Thanks for dropping by to find out about the fire and suicide that happened in Hughenden in May of 1932 – as if the 1930s in Alberta weren’t difficult enough. I chose not to make any commentary on the five articles presented here giving three perspectives on the fire that began in the Whyte and Orr hardware store on the morning of May 22nd. I’ve presented these as information for the researcher and fodder for the thoughtful. When I finished compiling these articles and images, I have to say that I felt a little sad yet I’m still glad to have put these details of this tragedy together. ~ Lori Knutson
The following is excerpted from the Amisk-Hughenden-Rosyth history book, Memories and Milestones, 1905- 2005. This article was submitted by Hughenden author Mary Burpee (1918-2008) and in it, she tells the story of her firsthand experience of the fire’s aftermath. On the day of the fire, Mary was 14 years old. She published four books, all written after she was 80 years old. Mary also edited a 5th book of her father’s memoirs, called Dublin to Dunboy.
Mary’s Recollection of the Fire
Listen to what Mary Burpee wrote about the 1932 fire:
It seemed incredible that living as we did, just four and a half miles from town, no one in our family had seen flames shooting skyward the morning of May 22, 1932. Nor had we noticed even the tiniest smudge of smoke on the horizon.
It wasn’t until our buggy was clattering down Hughenden’s main street that my brother Jimmy and I, on our way to a Sunday morning confirmation class at the Anglican Church, realized that something was dreadfully wrong. There was furniture piled haphazardly all along the upper section of the main street as if it had been dropped there from outer space and abandoned. Further on were huge, blackened craters where, yesterday, business establishments had been crowded cheek to jowl along the side of the town’s main business block. Now there was nothing but ashes, smouldering ruins, total devastation.
People, faces streaked with soot, sweat and tears, clustered in tiny groups. Stiff with shock and disbelief, most stared silently at little wisps of spent smoke and the occasional flicker of a persistent flame struggling to escape from the mounds of smouldering ashes.
That fire whipped by strong winds, destroyed most of Hughenden’s downtown business section on the north side of the main street. It started at the Whyte and Orr hardware store when the operator, Elmer J. Swensen, went into his store early in the morning of Saturday, May 22nd , and shot himself with a high-powered rifle. From there, the fire raged on to burn Joe Martineau’s Imperial Oil office, John Hovde’s Harness and Shoe Repair Shop, Dave Coutts’ General Store, Gee Sam’s Chinese Restaurant, the Pool Hall and Barbershop, John Jackson’s house, plus a shed used by R. Kropinski to store his Rawleigh products.
Thanks to heroic efforts by volunteer firefighters from Hughenden and Amisk, plus three chemical fire engines from Czar, the fire was brought under control, but not before it had scorched the west wall of what used to be called the Wellwood Block. (At the time of the fire it was probably known as the McDevitt building.) If the fire had burned that building, it almost certainly would have destroyed Fred Lang’s drugstore, Art Lawley’s hardware store, Jack Cochrane’s real estate and telephone exchange offices, before jumping the street to burn homes in the adjoining block.
Jack Cochrane was so sure the fire would burn the McDevitt building and his real estate office and telephone exchange building, that he had the cables connecting Hughenden’s telephone exchange switchboard to long distance lines cut, so that the switchboard could be carried outside and saved.
Bob Rideout, who roomed above the Whyte and Orr hardware store, got out with his life but lost all his possessions in the fire. Daniel Glockzin and his son James, who along with G.C. Hobbs were part of the Czar fire brigade, received burns to their hands but received prompt medical treatment. Miraculously, no one else was hurt.
Men and women, children too, had raced to help carry out whatever they could from the doomed buildings and pile it on the far side of the street. By doing so they were able to save 20 percent of the stock from Dave Coutts’ store and 10 percent from the restaurant. Nothing was saved from the other buildings.
Thanks to having so much of his stock saved, Dave Coutts immediately ran an ad in the Hughenden Record, “Business as usual in the McDevitt building. If we haven’t got what you want we’ll get it for you.” In the same May 26, 1932 paper was this news item, “Joe Martineau is already building his new office to take the place of the burned one.”
But not everyone could bounce back so quickly. It would be years before the empty spaces left by the fire were all filled. Some are still waiting.
These next articles are from the May 26, 1932 issue of The Hughenden Record. This is not the entire write-up. I excerpted from it to avoid repetition of details. I did include the complete coroner’s jury testimonies. Thanks to my husband, Doug, for doing the audio recording for two of these testimonies.
