizations in the town, and they had been making plans for their big day on July 12.
On the first floor of the building was the Fergus Canadian Tire store, managed by Elmer Matthews, and a barbershop operated by Jim MacQuarrie. That evening MacQuarrie remained in his shop late, doing some cleaning and sweeping.
About 9:30pm Heb Robinson, a Beatty employee who happened to be walking by, burst into the barber shop and told MacQuarrie that smoke was coming out of a grate in the sidewalk in front of the building.
Robinson and MacQuarrie pulled off a sheet of drywall at the back of the barber shop and were greeted with flames and a cloud of smoke. They then broke down a seldom-used door into the Canadian Tire premises and were driven back by a wave of heat and more smoke.
MacQuarrie at once called the Fergus fire brigade. The men were on the scene in a matter of minutes. The noise of the siren disturbed Jim Flannery, who was in his apartment next door, above his grocery store, and at the time practising some vocal duets with a pal for performance at a church service the following Sunday. The men immediately left the apartment.
A dwelling was on the other side of the doomed building, and at the rear were several storage structures, all made of wood. Fire Chief Alf Richardson realized that much of downtown Fergus was at risk should the fire spread to the adjoining buildings. After a quick consultation with Mayor Jack Milligan, the mayor placed a call to the Elora brigade for reinforcements.
When the Elora men arrived about 10 minutes later the Fergus brigade already had several hoses connected to hydrants and were pouring huge volumes of water on the burning building.
A while later, still fearful of a spreading conflagration, Milligan called the Guelph firefighters. They dispatched a pumper with two men.
The weather proved to be a considerable help that night. There was no wind, and a light rain was falling when the firefighters arrived at the scene. During the next hour the rainfall increased in intensity, materially aiding their efforts.
After an hour or so, the fire seemed to be under control, but then flared up again. Piles of tires in the back room of the Canadian Tire store had caught fire, and were proving to be very stubborn, repeatedly reigniting parts of the building that had been doused by the firefighters.
With so many hoses and four trucks pumping water from the municipal mains, the water pressure and supply soon dropped significantly. A pump at the Beatty Brothers Grand River plant was soon fired up, drawing water directly from the river. With that supply, there were 11 nozzles spraying water on the burning building on those nearby.
The pump at the Beatty plant was an old one, dating back some 60 years to the era before the municipal water supply had been installed. Fergus council decided to retain it after the town’s system had been constructed. The wisdom of that decision was proved that night.
Flames broke through the roof of the building about midnight. Several firemen stood on the roof of the Flannery grocery store next door, pouring water into the Orange building and the stubborn blaze within. By then, water four or five inches deep was flowing down St. David Street toward the river. More water was in the basements of adjoining businesses: the Imperial Bank, on the corner in the Marshall Block, and Watson’s Drug Store on St. Andrew Street, among others.
Chief Alf Richardson had directed operations at a frenetic pace. A few minutes after midnight he was directing operations from the top of a ladder, when he was overcome by smoke, heat, and exhaustion. A couple of firefighters assisted him to the ground when they saw Richardson teetering at the top of the ladder.
Dr. Tom Russell, who was among the spectators, provided immediate medical attention before the Chief was rushed to Groves Hospital a short distance away. Lieutenant Millie of the Guelph force, a professional fireman, took over direction of the operations.
There was one other minor casualty. Verne Matthews, son of the Canadian Tire proprietor, cut his hand badly when he was rescuing some of the stock from the store.
Not only the firefighters were busy that night. The fire caused something of a frenzy among media people. An employee of CJOY provided frequent on-air bulletins from a phone booth at the corner of St. Andrew and St. David Streets. A number of daily newspapers – including all three in Toronto – had Fergus correspondents in 1953, and they were all on the scene, recording details and snapping photographs.
Crowds of spectators lined the street across from the fire, braving the pouring rain, dense smoke, and ignoring the need to rise early the next morning to get to work.
The firemen thought they had the fire defeated about 1:30am, but they remained on the scene for several hours after that, dousing flames that flared up from time to time. It was daylight before the firefighters were certain that the fire was out. Exhausted, they loaded their equipment and set off for home.
Insurance adjusters were on the scene early the next morning. Their preliminary estimate of the loss was $50,000, but that did not include water damage to nearby buildings, which was significant, and to the stocks of the Canadian Tire store and Flannery’s grocery, which was thoroughly drenched with water.
The loss to Elmer Matthews was reduced somewhat because most of the television sets in his stock were loaned or rented to people wanting to watch the coronation of Queen Elizabeth. His son and staff managed to save some of the stock by removing it.
Merchants and firefighters were relieved that they had managed to contain the fire so well. The weather was a big factor, as was the use of the pump at the Beatty plant.
But even more significant was the willing assistance of the Elora and Guelph firefighters. For the Elora men, it was the second sleepless night that week. On the previous Monday the had spent the night battling a barn fire in Pilkington.
Fergus Fire Chief Alf Richardson remained in hospital the next morning, but was sufficiently recovered to grant interviews to newspapers. He had much praise for the new pumper that the town had recently purchased. The fire the previous night was the first time it had been used at a major blaze. Late that afternoon the staff discharged Richardson from hospital. He claimed that he felt no ill effects from the smoke and heat.
The structure, a burned-out shell after the fire, was subsequently rebuilt. The major tenant, Canadian Tire, found a new and larger location on St. Andrew Street. Later, Alan Trask opened a television store in the building, and in July 1960, opened the first coin laundry in Fergus in part of the building.
The fire was a warning that the presence of ramshackle frame buildings at the rear of stores posed a major fire hazard. Many of those standing in 1953 were in direct violation of the downtown fire bylaw, and had been erected without building permits. It was obvious that the downtown fire bylaw needed to be strictly enforced.