Thursday, October 1, 2009

This Month in Rochester History

This month we look back at a catastrophic fire on Main Street and a Rochester tradition that was born from it. On October 20, 1926, the newly-built Phillips & Jerome Ford showroom and service garage at 215 S. Main Street caught fire. An acetylene torch being used at the back of the garage ignited gasoline in a tractor tank and the resulting fire spread quickly, feeding on the various combustibles normally found in garages. An alarm was turned in, but the village fire siren failed to sound, and the members of the volunteer fire department responded only as word of mouth alerted them to the situation. The Pontiac Fire Department was also called to assist, but by the time firefighting resources could be assembled at the scene, there was little to do but contain the blaze and prevent it from spreading to neighboring buildings. Employees of the dealership saved a few automobiles by pushing them out to the street through the showroom windows, but in the end, the building and most of its contents were a total loss.

Local legend has it that the fire siren failed to sound because a bird had built a nest in it. A week after the Phillips & Jerome fire, the Rochester Village Council ordered that the fire siren be sounded weekly at noon to insure that it was in working order. That order was soon amended to make the siren test a daily event at noon, and that tradition has continued for the past eighty-three years, and counting.

Phillips & Jerome rebuilt their showroom and garage at the same location, and occupied the building at 215 S. Main until the mid-1960s. The fire department has installed more sophisticated communication equipment as the years have passed, but we still hear the noon whistle every weekday to remind us of that long-ago fire.

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