Fire Destroys Part of Hughenden Business Section
E.J. Swensen Dead
The greatest catastrophe Hughenden has ever known took place on Sunday morning, May 22nd when fire destroyed a large portion of the business section of the town and E.J. Swensen, manager of the Whyte and Orr hardware store, lost his life.
The fire broke out in the rear of the Whyte and Orr store about 8 a.m. Bob Rideout, who rooms above this store, and Theo Hall, were the first to see the smoke and immediately gave the alarm. It was not many minutes before quite a number of the residents were on the scene, but nothing could be done to quench the flames.
Every effort was made to save the surrounding buildings and it was only the hard work of everyone, and especially the timely help from Czar where a large number of helpers got together and under the direction of Daniel Glockzin loaded their three chemical fire engines in a truck and rushed to Hughenden, G.C. Hobbs bringing along extra chemicals to recharge the engines, that the fire was stopped, and if they had been a few minutes later, it would have been impossible to save anything on that side of the town.
Unfortunately Mr. Daniel Glockzin and his son James were both badly burned when a bottle of sulfuric acid for the fire extinguisher, broke in their hands. They received immediate aid and are now well on the way to recovery.
The fire was not fully extinguished until Monday as a large stock of flour in D.A. Coutts’ warehouse and something under the debris of the restaurant burned on long after the rest of the fire was out and a watch of four men was set and kept all night.
The worst feature of the catastrophe was the death of E.J. Swensen. As the flames subsided a lookout was kept for any possible remains of Mr. Swensen, who had been seen going in the direction of the store just before the fire was noticed and who had not been seen since.
The body was located near the place where the office in the hardware store had been, and it was seen that a rifle was lying on the body. Constable Cottrell, R.C.M.P, was notified and he called the coroner, Dr. Murray of Sedgewick, who after investigating, took charge of the rifle and turned the remains over to Daniel Glockzin, undertaker of Czar, and ordered an inquest to be held on Monday.
On the safe of Whyte and Orr being opened on Wednesday, the books, papers, etc. were found in perfect condition, and the accounts, cash and statements, correct to a cent.
Inquest on the Remains of Elmer J. Swensen
Before Coroner Dr. Murray
The jury was sworn in as follows: Daniel Glockzin, foreman; E.V. Key, D.A. Coutts, Geo. Hall, R.P Stubbs, and Jas. Lees. Most of the evidence was given in answer to questions by Const. Cottrell and the coroner.
JOHN HOVDE was called and gave evidence as follows: I was working in the store on Saturday, May 21st. I did not see anything different in Mr. Swensen. He seemed about the same as usual only he complained of a headache. We were packing goods all day and worked until about 11 p.m. He said he could not sleep at night.
I have been with him since 1918. He had a new set of teeth about Christmas, 1931. There was a high powered rifle in the store, like exhibit. To my knowledge he has not tried to sell the rifle. He has kept his troubles to himself and did not talk to me about them.
HARRY FEAKE was the next witness: I was in Hughenden on Sunday, May 22nd. I saw the deceased that morning coming down the sidewalk about 10 minutes after eight. He was going in the direction of the store. I am sure it was him. I went straight home and when I came out of my house again a few moments later, I saw smoke coming out of the rear of the Whyte and Orr store.
I rushed down, found the door unlocked but the smoke was so bad that I could not see nothing in the store and did not think it safe to go in. I did not see anyone leaving the store.
Listen to Bob Rideout’s testimony:
BOB RIDEOUT: I was living over the Whyte and Orr store since last August. I heard someone unlock the store door and go in on Sunday morning about 8 o’clock, heard him walk to the back of the store. I had a wash and noticed smoke coming up from below about 7 or 8 minutes after. About the same time I heard a crash of glass. I am sure there was only one person came in the store.
I heard Theo. Hall shout, “Fire!” and ran out, looked into the store below, found it full of smoke, and went and rang the fire alarm. I told several there was someone in the store and I thought they had gone out the back. No one came out the front.
The fire progressed very rapidly and by the time I got back, fire was coming through the roof at the back of the store. I went upstairs, threw a few clothes into a suitcase, threw it out of the window and jumped out myself onto the roof of Mr. Martineau’s office. I could not say if the crash I heard was the report of a high powered rifle.
