Altoona Equity Co-op Fire

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Chapter Eleven
Altoona Equity Co-op Fire
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Hank Harris and the Altoona Equity Co-op Fire
By John R. Thurston
Harold "Hank" Harris had been brought up in Altoona. His home was located on Sixth Street
West in the same block as my own. He and I have been friends for a very long time. He
graduated from Altoona High School in 1945 and went on to serve in the Navy in 1946-47.
One tour of duty had him taking part in an extended mission to the Antarctic in Task Force
68 that was led by the renowned Admiral Richard E. Byrd. This historic Antarctica
expedition was entitled Operation Highjump. It was the largest Antarctic exploration ever. Its
broad goals involved consolidation and extension of U.S. sovereignty over the Antarctic,
investigation of possible base sites, and extending scientific knowledge in general.
Participation in such a world class endeavor must have been the experience of a lifetime for
Hank
Upon discharge from the navy, Hank returned to Altoona and went to work at the Altoona
Equity Co-op. In so doing, he joined some of his boyhood friends as a fellow worker: Bud
Griese, Lloyd Wittren, and Chuck Steuding. They had many stories about their work and
would tell them at the drop of a hat. Over the years, these friends would move on to other
kinds of employment, but Hank hung in there with the Equity Co-op. Over the years, he
advanced and eventually became its manager. As manager, he was fully responsible for the
entire operation of this very complex facility.
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The Equity Co-op in 1962
The Altoona Equity Cooperative Livestock Auction Market had been established in 1945. It
was located on four acres just north of the Eau Claire County Shops, adjacent to the railroad
tracks. That location had been selected because, at that time, Equity Co-op relied heavily on
railroad transportation of the livestock that it handled. It had its own spur track to facilitate
this aspect of its operation. This stockyard served a broad scale region of northwest
Wisconsin. The livestock sold included cows, calves, sheep, and hogs.
August 12, 1971 had been a day like all others at the Equity Co-op. On this Thursday
afternoon, about 150 regular livestock buyers and sellers were participating in an auction
conducted in temperatures in excess of the 90 degrees. In his capacity as manager, Hank
made regular rounds make sure that everything was being done correctly and efficiently.
Some twenty-one workers conducted their usual business. Then, about halfway through the
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auction, something happened suddenly that was both unusual and frighteningly dangerous.
Out of the blue, Randy Wilkinson from Augusta had seen some flames and yelled "Fire." And
all Hell broke loose.
The fire apparently started in a large supply of dry hay and straw. Fueled by this and the
creosote-laden wood of the stockyard, the fire quickly exploded into the barn, arena, and
office, devouring anything and everything in its path.
Upon hearing the cry of "fire," the frightened people at the auction bolted from the arena.
Although their actions bordered on panic for a time, all of them were evacuated in short order.
Only minor injuries were reported. As Hank checked to make sure that everyone was safe, he
was confronted by a man frantically running down the stairs from a second floor to escape
the fire. The memory of the panic-stricken look in this man's eyes was something that Hank
would never forget. Massive confusion prevailed.
Efforts were undertaken immediately to save the livestock. A number had been freed from
their enclosure and were forced out into a fenced area adjacent to it. But some panicked and
ran back inside where they were consumed by the flames. In all, approximately 100 cattle
and 300 calves died in this catastrophe.
The flames were fanned by winds up to 23 mph. Some employees had attempted early on to
use fire extinguishers, but to no avail. In all, four units from the Altoona Fire Department
and twelve from the Town of Washington answered the alarm
Two railroad box cars that were on tracks adjacent to the blaze were damaged. The fire's
heat was so intense that it twisted the spur's railroad tracks into grotesque snake-like forms.
Huge billowing clouds of black smoke rose high into the skies. They could be seen from
miles around. They contained flaming materials, some of which were blown all the way across
Lake Altoona to the Town of Seymour where they set some five small brush fires.
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The responding firemen fought the flames valiantly, but it was obvious almost from the
outset that this was a lost cause. Their efforts were directed at containing the blaze and
eventually extinguishing it. Four firemen were injured. Chuck Brost and John Bresina were
treated at Sacred heart Hospital for smoke inhalation; Tully Stolts and Father Wilger has
lacerations of the elbow and finger, respectively.
Afterwards, there was considerable discussion about the fire's cause. This led to speculations
that highlighted some problems that had existed between farmers and stockyards across the
nation. Some minor nearby grass fires were ruled out as a cause by Altoona Police Chief
Dave O'Donahoe. The cause of the fire was never determined.
One can only imagine the mess in the aftermath. The only building left standing was the one
housing the cafeteria. This was transformed into a temporary office. Many important records
were lost, all of the dead cattle had to be buried in a limed pit some miles away, the area
reeked of the smell of charred wood and the flesh of burned animals, an incredible amount of
debris had to be cleaned up, the employees were shaken and potentially jobless, and on and
on. In the next few days, an abundance of bureaucratic stumbling blocks interfered with the
clean-up.
Immediately after the fire, Hank told the consignors that they would be paid in full for any
livestock they had lost. There was full insurance coverage for any such losses. Luckily, in the
midst of all this turmoil, a woman employee had the presence of mind to gather and remove
some important records from the path of the fire. Later on, these were used in providing
proper compensation to some owners for the livestock they had lost in the fire.
Several hundred head of surviving cattle were transferred to the Equity Market in Sparta,
Wisconsin.
