The Infamous Black Bird Southern Oregon History, Revised

Fire 1955

The burning of the Medford Furniture Store on the southwest corner of Bartlett and Sixth (a site now covered by a parking garage) on July 8, 1955 was Medford's best-documented fire, thanks to coverage by three newspapers and a fistful of snapshots. Right-click on the images to enlarge them.

I've placed the collection of snapshots in approximate order. The story starts off slow.

The photographer is standing on Bartlett Street, on the half-block now covered by the parking garage, facing west.

Standing on Sixth Street at Bartlett, facing west. The Chevy will soon be pushed out of the way--see below.

Taken from Sixth and Central, facing east. The street has been cleared in later photos.

Looking west up Middleford Alley from Bartlett.

Looking south up Bartlett toward Main Street.

A fire chief hauls a hose to the roof of the furniture store.

Another shot looking up Middleford Alley toward Central.

A long shot taken from near Fifth and Bartlett, looking south.

Taken from Central, looking east down Middleford Alley.

Sixth Street, looking west.

The crowd at Sixth and Bartlett.

Mopping up on Sixth Street. Looking east.

All Equipment Used to Fight 2-Hour Blaze
    Fire, which caused a loss tentatively estimated at $200,000, destroyed the second floor of the Medford Furniture Co. and caused extensive damage on the first floor late Friday afternoon. The store is located on the southwest corner of Sixth and Bartlett streets in downtown Medford.
    When power lines in the area were shut off as a protective measure, traffic signals stopped and the worst traffic jam in the history of Medford resulted.
    The alarm was turned in at 4:54 p.m., and Medford firemen battled the flames for two hours before they were quelled.
    Three pumpers and the aerial truck of the Medford department were used in fighting the fire, and the Central Point equipment was held on a standby basis.
    The entire second floor of the large furniture store was destroyed, and everything on the main floor was damaged either by smoke or water.
    Fire Marshal Truman Nelson this morning reported that the cause of the fire had not been determined.
    Robert Rector is owner of the Medford Furniture Co., one of the largest stores of its type in Southern Oregon.
    All regular firemen of the Medford department were used on the fire and were assisted by 35 volunteers. Two firemen were overcome by smoke, and Frank Lear, one of the volunteers, was hospitalized for three stitches in a cut hand.
    Every Medford policeman was called to the area to help handle the traffic jam, which resulted when the power in the area was shut off.
    Debris blowing from the burning building started a small fire at the nearby Montgomery Ward warehouse.
Ashland Daily Tidings, July 9, 1955, page 1

