The newspaper account read: “Saturday night, Tony Peters, who resides in the east part of town, was attracted by the barking of his dogs and upon hearing someone close the gate near his barn, he went near the place (and) heard two men talking rather low behind the barn. As soon as they saw Mr. Peters coming, they started out on a run across the fields.
“The following night, at about 10:15 o’clock, a party set fire to a stack of hay belonging to Mr. Guillaume, who resides across the street from Peters’ place. Peter Guillaume was just coming home at the time and started on a run after the incendiary but ran into a fence near the haystack and before he could free himself from the barbs, the culprit was beyond reach. The haystack, which was entirely consumed, was only ten feet from the barn, which would have caught fire if help had not come at once.”
The town was Caledonia with two newspapers reporting on two frightful nights in 1910. The newspapers used the term “incendiary”; now, more than a century later, the word “arsonist” is more commonly used. Twice during the week before Peters chased off two suspicious, soft-spoken strangers, eight barns in the heart of Caledonia had been torched. One account proclaimed, “our citizens are greatly disturbed over the safety of their lives as well as their property.”
It began on Saturday, April 2, shortly after 11 p.m. when fire broke out in a barn behind Hayes Brothers Saloon. The blaze was quickly discovered and was put out before the fire department arrived. Less than an hour later and a block east, flames were shooting through the roof of Jacob Johnson’s barn. The fire department extinguished this midnight blaze, which reduced the top half of the barn to “a charred skeleton.” A well-developed third blazing fire was discovered about 2:30 a.m. The barn of Mrs. James O’Brien was nearly a total loss with the deaths of a cow, a calf and about 30 chickens. The reporter concurred with the general opinion that the three fires had been started about the same time by one or more incendiaries.
The Hosch barn was one of a “community of barns and old frame buildings,” and the fire could have quickly consumed an entire block. The location of the Johnson barn was not quite as crowded but still a major threat to spread. That three-fires night was indeed frightening, but the worst was yet to come – five nights later, five more fires.
In another barn behind the saloon, about 10:30 p.m., fire engulfed the upper part filled with hay before the water hoses arrived. The fire spread to the O. J. Welda barn, the Mulnix barn, the Serres barn and the Kranz barn. “With all five barns ablaze and situated in the very heart of the city, it was one of the most terrible scenes that a person could witness… some shingles were carried five or six blocks as the wind was blowing… the heat was intense… the heavens were lighted up so that the reflection could be seen for miles around … all of Webster’s barber goods was (were) taken out and all of Buckley & Coleman’s stock of merchandise was removed…”
The fire department was highly praised for containing the flames, but their three hoses were not enough. Despite intense heat, privately-owned hoses and water buckets were used to soak the exterior of nearby buildings. “It was almost a miracle that some of these places escaped being destroyed as they all surrounded the fire and were only a few feet from the mass of flames.”
The O’Brien loss was estimated at $400 and the Johnson loss at $150, both fully covered by insurance. Tony Hosch, who owned both burned barns behind the saloon, suffered considerable financial loss. After losing his first barn, he took out insurance on his second barn the day before the second fire, but the policy did not take effect until noon the next day – a few hours after losing his second barn. The $1,200 Welda barn was also not insured. All was lost except for part of the Kranz barn.
Lee Epps studied with a Ford Foundation graduate fellowship in colonial history at the University of Michigan.