On a windy Sunday afternoon 35 years today, part of Perkasie’s town center burned in one of the borough’s defining moments. Today, the Great Fire is still a topic of discussion.
For the past seven years, I have done research on Perkasie in two academic programs and also written two books about the borough. In my many conversations about Perkasie with various people, the Great Fire comes up as a remarkable event in their lives.
On the fire’s 10th anniversary in 1998, the late John Gerner of the Perkasie News-Herald recalled the events as they unfolded on Sunday, June 26, 1988.
“This reporter, along with publisher Charlie Baum and photographer Dave Moyer, was on the scene that fateful Sunday afternoon. For us, it was a defining moment in our personal and professional lives,” Gerner wrote in 1998. “We will never forget the faces of the people: the victims of the fire, the heroic efforts of the firefighters, the clergymen attempting to console the victims and rescuers and the on-lookers who could do little more than watch and later offer their money, time and talents to help the victims and the rebuilding effort.”
According to media reports, two 12-year-old “neighborhood boys” started a fire near the coal bins at Shelly’s building at Seventh and Market Streets. Six hours later, some of Perkasie’s most iconic buildings were gone, in a disaster that caused $12 million in damage.
The Buildings Lost
The old brick Shelly’s headquarters building from 1895 was a Perkasie landmark and the subject of a Saturday Evening Post cover from local artist John Falter. The former J.G. Moyer Store, the old building had been used as a lumber and coal business, a home for cigar companies, the Borough’s post office, and since the mid-1940s, the Shelly’s lumber business. In November 1987, the Pennridge Chamber of Commerce staged an in-person recreation of the Falter painting’s parade—a fictional event created by the artist for his July 1945 painting.
Across from the Shelly building on Seventh Street sat the American House. Philip Cressman built the hotel in the 1890s to replace a smaller wooden building that was relocated to Sixth Street. Cressman hired architect Milton Bean to design his new hotel and also a three-story business adjacent to the American House to create the Cressman block. The larger building was lost in a 1922 fire that was the biggest fire in Perkasie’s history until 1988. By June 1988, the hotel was being used as a rooming house.
Next to the American House sat Lesher’s 5 & 10 Store, which was a Perkasie institution. A store had been in that location since the 1920s when it was the Kulp Brothers dry goods store. A.A. “Jack” Lesher became involved in the business in the 1930s and the variety story had several subsequent owners in the same location for more than 50 years. In March 1988, the News-Herald said Lesher’s had 20,000 items in stock, with everything “from penny candy to Pennridge gym suits.”
Over six hours, the blaze fed by high winds fully destroyed three locations—the Shelly headquarters facility, the American House, and Lesher’s 5 & 10. Other buildings including the former Herstine building at Seventh and Market and the Moyer-Kantner Funeral Home had considerable damage. The Herstine Building was Perkasie’s first business, with a woolen mill in that location in 1856. The Moyer-Kantner building had been J.G. Moyer’s house in the Victorian era.
According to the News-Herald, a local firefighter saw smoke at the coal bin site around 2:15 p.m. and within minutes firefighters were at the scene. The Perkasie Fire Company dispatched its snorkel and ladder truck, and its pumper truck to fight the blaze. By that time, the fire was becoming a “blazing inferno.” The two firetrucks became engulfed in flames. Two Perkasie firefighters were stuck in the aerial bucket of a truck and were able to get to a nearby rooftop for safety.
Meanwhile, tenants were evacuated from Lesher’s, the American House, and the Herstine Building (which was also occupied by the Treasure Trove, a travel agency, and a hair stylist). As the fire spread to the Herstine and Moyer-Kantner buildings, several million gallons of water were brought to the fire scene using tanker brigades and local sources. The Herstine building lost its roof and upper floors, and the Moyer-Kantner building had considerable damage. The funeral home also lost a hearse.
At that point, firefighters began containing the blaze, the News-Herald said, and by 8:00 p.m. the fire was officially under control. At 9 p.m., local officials held a press conference.
The Damage and Aftermath
The Perkasie Fire Department lost two trucks in the blaze. Eventually, about 275 firefighters from three counties participated in the battle to contain the fire. The disaster also left about 30 people homeless. Local hospitals treated 16 people, mostly firefighters, for smoke inhalation or minor burns. Later, the damage was estimated at $12 million. Officials said 22 businesses were lost or affected by the fire.
According to the Perkasie Fire Company’s history as of 1990, “The company was in service for 27 hours, replaced by standby units until 8:00 a.m. on the 29th of June. Total of 1809 hours of service. 79 companies from 4 counties responded, plus 20 ambulance units fire police from both Bucks and Montgomery counties and North Penn Goodwill. $9 million in damage. One 1000 GPM pumper and one ladder truck were destroyed. Three buildings were destroyed and six others damaged.”
The two 12-year-olds connected with starting the fire were sentenced to 500 hours of community service. They were acquitted of 13 felony and misdemeanor charges but found guilty of a misdemeanor for not reporting a fire to authorities.
Perkasie’s recovery efforts started immediately with the Red Cross aiding the fire victims and local residents contributing $120,000 in just two weeks to help the fire victims and pay for a replacement fire truck. A Fire Aid concert in late July at Poppy Yoder Field raised additional funds for the recovery effort. And a new organization, the Perkasie Town Improvement Association was formed to provide financial support and to help rebuild much of the infrastructure lost in the fire. Perkasie Borough and the Improvement Association also started Perkasie’s Farmers Market as a way to use the vacant property at Seventh and Market Streets to bring shoppers back to town.
Today, new buildings occupy the spots once held by the J.G. Moyer store, the American House, and Lesher’s. Back in 1998, John Gerner noted one important memory from his day at the fire scene.
“That day showed me that people can be kind and generous and good neighbors. And that’s a big reason why I’ve chosen to live in this town,” he said.