This is Part I of a three-part series.
Part II will appear next Sunday
At least four men have died fighting Cleburne fires since the department’s 1891 inception. “There have been four to the best of my knowledge, according to the research I’ve seen, which someone else put together, I think, back in the ’80s” said Cleburne Fire Chief Clint Ishmael.
Three Cleburne firefighters and one Cleburne city marshal lost their lives in four separate fires.
A plaque in Cleburne’s Central Fire Department commemorates all four.
The fires, which occurred in 1912, 1943, 1955 and 1959, involved a courthouse, a house, a school and a doctor’s office.
On April 14, 1912, the RMS Titanic struck an iceberg and sank into the icy Atlantic. Closer to home, fire destroyed the Johnson County Courthouse.
That building, opened in 1883, was located in the same place as the present courthouse.
Col. B.J. Chambers and Nat Henderson gave the city the land for the courthouse, explaining how Chambers and Henderson streets came to be.
In 1907, a Mr. and Mrs. L. Freeman married on top of the tower of the old courthouse.
“The event brought more people to the town, it is said, than has ever before surrounded the courthouse,” according to a hand-written remembrance of the courthouse, portions of which appeared in the Cleburne Morning Review on April 16, 1912.
The letter is now in the county judge’s office in the Johnson County Courthouse. The name of A.J. Wright, former owner of the Wright Building in downtown, appears on the letter, which would seem to make him the author.
Sandy Sims, administrative assistant to County Judge Roger Harmon, said it is unclear who actually wrote the letter — it may have been Wright’s wife, or someone else.
The Morning Review article containing portions of the letter offers no help because the story carries no byline.
It appears that plans were under way to replace the 1883 courthouse with a new building before fate and tragedy intervened.
“The JC Courthouse burned,” reads the headline in the April 15, 1912, edition of the Cleburne Daily Enterprise.
“City Marshal A. Bledsoe meets death in the burning building,” reads the first sub head.
The third sub head states, “Fire alarm turned in at 12:30 this morning sounds the death knell for Cleburne’s efficient city marshal and marks the passing of the old temple of justice with its history.”
From another headline on the front page of that day’s edition, Cleburne readers learned that, “Titanic is in trouble south of Cape Race.”
The front page of the April 16, 1912, Cleburne Morning Review contains no mention of the courthouse fire. Readers had to turn to page 5 for that story.
A story headlined “Santa Fe Shop men have a good meeting” appears on the front page.
Fire Marshal Burditt spotted the courthouse fire Monday morning about 12:30 o’clock, according to the Cleburne Morning Review.
“Burditt, while on South Main Street, noticed a red tongue of flame shooting up behind the small windows in the tower of the Johnson County Courthouse,” according to the article.
Burditt ran toward the courthouse square firing four shots into the air. As he drew closer he could see the red glow of fire through the tower windows.
On the east side of the courthouse, “night officers Messrs. Rogers and Darnaby” also fired shots into the air.
“The six-shooter bombardment soon awakened half the city, and in 20 minutes the courthouse square was alive with people,” according to the article.
Burditt asked a night clerk named Mobley at the Hotel Cleburne to turn in an alarm, which Mobley did before waking the hotel guests.
Fire wagons soon arrived and streamed water onto the blaze.
A strong south breeze swept smoke and sparks northward as the fire worked its way from the upper part of the building to the lower floors.
Wrong place at
the wrong time
Abe B. Bledsoe became city marshal of Cleburne in 1911, a year before his death.
The titles city marshal and chief of police seem to have been interchangeable in those days, according to a history of the Cleburne Police Department written by former CPD Chief Claude Zachary in the 1990s.
The 1907 Cleburne City Directory, for example, lists Charles McClain as chief of police while later directories and records refer to men holding the same office as city marshals.
“I’m not sure when the city stopped using that city marshal designation,” said Cleburne City Councilman Bob Force.
Bledsoe apparently felt duty bound to join firefighters as the Cleburne fire chief — Bledsoe’s brother, Baylor Bledsoe, was out of town on vacation.
His decision was both heroic and deadly as it cost Bledsoe his life on the second floor of the burning courthouse.
Bledsoe joined several firefighters in the building, all of whom soon realized the peril of the situation.
