Looking back at the Parrsboro fire of ‘62

Loss of Wheaton's Restaurant marked end of an era

Andrew Wagstaff awagstaff@citizenrecord.ca
Published on October 24, 2012

PARRSBORO - October 27, 1962.

In the South Atlantic, Kennedy was staring down Khrushchev at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis. In New York City, Rubin "Hurricane" Carter was facing Florentino Fernandez in a memorable boxing match at Madison Square Garden.

In Parrsboro, Bill Wheaton and Don Yorke were watching the Saturday night fights behind the counter at Wheaton's Restaurant, when they heard a small explosion.

"It wasn't too loud or anything," recalled Wheaton, looking back 50 years later. "We went right out the back door instantly."

There they found a fire that had started in a back alleyway, possibly in some dry leaves that had accumulated there.

Lyle Yorke, who operated Parrsboro Distributors next door with Kerwin Davison, was returning from a delivery in the Riverside area when he realized he had left some chocolates in the store that he had bought earlier at Wheaton's.

"I opened the door of the store, and smoke rolled out in my face," said Yorke. "I hurried into the restaurant to let them know."

By that time, Wheaton and Yorke had already proceeded to the nearby fire hall, to which Yorke had a key, as he was a member of the Parrsboro Fire Department. He sounded the town's fire alarm, and pulled out the fire truck, which Wheaton hooked up to a nearby hydrant with help from another firefighter who had arrived.

"We got water on there within two minutes and had it all hosed down," said Wheaton.

However, a decision was made by the fire department to disconnect from the hydrant and move the truck down Victoria Street and around to the other side of the block on Main Street. During that time, Wheaton explained, the fire flared back up in the back and was never brought under control again.

"They started fighting preventative, instead of concentrating on what little fire was left," said Wheaton. "I don't think it ever would have burned, because we had the hose on it."

Davison, who at the time was superintendent of the Sunday School at Trinity United Church, was home preparing his program for the next day when he received the call from Yorke.

"I heard the fire whistle go, and then I heard the phone ring," he said. "That's always a bad sign. It scares me, when you get the two going together.

"I had an old Ranchero at the time, and I remember leaving two furrows in the ground when I took off from home, and headed down the back street," Davison continued. "She was ablaze by then."

The merchants were able to retrieve some goods out of their shops before the building was completely consumed by fire. Wheaton was able to get much of the furniture out of his restaurant, as well as kitchen equipment, and credits Herbie Redmond for quickly disconnecting the building's 220-volt electricity. Davison and Yorke were able to get some merchandise out of their front window, and both remember rolling the shop's safe down the street to Davison's truck.

One of the young firefighters on the scene was 19-year-old Ross Smith, who said he was close by when the whistle blew. He recalled that the town's fire whistle was actually a wartime air raid siren. In fact, due to the heightened tensions in Cuba, some townspeople heard the siren and feared World War Three was imminent.

"Other than the explosion, things were getting under way, and it was getting pretty hot," said Smith. "I remember there was trouble with a hydrant, and we had to connect another hydrant just to keep the pressure on."

Fire departments from Springhill and Amherst also responded to the fire, which could be seen for miles, and burned on through the night. The heat was so intense that windows were blown out in the Royal Bank building across the street.

"Springhill had a heavy duty pump, and the trucks we had didn't have anything like that then, so we got a boost from Springhill," said Smith.

Firefighters were on the scene for nearly 24 hours. Lost in the blaze were Wheaton's Restaurant, Parrsboro Distributors, Wright's Drug Store and Yorke's Grocery. Three families residing in second floor apartments - Mr. and Mrs. Haley Harrington, Mr. and Mrs. Vernon Bennett and two children, and Mr. and Mrs. Harold Welton and one child, escaped without injury but were left homeless.

The fire loss was estimated at about $300,000. Allowing for inflation, today the loss would cost $2.2 million.

Following the fire, the town's drug store was rebuilt and expanded. Davison and Yorke went back into business separately from their homes, with Davison focusing more on electrical and oil burner work, and Yorke focusing on appliances and electronics. He remains in business today.

Within a week of the fire, Wheaton was back operating a restaurant from a smaller building up the street, but he chose not to rebuild the full-scale restaurant that had been a stopping place for both townspeople and visitors, and was known far and wide. The arrival of the Trans Canada Highway, which was bypassing Parrsboro, had a lot to do with that decision.

"It wouldn't have been profitable for me to rebuild because the road went the other way," he said.

The fire of 1962 had a significant negative impact on the town, according to historian Conrad Byers, who described Wheaton's Restaurant as a social centre for the town, and a "must stop place for all on a Saturday night."

"It was a place where all ages could mix and mingle and get the latest local and regional news and gossip," said Byers. "It was more than a commercial block. It was a social centre that the town lost that night and Parrsboro was never really the same after."

The routing of the Trans Canada was a tremendous blow to Parrsboro's commercial importance, according to Byers, following the losses of ferry service in 1943 and the railway in 1957. But other Maritime communities suffered similar losses and became ghost towns, he explained.

"At least in Parrsboro, we still have heart," he said. "We still have one of the most scenic sites in the province. We have our unique geology; our proud heritage of ships and lumber; our ‘highest tides' in the world and all the potential power generation it may provide. Thus, in fact, we do have a lot going for us.

"Perhaps we might yet be the phoenix that rises from the ashes," he continued,"if we can get off our ‘asses' and realize the gem of a town we have here."