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THE CITY REBORN FROM THE ASHES OF AMERICA'S MOST DISASTROUS FOREST FIRE
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Fire Destroys Old Knitting Mill Building In Marinette

Issue Date: January 31, 2018

Over fifty firefighters from seven area fire departments spent nearly nine hours battling a fire that destroyed the old Knitting Mill in Marinette on Thursday, Jan. 25. The building, located at 1650 Pierce Ave., had been used as a warehouse in recent years but was in the process of being dismantled.

The Marinette Fire Department received the fire call at 10:51 a.m on Thursday. The last firefighters were not able to leave the scene until 8:30 pm, when it was determined there was no further risk of flareup. The building was completely leveled except for a chimney and small furnace room. Only debris was left at the corner of Pierce and Daggett streets, where it had stood for over 100 years. According to Wisconsin Historical Society, it was constructed in 1910.

Marinette and Menominee firefighters responding to Thursday morning's call arrived to find heavy smoke and flames pouring from the building. Marinette Fire Chief, Jay Heckel, immediately called for help by using the MABAS box alarm system. That call brought in engines and crews from the Town of Peshtigo and City of Peshtigo fire departments to augment his units.

Despite their efforts, the fire quickly spread throughout the old building. Heavy smoke could be seen for miles. Heat generated by the intense flames and smoke caused several area residents to be evacuated from their homes.

After several hours battling the Chief Heckel, called for a second MABAS box alarm. That call brought in units from Grover-Porterfield, Crivitz and Menominee/Ingalls to bolster the efforts of the Peshtigo, Marinette and Menominee units. Fire crews had to be rotated in and out of the fire scene for recuperation as the day wore on, Chief Heckel added..

Fiber optic and cable lines were burned in the inferno, which hampered communications. A Sheriff's Department Facebook message indicated the fire took out the department's phones, internet service and e-mail. The Marinette County Sheriff's Department Mobile Command Center was brought to the scene to assist firefighters. The Command Center allowed for communications including paging of additional emergency units if necessary. When local lines were out of use, dispatching for fire and police departments was done through the backup system in Marinette County. Marinette County's 911 service was reportedly not interrupted.

The old knitting mill building, presently owned by Brian Polzin Property Management, was in the process of being torn down. The fire was reported by a person who had been working in the basement.

Officials have determined the fire started in the basement and was apparently caused by a worker using a torch to cut sprinkler system piping that was being removed. Slag or hot metal found its way into a cardboard container, smoldered for a while and then burst into flames. Being an old building that contained rolls of paper and other flammable items, the fire quickly spread.

According to Heckel, over 750,000 gallons of water was used to fight the fire. Firefighting efforts almost emptied one of the city's water towers. The only fire equipment damage reported was to the Marinette Fire Department's aerial truck, which sustained a cracked windshield and cracked passenger side window. Several emergency lights also melted due to the extreme heat and some hose lines were destroyed. No injuries were reported other than falls by several firefighters due to icy conditions.

Agencies responding to the scene in addition to the seven fire departments from Marinette and Menominee counties included Marinette Police Department, Emergency Rescue Squad, Bay Area Medical paramedics, Marinette Water Utility Department, Marinette County Sheriff's Department and Marinette County Emergency Management. Biehl Construction also responded with a backhoe to assist with tearing down the building.

Chief Heckel praised the Marinette County Dispatchers saying they did an excellent job keeping things going and paging all the help he needed. The MABAS system worked great, it worked exactly the way it was set up to. This was the first time the MABAS box alarm had to go to the second level in our county he added. Henkel thanked Walmart for sending food over for the crews. Large tubs of chicken and sub sandwiches were delivered for the hungry firefighters. He also thanked Casting Services of Marinette for allowing fire crews to use their rest room facilities.

The Marinette Knitting Mill was started by the Lauerman Brothers in 1904, the same year that Lauerman Brothers Department store was opened.

It was a time when businessmen in the area were seeking to diversify from the lumber industry, which was running out of raw materials. Products from the Marinette Knitting Mills found their way to stores around the world, offering top of the line high-fashion knitwear. At one time they held the contract for a line of Disney clothing products. During World War II the mill produced gloves, mufflers and sweaters for the Allied fighting forces.

First site of Lauerman's Knitting Mill was a small building on Pearce Ave. The operation grew and was moved to Wisconsin Street. After a fire destroyed that building in 1909, construction started on the building at the corner of Pierce Avenue and Daggett Street, and business opened there on Jan.1, 1910. A second mill was opened in Oconto in 1913. During the 1920s workforce at the two mills totaled more than 400 employees, according to, "Memories of Lauerman Bros. Department Store," a book written by Michael Leannah and located through the Wisconsin Historical Society Press.

The knitting mill was sold sometime in the 1950s and produced Harmon Knitwear, although the Lauerman family retained some financial interest at the time.


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