Sussex Mills burns in 1930
As a teenager, I got interested in the history of Sussex-Lisbon. My father, Hip Keller, had purchased the controlling stock of Sussex Mills in 1946. I inquired about the history of the mill back then. There was a vague tale being told in 1946 that Sussex Mills had burned up completely in Sept. 1930, a tragic accident caused by the adjacent Bugline Railroad. I inquired about it to George Podolske, then a longtime local hardware store owner, and former Sussex Fire Department chief.
He told me the story that the Bugline Train and crew were doing maintenance on the tracks, and one of the duties was to get rid of the growth of weeds between the tracks and along the sides of the right of way. He said the Bugline crew used a petroleum-based herbicide. Podolske added the Bugline was doing it on the cheap, and essentially spraying waste oil on the right of way.
In the process of spraying, starting and stopping, as they went up and down the multi-trackage at the Mills, the train came to a dead stop and then reversed itself. In the process of reversing, they spun the steel wheels which caused sparks to fly, and the oil sprayed on the weeds caught fire, spreading quickly to the wooden Sussex Mills, and the multiple nearby piles of coal then associated with the mill business. Sixty tons of coal was consumed, and Sussex Mills was a conflagration.
The Sussex Fire Department was called but they only had a $1,000 Nash pumper truck which would produce 400 gallons of water. Four other nearby departments were also called to the site. They were soon on the scene, but could only stand back and protect adjacent buildings and grasslands. Sussex Mills and its coal yards were a total loss, with an estimate of damages at $20,000.
At the time, the Sussex Mills was called "Sussex Elevator." It's big business was to ship barley to the beer industry, and then there were the coal yards.
The Menomonee Falls News, the local paper of Sussex in 1930, described the fire incident: "According to fire men, the blaze was believed to have started with the Bug Line Railroad weed control efforts. The train stopped and when it restarted, the friction of the wheels spinning caused sparks which ignited the flammable liquid chemicals in the weed destroyer. The flames spread rapidly to the dry timbers of the elevator. The train weed sprayer was not destroyed. Milwaukee Road RR officials are investigating the cause of the fire."
The fire occurred Monday and Tuesday, Sept. 15 and 16, as it took two days for the fire to burn itself out.
The 32-member Sussex Volunteer Fire Co. was led by then elected chief William (Bill) Smith (1870-1948). He was a grandson of the reputed first Lisbon settler woman, Melinda Weaver, who came to Lisbon in 1837. He was the former owner of the Peace and Plenty tavern in Sussex, but prohibition had put him out of business, and he was running an ice cream and soda parlor, with a side business of being a handyman with a great mechanical bend. A specialty was energizing wells.
The prime leaders in the fire department's first eight years (1922-30) included Smith, Podolske, Roy Stier, John Kraemer (considered father of the fire department), Levern Clarey, Charles Busse, Frank and Paul Tetzlaff, Claude Kaderabek and the Sussex Village President, Rank Grogan.
It is thought that this great Sussex Elevator-Mills fire of September 1930 caused the local fire department to buy a new fire truck, a 1931 Ford Pirsch model, which the department still has to this day, used as a "parade truck."
Sussex Mills immediately rebuilt and existed until 1990, when it went out of business. It was torn down in 1995 and rebuilt as Sussex Mills Apartments.
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