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1959 Fire


The Fire that could have Destroyed Adams-Friendship

May 1959 Fire Destroyed 1200 Acres Just East of Adams and Friendship


By, Harry Davis

Personal Memories of the Fire

                Even after 49 years, the pictures of that day— Tuesday, May 5, 1959—are still vivid in my mind.  I was a Junior at A-F High School in Band during the last period of the day.  We were practicing marching in formation on Brevoort Street on the south side of the school building in Adams.

We all saw the large cloud of black smoke rise above the trees to our southeast.  As the bell rang, I and two friends quickly put our instruments away and jumped in a car to go investigate the smoke.

Driving east on County Highway M (Ann Street in the city) we stopped a block before the intersection of Highway M and 11th Avenue.  A large fire was raging in the trees to the south of M and a small patch was burning in the field on the road’s north side.  No fire trucks were around so we ran into the field, grabbed tree boughs and beat on the flames. Then, behind me I heard a roaring sound and looked around to see flames coming towards me from higher than the trees.  I shouted, “Let’s get out of here!” and, without looking back, ran as fast as I could towards the lights of the fire trucks that were just then arriving.  When I did look back, I saw my friends were right on my heels, and the field was completely engulfed in flames.

The rest of the afternoon and into the evening I fought the fire more conventionally (and less foolishly).  I used the “pack-can” fire extinguisher issued to me and walked along the trench dug on the west side of the fire’s path to keep the fire from spreading to the houses close by.

My last memory of the day was sitting beside the road in the late evening with the fire finally under control: smoking a cigarette and thinking it wasn’t much different from the wood smoke I had been inhaling since school let out.[1]

The Fire as Reported

                The origin of the fire was never determined.  As it started near the railroad tracks a mile south of Highway M, it could have been started by sparks from train wheels.  Whatever the beginning, a strong wind from the south-southwest quickly fanned the flames into the nearby trees. When the fire reached Highway M the flames were at treetop height and moving very quickly.

At about that time, Mr. and Mrs. Frank Towne of Adams, having driven out to the Dew Drop Inn (a tavern then at the southeast corner of 11th Ave and Highway M intersection) to see the fire.  They soon realized that their situation was clearly dangerous and tried to head home only to find their way blocked by the fire.  They were forced to take refuge in William Anderson’s garage at 2108 11th Ave. to wait out the fire.  The Townes survived unharmed, but the building was slightly damaged and five of Anderson’s used cars parked there were completely destroyed.[2]

Firefighters then arriving on the scene were hampered by the dense smoke and crowds of onlookers. The Wisconsin Conservation Department’s Friendship fire fighting squad and the Adams Volunteer Fire Department were the first on the scene and fought an initially losing battle with the fire that was racing quickly northward[3].

The firefighters on the scene were soon joined by Conservation crews from Nekoosa, Necedah, Babcock and Wisconsin Dells.  Fire Departments also came from Friendship, Plainfield, Wisconsin Dells, Mauston, New Lisbon, Necedah, Nekoosa, Wisconsin Rapids and Hancock.[4]

The fire was finally brought under control at about 7:00 pm.  Destroyed were 1,200 acres of woods and fields. Some 400 of those acres were inside the City of Adams. In the American Legion Forest, 100,000 15-year-old Norway Pines were completely destroyed.[5]  (In a phoenix-like happening, the burned out land was donated by the Legion post and is now the Legion Field airport.)


For all the fire’s threat of disaster to the community, Adams-Friendship dodged a bullet.  There were no deaths due to the fire; and very few injuries.  Local firefighters Harold Johnson and R.J.Goggin were treated for smoke-filled eyes, and “Chuck” Schmidt suffered a minor burn to his face.  Only one person, Conservation Aide Roger Holcombe of Nekoosa, was hospitalized with an eye injury.

Most firefighters said that it was the worst fire they had ever fought.  R.J. Goggin said it was “almost a miracle” that no lives were lost and damage was comparatively slight.[6]

Based on damage done, the fire could not hold a candle (pardon the expression) to other, more destructive fires. The Cottonville Forest Fire in Big Flats that occurred May 5, 2005 (exactly 46 years after the 1959 fire) destroyed 3,410 acres of forest, 30 residences and 60 other out-buildings.[7]  But the 1959 fire’s speed and proximity to the businesses and residences of Adams and Friendship made its scare factor hard to beat.

.               ____________

This article first appeared in the Adams County Historical Society newsletter The Quatrefoil in the Winter 2002 edition

[1] My personal memories -Editor

[2] “Forest Fire Gets Big News Coverage” The Friendship Reporter, Thursday, May 14, 1959.

[3] “A Raging Forest Fire Ravages 1,200 Acres East and North of A-F Community Tuesday,” The Friendship Reporter, Thursday, May 7, 1959.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Op. Cit., The Friendship Reporter, Thursday, May 14, 1959.

[7] Wikipedia, Big Flats, Wisconsin