Second Floor of Building Gutted

    A spectacular fire gutted the second floor of the Medford Furniture Store building Friday evening, causing damage unofficially estimated at well in excess of $100,000.
    The blaze, which was reported at 4:34 p.m., caused one of the worst traffic snarls in Medford's history as rush-hour traffic was tied up.
All Firemen Out
Every available fireman was called out, and off-duty police officers were summoned to help control the traffic and the crowds of onlookers, totaling in the thousands.
    Two firemen were overcome by smoke early during the two-hour blaze. Both returned to the job as soon as they had recovered. A volunteer fireman, Frank Lear, was taken to a hospital to have stitches taken in a cut on his hand.
    Dense clouds of acrid black and yellow smoke billowed up from the fire, at the corner of Bartlett and Sixth sts., for almost two hours. It was visible for miles, and residents of the Old Military Rd. west of here said the rising flames could be seen from there.
Cause Undetermined
Fire Chief Gordon Barker said the cause of the fire is as yet undetermined pending further investigation.
    The blaze started in storage rooms on the second floor, in the corner away from the street. It gave the appearance of being fairly small at first, and firemen attempted to control it without damaging the furniture on the floor. However, Chief Barker said the flames got into the attic space under the ceiling, gaining good headway.
    The type of material afire, he said, included synthetic fibers, rubber and wool, which combined to create smoke an ordinary mask cannot handle. The oxygen in the room was almost completely gone, he said. It was then the firemen were overcome.
Flashed Across Room
    When windows were broken, admitting fresh air, the fire flashed across the room in seconds, cutting off several firemen briefly, and giving rise to rumors that one had been trapped. As it spread, firemen were unable to retrieve hoses stretched up to the second floor along the interior ramp, and Chief Barker said losses of hose, nozzles and other equipment would amount to $1,600 or more.
    When the firemen were driven from the second floor, they then concentrated on saving the downstairs portion of the building and nearby structures. No reports of any damage elsewhere had been made Saturday, although burning embers were driven over a wide area by a fresh breeze, some of them as far away as Montgomery Ward and Company.   
    Businessmen in the block, including John Moffat, principal owner and manager of Mann's Department Store, spent the two hours of the fire on the roofs of their establishments, stamping out sparks and wetting them down with garden hoses.
12 Streams of Water
    At the height of the fire, as many as 12 separate streams of high-pressure water were counted pouring into the building, creating a tremendous weight of water on the second floor, which "almost miraculously" held up. The street was gutter-high in water at one time.
    Damage to the downstairs portion was confined to water and smoke damage, except in one small area where mattresses were burned. Much of the furniture was moved before the fire gained headway. The Wakefield Drapery Shop, on the second floor, was a total loss. Younger Appliance Company next door sustained some smoke and water damage, but was untouched by flames. Newberry's was protected by a firewall, and no damage there was reported.
    Most of the clerks in the stores of the block were evacuated because of the smoke which swirled around the area.
    Two or more airlines planes circled the business district several times during the blaze, apparently to allow their passengers to get a "bird's eye view" of the fire.
    The worst of the blaze was out by 7 p.m., leaving scattered small flames and embers to be mopped up during the night by firemen. On-duty men stayed throughout the night, while off-duty men were sent back to get some sleep. Theirs was the job Saturday of cleaning up equipment, drying hoses and completing inventories.
    Thirteen on-duty firemen, 19 off-duty men, 11 volunteers and the fire chief and fire marshal were at the blaze. A number of non-firemen assisted in hauling hoses and other tasks. Three or four men from the water department and several from other city departments also assisted, Chief Barker said.
Central Point Stands By
    As most of the Medford equipment was in service, a call to Central Point brought equipment from there which stood by at the main fire station. In addition, hose was loaned by the Central Point department.
    California Oregon Power Company men arrived shortly after firemen to cut off power from live wires which dropped from the building.
    As the fire came under control, firemen were served with coffee through the cooperation of downtown business people, including Snider's Dairy across the street.
    Traffic, heavy at that hour, was snarled as fire equipment came to the scene, and was tied up further as traffic lights went off temporarily as switches were cut. All available policemen, deputy sheriffs and some state officers cooperated in setting up traffic bypasses which got the flow going again.
    Manager and part owner of the store is Robert Rector, 200 Valley View Dr. The firm is one of the largest of Medford's retail establishments.
    It was understood Saturday that plans are being made to rebuild the 33-year-old building, which is owned by William Hansen.
Medford Mail Tribune, July 10, 1955, page 1

From the Rogue River Times.

Fire Cause Probe Continuing, Fire Chief Barker Says
    An investigation of the possible causes of Friday's fire which gutted the upper floor of the Medford Furniture Store is continuing, Fire Chief Gordon Barker said this morning.
    The investigation is being conducted by city and state police, including members of the state arson squad, and the fire department.
    Barker said that four firemen have been assigned to limited duty for several days, to permit them to recover from effects of inhaling smoke during the fire.
    No official estimate of the amount of damage has been given, but original estimates of "more than $100,000" are believed to be low.
Transient Held
Gene Wallace Lauderdale, 29, a transient who has been staying at the Lake Hotel, Medford, was arrested at 11:15 p.m. Saturday on a charge of being drunk in public. He was employed by the Medford Furniture Store two days before the fire.
    He was seen helping firemen and store employees during the early stage of the fire, but concern for his safety was expressed later when he was missed. Police finally located him in a tavern Saturday evening.
    He appeared in municipal court this morning, entered a plea of guilty to the charge, and was sentenced to 30 days in jail. He may be released after being questioned by fire investigators, police said.
Medford Mail Tribune, July 11, 1955, page 1

