Tragedy of 1948 Cedar Lake fire instrumental in forming Upsala Fire Department

Upsala Fire Department Chief Jay Bagenstoss holds a sign once displayed on a fire truck purchased a few years after the Hippe fire. The tragedy of that morning in 1948 spurred Upsala and surrounding townships to acquire safer and more effective methods and equipment for fighting fires.

Upsala Fire Department Chief Jay Bagenstoss holds a sign once displayed on a fire truck purchased a few years after the Hippe fire. The tragedy of that morning in 1948 spurred Upsala and surrounding townships to acquire safer and more effective methods and equipment for fighting fires.

By Jennie Zeitler, Staff Writer
jennie.zeitler@ecm-inc.com

A horrific fire at Cedar Lake, three miles west of Upsala, killed four people Thursday, May 13, 1948. But as sometimes happens, positive things came from heartbreaking tragedy.

Ben and Emie Hippe, their three children — 21-year-old Navy veteran Donald, 18-year-old Dolores and 16-year-old Delbert — and two hired men were fast asleep in the wee hours of the morning when their dance hall/tavern/hardware store and the attached residence caught fire.

The survivors and neighbors pieced together what happened next, reported by the Little Falls Daily Transcript. Donald woke and spread the alarm. He first awakened Evar Peterson, who broke a second-story window and jumped to safety, after telling Donald to follow him. Donald called down to his parents and then went into the other upstairs rooms to rouse his brother and sister and August Nordstrom.

They never made it out of the building. All four were apparently overcome by smoke and their bodies were found together in Dolores’ bedroom.

Peterson had gotten a ladder and he and neighbors made a number of attempts to go in after them, but the intense heat and smoke held them back.

Help had been summoned from Grey Eagle, nine miles west. It was reported that the fire was discovered about 4 a.m., and the call to Grey Eagle was received about 4:40 a.m.

By the time the fire truck reached the scene, the building was engulfed. The fire was kept from spreading to a nearby garage, but six hours later, firemen were still spraying the smoking embers.

The Upsala News-Tribune reported May 20, that the fire was believed to have started with defective wiring on a sign in a corner of the tavern.

The Hippe fire was reported by the Daily Transcript to be the second tragic fire in four months, following a Jan. 21, 1948 blaze in which a mother and her four small children perished north of Lake Alexander.

Following the Hippe fire in 1948, the Upsala Fire Department formally organized and purchased a 1928 Reo fire truck from the Sauk Centre Fire Department. The Upsala Area Historical Society was formed in 1979, with the express purpose of keeping this truck from being sold. It is now owned by Richard O’Hotto of Elmdale.

Following the Hippe fire in 1948, the Upsala Fire Department formally organized and purchased a 1928 Reo fire truck from the Sauk Centre Fire Department. The Upsala Area Historical Society was formed in 1979, with the express purpose of keeping this truck from being sold. It is now owned by Richard O’Hotto of Elmdale.

Just 10 months later, a house near Pine Lake burned to the ground. A call was made to the Swanville Fire Department, but help arrived too late.

So many fires, so much tragedy, pushed local residents to make big changes in how fires were fought.

Upsala resident Albert Nelson was 15 at the time of the fire, and remembers his uncle coming out to the field to tell him about it.

“It was very traumatic for the community,” he said. “Everybody went to Hippes’ dance hall.”

The News-Tribune reported Jan. 27, 1949 that the Upsala Fire Department had formally organized the previous week, with Bob Hewitt appointed fire chief. The last Tuesday of every month was chosen as the regular meeting night.

In February 1949, the News-Tribune announced that the department had moved “bag and baggage” into a new fire hall.

The unknown writer of the article stated that the department’s proposed purchase of a 1928 fire truck was a poor investment.

“This type of economy, in the purchase of firefighting equipment, will not pay off in the long run,” the article said.

Five short weeks later, the paper reported that the truck had been delivered and that “Elm Dale” township approved fire protection with a tax levy to fund it.

Nelson’s Elmdale Mutual Insurance Agency made a $3,000 donation toward the purchase of a newer fire truck.

“It was the first truck donation we made,” said Albert Nelson. “It opened the floodgates and we pitched in on lots of trucks after that.”

Longtime Upsala resident Aymer Nelson (no relation to Albert), now 101, moved to town in 1951 and joined the fire department.

“The fire was fresh in people’s minds and conversations; it was devastating,” he said. “The community then understood the need and was happy to raise money to fund better equipment.”

The department purchased a newer fire truck in 1952, funded by the community’s commitment to prevent similar disasters, if at all possible.

Today’s Upsala Fire Department has 20 volunteers and four very modern vehicles.

“Our main engine is a 2003 International pumper,” said Chief Jay Bagenstoss. “We have a 3,250-gallon water tanker and a 2011 grass and rescue rig.”

The department’s second engine and spare water hauler is a 1990.

“When we got the 2003 engine, we were able to eliminate two of our old vehicles,” he said. “Getting the 2011 rig eliminated two more old vehicles.”

The department was very pleased to receive Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funds totalling $100,000 for the 2011 rig.

“Departments like ours just don’t have the funds available to make upgrades every year,” said Bagenstoss.

On average, the department is called to 12-14 fires a year, with a total of 65-70 calls, including medical support.

The biggest changes have happened as a result of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the New York City’s World Trade Center.

“9-11 changed everything,” Bagenstoss said. “The government had to find a better way to control incidents with multiple agencies. Eventually it filtered down into our rural communities. With National Incident Management System (NIMS) training, we have a whole new outlook on how to run a scene.”

Dave Holmen was 12 years old at the time of the Hippe fire and lived a half-mile away. He still remembers all that he heard that morning 65 years ago, even from that distance. He often drives past the public access that now occupies the site.

“I can see reminders of that fire in the trees,” he said. “Pine trees south of the building are still living. There were large crevices in them where the tremendous heat was. After 65 years, those crevices have healed over.”

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