The day probably started out normally for most of the people in Corning. Nestled into the rolling hills of Adams County in southwest Iowa, they went about their lives as they normally would on that early October day in 1896. In addition to their everyday chores and tasks, many would have probably already been working toward preparing for the upcoming winter months in the chill Autumn air.
Most everything they needed in the way of shopping could be found right along what is now Corning’s Davis Avenue, their main street that sloped gradually northward toward the Adams County Courthouse at the crest of the hill. Toward the base were the Reynold’s grain elevators and the railroad line that passed through town.
In the late 1800’s, farm families in Iowa didn’t leave the farm very often, perhaps going to town once a week or better. Largely self-sustaining, they didn’t require a lot of outside services. However, when they did go, it was usually a real treat for them. More likely than not, there were probably a few farm families stepping into Corning that day, as well.
Some folks went into the National Bank of Corning, depositing or transferring funds. Others might have stopped into the S.G. Johnson and J.B. Wilson implement dealers, looking to purchase new farm equipment. There were some who no doubt dropped into McKinley’s Barber Shop, looking to get a haircut.
Along one side was the Park Hotel, where railroad men and other travelers could bed down for a night or two while passing through Corning. The local newspaper, the Adams County Union, held its offices along the main street, as well.
And of course, there was a hardware store, a grocer, city hall, and the library. This was the main street, the very heart of the town. After business was over later that evening, the various shops and businesses had taken care of their closing tasks, locked the doors, and went home for the night.
While most everyone was asleep in their beds around Corning, a tiny tendril of smoke must have started in or around the Reynold’s grain elevator. Small at first, the smoke began to grow thicker and darker as the fire producing it grew, probably aided in part by a strong wind from the south.
At about 2:30 am, someone noticed. An alarm was immediately given – a call for the brave fireman of Corning to set out and do their work. Along with them, several regular citizens went down to fight the fire, as well.
When they arrived, the fire was already on the verge of spreading out of control. The elevator itself was completely engulfed in flames, and three railroad cars had caught fire already. While they were unlikely to save the already burning structures, the citizens could try and stop the fire from spreading.
Unfortunately for them, the boiler, an integral part of the town waterworks, was broken. It was in the process of being repaired, but they weren’t expecting the repairman to arrive until the following Thursday. As a result, there was absolutely no water from the town tank to fight the fire with.
Regardless, the citizens and the fireman did the best they could with what they had. They had an old fire engine they used, the kind that required a man to pump the tank by hand to pressurize it and send water out the hose nozzle. With this and by any other means they had, they successfully stopped the roaring flames from spreading any further.
As the flames died down to embers, someone noticed something. Somewhere, amongst the burned-out wreckage of the elevator and railroad cars, there looked like – maybe – it was! In amongst the ruins were the remains of a man! What had happened? All the citizens that had come to fight the fire were okay, if not a little wearier from being deprived of sleep and the physical labor of fighting the fire. So, if it wasn’t one of them, then who was it?
The remains were charred, leaving no clue as to whom it might have been. What the people present there concluded was that the man, whoever he had been, had sought shelter against coming darkness and dropping temperatures, fallen asleep, and then succumbed to the copious amounts of smoke and gases coming from the fire.
By 4 a.m., the fire was in hand. The danger had passed, and everything was safe again. No doubt exhausted by that point, many of those who had helped fight the fire went home to find their beds.
As they walked home, some of them passed near the hardware store. To their dismay, they realized that the building was on fire! The strong wind must have blown some embers from the grain elevator north into the main street somewhere! Quick as they could, they ran and sounded a second alarm.
This time, almost the entire town of Corning responded to the fire call. They ran quickly to the main street where Heymer Hardware was located, but it was already too late. The fire was an inferno that consumed everything that it could. It was almost a force of nature, beautiful and powerful in its fury and intensity.
Fighting the blaze was going to be near impossible, and the town knew it. It spread so fast and was so intense that, even if their boiler had been working, it would have probably been a lost cause. So, the citizens did what they could, which was mostly run and salvage whatever they could find. At Johnston’s implement dealer, several pieces of equipment, as well as carriages and horse buggies were removed as they saw the fire advancing rapidly northward, and so were saved.
Hardware stores, meat markets, harness shops, barber shops, and jewelry stores were all consumed by the fire. In close to just two hours, the fire had spread and consumed buildings the length of the entire business district of the main street.
By this time, fire departments in neighboring towns had been alerted to what was happening in Corning. Villisca, Clarinda, and Creston sent their respective fire departments over to fight the blaze. The railroad, also wanting to do their part, generously transported the men along their rail lines to the burning town, as train travel was by the far the quickest way to travel at that time.
This fire, however, would not be daunted. It would consume its fill before it was done, leaving Davis Avenue little more than a shell of its former glory.
When dawn broke, it was on a town laid low. The skies that early Saturday morning were gray and dismal. The incredible heat had shattered windows and buckled walls. The streets were covered in debris, ash, and broken glass. Across it all, an uncaring rain fell on the smoking remains.
Wooden frame buildings had been almost completely consumed, leaving nothing behind but smoke and ashes. The Park Hotel, which had stood proud and strong just the day before, was gone, only the smoking basement walls remaining. Other buildings had only a few walls left standing, the rest blackened and broken.
At the bank, people gathered what bank books and ledgers they could find that hadn’t been consumed in the fire and carried them away in whatever containers they had. Another group of men worked at forcing their way into the bank vault to check on the contents, while several people eagerly looked on.
The worst of the rubble was blocked off and watched over by local guardsmen. Unless you had business in the ruins, you weren’t allowed in. While the fire had consumed much, there was still some things that were worth taking.
What exactly caused the fire was never satisfactorily discovered. It could have been all manner of things, but, when people don’t know what happened, there is always someone among them who chose to make up an answer.
The guardsman had chased away a few railroad tramps that had been loitering around town after the fire. One theory was that one of these men, or someone like them, had set the fire to conceal the identity of the man they had found at the grain elevator after murdering him. But, the car in which he had been found was the last thing to catch fire. A hole in the corpse’s side, thought by some to be the wound that killed him, turned out to have been made by the hook the fireman had used to pull the body out of the rubble.
There were other rumors, but they amounted to nothing. The official cause was unknown, and the identity of the burned corpse was never found.
Corning had worked hard to build their first main street, and they would work even harder to rebuild it. A year later, it had been completely redone, barring a few exceptions, such as the Park Hotel. Almost all traces of the fire had disappeared, and the main street was stronger than ever.
Corning continued to weather many storms and obstacles, but they always invested in their main street. Their diligence was rewarded in 1998, when they were awarded that year’s Great American Main Street Award. Today, over a hundred and twenty years later, the main street in Corning is still alive and thriving, a true testament to the tenacity and spirit of the citizens who have built and maintained it.
“Risen From the Ashes.” Adams County Free Press. October 14, 1897
Schweider, Dorothy. “Iowa: The Middle Land.” Iowa State University Press. Ames. 1996.