Two landmark town fires on the same block

Mike Brown Mike Brown Towns have lives, just the same as all of us, and those lives have special moments, both good and bad.

This week is the 40th anniversary of one of the bad times, a landmark fire that destroyed a cafe and a clothing store.

The Jan. 20, 1974, fire that destroyed the Singer’s Grill and Vera’s Fads and Fashions in the 100 block of East Cameron (US 79) is on a short list of probably a half-dozen major fires in our town’s history.

Now, here’s the kicker for those of you who aren’t old-timers. Another one of those landmark fires, 28 years later was in the same block. Yet another, the only one in which members of the Rockdale Volunteer Fire Department lost their lives, was directly across the street 39 years previously.

The Singer’s Grill was a popular Rockdale restaurant for decades. It was open Sundays, catering to the after-church crowd and Jan. 20, 1974, was a Sunday.

Art by Dustin Strelsky, a sophomore at Rockdale High School. Art by Dustin Strelsky, a sophomore at Rockdale High School. The restaurant closed about 2:30 p.m., after serving all the hungry church-goers, but there was still a good amount of activity on the block.

Two doors down was the Dixie Theatre—yes, Rockdale had a theatre—and the fare for that youth-oriented afternoon was a Walt Disney picture “The Vanishing Wilderness.”

It was packed with a crowd of mostly children.

In between was a vacant former bank building with high columns and an impressive colonnade. It was well-known to really old-timers for having also been the site of Rockdale’s telephone exchange.

By 4 p.m. the fire had started. Smoke was noticed pouring from the restaurant. Fire Chief Johnny Weed said volunteer firefighters arrived to find both buildings full of smoke.

The theatre, of course, was evacuated. By 5 p.m. the volunteers just about had the blaze under control. But the building’s flat tar roofing above the restaurant and clothing store ignited and the resulting inferno shot black smoke high into the air, visible for miles.

Help from the Cameron, Alcoa and Minerva fire departments was called in.

The building’s roof collapsed. Firefighters remained on the scene for another three and one-half hours and kept the blaze from spreading.

Volunteer Dennis Northern sustained a cut foot, had it stitched at the hospital, returned to the fire and re-joined his fellow volunteers in battling the blaze.

That was the only injury.

Just over five months later the burned-out building, still with no roof, was christened Rockdale’s “topless tavern” and served drinks and lots of hilarity as one of the key venues hosting those observing our town’s centennial.

The Singer’s Grill-Vera’s Fads and Fashions building was torn down along with the columned bank building and the theatre.

That became the site of the new Rockdale State Bank Building, today’s Citizens National Bank.

Fast forward to Dec. 11, 2002.

I had come to work, a block away, about sunrise and was greeted by a closed section of US 79 full of fire trucks.

A smoldering fire had spectacularly flamed up in Arledge Antiques and Ballard Carpets Etc. just a few doors down on the same block as the 1974 blaze.

I grabbed my camera and headed across the street. When I reached the bank building my heart sank. Ugly twisting black smoke was pouring out of the eaves under the bank roof.

First impression. We were going to lose the whole block.

We didn’t, thanks to the truly heroic efforts of our volunteer firefighters. But we lost enough.

The antique and carpet businesses, occupying the historic E. M. Peebles & Son Building, were gone.

It had to be razed.

You’ve got to wonder what the odds are for a town to have two landmark fires on the same block separated by 28 years.

Then there’s what happened directly across the street, the site occupied by today’s city library.

It was once Scarbrough & Hicks, a Rockdale business that included a four-building complex.

It burned Sept 3, 1935, but this time the RVFD wasn’t so lucky. Two firefighters, Wilbur Williams and J. W. Hooper perished while battling the blaze.

That’s three of Rockdale’s landmark fires in the 100 block of East Cameron, two on the south side and one on the north.

And you know what? Look across the other block to Milam Avenue, south of the 1974 fire.

That’s the site of the Coffield Warehouse fire of Aug. 31, 1943.

That area has certainly had an interesting history.

Too interesting.

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