“[Bledsoe] was conscious of being in imminent danger for he told fireman Vernon Steakley and Elmer Shannon to get the second floor windows and lower doors ready for a quick getaway.” according to the Cleburne Morning Review.
The firefighters were standing near the west door of the district court, firefighter Carey Hughes reported after the fact, when Bledsoe approached him and said, “Let me have the hose; you go down and rest, I’ll fight ’er some myself.”
A crash soon reverberated through the courthouse as the big tower and tin roof collapsed into the structure.
According to the Cleburne Morning Review story, many of the spectators watching said, “Can it be possible that someone has been caught under that death trap?”
Shannon managed to exit safely, according to reports.
Tumbling bricks and mortar struck Steakley, injuring his shoulder, as he climbed out the window. Bledsoe was not so lucky.
“As fireman Steakley crawled into the window, he heard a crash behind him and he knew one of the brave firefighters had been caught in the clutches of death,” The Cleburne Morning Review reported. “How to rescue him was the question. A large piece of tin from the roof had covered the officer like a blanket, and heavy brick and mortar had fallen on the tin. The officer still held to the nozzle, and the water was pouring on and about him, and another stream was played on the pile of debris. But the bricks and tin being hot, there was no chance for the brave man under the death trap. He was scalded and roasted to death.”
It was “heart-rending” for firefighters to fight the fire and not attempt to save Bledsoe, according to reports. Firefighter Louis Cashion even made an attempt at rescue.
“But he had not proceeded far on his daring mission when the heat and smoke caused him to waver, and he too might have been lost but for the timely act of his brother, Joe Cashion, who ran in and brought him out,” according to the Morning Review.
With the fire finally extinguished, firefighters managed to recover Bledsoe’s body at 4:30 a.m., a recovery fraught with jeopardy.
“For the men did not know what instant an over-topping section of the brick and mortar might also bury them and mash their lives out,” the Morning Review reported.
Rescue workers found Bledsoe clutching the nozzle of the hose in a death grip when they finally managed to unpin him from the rubble, according to reports.
News of Bledsoe’s death caused a general expression of sorrow from the hundreds of Cleburne residents gathered on the sidewalks, according to reports. False rumors spread that Cashion and Shannon had also died in the fire.
The aftermath left the courthouse’s steel vaults and some of its brick walls standing but consumed practically all the wood work, according to reports.
“The familiar faces of the old clocks in the courthouse tower had gone forever,” the Morning Review reported.
Newspaper accounts record no cause for the fire.
“I’ve heard people say that it might have started in a court reporter’s office, but I don’t know if that was ever proven for sure or if the cause was ever determined,” Sims said nearly 97 years after the fire.
The Cleburne City Council met on April 18, 1912, and appointed Alf C. White to be the new city marshal, according to reports.
Work on the new, and current, courthouse began in earnest and was completed in 1913.
Officials allowed residents to remove bricks and other debris from the rubble of the 1883 structure, according to reports.
One Dub Collins carted off the 1883 date marker, which had been placed in the upper outside wall of the old courthouse before the fire.
“It was in the backyard next to a tree. My brother and I used to play on it all the time,” said Carla Oefinger, Collin’s great-granddaughter. “It was my father’s grandfather’s; he collected things. We always knew it had some kind of special meaning, but as children [we] didn’t really understand what it meant.”
Oefinger’s mother donated the date marker to the county in 1990, she said. The marker and a plaque, which mentions Bledsoe and the 1912 fire, is located on the lawn of the courthouse.
Cleburne Police Chief Terry Powell said that to the best of his knowledge no Cleburne police officer excepting Abe Bledsoe ever died in the line of duty. The Cleburne Fire Department has not been as fortunate, having lost three firefighters in as many fires over the years.
This is Part I of a three-part series.
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This Week's Circulars
Jack Marlin, 77, of Grandview passed away Wednesday, March 25, 2020. Graveside service: 12 p.m., Wednesday, April 1, 2020 at Watts Chapel Cemetery.
Ernest Sadau passed away Wednesday, March 25, 2020. Graveside Service: 11:00 a.m. Saturday, March 28, Hopewell Cemetery in Joshua. Visitation: 10-11 a.m., Saturday prior to service.
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