AYER — In 1961, one of the most significant fires in Ayer’s history destroyed two major businesses and put 12 families out of their homes.
Brendan Hurley told the tale on the Ayer Fire Department’s Facebook page from a firefighter’s perspective: when the fire began, who fought it and the after-effects of the blaze.
The alarm came in at 6:17 p.m. on June 5. Box 412 meant the fire was at the Hartnett Tanning Company where small fires were a routine occurrence.
But not that night. When the first engine left the Washington Street station, a huge column of black smoke rose into the sky over the leather-processing plant.
By the time the engine arrived at the scene on the other side of Main Street, the entire building, all five floors, was in flames. The fire jumped through open windows to the International Purchasing Company in a large, factory-type building.
Hurley lists 11 fire departments that helped. There may have been more.
Around 600 soldiers from the Second Infantry Brigade on Devens came. Not only did they help fight the fire, they helped to control the thousands of onlookers.
Trains on the Boston and Maine Railroad were stopped because the hoses crossed the tracks.
When the fire was put out the next morningm Gov. John Volpe came to check out the damage.
More than 500 people were out of jobs. The damage was thought to be one of the highest dollar loses due to fire in the country.
The blaze made the cover of Fire Engineering Magazine later in the year.
A committee decided that Ayer needed to diversify its industry so that a single catastrophe would not threaten the entire economy. As a result, the industrial area along Westford Road was developed, Hurley concluded.
Like all good stories, there are even more details floating around.
The fire burned so hot, that the cotton fire-hoses burned. The next day, people went around collecting the brass couplers, one every 50 feet, said Fire Chief Robert Pedrazzi. Both his father and grandfather were firefighters.
The New York Times called the fire a $5 million conflagration that destroyed two industrial plants, six dwellings, put 12 families out of their homes and put a quarter of the local workforce out of a job.
In the weeks following the fire, The Public Spirit documented ongoing relief efforts.
The state would provide low-cost loans for the tannery and the rope company. Companies with employment for the jobless workers were listed.
Offers of help poured in: free summer camp for the children of affected wage-earners, money for hospital expenses.
Workers from the Fitchburg office of the Massachusetts Employment Division set up shop in Town Hall to expedite processing.
A woman from Boston sent clothing.
On June 8, the Spirit listed the displaced families and some of the things they lost. One family had two daughters getting married. Wedding finery and trousseaus, gone.
Another family was uninsured, coming away with only the clothes they were wearing. But hope remained. “They were quick to remember their greatest possessions, David, 13, and Diane, 10, and beside them Mrs. Bushnoe, a cerebral palsy victim…”
Community pride was showcased along with a bit of indignation. “The New York Sunday Times story of the fire caused some local eye-lifting with this description of Ayer, ‘….this drab little railroad center and trading center,'” the Spirit wrote on the June 15 front page.
Changes were ahead for the Hartnett Tanning Company, even without a fire. The company turned animal hides into usable leather.
A July 28, 1960 front page article in the Spirit was called “New Challenges For Ayer Tannery Leather Competition A Factor.” “Beautiful” ladies’ shoes were being made with synthetic material developed by duPont, it said.
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