Liar, Crier, Pants on Fire: Canby Fires, Part 1

Hear this edition of Canby Then in all of its audio glory on Episode 9 of the Canby Now Podcast.

A man once said, “I have no ambition in this world but one, and that is to be a firefighter. The position may, in the eyes of some, appear to be a lowly one; but we who know the work which the firefighter has to do believe that it is a noble calling.

“Our proudest moment is to save lives. Under the impulse of such thoughts, the nobility of the occupation thrills us and stimulates us to deeds of daring, even of supreme sacrifice.”

The Canby Fire District traces its history back nearly 110 years, to a cold winter’s night in December 1909. “Not many were present” at that first meeting, a newspaper reporter noted, “owing to the fact that few knew of the meeting.”

About a dozen volunteers signed up that first night, less than half of the 30 or so that organizers had been hoping for. But, it was a start. And, boy, was it needed.

Two major fires occurred in the area the following year, one at the home of Canby resident W.M. Cantwell and one at Burkie’s mill in Macksburg. Both structures burned to the ground.

They Brought the House Down, but Not in a Good Way

In 1912, a disastrous and deadly blaze broke out at the Canby City Hotel. The hotel was full that night, as a theatrical troupe was in town, and most of them had opted to stay at the fine City Hotel.

The fire started in the kitchen in the early morning hours of April 13 and was discovered by a hotel employee, Henry Mosley, who was awakened by dense smoke pouring into his room.

He investigated, which was a bad idea, and resulted in him receiving severe burns around his face and neck. Nevertheless, Mosley heroically sprinted through the halls, rousing the more than 20 other employees and guests, and warning them of the danger. His brave actions, no doubt, saved a lot of lives that night.

Another hero was a woman — probably a member of the visiting theater company — who had been asleep on the second floor. She escaped by climbing through a window and shimmying down a column on the front porch.

She then roused one of the boarders on the first floor by pounding on his window. He had a “narrow escape, as his room adjoined the room where the fire broke out.”

The 12-year-old daughter of Mrs. Bradburn, the owner and proprietess of the hotel, survived a more horrific ordeal than most. As she tried to make her way out of the burning building, through clouds of thick, clogging smoke, she tripped and fell down the stairs.

Behind her, others who were trying to escape, not knowing she had fallen and unable to see her, proceeded to trample her.

“She is now suffering from severe bruises, and also because of the smoke she inhaled,” The Oregonian reported.

But the saddest part of the story was the death of Erastus Rosencrantz, a 92-year-old man of failing health, who was lodging on the second floor. He was seen throwing clothes out the window, and then disappearing back into his room. It was thought that he intended to jump, but hesitated too long and was overcome by smoke. He was never seen again.

Rosencrantz was an early pioneer, born in Michigan, who had moved to the area in 1849. He was a rancher and was “known as a breeder of fine horses.” He was survived by eight children, 19 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.

That’s, uh, Not What We Meant by ‘Fire Water,’ Chief

In March 1936, scandal engulfed the fire department, when longtime Fire Chief Fred Larson was called to chambers by City Councilman Peter Hornig to answer complaints that he was “in the habit of being intoxicated from time to time.”

“Asked to speak for himself, Larson said he had never been drunk at any time when driving the hose truck, or any other time in recent years,” the Canby Herald reported. “He said he would not promise not to take a drink of liquor if he felt so disposed.”

In response, Councilman August Rothenberg, who was also the Canby chief of police, claimed he had “positive proof” that Larson was drunk the previous Sunday, and not fit to drive the hose truck if an alarm had been raised. 

Larson informed the council they were welcome to accept his resignation at any time, even that night, if they wished. But they declined, and he was put on probation.

The ‘Birther’ Movement is Way Older than You Thought

But he would last only another three weeks. That’s when Councilman Hornig, again, raised questions about Larson, this time that he was not fit by virtue of not being a U.S. citizen. When City Attorney C.N. Wait expressed the opinion that one needn’t be a citizen to hold an appointed office, Hornig produced an obscure section of the municipal code which said, well, exactly that.

“No person is eligible to hold office in the municipal corporation who, at the time of his election or appointment, is not entitled to the privileges of an elector [voter].”

Conceding that “the city charter is the foundation of all municipal government,” Larson resigned.

The Herald reported that Hornig’s smear campaign was part of an ongoing political feud rooted in the previous city caucus, in which he had failed to receive the nomination to seek another term. He had gotten himself on the ballot anyway, but lost in the subsequent election. Ousting Larson had been on of his final acts on the council.

Things worked out for him, though; he went on, I believe, to have a very successful political career in Washington, D.C.

Larson was replaced by Harry Porter, who, coincidentally, was also an immigrant, from Britain, and a wizard, and had a very peculiar, lightning-shaped scar on his forehead.

Liar, Liar, Pants on—No, Wait, That’s Just Too Easy

For our final story in this episode, we jump to 1954. On Oct. 11 of that year, three pumpers, a water tank truck and a salvage car from the Canby Fire Department rushed to the scene of an urgent alarm from the Meek Poultry Farm on Knights Bridge Road.

They arrived to find a boy, wet, muddy and with no pants on.

So… What happened was this boy, 11-year-old Ronnie Meek, had returned from a Boy Scout patrol to find nobody home. He set about doing his chores, one of which was to burn the household garbage. He did so, in the rubbish pile out back.

Unbeknownst to Ronnie, someone had dumped some gasoline in the trash, which isn’t a terribly smart thing to do in a household that burns its garbage. The gas leaked onto Ronnie’s pants, and when the garbage went up in flames, so did they.

Remembering his Boy Scout safety lessons, Ronnie promptly stopped, dropped and rolled—into a mud puddle that was conveniently nearby. He stripped off his pants and saw that he had suffered a slight burn on one leg, but was otherwise all right.

Until, that is, five fire trucks showed up in front of him. His grandmother, seeing the black smoke from the gasoline fire, had feared the worst and sent in the alarm.

“When the firemen arrived there was nothing for them to do,” the Herald reported, “and Ronnie quickly found himself another pair of trousers.”

We have many more colorful and thrilling stories to share with you from the history of the Canby Fire District, but it will have to wait till next time, on Canby Then.

Photo courtesy the Canby Fire District.

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