Fire on Center Street 1956 – Remembering Jack and Rheba Zimmerman

It is my observation that small-town newspaper publishers and editors are a resilient and tenacious lot. They have to be. Facing an unforgiving weekly deadline and trying to have a life can be difficult and fatiguing. The readers expect their paper regardless of your circumstances. The reward is, do it right and you become a vital part of your community.
 
This piece started as a story about a fire destroying Doc’s Pool Hall, but I realized there is a bigger story. Since my mother forbade me to enter a pool hall, I don’t know anything about the subject anyway.
 
Growing up in Willow Springs in the 1950s, everyone knew the editor of the paper. My mother and others made sure the life events of her kids and family members were documented in the paper and eagerly awaited the news, followed by a look at the obituaries to see who died. I even made the Willow Springs News when I won a hog in a Curtis Department Store drawing! The newspaper was our connection to the community in the days before online communication, even local broadcast radio was in its infancy. In eventful times, folks ran to the news office or lined up at stands to get the scoop. My brother Dan edits the newspaper at Seymour enjoys a large Amish community that eagerly awaits the weekly release of his paper.
 
I was a year old when Jack Zimmerman, his wife Rheba, and family came to town in 1953. I remember him – seems he was everywhere in the community with his camera getting a story.
 
The Eldon Advertiser announced in September 1953, “Mr. and Mrs. Jac Zimmerman and children of Tuscumbia are moving this week to Willow Springs where they have bought The Willow Springs News. The Zimmermans bought the weekly newspaper and job shop in Howell County from J.W. Brown, Jr., who owned it 20 years.
 
Mr. and Mrs. Zimmerman have rented a house in Willow Springs and are moving this week so their daughter, Janis, 9, a fourth grader, and twin sons, David and Danny, 6, first graders, can enter school. They sold their home in Tuscumbia five years before selling it to the Eldon Printing Company. Mr. Zimmerman has been employed with the Eldon Printing Company this summer.”
 
Jac Zimmerman had newspaper in his blood since Cabool High School, serving as the editor of the school newspaper. That led to a job at the Cabool Enterprise, and publishing became his life.
 
This story is about a fire and how Jac lost a building and contents, including his printing press, but persevered and didn’t miss an issue. The assistance he received from the community and competing newspapers is testimony to Zimmerman’s standing here. Jac wrote details in an issue published immediately after the fire:
 
“Fire gutted four Willow Springs’ business houses early Sunday morning in one of the worst fires in the city for many years. The Willow Springs News building and contents, the Riteway Cleaners buildings and contents, the “Doc” Hicks pool hall building and contents, and the Puckett Jewelry Shop and living quarters were all destroyed in the fire.”
 
“The fire department was called at 3:55 a.m. Sunday morning after the telephone operator had been notified by two men who had detected heavy smoke coming from the area. Upon arriving at the scene of south Center Street the firemen found the Hicks pool hall and the other building in flames and the other building filled with smoke and intense heat.”
 
“At about 4:15 a.m., the fire broke through into the Willow Springs News building and quickly traveled through the roof structure to the brick wall of the Hedrick building north of the fire scene. The combined fire departments of Willow Springs and Cabool then concentrated their efforts on the Hedrick building to save it from destruction and were successful, although some smoke damage was done.”
 
“The night marshal was instructed to call the Cabool fire department after it became apparent that the fire could reach more disastrous consequences than it did. They arrived about 40 minutes after the call was made and added the local volunteer department in getting the blaze controlled. Those who came with the Cabool truck were Lee Puckett, fire chief, Clyde Matherly, Herschel Stark, Bill Blair, Millard Wagner, and the Cabool night marshal, Mr. Yocum.”
 
“The total damages were estimated by local insurance men to be around $50,000. All the buildings were insured, with the exception of the pool hall.”
 
“The origin of the fire is unknown. However, it is believed from the damage that it started in the pool hall or Jewelry Shop. No firewalls were between any of the four buildings that burned. The blaze crept up a wooden partition between the pool hall and the News office and set the roof ablaze. The tar roof and wood framing quickly ignited and traveled to the brick wall of the Hedrick building which houses the K&J Café on the lower floor and apartments on the second floor.”
 
“After the fire gutted the roof the molten tar dropped into the interior of the buildings and started fires wherever it hit. The firefighters were hampered by numerous false ceilings and metal false fronts that prevented getting water to the base of the blaze. The buildings were among the oldest frame buildings in Willow Springs.”
 
“About 2 hours after the valiant volunteer firemen got water on the blaze the roofs of the cleaning shop and News office began to fall in. The pool hall roof collapsed earlier. The room of the jewelry building, a part two-story structure, fell in about the same time as the cleaning shop and News office roofs. It was only till then that the water began to have effect on the blaze.”
 