THEO. HALL: I was up at 7 a.m. on Sunday morning, May 22nd. I went out on to the street about 8 o’clock. I went over to the restaurant and back to the hotel, and then noticed smoke coming out of the back of the Whyte and Orr store. I ran to the store, looked in, saw flames and called, “Fire!” and gave the alarm. I knew Mr. Swensen but did not see him. The fire was out of control in only a few minutes after I looked in the store. I was alone. I last saw Mr. Swensen on Saturday and he appeared the same as usual.
DR. JONES was called and said: I knew Mr. Swensen pretty well. A few days ago I went into the store and Swenson complained of a headache. He had almost a full set of false teeth. His general health was good, and I was not expecting anything like this. I saw him Saturday and talked to him a little time.
JOE MARTINEAU: I saw Swensen on Saturday night about 10:30. I did not have any conversation with him at that time. I was in the store earlier in the day and did some business with him. He seemed a little unusual and would not talk. I thought he was not well, and he seemed to act as though he was worried about something. I did not see him on Sunday morning. I was home and saw the smoke downtown. I ran to the back of Whyte and Orr’s store, and it was smoking badly and then it burst out in flame. There was no fire at the part of the building where the body was found. The back of the store was used as storage.
After the fire had settled down I saw the body lying on its back and a buckle of a belt on the front of the body (he used to wear a belt) and saw a rifle lying across the body. The exhibit looked like the barrel which was lying across the body. I did not see Swensen around. I saw Mrs. Swensen come down with Mrs. Cookson and she looked as if she was in trouble.
W.G. WHYTE: We had a store in Hughenden. Mr. Swensen managed the store. He had worked for us about 16 years. I last saw him in Hughenden on May 11th. I was down on business matters. We were thinking of closing up the business. He was not troubled over financial matters between himself and the store. He had about $7,000 in stock at New Year’s and some of that had been sold since. Outstanding accounts amounted to about $4,000. He would not be held responsible for outstanding accounts.
The foreman, DANIEL GLOCKZIN, then asked W.G. WHYTE: What kind of check would you have on Swensen?
W.G. WHYTE answered: He took his own stock each year and we would have a complete check when the stock was shipped out. He had offered to accept the outstanding accounts for his share of stock held in the company.
J.S. ORR: I knew Mr. Swensen for 15 or 16 years. His report went through my office weekly, semi-monthly, monthly, and annually. Business has been better than a year ago during the past few weeks. He should have had about $5,500 to $5,800 worth of stock at this time. (The rest of this witness’s evidence was similar to that of Mr. Whyte’s.)
Listen to Mrs. Adele Swensen’s statement:
A statement was taken from MRS. SWENSEN, JUNIOR and read at this time: I did not hear my husband leave the house. When I saw the smoke downtown, I thought my husband was in the kitchen shaving. I called and no one answered. I knew then that my husband was not at home. He got home at about 11:30 Saturday night from the store, talked a little while, and went to bed. He told me he would be working all day in the store Sunday. I did not notice anything out of the ordinary when he came home Saturday, although he has not been feeling very good. I am sure it is my husband found in the remains of the fire this morning.
Listen to Constable Cottrell’s testimony:
CONSTABLE COTTRELL: About 9 a.m. on 22nd May, I received a telephone message from Hughenden to the effect that the town was on fire. I hurried down and after being in Hughenden about 15 minutes, it was reported to me that there was a body seen in the debris of the fire. I made an investigation, saw the body and a rifle barrel lying on the body. I at once notified the coroner, Dr. Murray, and on his arrival, with him, viewed the remains, and on instructions from the coroner took the rifle to the blacksmith shop and with the assistance of the blacksmith, the shell exhibit was taken out of the breech of the rifle, and both have been in my possession since. There was no shell in the magazine when it was picked up. I took possession of the body and handed it over to Mr. D. Glockzin and this exhibit is the same body as was taken out of the fire.
In answer to a question by the jury, the witness (CONSTABLE COTTRELL) said the shell had been fired by the rifle and not by the heat as the firing pin mark showed plainly on the cap.
CORONER (DR. MURRAY): I found the trunk of a human body lying on the back in the remains of the fire. The arms and legs had been burned off, and only the case of the skull remained. The usual thing which happened when a gun or rifle is placed in the mouth and discharged was that the top of the skull is blown off, and apparently this was shattered in this way. I would not have expected to find the skull shattered in this way if the deceased had just been overcome by fire and no shell fired.
