Published On: Thu, May 8th, 2014

Fifty-five years have passed, but memory of fire is a strong one

RANDOLPH — Fifty-five years after a ferocious fire ripped through downtown here, the memories of the blaze are still burned into many area residents’ brains.

On May 3, 1959, a horrific fire swept through three buildings in Randolph’s downtown area causing an estimated loss of over $125,000.

Complete losses were sustained by Cornhusker Cafe and Bakery, Roxy Theater and Miller’s Grocery Store, including the second floor apartments above the stores.

Within four hours fire raged through the three brick buildings apparently starting in the rear of the cafe building, according to information from the Randolph Centennial History Book, 1886-1986.

Firefighters from five nearby towns joined to fight the blaze.

The following week two hundred volunteers from Randolph and the surrounding country, equipped with tractor and loaders staged “operation clean up” to remove the rubble left in the wake of the inferno.

By September of the same year plans were underway to rebuild.

The cafe was the first to “rise from the ashes” and was reopened in November.

Randolph’s local barber, Lavern Scott, was home on leave from the Navy in the spring of 1959 when the fire destroyed the three buildings in his hometown.

Scott and his brother, who had a pilot’s license, had flown over to Storm Lake, Iowa that day and were returning home when they saw the smoke.

“We had set down in South Sioux for fuel. When we were back up in the air we could see the smoke – we thought it looked like it was near Randolph,” Scott said. “We flew over Randolph and looked down at the fire before we set the plane down east of town.”

Scott believes the fire started in the morning and then started back up during the afternoon.

A large crowd of people stood on the streets and nearby sidewalks watching the fire with the dark black smoke rising into  the sky.

The smell of smoke lingered throughout the whole town for several days.

“There was a lot of black smoke. The roofs on the buildings had layers and layers of tar that was burning. It’s a wonder the whole block didn’t go up in flames,” Scott said. “The fire wall, which is a double brick wall, helped save the other buildings.”

The Randolph Volunteer Fire Dept received mutual aid from Belden, Coleridge, Laurel, Osmond, Pierce, Laurel, Dixon and Norfolk.

“Norfolk sent a big pumper truck to help. Norfolk Fire Dept had a lot larger equipment than Randolph had at the time,” Scott said. “The fire equipment we have now is so much better than what they had back then.”

Scott has a history of fighting fires. Scott served four years in the Navy and had just completed a Fire School in San Diego, California when he arrived back home on a short leave at the time of the fire in 1959.

“We were trained to fight fires on ships,” he said.

After his military service Scott returned to Randolph and ended up serving a total of 42 years on the Randolph Volunteer Fire Department – 12 years as the Assistant Chief and 18 years as the Fire Chief.

Joedy and Marlene Sellon were living north of Randolph back in May of 1959.

The Sellons definitely remember the destructive fire in Randolph.

Marlene was expecting the couple’s first baby.

“No one called and told us about the fire at first. They didn’t want to upset Marlene,” Joedy said. “Her parents were living in an apartment in one of the buildings while they were waiting for their new home to be built. Her parents weren’t home at the time but for a while people didn’t know where they were.”

The fire was destructive but could have been much worse.

“Black smoke just boiled out of the buildings,” Joedy said. ”It was a bad fire. For a while they thought the whole town was going.”

Dave Dowling, who is now the Cedar County Clerk, was a Kindergartner in Randolph when the fire broke out.

He still remembers going to the Roxy Theater and watching movies as a young boy.

Dowling’s family lived a couple of miles east of town at the time of fire.

He doesn’t remember for sure but someone either stopped by or called and told his family about the horrible fire.

“There was less fire damage at the theater – the back-end of the building was damaged. The damage wasn’t as bad in that building as it was at the other two stores,” Dowling said. “They fixed the building up. I remember going to movies there after the fire.”