Feb. 28, 1986. It’s a date many in Bradford will never forget. That was the night that the Dresser Memorial Presbyterian Home for the Aged was destroyed by fire.
Sunday is the 35th anniversary of the blaze that could have been a tragedy. But all 31 residents were safely evacuated from the building by the Bradford City Fire Department, and helped to safety by Bradford City Police, neighbors and even passersby.
“I was a cub reporter — I had only been on the job about seven months — and had never seen anything like what we all saw that night,” said Pat Frantz Cercone, who covered the story for The Era.
It was cold — temperatures were in the teens. Not all of the residents of the home were ambulatory. The quick thinking of Bradford City Fire Chief Frank Frontino had firefighters wrapping the residents in blankets and sheets to carry them down from the second floor of the sprawling, 30-room mansion, recalled retired fire chief Bill McCormack.
“It was Frank’s quick thinking that saved the day,” McCormack said. “We only had six guys when we first got there. We called in for extra troops, but with the six guys, we got the people out.”
Firefighters carried the residents to the porch, and ambulances from all around the county were summoned to transport them to Bradford Hospital. Rather than having the residents standing outside — most in their nightclothes and some without shoes — neighbors opened their homes.
Both Cercone and McCormack mentioned Jim and Marlene Erickson, who lived across Jackson Avenue from the Dresser Home. Their large house was one of the residences opened for the evacuees.
“I was nervous and conflicted about talking to some of those residents who had been temporarily evacuated to Jim and Marlene Erickson’s house across the street,” Cercone said. “They were scared and cold — much more than I — and I didn’t want to impose on them or add to their fear or confusion.”
McCormack said people were more than willing to help. “It was a great effort of everybody to protect their lives. Buildings can be replaced. People can’t.”
He described hearing the call come in, around 8 p.m. Box calls would often come in from the facility for things like burned food, or if someone accidentally tripped an alarm. The box calls were simply an alarm; there was no way of knowing what the call was unless someone called in to tell them, or they responded to the scene.
McCormack said that a phone call would usually follow an alarm, telling the firefighters whether it was serious or not. That night, they didn’t pause to see if a call was coming in. Capt. Bruce Sampson said, “No, let’s go.”
The driveway at the Dresser Home had stone abutments on each side, and the fire trucks couldn’t fit. They parked on Petrolia Street, beside the scene, instead.
McCormack and fellow firefighter Boo Coder went inside, and to the basement, to see what tripped the sensors in the building. Coder checked the furnaces to see if the filters were smoking — that wasn’t it.
McCormack was looking around when he saw smoke: “There was smoke coming down from upstairs through the walls.”
The firemen quickly alerted the rest of the crew that the fire was in the walls. McCormack’s role that night was getting water to the truck. “I remember we hooked up the aerial, but we had water problems because of the way the water system was set up there,” he explained.
There wasn’t enough pressure. Instead, he had to run a line down by the Fourth Ward school, the current location of The Learning Center on Jackson Avenue.
The third floor of the Dresser Home contained a huge ballroom. McCormack said, “It was just rolling through the whole part of the building up there. There were flames everywhere.”
The mansion was huge and elaborate, and contained just the right kind of architecture for the fire to travel quickly and uncontrollably.
“It had a lot of false ceilings and dumb waiters,” McCormack explained. “It was something that would make the fire go uncontrolled once it got going. Once it got into the walls, it was just like a wildfire — there’s nothing you can do but get the people out.”
The big, beautiful, 83-year-old mansion was a total loss.
But not one person was lost.
Cercone added, “I went back to the scene the next day and the day after that — I know many others did, too — to see the frozen shell of that once gorgeous building. It wasn’t until much later when I realized the significance of that building in Bradford’s rich history and its subsequent loss to our community.”
The mansion was built by Solomon Dresser, the founder of Dresser Industries, in 1903 as his family’s home.
He had visited the Pan American Exposition, held in Buffalo, N.Y., in 1901, and was immediately captivated by the design of the Michigan Building, which was attracting thousands of admirers of its architecture. Dresser decided that no less would do for his own home, back in Bradford. He contacted Louis Kamper of Detroit, Mich., the primary architect of the Michigan Building, and persuaded him to design a home. E.N. Unruh, of Bradford, was chosen as the architect.
In 1902, Dresser purchased a plot of ground on Jackson Avenue, and prepared to erect him dream home. Construction was finished in 1903. It is estimated that it cost over $1 million to construct.
Dresser died on Jan. 20, 1911, and his family remained in the home until 1957. The mansion was donated to, and became, the Dresser Memorial Presbyterian Home for the Aged.