The jury after being discharged retired and on return, the foreman read the verdict: that Elmer J. Swensen came to his death by shooting himself with a high powered rifle while in a state of temporary despondency.
The following articles are about the Hughenden Fire. The first is from the May 23rd, 1932 issue of the Edmonton Journal. When I mentioned on Twitter that I was researching this old story, Alan Zakrison from Calgary sent me both of the following articles. I’m grateful he did.
Rifle Is Found Beside Body in $50,000 Hughenden Fire
Seven Buildings Razed by Conflagration; Aid Rushed From Czar
(Special to Edmonton Journal)
HUGHENDEN, May 23 – Following a $50,000 fire which destroyed seven buildings here Sunday, body of E.J. Swenson, for 14 years manager of the Whyte and Orr hardware store was found in the smoking ruins of the store. Beside the charred remains was lying a rifle, in the breech of which was an exploded shell.
While the fire was at its height, no trace could be found of Swenson. He had left his house shortly before 8 o’clock and was heard to enter the store about that time.
His charred remains were found in the ruins of the store, near where the office was located. The ruins of a rifle containing a discharged shell were beside the body. Dr. Murray, coroner of Sedgewick, who had been called hastily and Constable Cottrell, of Hardisty, are making an investigation. An inquest will be held Monday. Swensen had been known to be worried over business conditions here and the intended closing out of the business by Whyte and Orr’s here this month. His wife and aged mother are in the care of friends.
Sweeping with great rapidity despite the efforts of volunteer firemen operating five chemical wagons, the blaze destroyed that Whyte & Orr store, the pool room, David A. Coutts’ general store, Phillip Pon’s restaurant, a vacant bakery building, the residence of John Jackson, and the Imperial Oil office building. The Imperial Oil warehouse was not threatened.
Coroner’s Jury Finds Swensen Killed Himself
Death of Merchant in $50,000 Hughenden Fire Investigated
(Special to Edmonton Journal)
HUGHENDEN, May 25 – Suicide was the verdict of the coroner’s jury investigating the death of Elmer J. Swensen, Monday. Swensen’s charred body was found in the smouldering ruins of the Whyte & Orr general store, Sunday morning, following a blaze which razed seven buildings and did $50,000 damage.
The verdict was returned to Coroner Dr. Murray, Sedgewick, after the six jurymen had considered the evidence, including the finding of a discharged rifle beside Swensen’s body in the ruins of the store.
Jurymen were: D.A. Coutts, R.P. Stubbs, E.V. Key, George Hall of Hughenden, and D. Glockzin, Czar, and James Lees, Amisk.
Had Been Depressed
Mr. Swensen had been manager of the Whyte & Orr hardware store for 14 years, and there had never been any evidence that the books were not in good shape.
It was known, however, that he had been depressed recently. The store was to have been closed shortly, and he was suffering ill health following an attack of influenza.
The remains were sent to Edmonton for burial. He was married four years ago and is survived by his widow and aged mother and a sister, Mrs. Olsen, Daysland. Mrs. Swensen was formerly Miss Adele Stewart, of Edmonton.
No trace has been found of any message, but it is believed that Swensen may have left a note in the safe, which was still too hot to open when the inquest was held.
Insurance adjusters were busy in Hughenden Monday, inspecting the ruins of the different business places and making adjustments. D.A. Coutts, general merchant, and Phillip Pom, proprietor of the Hughenden Café, were making plans to rebuild. Fire smouldered all Sunday night and all day Monday where flour had been stored, as well as in other parts of the ruins.
Close watch was kept and although high winds Monday made flames break out again, they were quickly quenched.
The exploding of canned goods, which had been stored in the restaurant pantry, continued for about eight hours. Owners of the stores and residences which seemed doomed to destruction Sunday, before the fire was stopped at McDevitt’s rooming-house, were busy Monday moving their goods back in and replacing them on the shelves.
Thanks for reading and listening. I compiled these articles as a member of the Amisk-Hughenden Historical Society. You can visit our webpage and blog here on WordPress. If you’re on Twitter, you can give @AmiskSociety a follow.
On Monday, January 27 at 1:30 p.m., the Amisk-Hughenden Historical Society is sponsoring a Find a Grave workshop at the Hughenden Public Library.