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60 years later

By Staff | Mar 28, 2014

NDSU Archives, Fargo, N.D. Former Rugby firefighter Elmer Rasmussen (right) joins a fellow resident to assist in controlling the fire at the Jacobson Department Store on March 25, 1954. If you are able to identify the other gentleman, please call the Tribune at 776-5252.

Even after 60 years, many Rugby residents still have vivid memories of what was dubbed the “Million Dollar Fire.”

On March 25, 1954, a furnace issue in Jacobson’s Department Store ignited a massive fire that destroyed eight business on Main Avenue with blazes reportedly seen 20 miles away.

Jacobson’s was located where St. Michel’s Furniture Store sits today.

“All I remember about that night is my daddy had to go and we were listening to the radio and I think Roy Rogers was on,” said Richard Jacobson, 65, whose father Paul co-owned the store with his brother Robert. “It was never the same. It was the only thing around and Rugby used to be the trade center. Nobody went to Minot.”

Jacobson’s sold dry goods, shoes, suits and more.

NDSU Archives, Fargo, N.D. Switchboard operator Rachel Bardell assists another employee of Northwestern Bell Telephone Company as the telephone service was being restored following the Jacobson Department Store fire on March 25, 1954. If you are able to identify any of the others pictured, please call the Tribune at 776-5252.

“I think Paul Jacobson came over,” Bill Gronvold, 66, said. “There was a knock at the door. We lived two doors down on 3rd Street and his face was all sooty and black and he said the store’s on fire. It was a real helpless feeling.”

Eight fire departments responded, including groups from Leeds, Granville, Towner, Minot, Cando and Rolla. According to reports, 14 hoses attacked the blaze with constant water for 48 hours.

“Even the blind could see that nothing was going to save it,” former Tribune Editor Frank Hornstein wrote.

The fire displaced 12 residents living above the store, including Judge H.B. Nelson and his wife, who owned the buildings.

Northwestern Bell Telephone Company also saw it’s operation also go up in flames. Bonita Reirson was on her first day at job.

“It was real bad,” Reirson said. “They set us up above Gronvold Motors.”

The Gronvold Motor company built 21-inch thick fire walls on each side and managed to sustain far less damage despite being next door to Jacobson’s. Bill Gronvold’s father Al ran the garage with his brothers Aaron and Joel. Aaron, 52, died of over-exertion in his sleep that night after the brothers scrambled relentlessly to secure belongings.

“The fire was finally controlled and there was a safe up on an upper floor,” Bill Gronvold said. “They had their business offices on the upper floor and the safe crashed into the basement. That whole area was bricks and rubble for a year or more and finally they put up a wooden fence so people wouldn’t have to look at that.”

Inez Thorstenson, 101, was living in an apartment across the street from the blaze. She was sitting on the radiator waiting for a friend to stop by when she first noticed the fire.

“I thought, ‘Oh, my goodness,’ ” Thorstenson said. “My car was across the street and other cars were ruined with cracked windows. My apartment was so hot, I had to crawl on the floor of my apartment.”

Thorstenson’s 5-year-old daughter, Renae, was at the theater up the street and cried until her mother got back to her. Thorstenson most vivid memory was of a man by the name of Banister, who sifted through the ash after the fire until he found his wife’s diamond ring.

According to a 50th Anniversary article in a 2004 issue of the Tribune, members of the Rugby Fire Department at the time were Anund Moen, Bill Crook, Irwin Odden, George Van Sweringen, Avery Estes, Jack Voeller, John O’Connell, Obert Blessum, Al Bale, Vic Sawaya, Jay Costello, Earl Dokken, Cecil Rohrer, Marvin “Mutt” Miller, Jim Christianson, Chris Bale, Elmer Rasmusson, Bert Harper, Glenn “Bud” Miller, Raleigh Austin, Asher Austin, John McClintock, Les Welch and Joe Ellsworth. Nig Brandt was secretary and Ray Hanson was treasurer.

Other businesses destroyed included the Farmers Mutual Insurance Company, Rugby Insurance Agency, Ostrem’s Shoe Store, the optometrist office of Dr. C.B. Weimer, dental office of Dr. Fred Shively, and Bosley’s Abstract and Loans and Real Estate.

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