See a parking lot in Ottawa or Streator? It's a good bet there was once a building there brought down by fire.
"They usually don't rebuild them."
That's one of the embers of information to be had from Shane Elko, an expert on the history of fires in Streator.
The Ottawa man, formerly of Streator, has a degree in mass communications and has done considerable work toward a history degree. He was working at MBL in Ottawa several years ago when he suffered a bad break: he lost his lower right leg to infection. The former college football player always wanted to be a firefighter, but he said his wish to take the firefighter application test was repeatedly doused — he was either gone or in school or otherwise unavailable for the test whenever one was offered.
With time on his hands, Elko decided to rekindle his interest in firefighting, but as an amateur historian. After the smoke clears, the 45-year-old Elko plans to have a 12-chapter book written, a book which is almost done.
Most of his research has consisted of scrolling through microfilmed copies of the Streator Daily Times-Press until his eyes are bleary, but retired Fire Chief Henry Araujo and retired firefighter Robert Tkach both lent him their scrapbooks. His focus has been on Streator, but a byproduct of reading all those old news stories was he came across Ottawa fires reported by the Times-Press — such as the March 28, 1925, West Side fire that ironically destroyed the Ottawa Fireproofing Plant.
Elko chose to explore fires from 1920 to the present. During most of the 1920s, there was more than one newspaper in Streator, doubling his research workload. Also in those days, police and fire reports were scattered through the newspaper, requiring Elko to scan almost every page. He is now up to the early 1960s.
"I've looked at almost every page for those 40 years."
Elko said that from his study, most early fires were caused by overheated stoves and chimneys, in a time when wood and coal were often burned for cooking and heating. The march of technology greatly reduced fires, with sprinkler systems and other such safety devices, although the increasing use of electricity led to more fires sparked by overloaded circuits.
So what are the most significant fires he's come across?
Certainly the Williams Hardware fire of July 14, 1958, at 115 S. Vermillion St., in which six people died after an explosion in the basement ignited the building. Elko likes to point out one of the heroes to emerge from the smoke of that tragedy was firefighter Lawrence McGurk, who rescued victims from the building. During World War II, McGurk was in the Navy, where he trained sailors to fight boiler fires.
Another fire was more tragic, although it had a lower death toll: the November, 1932 blaze that killed the four Hocking children, ages 7 to 2, at 500 N. Vermillion St. They lived with their parents above the F.L. Angier Machine Shop, which was owned by a set of grandparents.The site was across the street from Flink Co. which remains, making snow plows and road spreaders.
Another fire resulting in death was in August, 1929 at the Kennedy Body Plant, diagonally from the Hocking home, in which firefighters Charles Marx and Robert Norris were crushed after a wall collapsed. Marx and Norris were up against a house that still stands. Near the same location in May, 2002, another fire struck, gutting Kaschke's Heating and Plumbing and the abandoned Dan Howard garter factory.
These fires and others will be told in Elko's book, but not written in dry, police blotter-style.
"It's not minute-by-minute accounts. I tell stories."