Big Fire at Dayton in 1890

burning building


The City Hotel, Owned by James Timmons, Goes Up in Smoke

W. B. Soule, Vice President of the Brick Works, Narrowly Escapes Death – The Loss Estimated at $2,000 – Insurance, $1,000.

Shortly after 12 a. m. Friday morn the people of the little town of Dayton were aroused from their slumbers by the cry of fire, and in a few moments the demon presented itself in its greatest form. The city hotel, the largest building in the town, was the scene of the conflagration, and the flames had gained such headway before being notices that it was utterly impossible to subdue them in any way, and in a few moments the building was a mass of ruins. There is no fire department in the town, but the people turned out en masse, and with buckets and tin pans fought the flames as best they could while the furniture was being removed.

Their battle against the flames and smoke was for a few minutes only, and they were compelled to give up and stand by while the building, furniture and all sunk before their gaze. The fire was first noticed by the engineer at the mill, and it was his cries that awakened the inmates of the house. The fire originated in the kitchen, located in the east end of the house and only a few feet from the C., B. & Q. R. R. track. The origin of the fire is unknown, but it is generally supposed that it caught from the sparks of a passing engine. This is merely a supposition. There was no fire in either of the cook stoves in the kitchen, but it might be that the fire was the work of an incendiary, although Mr. Timmons, who was the landlord of the house, says that he does not think that he has an enemy in the town.

There were ten boarders at the house, and of this number all escaped without any injuries except W. B. Soule, the vice president of the Fox River Brick Company. He is a man about 75 years of age, and did not know of the fire until the flames entered the room that he occupied. When he awoke his room was filled with smoke, and had it not been for the assistance of two of the other boarders he would have been burned to death. As it was he narrowly escaped suffocation and is now lying in a very critical condition.

The house was a two story brick building and was well furnished. In the cellar were stowed away sufficient supplies to run the house for the winter. These, together with nearly all the furniture, were destroyed. In fact there was only very little saved, and the damage is estimated at $3,500. The building was insured for $1,000 by MacKinlay & Warner, of this city, leaving a loss of about $2,000.

The hotel was an old landmark in the town, and was a pleasant resort to the hundreds of fishermen, from this and other cities, who visited Dayton during the summer months. Mr. Timmons was interviewed by a representative of this paper, this morning, and as yet he is undetermined whether to re-build.1

  1. Ottawa [Illinois] Republican-Times, November 28, 1890, p. 2, col. 3


Almost a Tornado

TwisterRural Happenings

Dayton, June 19, 1879. – Our town and the surrounding country was visited last Saturday by a terrible strong wind and rain storm, almost a tornado. Old residents say it was the hardest storm that has visited our place for many years. Trees by the score were blown down, fences demolished, and a general confusion ensued, The new residence of Mr. Welke, almost completed, was moved six or eight feet off the foundation. Mr. W. happened to be on top of the building at the beginning of the storm, and judging his position to be too perilous, got inside when without a word of warning his building commenced sailing off. It is needless to state that our teutonic friend was somewhat frightened. About one half of our centennial flag pole was broken off and blown down into the street. Three or four large cherry trees and as many apple trees, on the Stadden property, were broken down. But the most destructive feat of the storm was the almost entire destruction of a crab apple grove on Mr. Jos. Barnes’ place southwest of town on the lane leading to Ottawa. Here large trees were broken and hurled with great force across the pasture, over the fence to the other side of the road. Mr. Barnes had a great deal of fence blown down and eight or ten nice large trees on his place broken off. Mr. Eisenhuth’s barn south of town was completely demolished, not a stick left standing. Nearly all of the roof of Mr. Stadden’s barn east of town was blown off. In fact from all accounts our place seems to have been in the centre of the tornado.1

  1. Free Trader, June 21, 1879, p. 8, cols. 1-2

Graphic By:Cartoon tornado from

Who is This Man and Why is He Here?

Gerret Harms tombstone before restoration

There is a tombstone in the Dayton cemetery for Gerret J. Harms. There are no other Harms burials. He does not appear to be related to anyone else buried in the cemetery. There is no obituary for him in the Ottawa paper. Where did he come from, and how did he come to be buried in Dayton?

There were no Harms families in La Salle county, but Gerret did have family here – his wife’s family. Gerret was born in Hanover about 1839/40. He came to the United States around 1861, and went to Boston, where he met and married Marina Barends on August 22, 1863. Marina came from a Dutch family, many of whom anglicized their name to Barnes. They had two children, Hannah, born in 1865, and Gerret, born in 1868.

Whether Gerret was a farmer in Germany or not, he appears to have wanted to go into farming. Marina had four brothers who had gone west and settled in La Salle county, Illinois, in Dayton and Rutland townships. Apparently their reports were favorable, because in 1870 Gerret and Marina were living west of the city of Ottawa where Gerret did not own land, but was employed in farming.

They had another child, Frederick, born in 1873 in Ottawa, but then, on July 14, 1873, Gerret died. Although he lived some distance from Dayton, two of Marina’s brothers lived in Dayton township and they must have arranged for Gerret to be buried in the village cemetery. By 1880, Marina and the children had returned to Boston, where much of her family had settled. She never remarried but lived in Boston until her death, November 2, 1893.

While they were living in Illinois, apparently daughter Hannah made a deep, if youthful, impression on her cousin Peter Barnes, son of Marina’s brother Nicholas, as Peter came to Boston and married Hannah on March 2, 1893.

Gerret Harms, tombstone

The pieces of his tombstone have now been reassembled and stand upright. Some of the pieces of his story have now been reassembled as well.

There’s WHAT? in Them Thar Hills


New businesses are not always welcome, especially when uninvited. Some time around 1950, without the knowledge of the owners, a still was being operated on the Green farm, in one of the ravines north of the barn. For several weeks there had been rumors of a still in operation somewhere in Dayton. Then Dom DiBernardi, who kept the store in Dayton, told Charles Clifford, operator of the Green farm, that three boys had seen the still. Clifford investigated and, upon finding the still, contacted Harland Warren, La Salle County State’s Attorney. Warren, in turn, contacted the Internal Revenue Service. An agent for the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Division was sent out immediately and was shown to the scene. He commented that apparently someone had returned to the still the previous night and attempted to burn part of the barrels and remove several pieces of pipe. He described the still as “peculiar” and seemed to think the operators were on the amateur level. The still had been chopped to pieces, and no further investigation was planned. Mrs. Ruth Green, owner of the farm, was subjected to considerable teasing in the days that followed.