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Remembering the DeMotte Fire of 1936

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Photo of men with metal buckets in front of businesses while a fire rages.
Photo of the devastion, a full city block of buildings reduced to rubble.

April 15, 1936, was a day that almost took DeMotte off the map. Most of the businesses were destroyed by a massive fire.

The fire originated from a trash fire behind a couple of the businesses on the west side of street about mid afternoon. The wind had picked up and quickly took those ashes and spread them catching the buildings on fire.

With the heavy winds the fire soon spread to the east side of the street.

The town did not yet have the means to battle the fire. The townspeople formed buckets brigades and nearby towns sent their fire departments to help bring the fire under control. The lack of water was a real problem. The tanker trucks had to be refilled from the Sekema ditch a half mile away.

Nineteen businesses and two homes were destroyed or damaged by the fire at an estimated cost of $150,000 ($2.604 million in 2015). There were only nine businesses on the south end of the block to escape the fire.

Within a couple of days, the store owners found places to open their businesses. Within one week, plans were completed for the erection of every building lost.

The determination of the early citizens of this great town kept DeMotte from becoming a distant memory.

To read more about it, check out the Chicago Tribune online archive from April 16, 1936, or read a detailed first-hand account in the library's transcript of the Oral History of J. Wayne Oliver, part of The Settling of the Grand Marsh of the Kankakee River: Oral History Interviews - a community project conducted in the 1990s by volunteers from the DeMotte area and sponsored by DeMotte-Kankakee Valley Rotary Club.

Photos from the local history files at the DeMotte Library. Inflation adjustment via Wolfram Alpha, based on the Consumer Price Index.