Minnesota volunteer fire department celebrates 150th anniversary
Fires in the 1890s led to official city recognition of the department and better funding of equipment
By Edie Schmierbach
The Free Press, Mankato, Minn.
NEW ULM, Minn. — For many decades, New Ulm residents have made themselves available to douse flames at structures in New Ulm, including large blazes at several businesses in the city. Firefighters formally organized for the first time in New Ulm Dec. 20, 1869, about a week after a destructive fire at one of the city's businesses, Bender's Brewery.
New Ulm Fire Company's volunteer crew included 46 men who served in four companies. Charles Wagner was selected as their president. The company's first regular meeting was held Jan. 3, 1870.
Like most firefighters in the 1800s, New Ulm's volunteers were frequently unable to save burning buildings. Requests by New Ulm Fire Company for adequate equipment were frequently denied by the city. That situation changed after a fire broke out at the Merchant's Hotel March 20, 1885.
Despite being quick on the scene, the fire company was unable to save the structure. Several sheds next to the hotel were torn down to prevent the fire from spreading; however, before it was contained the fire damaged several other buildings and threatened much of New Ulm's commercial district.
The fire company demanded better equipment from the city council and its members threatened to dissolve, an action that would have left the city without firefighters. In response, the city council passed an ordinance in November 1887 that reorganized New Ulm Fire Company into the New Ulm Fire Department.
The Merchant Hotel had been owned by Charles Brust Sr., a member of New Ulm Fire Company who later served as the city's fire chief from 1888 to 1898. His three sons, Charles Jr., Fred and Roman, also served as firemen. The four Brusts served a combined 183 years with the department.
Throughout the 1930s, New Ulm's fire department fought several major fires. The first of the decade occurred Jan. 28, 1930, at the Kretsch Auto Garage, near the intersection of 1st North and Broadway streets. Mechanic Otto Schneider died from injuries suffered in the fire that began when a car exploded. The fire resulted in damages that totaled about $60,000.
Although the garage was located across the street from the fire department, 20 minutes passed before firefighters were alerted. The shop owner and the other mechanics who worked there had been tending to Schneider's injuries.
In 1933, fire destroyed the rye mill, grain elevator, storage buildings and warehouses of the New Ulm Roller Mill Company. Losses were estimated at $51,000. The company, located on 1st Street South near the fire department's Engine House No. 3, had rebuilt its flour mill, office building and two grain elevators after the structures were destroyed by a March 1910 fire.
One of the city's most notorious fires occurred Jan. 24, 1936, on the north side of the 100 block of Minnesota Street. Twelve businesses were contained within the several buildings the fire destroyed. The fire department was alerted at 4:40 a.m. and its crews braved the -37 degree cold to save the business district. Damage from the fire was estimated at $270,000. Accounting for inflation, this would be equivalent to $5 million today.
April 26, 1957, the Eagle Roller Mill, then owned by the International Milling Company, was destroyed by fire. The loss was estimated at $75,000.
In the 1960s, the fire department replaced their old filter masks that blocked smoke and toxic gases with new self-contained breathing apparatus units as part of the department's constant drive to provide their members with protective equipment.
In January 1967, two fires started in buildings on the south side of the 100 Block of North Minnesota Street. The first — on Jan. 19 at Backer's Drug & Camera — resulted in the hospitalization of fireman Charles "Coggie" Niemann, who suffered smoke inhalation. He recovered and went on to serve until 1972. He was one of four brothers who served on the NUFD. Their father, Franz Niemann, was a New Ulm firefighter who served for 45 years.
In the 1990s, the department hired its first female firefighter. Shelley Scheindlein served on the ladder company aboard the department's Seagrave ladder truck. Since Scheindlein, several more women have joined the department.
In the 2000s, New Ulm's firefighters continue to face severe and sometimes lethal fires. On Dec. 1, 2004, the Associated Milk Producers Inc. butter plant on Center Street caught fire when an air compressor malfunctioned and exploded. No one was injured in the fire, which damaged some of the AMPI's machinery. The NUFD fought the fire for about 12 hours, with assistance from the Sleepy Eye Department along with some support from Mankato's department.
Some information in this column was obtained from a New Ulm Fire Department anniversary book. Fire department memorabilia is on display this month at Brown County Historical Society's museum, 2 North Broadway, New Ulm.
See more 150th anniversary celebration photos on the New Ulm Fire Department Facebook page.
(c)2021 The Free Press (Mankato, Minn.)