As mining boomed in Jasper County in the 1870s, mining camps sprang up across the western portion of the county. Several grew into towns. One of the last to make the transition from camp to town was Duenweg. Yet all the new towns had to survive one major foe — fire. For Duenweg, that pivotal year was 1910.

The mining camp that became Duenweg had its start with the Newsboy mine owned by H.U. Dale and Josiah Bennett in 1895. What had been prairie that sold for $10 an acre could run for $40,000 an acre after the lead strike at the Newsboy.

Investors flocked to the new mining camp. Among them were the father-and-son team of Louis and Otto Duenweg. Louis made his fortune in Terre Haute, Indiana, with his distillery. The men became interested in the mines in Aurora and then in Jasper County in 1894. They first invested in the Silver Dick mine in the Center Creek valley north of Webb City. Then, as news broke of the new camp south of Prosperity, they purchased existing mines just north of present day Missouri Route 66. The camp that developed around their mines became known by their name, Duenweg, though locals transformed the German pronunciation into “Dun-a-weg.”

For the next 15 years the town grew as the mines prospered. Spurs for the Missouri Pacific and Frisco railroads came to the town as well as Southwest Missouri’s interurban line. The town boasted a school, two drugstores, a brick opera house, lumberyard, two groceries, a hardware store, a bakery, two pool halls and a restaurant, as well as other small businesses. It was a thriving town of 2.000 persons.

Fire changes the landscape

Its Achilles’ heel was the fact most buildings were made of wood. The town also lacked a fire department. About 1:30 a.m. Nov. 16, 1910, a fire started in B.L. Patterson’s grocery and hardware store. Neighbors formed a bucket brigade, but because Patterson had a large store of paints and oils at the back of his store, within a half-hour the fire was beyond control. A north breeze directed the fire south toward the residential district. The flames could be seen from the top of tall buildings in Joplin.

The Joplin Fire Department was called and the chemical wagon was sent 6 miles over country roads to Duenweg. While it was on the way, explosives were set in the Burton residence next door to the opera house. The blast stopped the fire’s spread but blew a hole in the opera house wall that destroyed interior furnishings. Debris shattered roofs within 500 feet. A second charge went off as the Joplin crew arrived. Firefighters objected strenuously to the use of dynamite and threatened to withdraw if any more charges were set. (One firefighter had been injured eight months before from a charge set off while he was laying down water in a building fire in Duenweg.) The chemical wagon team was able to halt the spread in about 20 minutes.

An unauthorized call for Joplin’s big wagon resulted in its arrival just as the chemical wagon was departing. While the run was said to cost Joplin $150 in repairs, having raced across country roads to the fire, the large wagon had only its tank of water on board,and Duenweg had no water within a thousand feet of the fire nor any water mains.

Damage was extensive. Twelve buildings were consumed. The two drugstores, the post office, barber shop, restaurant, hardware store, livery stable and storage warehouse, grocery and three residences occupying an acre of ground were ashes, “smooth and level as a parade ground,” reported the Daily Globe. The two dynamite blasts had destroyed most all the windows in town and smashed a 15-foot hole in the wall of the opera house ”piling chairs in a tangled heap of splintered kindling wood on the far side of the auditorium.”

Postmaster W.H. Sterling reopened the post office in his home. Poles for the streetcars, telegraph and telephone were charred stumps. Property losses reached $75,000 in insurance claims (the equivalent of $1.5 million in 2015).

Residents joined forces operating businesses together in remaining buildings. Discussion about rebuilding with brick was a common topic.

More fires

As the townsfolk settled into the new routine, eight days later they were jarred awake once more as fire ravaged a larger home owned by B.E. Patterson. Patterson, who suffered heavy losses from the destruction of his grocery, had rented the house to the Medlin family. An overturned lamp was the cause of the fire. It destroyed the family’s furniture. The house was consumed and was not insured. The fire was confined to the residence but now the need for a fire department was another common topic, according to the Daily Globe.

Not a week went by when a third fire of unknown origin broke out at 1 a.m. in an empty two-story building that had been a saloon. Before residents could start a bucket brigade, the fire had spread to five adjoining buildings. Two empty buildings, two pool halls, a drug store and a restaurant burned to the ground. This loss was estimated to be $15,000 ($300,000 in 2015).

According to the Daily Globe, “The predominant opinion is that someone with evil designs upon Duenweg had pursued a systematic course in accomplishing his villainous purpose of wiping the entire town off of the map, and an investigation will be instigated at once in an effort to ascertain, if possible, the guilty person and his motive.” No such individual was ever found.

Destruction of the business district made it necessary for supplies to be purchased in neighboring towns. There was never a question about rebuilding. In December, J.R. Hastings announced he was spending $15,000 on four new brick business buildings. The News Herald reported plans were underway to reorient the main street to run north and south. Prior to that time, only the south side of the main street was available for permanent buildings. (This may have been due to railroad or streetcar tracks blocking buildings on the north side of the street. No city maps prior to 1910 were available.)

“Since the fire the whole town has cooperated with the losers,” wrote the Daily Globe in December 1910, “The fire has caused an awakening of public feeling. Instead of grouchy knockers, boosters have assumed their places. The citizens of that little town of 2,000 point with pride to the new business houses that are going up.

“It’s ‘business is good, thank you.’ The hundreds of miners who make up the roll of citizens are all at work. The mines are running full blast and the town is prosperous.”

Bill Caldwell is the retired librarian at The Joplin Globe. If you have a question you’d like him to research, send an email to wcaldwell@joplinglobe.com or leave a message at 417-627-7261.

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