One small bright spot was noted in the midst of this tragedy. It involved the compensation
accorded owners of some of the livestock for which there were no records. Hank placed a
notice in the Eau Claire's Leader Telegram inviting such owners to come to his improvised
office for a settlement. Hank would then ask the owner about the size and quality of his
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animals in order to determine their worth. Trust prevailed. The owner's word was accepted as
Gospel and he was paid accordingly. One might wonder as to whether such a practice would
prevail today.
(This fire joined the Altoona Public School fire of 1951 as one of the two largest Altoona
fires. Details of the 1951 fire may be found in "The Old Altoona Public School Altoona
Wisconsin: A Collection of Memories," Thurston 2008)
Later on, when the rebuilding of the Equity-Co-op was considered, it was decided to build at
a different location. The Altoona site was now considered to be too small. The proximity to
the railroad was no longer an important factor; by this time, all livestock were transported by
truck. Although some people still refer to it as the Altoona Stockyards, Equity Co-op was
rebuilt southeast of Eau Claire, Wisconsin on Highway 53 in the Town of Washington
The pictures on the following pages show the Equity Co-op and its destruction on this fateful
day.
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EAU CLAIRE, WISCONSIN FRIDAY, AUGUST 13, 1971
LIVESTOCK MARKET BURNS
– Firemen from
the Altoona and Township Fire
Departments fought a raging fire at the Altoona Equity Livestock Market
Thursday
afternoon that sent smoke billowing hundreds of feet into the sky. A large crowd of
spectators was drawn to the scene as firemen fought the blaze for more than four
hours. Four firemen were treated at Sacred Heart Hospital for smoke inhalation and
minor injuries. (Staff Photo)
Livestock Market Burns, Four Hurt
By BILL GHARRITY
Four firemen were treated for smoke inhalation and minor injuries Thursday afternoon
fighting a fire that destroyed the barn, sales arena and office of the Altoona Equity
Co-operative Livestock Auction Market.
The blaze was discovered during a cattle sale and employees and buyers were able to
evacuate the livestock arena before the fire literally exploded into the premises.
Harold Harris, manager of the market, said at noon today that they were able to
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determine that about 100 head of cattle and 300 head of calves were lost in the blaze.
He said that all consignors of livestock lost in the fire will be paid in full. The livestock
was fully covered by insurance he reported, and said they hope to be able to get an
accurate estimate of the loss later in the day.
The only building saved was a frame building housing the cafeteria. It has been made
into a temporary office were employees today are sorting through charred records
salvaged from the office.
The cause of the blaze has not been determined and officials are investigating today.
Altoona Police Chief Dave O'Donahoe reported there was a grass fire about a half hour
earlier in an area west of the livestock market but he did not know if this had a bearing
on the cause.
Car Destroyed
He reported a car owned by Anton Phillips, 1608 Piedmont Road, was destroyed by the
fire and paint was scorched on a second auto owned by Myron Watnke, Rt. 1, Fall
Creek.
Harris said the several hundred head of cattle saved from the burning barn have
been transferred to Sparta where they will be sold at the Equity Market there on
Monday. The regular Tuesday auction held here will now be held at the Equity
markets in Sparta and Strantford, Harris reported. The fire broke out in a hay and straw
storage shed at the southeast corner of the barn. It was discovered by Randy Wilkinson
of Augusta who gave the alarm.
Other employees said that the fire literally exploded over the stored hay and straw into
the barn and connecting livestock arena and office.
The flames were fanned by winds 18 to 23 miles an hour and raced through the
structures. Four units from the Altoona Fire Department and 12 from the township
answered the alarm.
Sale in Progress
Harris reported that the sale was about half completed when the alarm was given and
those in attendance had to run from the building to escape the flames. He reported
150 bales of hay were put into the storage shed Wednesday and that j flames roared
out of the shed and into the arena and office in the connecting concrete block
building.
Francis Werlein, an auctioneer from Mondovi, reported he had just walked into the
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area when Wilkinson, an Augusta livestock dealer, gave the alarm.
"I came out and moved my car and spotted a squad car and told the officer about
the fire," Werlein said. "I saw a little smoke at the corner of the shed but it
suddenly turned into an inferno and the wind blew the flames right through the pens
and barn."
George Reiter of 3370 Blakeley Ave., an employee, reported the flames came
right over the top of the hay like someone pushed it. "When the wind hit it, it went right
through the buildings and there was nothing we could do, he said.
He reported a couple of the boys grabbed fire extinguishers but it was useless.
Injured fighting the blaze and taken to Sacred Heart Hospital for treatment by the
Prock and City County Ambulances were : Charles Brest, 27, of 326 1/2 N., Dewey St.,
smoke inhalation; Tully Stolts, 33, of 311 1/2 Dodge St., laceration to the right elbow;
the Rev. Norbert Wilger, 41, of 1827 Lynn Ave., finger laceration; and John Bresina, 27,
of 1111 Garfield Ave., smoke .inhalation.
Firemen stayed at the scene for more than four hours with the last unit clearing at
7:36 p.m. Roger Frye, a member of the Altoona Fire Department, reported he was
returning from Bloomer on CTH F when he and his brother spotted the : smoke
high in the sky. "We i knew someone was getting it but we didn't realize it was
here," Frye said. He returned in time to aid in fighting the blaze.
The tremendous heat generated by the blaze buckled a railroad spur track
immediately behind the buildings and burned down overhead wires. It reportedly
damaged two boxcars standing on the siding.
Note:
The photos on the next two pages were taken by Claude Schilling of Schilling Photo and in 1971
the business address was 1604 Lynn Ave in Altoona – phone 834 7208.
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