Downtown fire sparks old memories

As I sipped my coffee early in the morning on Feb. 23 and watched a local St. Louis morning television station, it was with surprise and alarm that I saw the name of our town running across the bottom, accompanied by a brief photo of a fire.

The commentator began the lead-in to the story, and the first image I saw was from a helicopter, with the majestic capitol in the background. As the flames roared and the camera angle changed, I looked for the 1867 M. Hall building that housed Denny Gerkin’s insurance agency, and was relieved to see it standing.

This gray-painted, three-story building with dark red highlights is thought to be the oldest building on the block. Only the Allen’s Furniture Store building may be as old…or older.

Driving by the site the following day, I saw that a fireman was still at work, and a truck on duty, as smoke rose from the former Donaldson Carpet building.

As early as 1870, this corner of Block 43 was the site of Emanuel Ireland’s Livery. When the February 1886 Sanborn "fire insurance" map was drawn for downtown Vandalia, Ireland’s Livery, stretching 150 feet south along Third Street, anchored this corner.  Most of the land behind the livery to Johnson Street was a "horse yard."

The Sanborn Map and Publishing Co. of New York published detailed town maps, referred to by many as a "fire insurance map." The location and size of the buildings, and their use, are noted on the "drawn-to-scale" maps. Also noted are the types of structures, roof levels, how the buildings’ interiors were divided and the types of businesses located  there. A circle denoted a well or cistern.

The 1886 Sanborn map for Vandalia noted that a kitchen took up space in the back of Ireland’s Carriage House, adjacent to the livery. Next was the three-story M. Hall brick building, erected in 1867. This building was vacant in 1886. A two-story building, used as a music store, was next on the block, with a well dug in the middle of Gallatin Street between it and the M. Hall brick structure.

The next building, labeled on the map as B & S (billiards and saloon?), had an addition at the back. To reach the upper floor, one used an interior staircase at the rear of the ground-floor room. The use of the next building was described as Music B & S. An alleyway ran between it and the next building – vacant in 1886, used for a feed store in 1893 and home of Bray Title in 2010.

Directly across the alley west, a saloon and grocery occupied separate rooms in the lower part of the building, with a billiard hall upstairs. Agricultural implements were sold from a small building on the alley adjacent to the saloon. 

The saloon and grocery was a common configuration in those days. While the wife did her trading at the grocery, her husband could entertain himself in the saloon or billiard hall, where a woman was not to be seen.

Vandalia’s post office took up a very small space, not more than 10 feet wide, in the G.H. Dieckmann building, built in 1883 and pictured in the October 1928 photograph accompanying this article. 

In 1928, the Henning chair factory was in this building, where 40 years earlier a dry-goods store and a drug store (that also sold books and housed the offices of the express office) occupied these storefronts on Gallatin Street.

The last building on this block, where Allen’s Furniture is located today, was a gentleman’s clothing and accessory store on the ground floor, with a barbershop in the basement. A centrally located staircase led upstairs, where a photographer conducted his business. In the southeast corner of the building’s ground level, an electric light plant had been installed.

It is interesting to study what “was” and what “has been” as we look at old photographs and century-old maps.

Last Tuesday’s destructive fire has made its place in the recorded history of Vandalia, ready to be studied in years to come.

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