Editor’s Note: Forty-five years ago this month, fire broke out in the Paaske Furniture building in the Lyons district. John Rowland, co-founder of the Gateway History Club, has written a historical piece about the events of that day.
CLINTON — On Wednesday, March 30, 1977 one of the largest disasters to hit Lyons occurred when a massive fire completely destroyed the historic four-story Paaske Furniture building at 65 Main Ave.
The strong winds spread the fire onto the adjoining Potts Jewelry Store at 71 Main Ave. That historic building also was destroyed.
Assistant Fire Chief Cliff Peters told the Clinton Herald the next day that he had never seen a fire like that before. “The heat was terrible, the wind was terrible, and we didn’t have enough men, hoses, or anything.” Peters had no official estimate of damage but thought it could be millions of dollars.
Peters said the fire started on the top floor. The wind was from the south. “We had so much heat that windows were exploding across the street.”
Clinton weather records show the sustained wind speed that day was 35 mph, with wind gusts up to 55 mph. The fire spread so quickly that firemen had to concentrate on protecting the rest of the Lyons business district.
Fireman Russ “Butch” Luckritz described the fire to the Herald as “a real sky-lighter.”
“The black smoke coming from the burning asphalt roof and the wind swept flames made a spectacular glow that surrounded the entire area,” he said at the time. Flames were reported to be 80 feet in the air above the four-story building and smoke was so thick at times you could not see from one end of the block to the other.
A call on the fire came into the Clinton Law Center at 4:20 pm. Firemen Steve Bromley and Dick Voda had just returned to the Lyons Roosevelt Station No. 3. They arrived at the scene of the fire in one minute. Bromley and Voda had just returned to the station seconds earlier from rescuing a 2-year-old child that had locked himself in the bathroom of his home.
Every Clinton fireman responded to the scene, except three. One was on vacation, one was sick, and Fire Chief John Hulten was in Ames at a state conference for fire chiefs. Captain Louis Lund was at the downtown Clinton post office and could see the flames from there. Rick Hale was assigned to the incoming “Fire Calls” at Central that day and was also notifying off-duty personnel about the Lyons fire. Upon completion of the off-duty phone list, Hale headed to Lyons.
Camanche and Charlotte sent men or equipment to the Lyons fire. Low Moor sent two units to central. DeWitt backed up Low Moor. Strong winds sent sparks and hot material from the fire flying all over Lyons that day. Sparks from the Main Avenue fire started a fire at the Ray Kerr Machine Shop located at 57 25th Ave. North. Low Moor firemen responded to the fire at the Kerr Machine Shop, where a car was destroyed.
Six firemen sustained minor injuries; none were hospitalized. Bromley and Voda had minor facial and neck burns. Grant Wilke had minor wrist burns. Robert Will, Bill Lorensen, and Kent Ketelsen were treated at the scene for soot and ashes in their eyes. The smoke and heat from the fire was extremely intense.
Hundreds of people showed up to view the fire and police had a difficult time controlling traffic. Police Chief Wayne Wilke noted that officers were also busy getting residents to evacuate nearby apartments and businesses. Numerous volunteers stepped up to help businesses near the fire remove merchandise from their buildings.
The Zastrows removed all of the merchandise from Muffy’s Men’s store. Barb LaCourse removed numerous items from the Plaster Gallery at 83 Main Ave. Main Avenue Variety had so many items they did not know where to begin. Volunteers carried items to Darlene’s store and Soesbe’s Barber Shop. Rastrelli’s van was used to transport items.
The Red Cross was on the scene. Local citizens brought massive amounts of rolls, donuts, sandwiches, cold beverages, and hot coffee for the firemen and police. Local Main Avenue restaurants opened up to serve food to the firemen.
Ed Zastrow, vice president of the firm, told the Clinton Herald that “four employees came running to the first floor of the store about 4:15 p.m. shouting that the fourth floor was on fire.” Employees and customers quickly evacuated the store and called firefighters.
The Paaske Furniture building was located in the former Masonic Temple building. The Lyons Masonic Temple building was built by the DeMolay Consistory in 1871 and was also occupied by Masonic Lyons Lodge No. 93. The 1871 building was thought to be the first Masonic Temple building in the state of Iowa.
Jens Paaske purchased the Lyons Masonic building in 1929 and operated a wholesale furniture business. In 1934 Paaske remodeled the store, dis-continued the wholesale furniture business, and converted the store into a retail furniture shop. Jens Paaske died in 1958. Son Louis and brother-in-law Ed Zastrow carried on the business until the day of the 1977 fire.
The Herald noted in 1977 that Potts Jewelry Store had been in business on Main Avenue in Lyons for more than 123 years. John Henry Potts (1833-1914) started the business in 1854. Potts Jewelry store was thought to be the oldest jewelry store in the state at that time.
Mrs. Harriet Potts Vandermaas stated to the Herald that her grandfather, J.H. Potts, had his jewelry store located at two previous sites in Lyons before moving to the present site in 1871. J.H. Potts was an active business leader in Lyons for more than 60 years. Potts died in 1914.
Son Albert Potts operated the business until his death in 1951. Harriet and her husband, Walter Vandermaas, then operated the store. Walter died in 1958. After the fire, Harriet Vandermaas moved the store operations to 77 Main Ave. Harriet Potts died in 2004 at the age of 97. She was also an officer and director of Gabriel Lumber Company and United Lumber Company. Three generations of the Potts family lived at the family home, at 262 22nd Ave. North in Lyons, since 1862.
Numerous Lyons merchants were extremely concerned about the loss of two such well-known businesses in the Lyons shopping district. It was thought that various retail businesses had occupied the ground floor of the Masonic building since it had been built in 1871.
Stanley Mayer, a well-known Lyons attorney, talked to reporters about the historical importance of the Paaske/Masonic Lodge Building. Several architectural journals listed interesting features of the 1871 building. One item of note “was that the building was nearly a perfect cube inch for inch.”
Disasters and unforeseen events come in many different forms and force change. The 1977 loss of the Paaske Furniture business and Potts Jewelry store was obviously a blow to the Lyons retail community. Plus, the loss of two more historic buildings on the east end of Main Avenue created more empty space.
Other big changes included removal of the 1891 Lyons/Fulton High Bridge in 1975 and construction of a new bridge at 19th Avenue North. The new bridge rerouted traffic much farther south of Main Avenue. In 2002, McEleney Motors moved across town to the junction of Highways 30 and 67. McEleney Motors had been a major business at the east end of Main Avenue since 1914.
Forty-five years have come and gone since the Paaske fire. The east end of Lyons has evolved in a new direction. The Lyons Farmers Market on Main Avenue is a local staple that is growing every year. Folks are excited about the new pavilion planned this year at the Farmers Market. The Sawmill Museum has grown into a must-see destination along the riverfront and continues to wow crowds with its amazing displays.
The Lyons riverfront has always offered one of the most scenic views in the area and people are taking notice. Hundreds of residents and visitors use the riverfront trail daily. Folks are riding bikes, walking, rollerblading, skating, taking photos, and relaxing along one of the best riverfront views in America.
Elijah Buell saw the potential of the “Narrows on the Mississippi River as a great place for business opportunity. After nearly 190 years of various business ventures in Lyons, the opportunities are still there. The riverfront view and the vacant land on Main Avenue is shining once again, like a bright beacon to developers. Sooner or later opportunity will come knocking once again, on the Lyons riverfront.