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The Day Arcadia Burned...
Written by George Lane Jr.
Publisher of the Desoto Shopping Guide
Reprinted by the Desoto County Chamber of Commerce

  Dusk settled uneasily on the booming county seat cattle town at the edge of the South Florida wilderness. The year was 1905. It was Thanksgiving and the celebration had been traditional in Arcadia - the dusty capital of a 3,000 square mile cattle kingdom, Desoto County. 

  Holocaust was ahead. In less than six hours Arcadia's wooden business houses would be smoldering rubble and ashes. 

  Few remain who can remember that day 75 years ago when downtown Arcadia was destroyed. 
Yep, those old timers who do remain refer to that holiday holocaust as "the big fire". 

  To 12 year old Kate Carlton (now Mrs. Kate Appleby), it had been a family day and after a house full of company, lots of visiting and a great meal, she slipped off to bed to dream little girl dreams in her cloud-soft feather bed. 

  Thursday, November 30, 1905 was coming to an end. Soon the moonless night's darkness would, for a few hours, become daylight bright, as flames consumed 43 buildings of the business district of one Southwest Florida's largest cities. 

  Arcadia had been born scarcely two decades before. As commercial center of a small, nation-sized county, it already had more than 1,000 residents. It would perish after a fire spread its fury from a beginning in a mid-town livery stable. 

  Built in the boom of the 1880's, Arcadia's commercial and business core was a hodgepodge of side by side cypress and heart of pine frame shops, stores and offices. 

  The town had neither public water system nor fire fighting equipment. The enthusiasm and fervor of meeting a new town's basic needs must have erased thought of providing such necessities. 

  It was an unseasonably warm Thanksgiving day. The cloudless sky offered little relief from the summer-like sun which tended to keep folks indoors, on their porches or in the shade. 

  Most businesses had been closed for the religious thanksgiving, good food and reunion with friends and family. Sunset brought night's refreshing coolness. 

  Arcadia settled for the night and to rest for the regular business day that followed. 

  Downtown's dusty streets and wooded sidewalks were deserted when flames of undetermined origin gained strength from readily available fuel (a livery stable behind Gore and Scott's store on Oak St). It was engulfed in flames before the fiery doom was spotted (and alarm sounded). 

  Who first reported the fire isn't known. Some accounts suggests it was a (drunken) cowboy who, while traveling along main street, half asleep, was jolted awake by the screams of horses in the livery stable. His old cow pony must have bucked and reared hysterically - the alarm sounded! 

  But it was too late. Already a mini-fire storm was underway, fanned by brisk winds. 

  "It seems just like yesterday", Mrs. Appleby recalled in a 1978 interview. "I was just a girl but something like the big fire, you don't forget." 

  "It was a horrible night which lasted, it seemed, a very long time and destroyed so much of our town," says Mrs. Appleby, now 86, who lives on Oak Street, just west of where it all happened. 

  Kate's father (the late Henry E. Carlton) had also turned in for the night and was scarcely asleep when awakened by the fire's alarm. He would spend the rest of the night at the end of a bucket brigade on top of the town's new brick (First National) bank building (now First Federal Savings and Loan of DeSoto). It was one of three buildings to survive the devastation. 

  "I don't know what really woke me up. I was a sound sleeper. Maybe it was the noise. It was unbearable; or was it the heavy smoke which blanketed the area where we lived? Something sure did, and it was a night like I would never see again" reported Mrs. Appleby. 

  "I was frightened, but did what I could to help my folks who got busy right away doing what they could to stop the fire. You know something funny? My brother slept through the whole mess" she remembers. 

  She said the women fought fire along with the men. They helped move furnishings and goods out of stores and homes threatened by the fire. The women also prepared food for the fire fighters who seemed, at times, "to be fighting hand-to-hand battle with the flames." 

  When the fire finally stopped (it was still dark), very little was left to see but smoke and piles of smoldering ruins. "It was terrible - just terrible", recalls the retired teacher. 

  At sunset, Arcadia had been a booming commercial center. At, sunrise it was only a memory and history. 

  Fire erased the prosperity and the edifices of 20 years of progress. All that remained was $250,000 worth of ashes and those memories. 

  Ironically, not a single life was lost and there were few injuries. But many a prosperous store proprietor went to bed wealthy, only to wake up penniless. 

  When a new glow appeared in the eastern sky Friday morning, it was a friend. A new day dawned on a devastated village at the edge of the Florida frontier. 

  Red-eyed, bone weary, soot covered men and women must have  stared blankly at the first rays of a new morning sun as it silhouetted the moss draped oaks east of the railroad track and town. They had fought a night long losing battle with man's most awesome enemy - fire gone wild. 

