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The Rhinelander Christmas fire of 1968

It was a Friday evening, Dec. 20, during the peak of the Christmas shopping season of 1968. Downtown Rhinelander window fronts were decked for the season, gleaming with prospective presents for Christmas morning. Real pine boughs, lights and yuletide decorations were stretched across Brown Street. The air was glistening with frost, showcasing America’s holiday charm in the way only a small town can.

Not long after businesses closed that evening at 9 p.m., two Rhinelander high school students, Dave Timm and Scott Brown, were taking a late evening stroll down Anderson Street when they noticed the smell of fire. Thick smoke billowed from the rear of the Gamble Store located at 34 South Brown Street (the space now occupied by Hometown Pharmacy).

The young men flagged down a police officer and ran to the Rives Street Fire Station just a few blocks away to sound the alarm. At approximately 10:05 p.m., the department alarm rang out as Rhinelander firefighters, 19 on duty including Chief Don Manning, rushed to the scene. When the firemen approached, smoke was pouring out the Gamble Store from all directions.

The firemen had difficulty fighting the fire due to the thick smoke and intense heat as the Gamble Store fire blazed on. Gallons of paint thinner and other supplies contributed to the immense fire. The frame buildings in this block of Brown Street, many built before the turn of the century, all had interconnected attics and no fire walls. This allowed the fire to devour building after building as it moved north along the block toward the corner of Brown and Davenport streets.

Hoses were strewn across the street from every hydrant available. Firefighters and business owners rushed into adjacent buildings still untouched by the fire in order to save as much property as possible. As the fire blazed through the buildings, an explosion at McIsaac’s Book and Gift Shop caused twenty-one-year-old Jim Huber to fall from a ladder and break his collar bone. By this time, more firemen from the surrounding departments of Pelican, Sugar Camp and others were on scene. The Merrill Fire Department was dispatched and arrived in record time. Over 100 firefighters would help to quell the inferno that night.

Word spread even faster than the flames and before long hundreds of Rhinelander citizens showed up to watch in devastation as their beloved downtown was torn asunder by the fire. The orange glow could be seen for miles around. At times the flames produced firestorm-like qualities and it felt to the onlookers that the whole of downtown might turn to ash. Business owners and residents up and down the block began removing items from their stores and apartments, just in case.

As thousands of gallons of water were poured onto the fire, the remains of the buildings began to develop layers of ice. Thanks in large part to the firewall of the Hildebrand furniture store, just south of the Gamble Store, it was spared by the blaze, but suffered heavy smoke damage. The fire was brought under control at about 2 a.m.

Many families had Christmas gifts on lay-a-way at the stores that succumbed to the fire, making for a sad year in many households. When the smoke cleared and the tears began to dry, many popular businesses had been destroyed including the Gamble Store, Hodag Pharmacy, Leo’s Lair, Leuthold Bahr clothing store, Happiness Card and Party Shop, and McIsaac’s Book and Gift Shop. Other businesses or organizations that burned were the Wisconsin State Employment Service district offices, several apartments, and C.M. Serafini Tailors.

In the days after, a blanket of snow would cover the skeletal remains of the buildings that once housed beloved downtown stores. Brief worry about Rhinelander’s downtown not being able to recover was quickly expelled as construction began on new buildings in the spring. Many of the businesses vowed to return to Brown Street. By 1971, the hole in Rhinelander’s downtown was once again filled with businesses.

The blaze caused an estimated $1 million in damage. The official record does not list a cause of the fire and it’s likely we will never know how it began. But we do know that the Dec. 20, 1968 downtown fire has gone down in the history books as one of the worst fires ever suffered in Rhinelander.

Source: Rhinelander Daily News 1968, firsthand accounts.

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Kerry Bloedorn joined WXPR in 2022 as the host of A Northwoods Moment in History. A local historian, Director of Pioneer Park Historical Complex for the City of Rhinelander and writer for The New North Magazine, he loves digging into the past and sharing his passion for history with the Northwoods community.
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