80 years after the fire

Saturday, June 25, 2011
Monday marks the 80th anniversary of the Spencer fire of 1931. Started by a boy with a firework, the fire resulted in about $1.2 million in damages and was at least partially responsible for the statewide ban of fireworks six years later. (Photo courtesy of Parker Museum archives)

A dropped sparkler changed the skyline and history of Spencer forever. Monday marks the 80th anniversary of that fateful action.

It was a hot summer day -- 97 degrees with a wind of 25 to 35 mph -- when three boys walked into Bjornstad Drug Store to purchase fireworks from the largest stock the store had ever carried. One boy used a punk to light a firework inside the store.

As it flared up, the boy dropped it as store associate Andrew Wahlstrom attempted to grab it. That attempt was futile and an explosion resulted.

"The actual culprit has never been divulged, though some people have claimed it," said Martin Arthur, who edited Julie Schmidt's book "Conflagration: The Great Spencer Fire of 1931."

In 1956, the Des Moines Register published an interview with Otto Bjornstad, Jr., the son of the store's owner. He named then 11-year-old Billy Kilpatrick as the culprit and Metz Anderson Jr. as one of his companions.

Just before the 50th anniversary of the fire, the Spencer Daily Reporter included an interview with Anderson's former wife Helen Sheely. She stated Anderson had always claimed "that neither he nor the other boy dropped the sparkler. He said it was the clerk who lit the sparkler and that she was the one who got scared and dropped it."

Conspiracy theories about who started the fire and why never seemed to take root. Instead, a different conspiracy was at work, Arthur believes.

"It there was a conspiracy, it was to hide the true identity of the person who started the fire," Arthur said. "The town conspired to do it. There were probably a lot of people who knew but wanted to keep it a secret."

Instead of putting blame on the fire's initiator, the city got to work on the rebuilding process.

Regardless of the Great Depression, and perhaps partly because of it, the buildings that were lost were quickly replaced. None was quicker replaced than the New Spencer Theatre, which opened its doors Sept. 3. In all, 20 new buildings were built.

"It is amazing, especially when you look at how long it takes to rebuild now," Arthur said. " ... People wanted to heal as fast as possible. Businessmen were not making money without their stores. I think they needed to get back to normal."

The progress did not go unnoticed.

President Herbert Hoover sent a telegram to J.R. McKee of the Spencer Reporter Dec. 10, 1931.

"I am interested to learn of the courage and enterprise with which the businessmen of Spencer, Iowa, have restored the portion of the city destroyed with such heavy loss last June, and extend to the community my hearty congratulations on its spirit and achievement," Hoover wrote.

Because of the massive movement to rebuild, Spencer is known for its large collection of art deco buildings in the Central Business District.

The fire is also known as one of the driving factors for firework-banning legislation in 1937, though a similar fire on July 4, 1936, in Remsen appeared to be the final straw. That fire caused about $600,000 in damages, compared to the $1,203,178 price tag for rebuilding from the Spencer fire.

Schmidt tried to put history in context as she concluded "Conflagration."

"The positive attitude of Spencer's business community and its leadership led to a remarkable rebuilding of this town of just 5,000 during the depths of the Depression," Schmidt wrote. "And more than the legacy of 'the boy who started the blaze,' this legacy of the 'little town that could' is what continues to thrive in Spencer, Iowa. ... The legacy of the great Spencer fire of 1931 survives. Do not forget our history, for it is what makes us who we are."

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