Heritage Highlights - The 1961 conflagration in Winkler

The east side of Main St. before the 1961 fire. (SUPPLIED PHOTO)

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From The Pembina Triangle Progress March 13, 1961

A fire which rates as the worst disaster in the history of Winkler tore through five Winkler business establishments Wednesday levelling seven buildings and causing damage estimated at well over half a million dollars. Destroyed were Peoples Furniture, Gladstones Dry Goods, Gladstones IGA, Town and Country Restaurant and Penners Meats and Groceries.

The fire which broke out in the roof or attic of Peoples Furniture warehouse (formerly Sawatzky’s Variety Store) quickly spread to the furniture store next door. In spite of an all-out effort by the Winkler Fire Department to halt the blaze within the furniture store, it soon spread to Gladstones Dry Goods store which is north of the furniture store.

Fire brigades were summoned from Morden and Plum Coulee when the furniture store building was aflame, however, a shortage of water hampered their effectiveness.

The CPR well ran dry causing a break in the fire fighting effort on the north side of Peoples Furniture and in a matter of minutes Gladstones Dry Goods and IGA food store were in flames. The fire wall of IGA and a ten-foot gap to Beaver Lumber stopped the fire from spreading to the north.

The fire, fanned by a 15 to 20 mile an hour wind from the north, soon spread to the south and sent the former P.T. Friesen & Son building into flames. Here the big battle centred on holding the fire from spreading south. In spite of all available water supply from the Creamery well and the 6th street well, the blaze jumped the fireproof wall of the new Town and Country Restaurant. From there it spread rapidly to Penner Meats and Groceries and in the space of half an hour these two establishments too were a howling inferno of flame.

While total losses are tentatively set at $500,000 the loss of business and eventual cost of replacement will push the losses to the firms hit by the fires to past three-quarter million.

Peoples Furniture reported they had adequate coverage on their stock and Jake Sawatzky, owner of the furniture store building, said he too was well covered on buildings.

Gladstone Dry Goods and IGA had fairly good coverage but reports are that the new spring stock of dry goods pushed the inventory well past the actual coverage of that firm.  The former book store and printery was purchased by Max Gladstone and Jake Peters from P.T. Friesen & Son two weeks ago. They purchased it to open a new furniture department and were redecorating the place this week. Insurance had been transferred only eight days ago.  P.T. Friesen & Son finished last week the huge chore of moving the newspaper and printing plant and bookstore into the former MacLeods store which they leased from Peters and Gladstone.

To say the least the publishers are thankful that they were able to avert the disaster which has hit the five other firms. It would have taken months to re-establish the printing plant and to get back to normal production of the newspaper and printing.

The cause of the fire is unknown but it is expected it came from faulty wiring. Pete (Flash) Elias, manager and co-owner of Peoples Furniture said he and Jake Peters left the store at 10:15 to go for coffee and did not notice anything. By 10:30 the fire alarm sounded and smoke was coming from the roof and filling the premises.

Elias said he cannot understand how the fire got going in so short a time, although he feels it must have been smoldering upstairs for some time before it broke out.

The fire disrupted power in Winkler for a short time, however this was soon restored. Not so fortunate was the telephone service. The fire destroyed the main trunk line running east of Main Street knocking all phones in that area. Jim Mutcheson, area supervisor told the Progress at four o’clock that an emergency crew was enroute and would work around the clock to restore service.

The Winkler Fire Department said that every available foot of hose and both their trucks were in service, fighting the fire assisted by two fire trucks from Morden together with the full Morden brigade and the Plum Coulee and Roland brigades.

Wells thrown into service were the CPR well, the Creamery well and the 6th Street fire well. In addition water was trucked from Morden and other local fire wells by tank to the 6th Street well which has a large reservoir. The Winkler group said they were grateful for help from other towns and assistance from Winkler spectators who pitched in when needed.

Heritage Highlights, supplied by the Winkler Heritage Society, introduces readers to the people, places and things that still impact us today. The Winkler Heritage Museum is located in the Southland Mall and is open Tuesday to Friday, 12 to 4 p.m., Saturdays 10 am – 4 p.m. and 7 to 9 p.m. on Thursday evenings. The Archives located in the Winkler Centennial Library are open Wednesdays from 3 to 5 p.m.. For appointments call archivist Ed Falk at 204-325-8929. The Stones and Stories binders are on display at both locations. Come for a visit! One way of showing support for the Winkler Heritage Society (Archives, Stones & Stories and Museum) is by becoming a member of the Society. Forms may be picked up at both the Archives and Museum.

The fire caught the roof of Gladstone Dry Goods and spread along the attic and in minutes the whole store was an inferno. (SUPPLIED PHOTO)

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