News: Neillsville – Fertilizer Plant Burns (Van Gorden’s - 1975)

Contact: Dolores (Mohr) Kenyon

Surnames: Van Gorden, Henchen

----Source: Clark County Press (Neillsville, Clark Co., WI) 11/06/1975

Firemen Fight Losing Battle as Fertilizer Plant Burns (Van Gorden’s – 2 November 1975)

It was Tuesday afternoon, 18 to 24 hours after the first alarm sounded, and smoke was still rising from what was left of the H.H. Van Gorden and Sons fertilizer plant in Neillsville.

A gigantic blaze consumed the building Sunday evening in one of the largest fires to hit Neillsville or surrounding communities in several years.

Men from the Neillsville, Greenwood and Loyal volunteer fire departments responded to the call and some fought the blaze for over nine hours before departing for home.

The plant, located just south of O’Neill Creek in the heart of a supply, service and warehouse center for the community, was considered a total loss by owners Heron A. “Pink” and Dick Van Gorden. Dick’s office was in the plant and he did most of his work from the building.

According to Dick, between 900 and 1,000 tons of fertilizer were stored in the plant at the time of the fire. The Van Gordens were stocking up for next spring’s annual run of farmer’s preparations for planting. In fact, a train carload of fertilizer was resting on the tracks adjacent to the plant while firemen battled the blaze. The steaming car had to be pulled from the vicinity. Also heading into Neillsville Sunday evening was still another car of fertilizer but alert staff called the railroad just hours before its expected delivery to waylay the load in nearby Merrillan.

“Cause of the fire was still unknown. The Van Gordens refused to speculate but discussion in the community centered on ignition from a gas space heater or overheated grain drying in the plant. The state fire Marshall was investigating the cause.

The fire siren in Neillsville just at 8:00 P.M., on Sunday evening and within minutes trucks arrived at the plant to see trickles of smoke escaping around doors and windows.

Earlier in the evening, citizens noticed the smell of smoke in the air throughout the city but no one at that time was able to locate the fire. What little wind there was did not aid in finding the fire’s location but at the same time aided firemen in fighting the blaze.

The firemen approached the building cautiously, noticed the seeping smoke and lapping flames coming from the small business office located in the northeast corner of the building. As they broke open the office door, heavy smoke at once began coming out of every hole, gap or air space in the building. This was believe due to the building being fairly airtight; the office entering caused an air current to fan the already spreading the blaze.

Within just a few minutes, the heavy smoke turned into a massive funnel of smoke and fire as the fire broke through the roof and sent flames and sparks 75 feet into the air.

By this time, firemen knew that they had a problem on their hands which was further worsening by the proximity to a Goodyear tire center and warehouse on the block. Neillsville soon put out the alarm to Greenwood and Loyal and soon trucks from those towns were on the scene to quell the conflagration.

Members of the department stated the next day that 70,000 gallons of water were used by the departments in the battle.

But all to no avail. Many at the scene speculated that the fire may have been burning for several hours before its being located. Reportedly a passerby, Louie Henchen of Neillsville, called the alert to the fire department.

Firemen worked from the first alarm at 8:00 to past 10 before Greenwood and Loyal units went home. Some of the Neillsville volunteers stayed until 5:00 A.M., before departing with the feeling that everything was under control.

But the battle was still not finished. By Monday afternoon, the wrecked hulk of the building was still smoldering and at 2:30, the smoke increased to a point where the department was again called to the scene. Within minutes and the downpour of more water, the smoke subsided to an acceptable level.

Citizens of the community and area were alerted to the fire by the siren and the incoming rush of police to the community. Several intersections were blocked off by sheriff’s department men and state troopers.

Citizens living just north of O’Neill Creek and Grand Avenue watched from their windows as the flames jumped higher and higher and then became nervous as large ignited cinders swayed through the air on a path toward their neighborhoods.

The area just north of the plant is a mixture of low-lying wetlands, dry reedy grasses and residential homes to the north. Fire crews were dispatched to the creek and neighborhood with small water extinguishers and put out several small fires.

Even those who stayed at home were drawn into the excitement as area television stations told of a “mass forest fire on its way to Neillsville.” Several residents received phone calls from friends and relatives who hears the broadcast reports and wanted more information. No one knew where the mis-information developed on a “forest fire.”

The plant itself was approximately three-quarters full of fertilizer at the time of the fire. With the roof collapsing and the influx of water, stability of the building’s walls soon became a problem. On Sunday evening, firemen were already telling of the wall slowly giving away, while working in the west sections of the building. By Monday afternoon, the wall had buckled more and more and staff of Van Gorden’s finally pulled it down for safety’s sake.

The 128 feet by 64 feet structure was a shell by Monday morning with only the walls, foundation and what remained of a metal elevator still intact.

According to Van Gordens’, the future is still uncertain. They are pondering whether to rebuild the plant, utilize another of the Van Gorden buildings or to realign their agricultural company.

Dick Van Gorden was quick to point out that farmers with commitments to fertilizer would still be honored. “We have received word that more fertilizer will be available for spring,” stated.

No information was available on the financial loss suffered by Van Gordens.



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