“The Puckett building was owned by J.L. Puckett, who occupied the building; the “Doc” Hicks pool hall building was owned by J.W. Smith of Mountain Grove; the News office building and the Riteway Cleaners buildings were owned by J.W. Brown, Jr., of Harrisonville. H.D. Hicks operated the pool hall, Jac Zimmerman is the owner of the Willow Springs News and R.F. Bradley owned the Riteway Cleaners.”
 
“The News has rented temporary headquarters from Adolph Sass in a building behind the Star Theatre,” Zimmerman, owner of the News said. “We have installed a phone and desk and will be open for business there until a permanent location is arranged for. It will be business as usual. We have arranged to have the news printed at West Plains and to have job printing done at Cabool, Thayer, and Houston.”
 
“The News recovered a large part of the circulation list and some of the books. A small amount of contents in the Puckett jewelry store were not damaged by the fire but were damaged by water as the blaze was prevented from entering the front lower section of the building. Mr. and Mrs. Puckett recovered some personal belongings.”
 
“Many sightseers from neighboring towns and farms visited the fire scene Sunday and Monday.”
 
The rest of the story is, Jac, as a volunteer Willow Springs firefighter, was called to put out his own fire. A photo shows him holding a hose spraying water into his flaming News Office. In his opinion column in the same issue reporting the fire, Jac included these observations:
 
“Ordinarily the missus has to wake us when the fire whistle blows, as we are a member of that fine group of fellows. But Sunday morning we awoke as the first whistle hit the air, and the smell of pine burning was in the air. We flipped on the light, remembered the cold night, and put on a sweatshirt, blue jeans, nearest pair of shoes, grabbed a cap and coat, and headed for the telephone, where we said when answered by the operator, “This is a fireman, where is it?”
 
“Doc Hicks pool hall,” she answered. And maybe it was our imagination but she seemed reluctant to say it, knowing it was our business neighbor at the News on the south.”
 
“We threw the phone back on its cradle and looked at the clock for the first time. It was 3:55 a.m. Sunday morning. The trip from the house on 6th Street to the News office was probably the fastest we have ever made. Phil Kilpatric and Jay Gentry were just finishing the water hookup, and Joe Corn and I made an attempt to get into the News office for records. The smoke and heat were so intense we didn’t think it safe to try, although no blaze was evident in the News portion.”
 
“A short time later, the blaze broke through about where we had all of our News files stored, but we were hoping that a miracle might occur so we could stop it. We poured water on it, but there was just too many places hidden that were burning, and it was no use.”
 
“It’s a funny thing, but we asked Dick Fisher to call Ed Faust to get some pictures. Habit is strong in any situation.”
 
“Someone asked me if the missus knew about it, and I remembered telling them not to call her as the kids got to bed a little late Saturday night after spending the day at their grandma and pa Zimmerman at Cabool.”
 
“The West Plains Quill will print the News for us, and the Cabool, Thayer, and Houston shops will aid in job printing work. Monday morning was spent with the Quill staff working out a schedule, and Monday afternoon, we talked with Lane Davis at Houston, who went through a fire in 1950. Lane set us straight on details of getting started again, and it was invaluable.”
 
“We estimate it will be 4 to 6 months before normal operation is resumed. We have rented a small building from Adolph Sass behind the Star Theatre, and there we will be until a permanent location can be arranged for.”
 
Jac published the Willow Springs News for fifteen years, also buying and publishing the Mountain View Standard starting in 1962. He was a constant supporter and promoter of both towns. In 1965, Hank Billings, a famous writer for the Springfield News-Leader interviewed Jac at his new brick office, rebuilt on the site of the fire, and wrote, “We’re lucky because we have two highways (63 and 60) meeting here,” said Editor Jac Zimmerman, “so we get east-west and north-south tourists.” The Missouri Highway Department was building the bypass of Willow Springs. 
 
After the fire, Jac's Willow Springs and Mountain View papers were printed at Houston. In 1964, Zimmerman was elected President of the Missouri Press Association and made it a priority to visit every newspaper in Missouri, there being around three hundred.
 
In 1968, the Zimmerman’s purchased another newspaper, the Herald-Free Press at Bolivar. He had earlier purchased the Mountain View Standard but sold both papers to pursue greater opportunities, and moved. He was successful with this paper, as well as the Miller County Autogram at Tuscumbia.
 
Sometimes the adage “The candle that burns the brightest burns quickest,” is applicable. In November 1971, Jac suffered a massive heart attack and did not fully recover. He continued to publish the Bolivar paper and picked up the Cedar County Republican along the way. He also served as a National Press Association Director and, in 1978, received the Honor Medal for Distinguished Service to Journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia.
 
Jac died at home in Bolivar in October 1979. He was only fifty-six years old.
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Howell County News

110 W. Main St.,
Willow Springs, MO 65793
417-252-2123

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