Rebuilding of Store Planned; Fire Probed
    Plans for rebuilding the Medford Furniture Store building, which was partially destroyed in a fire last Friday afternoon, are being worked out and will be announced in detail soon, it was reported today.
    Meanwhile, investigation of the causes of the blaze was continuing this morning, with city and state police and firemen cooperating. They were on the scene of the fire this morning, discussing various phases of the blaze with store officials and insurance men.
To Question Man
Later in the day they planned to question Gene Wallace Lauderdale, 29, who was arrested Saturday night and jailed on a drunk charge. He had been sent to the store a couple of days before the fire by the employment office here as as temporary warehouse helper.
    Lauderdale was seen during the early phase of the fire but later was missed, and was the object of a police search Friday night and Saturday. Officers this morning expressed doubt that he would be of any assistance in determining the cause of the fire.
    Will Hansen, owner of the building, said today it is still too early to determine whether or not the unburned portion of the structure, built in 1922, can be used in reconstruction plans. But he said the building will definitely be replaced.
Built in 1922
    The building was built by his father, J. P. Hansen, who came here in 1887 and was one of the first orchard operators in the valley. Hansen himself arrived in 1888. The store was operated as the Medford Furniture and Hardware (MF&H) under various ownerships until about 1943 when it was sold to Lou Doolen and later to John Cupp, who eliminated the hardware phase of the business. Joe Neil later bought the store; later selling to Bob Rector and Jack Crawford, the present owners.
    The Wakefield Drapery Shop, which was located on the burned-out second floor of the building, was destroyed, with considerable loss. Wayne Wakefield, however, has indicated he plans to move into other quarters as soon as possible and resume his business.
    Mel Younger, of the Younger Appliance Company, located adjacent to the burned building, said his firm suffered some smoke and water damage, and that the roof is in bad shape. The store is closed for a few days until things can be straightened out and cleaned.
Medford Mail Tribune, July 12, 1955, page 1

Officials Set Fire Damage at $175,000;
Cause Said Accidental; Two Men Released
    Two men were released by city police yesterday afternoon after giving statements that a fire which caused more than $175,000 damage to Medford Furniture Store last Friday was caused accidentally.
    Melvin Glenn Wier, Phoenix, and Gene Wallace Lauderdale, 29, a transient, both of whom were employed by the store, gave statements before city fire department officials, representatives of state police arson squad, state fire marshal deputies and city police.
    The fire gutted the second floor of the building at the corner of Bartlett and Sixth sts., and the approximately loss on the building and two businesses in the building will total $175,000.
    Wier in his statement said he and Lauderdale were looking for a specific color of mattress in a dimly lighted storage room in the southwest corner. He accidentally dropped a lighted match, igniting paper mattress coverings, he said.
    The fire spread rapidly over highly combustible material stored on the floor.
    Both men were released by police. No charges were filed.
    Lauderdale was arrested by city police Saturday  night in a Front St. tavern for being drunk in a public place. He was sentenced to 30 days in city jail, pending possible release after questioning in connection with the fire.
    Wier is a truck driver for Medford Furniture Store, and Lauderdale was a temporary employee who was set there by the employment service two days prior to the fire. Police said Lauderdale was living at Lake Hotel on Main St. when he was arrested.
    Wier said he has been "worried sick" about the fire since Friday, according to police.
Medford Mail Tribune, July 14, 1955, page 1

Last revised October 10, 2010