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Column: Small town fires make big news

Anyone who has spent a significant number of years in small towns remembers the big fires.

Even a familiarity with a small town, post-fire, will pique interest, as more often than not, a small-town fire takes away one of the major staples of town and leaves a big hole in the business district.

I was eating up a row of seats and what would now be considered a small bucket of popcorn at the Oakes, N.D. movie theatre with my cousins when some adult came in and ordered all of us kids back to ruining our parent's few hours off as the building next door was in flames.

So much for The Muppets Take Manhattan. I think it was 1984, or maybe 1985 by the time that movie got to Oakes.

It's all that anyone in Oakes talked about for the next week.

My grandmother's store in Cavalier, N.D. was burnt to the ground in the 80's.

Each time I've returned to Cavalier, the town, apart from the growth over time, seems different without Sally's Shop at the end of the main drag.

My first week of working here at the FOCUS, I was in New York Mills for a house fire where I interviewed a young man who just escaped his bedroom window to safety.

A few weeks later, Mills Locker Plant went up in flames.

But hey, there's a silver lining. Mills Locker Plant was back up and running in time for deer eating season.

This week, in 1983, the Perham Coast to Coast burned down.

I remember seeing the store when I was a kid.

One of the best things about playing summer baseball as a little kid is knowledge of the layout of all the small towns around. One must know where they are going for the post-game ice cream.

Coast to Coast was located between Richter's Men's Wear and Karvonen's Furniture. Both businesses suffered smoke damage. The fire made Coast to Coast a lost cause and efforts were concentrated on saving both businesses on each side.

The fire was one that took awhile to get going but was hard to miss as it created a hole in the length of downtown Perham storefronts.

According to Chuck Johnson's April 14, 1983 report, "Most of the interior of the store was burning by the time the fire was noticed. The spectacular blaze was seen by firemen from Frazee and New York Mills as they left their towns."

An estimated 270,000 gallons of water was needed to put out the blaze and while only a portion of area residents may even recall the buildings or how downtown looked in 1983, a major part of the story and its tiniest hero needs to be remembered.

The fire was reported at 2:30 a.m., when a small dog in the Zelda Bachleitner apartment above Richter's Men's Wear woke residents of the apartment.

Who knows how much different downtown Perham would look, even now, without that little dog?

Robert Williams

Sports Editor at the Detroit Lakes Tribune. Williams worked prior as the Sports Editor in Perham for the Focus, a Forum Communications newspaper, from 2010-14. 

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