Sixty years ago tomorrow, on the bitter cold and windy night of Sunday, Feb. 1, 1953, the clock at the First National Bank of Geneva stopped at 7:45 p.m., marking the apex of the Geneva Ace Hardware fire—very likely the worst downtown fire in Geneva history.
And though he was just a boy at the time, longtime Tri-Com Central Dispatch Director Jerry Bleck, now retired, carries memories of the devastation to this day and compares it to the other well-known Geneva downtown fires.
"I was only 4 years old in 1953, so a little young to have many of the fire details," Bleck said in an e-mail to Geneva Patch. "However, I had been working for the Geneva Police Department for eight years and Tri-Com and 9-1-1 was just 2 years old when the Kaiser's Dime Store fire occurred in 1978.
"Downtown State Street has seen many disastrous fires, including the Coryell's Tri-City Radio Shop fire, the fire in the apartments above the Little Owl, and the fire at the Fox Valley Restaurant that I do remember."
But the fire in 1953 probably was the worst, Bleck said.
"Most of the south side of the 100 block of West State Street burned to the ground, including the First National Bank. The damage to the bank was far worse than the fire at the State Bank of Geneva this last October."
The Kaiser Dime Store fire in 200 block of West State Street and the Coryell Tri-City Radio Store fire in the 0-99 block of West State State took place in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Bleck said.
According to the the First National Bank's 65th anniversary book, written by former Geneva Mayor William C. Wood, "it seems that the fire may have started in a barber shop at 122 W. State St. and then spread westward all the way to Second Street, consuming the barber shop, the Ace Hardware store, Averill Electric, and the First National Bank," Bleck wrote.
"The Geneva Fire Department called in the St. Charles, Batavia, West Chicago, and Aurora Fire Departments to help with the blaze," Bleck said. "The Aurora Fire Department supplied masks so that bank employees could go inside and get records and equipment and remove them to nearby stores.
"The buildings burned so badly they had to be knocked down for safety reasons."
Astonishingly, the bank was open for business inside Skoglund's Furniture Store, where the Strawflower Shop is today, at 9 a.m. Monday, Feb. 2, 1953.
Later, the bank relocated to the Tri-City Garage on Third Street until a new bank could be built. The new building was completed at State and Second on Nov. 1, 1953, where Geneva Cleaners is today.
"I am sure many Genevans living in the city today are unaware of the huge Ace Hardware fire and other downtown fires that occurred years ago," Bleck said. "Thought you might want to look at history a bit and perhaps do a story this February in The Geneva Patch."
- SOURCES: Background courtesy of Jerry Bleck, photos courtesy of the Geneva History Center
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