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150 years of fighting fires

Photo by Fritz Busch New Ulm Fire Chief Paul Macho views a photo taken by The Journal’s Renee Dietrich, of the April 22, 1997, New Ulm Sewing Center fire that included the successful rescue of Brett Grams from a burning downtown apartment. Fireman in the window with blue helmet is Kevin Finstad. The fireman on the ladder with red helmet is Macho and Dave Christian is the fireman carrying Grams.

Established in 1870, the New Ulm Fire Department (NUFD) celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2020.

Since the health and safety of its guests, volunteers, and community is the department’s top priority, celebration events have been postponed to 2021. A 5k walk/run is scheduled for Saturday, June 5. The fire department dance and parade are scheduled for Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 18-19.

The Brown County Museum has an NUFD 150th anniversary exhibit with photos and artifacts but the museum is not open to the public at this time. The exhibit will remain in the museum for public viewing when it opens.

New Ulm organized its first fire brigade on April 30, 1859. It relied on buckets passed from person to person in line, called “the bucket brigade.” They also used large hooks on long poles or ropes that were used to pull down burning roofs and walls.

The bridge soon got a homemade, wooden hand pump to spray water, and later a cast iron pump.

the New Ulm Fire Department members pulled an 1870 hand pumper in a parade.

On January 24, 1936, four downtown buildings were destroyed by fire in below zero weather: State Bank, Muesing Drug, the Bee Hive and the Dr. H. O.Schleuder Jewelry Store and optometry department.

Turner Hall suffered its third fire on Jan. 8, 1952 not long after U.S. Senator Hubert Humphrey spoke there. The fire began in the theater side of the building and quickly spread. A new full court gym and dining were built in 1954.

Retired New Ulm Fire Chief Jerome “Jerry” Plagge served on the department from 1970 to 1992, from 1985 to 1992 as fire chief while working as a mailman and at the New Ulm Post Office.

After retiring as fire chief and serving on the state fire chief’s board, Plagge earned a fire science degree attending college at Mankato State University and the University of Cincinnati.

“They called me ‘pops’ in college,” Jerry said. “It was a lot easier for me going to college in my late 40s. Professors knew I was there to learn.”

Turner Hall was damaged by fire in 1951, just hours after Sen. Hubert Humphrey had spoken in the auditorium.

Jerry was New Ulm’s first part-time fire inspector while going to college. With a degree in fire science, Plagge worked for the State Fire Marshall’s Office for 17 years. He inspected hotels, motels, daycare and foster care facilities in southwest Minnesota.

“I grew up in Goose town, living across the street from New Ulm Fire Captain Jim Puhlmann,” Plagge said. “He got me to join the fire department.”

He recalled the rye mill fire near the Goose town railroad tracks in 1985.

“We just finished a fire drill and a bar had just opened near the railroad depot,” Plagge said. “As we came out, we could see orange windows at the top. It was a big fire. We were there all night.”

Jerry said there were lots of farm fires in the 1970s, especially in the winter and early spring.

In the top photo, the Bohemian Bed & Breakfast fire of July 2, 2011, was one of New Ulm’s deadliest. Six people perished in the blaze.

Prior to 1997, the fire station was located at New Ulm City Hall on North Broadway.

The fire department established an additional fire station in 1890, Engine House No. 3, commonly known as Goose-town Fire Station. A Goosetown fire station was completed in 1990 at 18 Valley St. S. The station houses two pumpers and a 47-foot drill tower.

The main fire station, known as Engine House No.1, was built in 1996 at 526 8th Street N. The station houses rescue and ladder trucks, city and rural pumpers, tanker, grass rig and rescue boat.

New Ulm Fire Chief Paul Macho recalled some of the more memorable fires he’s battled in his 35 years on duty.

The Associated Milk Producers Inc. (AMPI) fire in December 2004 in the world’s largest butter plant that held three million pounds of it, stands out. A story about the fire appeared in “Firehouse,” a national fire chief’s magazine.

The photo at left shows the Eagle Roller Mill fire.

“There was butter everywhere including all over our equipment,” Macho said. “We couldn’t clean all our turnout gear. We had to replace all our coats and pants and 5,500 feet of fire hose, about 80% of all the hose we had. It was the biggest fire mess I ever saw. When all that butter congealed, it filled the sewers.”

As spectators and vehicles in the middle of the night came to watch, police had to cordon

off a one-block radius around the butter plant with yellow police tape.

When the temperature dropped below freezing, city trucks were called to the scene to deal with ice created by running water from fire hoses.

Aerial ladder trucks from New Ulm and Sleepy Eye poured water into the plant. A truck from Mankato brought extra air tanks for firefighters.

Macho said The Bohemian bed and breakfast fire that took six lives and a huge residence on German St. S. on July 2, 2011 “took quite a toll on everybody.”

“It was an extremely tough fire. Everything in the large, old house was open,” Macho said.

A huge, wrap-around porch and the rest of the front of the residence was completely engulfed in flames by the time firefighters arrived but several people were pulled from the smoke-filled second floor using ladders.

Firefighters tried to enter the back and side of the house but it was too hot. The heat was felt inside a next-door apartment complex.

Thirty-three volunteer firefighters fought the blaze for about two and one-half hours before it was under control.

With 39 active members, the NUFD responds to New Ulm and surrounding communities to an average of 122 calls a year. In addition to fire calls, volunteer services are given to community activities such as Fire Prevention Education in schools and businesses, Brown County Fair events, hill climbs, vehicle fair, controlled burns, an open house, pizza night, smoke trailer presentations and mutual aid to other communities.

Merchandise commemorating the NUFD 150th anniversary are available for purchase. Visit the fire department Facebook page or call 359-8225 for more information.

A number of vintage fire department photos can be found at newulmartcollection.org.

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