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Brainerd Fire Department marks 150th anniversary

The Brainerd Fire Department observes its sesquicentennial this year and battled many of the blazes that ravaged and in some cases burned to the ground the historic businesses of downtown Brainerd, such as the early hotels and saloons that helped establish the city.

A statue of a firefighter stands in front of the main station of the Brainerd Fire Department.
A statue of a firefighter stands in front of the main station of the Brainerd Fire Department on Laurel Street on Friday, Oct. 21, 2022, while a nearby bench states when the department was established.
Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch
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BRAINERD — The Brainerd Fire Department turns 150 years old this year. And if it were to have a birthday cake with lit candles, area residents could count on it to put the flames out.

The department was organized in 1872. Last year, the city celebrated its sesquicentennial, so the department’s creation soon followed the city’s founding.

To help it put out fires, the Brainerd City Council ordered four public wells be built following the year the Brainerd Fire Department was created, but the construction of the wells failed to save the city's electric light plant, which was destroyed by fire on April 23, 1910.

“Nearly all of the buildings of any historical importance to the city of Brainerd have been burned or demolished,” Ann M. Nelson, a local historian, wrote for the Crow Wing County Historical Society. “These buildings include places of business as well as places of residence.”

People walk outside the Villard Hotel in early Brainerd.
People walk outside the Villard Hotel on the corner of Sixth and Washington streets in Brainerd. The building appeared to be a model of city building character before it was destroyed by fire.
Courtesy / Crow Wing County Historical Society
Villard Hotel fire
The Villard Hotel was located at the northwest corner of Sixth and Washington in Brainerd, but it burned to the ground on May 4, 1887.
Contributed / Crow Wing County Historical Society

Today, two battalion chiefs and five captains are amongst the ranks of 38 firefighters serving the Brainerd Fire Department, according to the city’s website, and firefighters respond to an average of 500 calls per year and serve 35,000 residents in a coverage area of nearly 300 square miles.

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Because of the department’s sesquicentennial, Fire Chief Tim Holmes said an effort is underway to identify the fire chiefs and firefighters that were part of the department’s 150-year history.

Firefighters stand outside an early firehouse in Brainerd.
An early Brainerd Fire Department station. Frank Brandt, left, and Peter Peterson are standing in front.
Courtesy / Crow Wing County Historical Society

“We want to always try to just maintain that history and that tradition of the department, and we just felt like this was a great time to be able to really focus on documenting those names and that information, so we don't lose that,” said Holmes, who has been fire chief for seven years.

One of the earliest fires on record in the city’s history was on Oct. 31, 1871, at the Northwestern Hotel. Three men built a large fire in the office stove, and the pipe became red-hot, setting fire to the room above. The fire destroyed a total of two hotels, two saloons and a store in the vicinity.

MORE ABOUT BRAINERD HISTORY BY FRANK LEE:
Brainerd High School volunteer archivist/curator John Erickson puts together an exhibit at the school to commemorate its sesquicentennial anniversary.
A marker was erected in September 2022 with information about the Headquarters Hotel, the Arlington Hotel and the second Northern Pacific Railway depot after the original was struck by a snowplow.
The Brainerd park off South Seventh Street is a little-known snow-sledding paradise. The 2-acre park was named after Brainerd real estate agent Vern Hitch and Wayne Rosvold, a 5-year-old boy.

The Brainerd Fire Department of today provides service to the residents of Brainerd and Baxter, and the residents of six townships: Crow Wing, Long Lake, Oak Lawn, Nokay Lake, St. Mathias and Unorganized/First Assessment.

But the early fires of Brainerd took a heavy toll according to local historians. Following the blaze of 1871, seven buildings — two hotels, four stores and a saloon — in Brainerd burned and resulted in $11,000 in losses, according to the March 9, 1872, edition of the Brainerd Tribune.

Pedestrians watch from the street as water is sprayed on a burning building as smoke billows high in the sky.
Pedestrians watch as water is sprayed on the fire in the M.K. Swartz Drugs building in Brainerd on Oct. 28, 1909. The store was on the corner of Sixth and Laurel streets.
Contributed

“This is the third terrible fire that has occurred in the same block within the past three months. The fire originated in the Bishop House, a large two-and-a-half-story building, and was first discovered about 4 o’clock and not until the whole upper portion of the building was in flames,” according to the publication.

Nelson wrote, “A number (of early fires) were caused by exploding oil or kerosene lamps, faulty chimneys or faulty stoves, and some were incendiary.”

But it would not be the last time in the city’s early history the nascent fire department was challenged. Holmes said, however, advancements in equipment and technology in the passing years since the creation of the fire department have only helped the department.

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Brainerd Fire Chief Tim Holmes
Brainerd Fire Chief Tim Holmes addresses a meeting of the Fire Advisory Board in years past.
Zach Kayser / Brainerd Dispatch

“We go from carrying water in buckets or by a horse or by a horse and buggy to now having million-dollar-plus apparatus,” Holmes said. “We're using computers and technology to aid us in responding to fires … using science and data-driven evidence on how we put fires out.”

The main fire station is located today on the northwest corner of Laurel Street and East River Road across from the Brainerd Police Station, and there is another station in Mill Park in northeast Brainerd. But early accounts of the fire department are lost to time.

“There is no accurate information of the first fire department in this city. Regretfully, that information was lost, destroyed in 1900 when fire swept through the room in which the records were kept,” according to the Crow Wing County Historical Society website.

There were three hose houses in the city in its early history, and if a central alarm was given, it often became a competition and source of pride as to which of them could reach the fire first.

“So winded did the men get in pulling apparatus through sandy streets before the entry of the horse that their energies were partly spent in arriving at the scene of the fire,” according to the society.

Times and equipment have changed, but what draws firefighters to protect the community has likely remained much the same whether they ran through sandy streets or now command state-of-the-art equipment.

“The reason people are part of the department is to give back to the community, to be part of something that's important to the community, and then just be that organization that I think everyone can count on to be there in their time of need,” Holmes said.

FRANK LEE may be reached at 218-855-5863 or at frank.lee@brainerddispatch.com . Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchFL .

I cover arts and entertainment, and write feature stories, for the Brainerd Dispatch newspaper. As a professional journalist with years of experience, I have won awards for my fact-based reporting. And my articles have also appeared in other publications, including USA Today. 📰
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