Renfrew – The former general store on Highway 60 at Northcote escaped a fiery end thanks to the incredible efforts of members of the Douglas Fire Department who responded to the initial 911 dispatch call of a car engulfed in flames only to find a raging blaze that started in a barn adjacent to the once busy store.
The Douglas Fire Department was dispatched Tuesday afternoon, September 28 to the initial call of a car fire at the former Briscoe’s General Store at Northcote along Highway 60 between Douglas and Renfrew. When the first two firefighters arrived to what they thought was a vehicle fire it turned out to be a massive blaze that started inside the old wooden barn.
One of two occupants of the building was doing routine repair work on a vehicle when a spark from the grinder he was using started the chain reaction resulting in a huge structure fire that filled the skies with thick black smoke that could be seen for miles around.
The fire jumped from the initial vehicle to more vehicles and then spread to the large wooden barn on the property. Members of the department sprayed water on the former store to try and save it as firefighters battled the nearby inferno that had Douglas Fire Chief Kevin VanWoezik send a request for assistance to the nearby Horton Township Fire Department.
Chief VanWoezik said the wind and the sheer volume of vehicles and other metal objects at the site made saving the old store the top priority for the volunteer department.
“I was really concerned when I saw the side of the old Briscoe store show signs of damage from the heat of the fire and I can’t say enough about the efforts of the crew to battle and save that old store,” he said. “At its peak we had 25 firefighters from both departments working against the wind and the guys really stepped up to save the building.”
He said the fire was so close he was thinking ahead of the most efficient way to contain it if it happened to spread to the former store.
“When you consider four guys arrived on scene and were met with a huge fire in the barn and several vehicles in flames and they immediately set up a line of defence to save the store in the face of strong winds, well that tells you something,” he said. “Most of our guys came from 11 kilometers away and our nearest hydrant was back in Douglas, which is 11 kilometers away, yet they held the fire in check for a few hours.”
Drones Assist Effort
The 911 call resulted in three ambulances being dispatched to the site and their first task was to safely remove the female occupant from the home. Daisy-Mae Lennox, who has some health challenges as a result of a stroke, was placed in a car at a safe distance away from the flames. She is the widow of Larry “The Hitman” Lennox and at one time the two of them hosted a weekly Bluegrass show on Valley Heritage Radio for almost 10 years.
Two of the paramedics, Scott McLeod and Wade MacPherson, who are both members of the Renfrew County Community Paramedic Program, then assisted the firefighters when they launched a drone to survey the area.
“We are supporting the firefighters who may require medical assistance but our main focus was helping them to fight the fire by using the drones,” Mr. McLeod said. “It was level at about 50 meters above the structure and it allows us to determine where exactly the hot spots are, especially since the fire was located among several old vehicles and they can be very tricky for firefighters when they are going through the area where it is very smokey and things can become dangerous for the firefighters.”
Both paramedics said the wind was extremely challenging and there were times when they considered bringing the drone down, but in the end they were able to stabilize the unit despite the gusting winds.
Chief VanWoezik said once Tom Barr showed up with heavy machinery to clear some of the vehicles out of the way, the crews had an easier time containing the fire and keeping it away from the house.
“Tom (Barr) came out around 6:30 and he started moving not only the vehicles, but some of the other metal objects that were smoldering and he cleared them out of the way,” he said. “As well, we had to call in Hydro One crews to disconnect the power as we were worried about our guys coming into contact with active power sources. Power was restored later the next day and I came out to check on the debris for hot spots but since it rained pretty much all Tuesday night and into Wednesday morning so that was a big relief.”
Chief VanWoezik said there were no injuries and said the efforts of the firefighters to save the old store is nothing short of a miracle given all the obstacles in their way.
Colourful History At Briscoe’s Store
Dorothy Edwards of Cobden, the granddaughter of the original Briscoe’s Store owner, J.M. Briscoe (James Mayhew), said her grandfather bought the property from a Mr. Munro where the first store was located in a “little white house” near the location of the present store.
He ran the store out of the downstairs and lived upstairs for a while.
“He also had a post office on the ground floor,” she noted. “He retired after 62 years as postmaster.
“Then the white store burned and he built another one, a brick building in 1903 (on the current site),” she added. “It burned in 1930 and he rebuilt in 1931, with what is there now.”
She said her grandfather also built a separate brick home just west of the store in 1913.
“Then in 1919, he built the grain shed (which burned),” she said.
Mrs. Edwards said J.M.’s son, Joe, was helping in the store in the early 1920s when his dad was buying grain and selling machinery.
“Then Uncle Joe took over the store part and grandpa looked after the grain shed part,” she explained. “My father, Ken, helped as well and a lot of the neighbours and grandpa’s other kids helped in the grain shed too.”
Mrs. Edwards said her grandfather bought and sold grain, but handled mostly peas, which they cleaned and shipped to Montreal. She said J.M. had built a large tin shed for storing and cleaning the grain, which was first loaded by horse and later by a Model T Ford truck which he bought from Simpson and Elliott. She noted they would bring the grain in from Forester’s Falls, Osceola, Rankin, Admaston, Bromley and other local points.
When her Uncle Joe died in 1969, her father bought the store part of the business.
“The grain shed was no longer in operation. Dad took over the store and he died in 1989.
Mom (Marion) kept the store running for another year. Then we had an auction sale and after that it wasn’t operated as store anymore.”
Her mother sold the property to the current owners, the Lennoxs.
Mrs. Edwards was there to watch the fire last Tuesday, September 21.
“It was heart-breaking, but thank goodness the store and the house are still okay,” she said. “The firefighters did an awesome job to save the store.”
She is the oldest of four children. Her sisters, Linda and Shirley, are still alive. Her brother Stanley died at age 18 in 1970. She noted as children they would help out in the store.
Mrs. Edwards said her father’s sister, Annie, lived with them at the store. After her mom sold the store, her mom and Annie moved to Renfrew in 1991.
Bruce McIntyre, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eganville Leader