  Their feeble bucket brigades had failed to dampen the flames seemingly quenchless thirst. 

  Meanwhile, the telegrapher at the Atlantic Coast Line Depot had flashed the news of Arcadia's plight. Help would be on its way by the next train. 

  Arcadia's only Newspaper, "The DeSoto County News", was also a victim of the flames. Their offices and printing press had perished but it didn't prevent the newspaper editor from "reporting the news". He boarded the first train north to Zolfo Springs and went to the offices of the "Zolfo Springs Advertiser" where he published an extra edition, the "DeSoto County News" (on December 1, 1905) and reported Arcadia's losses, dismay and shock. 

  That account of the fire follows: 

  "Today (Friday) Arcadia presents a scene of ruin and desolation rarely ever visited upon a city. Where yesterday stood substantial business houses well filled with merchandise now repose a bed of smoldering ashes. 

  Today businessmen who were yesterday counted financially strong are again poor and are preparing to again begin life after a few short hours' ravages of the fire fiend. 

  About 8:30 last night fire was discovered enveloping a small stable in the rear of Gore & Scott's store, and, in about three hours, nearly every business house in the city and several residences were in ruins. 

  The fire had gained considerable headway before it was discovered; and, assisted by a strong wind blowing toward the main business houses of the town, soon communicated the flames to Gore & Scott's store and it was soon seen that, with no effective means of fighting the flames at hand, the town was doomed. Gore & Scott's big building was soon a mass of roaring flames and, in a few minutes, had ignited the buildings west across the street and the buildings adjoining on the east. From there the fire rapidly swept east two blocks on each side of Oak Street to the railroad and south one block to and including the "DeSoto County News" building and three residences south across the street. Here the flames were finally checked at Heard & Reynolds' packing house after a fierce fight. 

  In all forty-three buildings were burned, all excepting three being business buildings. 

  Dynamite was used in a number of places in effort to check the flames but all efforts along this line failed, and every hand was turned to saving goods in the various stores. 

  The only buildings saved in the path of the flames were the First National Bank Building, Seward's store and the Carlton Block, all being substantial brick buildings. The total loss on buildings, fixtures, and merchandise was estimated at close to $250,000, probably one-fourth of which was covered by insurance. 

  The following is a list of the losers, but at this hour an accurate estimate of the loss of each individual cannot be made: 

  F. Morqus, jewelry; F. Morqus, shoes and harness; C.C. Wheatly Co., paints and paper; J.J. Hendry, meats and groceries; Lee Gibbs, barber shop; L.D. Harley, merchant tailor; A.G. Frederetre, jewler; Thad Carlton, harness and saddlery; J.W. Craig, livery stable; DeSoto County News; W.H. Seward, warehouse; D.T. Carlton, damages to building; Arcadia Mercantile Co., damage to stock; Dr. D.G. Barnett, damage to dental outfit; Arcadia Electric Light, Ice, & Telephone Co.; Jake Wey, warehouse; W.F. Espenlaub, meats and building; J.M. Lanier, fruits and confectionery; F.S. Gore, two store buildings; R.E. Whidden, building. 

  The following afternoon, at a meeting of Arcadia business men, a resolution was passed to prevent any but brick or concrete buildings being erected in this city, a resolution which, if carried out, will ensure a much more substantial as well as a much more beautiful city of Arcadia. 

  Over night the goods and supplies upon which Arcadians had relied perished into flames. Food and clothing stores, hardware stores and other vital services were gone. Not only was the budding city the center of commerce and government for local residents, it was depended upon by the residents of a huge area of Southwestern Florida. 

  Says Mrs. Appleby, "Since so much we needed was lost in the fire , supplies had to be shipped in by rail from Wauchula, Bartow, Ft. Ogden, Punta Gorda and other Florida cities, to help us out". She said it seemed like only a few days "before new brick and stone buildings were being built on the ruins". 

  But there were positive results from the fiery disaster. A new Arcadia of stone and brick did emerge from the ashes. The city council enacted its first building and fire codes. A public water supply was constructed and a fire department organized and equipped. 

  Folks had been quick to respond and a new Arcadia even quicker to reappear. 

  Today if there was a repeat of the 1905 fire, Arcadia's well equipped fire department would have been able to stop the flames destruction. The fire department has the men, training and machines to stop fire shortly after it's reported. 

  That fire, three-fourths of a century past, is seldom discussed these days because there are few who remember "the night that Arcadia burned". It is left to the musty pages of history, yellowing newspaper accounts and a rapidly dwindling few old timers. 

  It is just one page in a lengthy history of fires and holocaust which has cost America millions of lives and billions of dollars over the last 200 years. 

  Note: Much of the material used in the preparation of this paper comes from personal interviews, old newspaper accounts and from official records.

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