SLIGHTLY OFF THE MARK
Late last year I restarted work on a history of the Albion Fire Department. History doesn’t have to be dull (honest, it doesn’t) so in working on the second draft I tried to inject a bit of lightness and humor. Whether that will still seem like good idea when I start on the third draft remains to be seen.
One thing I took seriously was my search for Albion’s first fire chief. Not figuratively – the advent of the internet made getting the facts a lot easier – but literally. Where was he buried? Surely a man of such importance to early Albion would be laid to rest here?
Well, maybe not – like many people back then, he wasn’t born locally.
Between the burning of the town’s first courthouse in 1859 and the founding of the fire department in 1888, most of Albion’s downtown was flattened by fire – often more than once. That gives the reason for forming a fire department; but why did A.J. Denlar become involved?
Just as I haunted the Noble County Library’s microfilm storage a generation ago, I began to haunt the internet, and soon details began to emerge. Never underestimate the unflagging hard work of genealogy buffs: I got much of my information through places like the INGenWeb Genealogy Site and gen.nobleco.lib.in.us, which will mean something to history fans who’ve embraced the internet.
And there he was, A.J. Denlar – Albert Denlar – suddenly a real person.
Denlar wasn’t an American native, having been born in Switzerland or Germany in 1845 (exactly one hundred years before Germany surrendered in World War 2).
Denlar came to America with his parents in 1851, but not long after his father, a sailor, drowned. That brought him and his mother to a relative’s home in Ohio, and after she remarried they moved to Whitley County.
Maybe Denlar didn’t get along with his new stepfather, but for whatever reason he struck out on his own at age thirteen, and became a baker’s apprentice in various towns before finding work with the B&O Railroad. That brought him to town in 1873 or early 1874, as part of the early railroad construction crews.
For my purposes, things got interesting with the opening of the Denlar & Frazure restaurant. The Frazures were a big family in Albion – in fact, at one time the entire neighborhood around my Orange Street home was owned by that family, and I have reason to believe they either built my house in the late 1870’s or owned the property when it was built.
What brought Denlar, a traveling railroad worker, into a business relationship with a locally powerful family? Well, here’s a clue: In 1873 he married a woman named Alice F. Frazure.
Denlar & Frazure did good business for several years -- until the business was destroyed by one of those big, block demolishing fires of the time. I can’t swear this is what caused Denlar to get involved, but to this day a personal experience with fire is what gets many people involved in the volunteer fire service. In any case, Denlar started a new business and planted his feet firmly in Albion soil, becoming a Mason and a member of the Town Board.
In 1887 the town’s population, tired of seeing whole blocks consumed by fire, built a small wooden firehouse on the south side of the courthouse square. (If my figuring is right there’s an empty lot there now, beside Dr. Fitzkee’s office.) They brought in a hand pumped fire engine and hose cart, then purchased an alarm bell. The fifty or so original members of the Albion Fire Department were ready for their first test – even though the AFD had not yet officially been formed.
The test wasn’t long in coming.
The first recorded fire for Albion’s volunteers came at noon, October 1, 1887. A strong wind was roaring through town from the northwest, pushing flames through a home “south on Orange Street”.
The upstairs of my garage shows fire damage, so I’ve fantasized about those fires being the same. However, the newspaper editor made a point of how the firefighters had to hand draw their apparatus up a hill to reach the fire, which makes it more likely the burning house was just east of mine.
But there’s a strange coincidence that very much is true. The home that burned was owned by John H. Frazure, the man who probably built my house, and who lost his restaurant to fire six years early.
A restaurant he co-owned with Albert J. Denlar.
The Albion Fire Department was ready to spend the next century battling the “fire fiend”. But not with the man who led it through its organization. Like Moses, A.J. Denlar led his people to the Promised Land, but would not live to see them cross over. On April 10, 1888, twenty-three days before the Albion Town Board passed an ordinance that officially founded the Albion Volunteer Fire Department, Denlar passed away.
The volunteers draped the engine house in black. He was 42 years old.
One article I found followed his date of death with “RH A6”. It took a moment before I realized RH stood for Rose Hill, and I now had his exact burial spot: Section A, plot 6.
I went looking.
I didn’t find it. After hours of going from plot to plot in Section A, nothing. I must confess, I was getting a bit exasperated. Then helpful town employees uncovered a map that revealed I’d misjudged the size of the area: Instead of starting at the edge of Section A, I’d started my search in the middle.
And there it was: A simple stone, its base mostly gone. For a long time I stood looking at it, with an odd feeling … as if I’d lost something, and found it at the same time.
A few weeks later, as I sorted through photos I’d taken in the cemetery years earlier, I found a few taken from the hill above, aiming downward over the area. Although I couldn’t see his name in that photo, the stone was plainly visible. A.J. Denlar had been with me all along.
Now it’s time for me to tell the tale he started. I’m preparing to go through the manuscript a third time, adding whatever other details research and townspeople may provide me. My intention: To publish the first hundred years (or so!) as a book, with the profits going to the Albion Fire Department.
I suspect A.J. Denlar would like that idea.
The final resting place: