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A fire to remember in Farmington

Firefighters worked through the night to battle the Dec. 1, 1972 fire at downtown Farmington’s Griebie Building. It is the second-biggest fire in the city’s history.1 / 2
Nobody was injured in the Griebie Building fire, but the building was a loss and stores lost tens of thousands of dollars worth of merchandise. This photo is of a mannequin in the Christmas window display of Anthony’s Department Store. All photos were published in the Dec. 7, 1972 edition of the Dakota County Tribune.2 / 2

It was a cold night back on Dec. 1, 1972. It was also the night that changed the appearance of downtown Farmington forever.

More than 40 years have passed since that cold December night, a night that sticks in the memories of many Farmington residents. It was the night when the historic three-story Griebie building on the corner of Third and Oak streets burned to rubble. Twelve hours after the fire was discovered, a crane was brought in to dismantle what was left of the Griebie building. The fire was hailed in the Dec. 7, 1972 edition of the Dakota County Tribune as the worst since Farmington’s Great Fire of 1879. Built in 1880 after the Great Fire destroyed the first building owned by proprietor C.R. Griebie, the brick structure was home to hotels, lodge rooms, grocery stores and general stores for nearly 100 years.

In 1972, the Griebie building was home to Anthony’s Department Store and The Family Market. It was owned by Fred Griebie. Griebie had sold the family grocery store to John Zimmer, who later sold it to Gene Gulbranson, owner of The Family Market.

A Gambles store was right next door.

The fire was discovered by Farmington firefighter Jim Pelach, just after 2:30 a.m. This was back when Farmington’s fire station was still on Oak Street, attached to city hall. Pelach had been doing work at the VFW after hours, and was just leaving when he saw smoke coming from the windows on the north side of the first floor of the Anthony department store, according to the Tribune’s account.

He ran the half block to the fire hall, pushed the fire siren and phoned in the alarm. Pelach took a fire truck to the scene, put on an air pack and attempted to enter the building. The heat was too great, though, so he had to turn back. By the time firefighters arrived, the fire was fully involved.

“By the time we got the call and got down there, we really didn’t know where the main fire was coming from,” retired firefighter Ron Royce recalled.

Firefighters set up all around the building. Royce was on Oak Street, where a ladder had been propped up against a window. The firefighters ran a hose through the window, and took turns spraying the water into the building. A rookie was stationed at the bottom to hold the ladder.

“The smoke was so bad, you would get an upset stomach. The rookie on the bottom of the ladder was looking at us like, ‘What’s wrong with these guys?’” Royce said.

Fire chief Jack Sauber and assistant chief Leonard Franke called out to other departments for help. Apple Valley, Lakeville, Rosemount, Northfield and Randolph crews responded.

Another group of firefighters was on the roof of the building. They felt the roof weaving so they retreated before it collapsed, Royce said. Another group tried to get in through the main door, but they too had to turn back.

“It was a good thing they did, because the floor had already been burnt out,” Royce said. “They would have wound up trapped in the basement.”

No one was injured in the fire, but it did extensive damage to the businesses inside. The Anthonys store lost $65,000 worth of stock. Another $60,000 to $80,000 in inventory and fixtures was reported lost from The Family Market. Next door at the Gambles store, the owners reported smoke and water damage, as well as another $10,000 in ruined stock.

The fire burned through the night and into the morning hours. That’s when current fire chief Tim Pietsch, then a newspaper delivery boy, first saw an orange glow in the sky, coming from the downtown area. He finished his route, then pedaled his bike downtown to watch the firemen attack the blaze.

“You talk about something engrained in your brain. That’s something I’ll never forget. I remember those guys scrambling and working. Water was everywhere. Flames were everywhere. It was pretty incredible to see,” Pietsch said. “The whole downtown area was in a fog.”

Firefighters were unable to save the Griebie building that night, but they were able to save the Gambles store next door. There was a space of three feet between the two buildings, Royce said, so firefighters put in a water curtain to stop the fire from spreading.

The remaining shell of the building was demolished by 3 p.m. on Dec. 1, so the rubble would not tumble into Third Street.

The cause of the fire went undetermined for nearly two years, until the sister-in-law of Family Market owner Gulbranson came forward with information that the fire was deliberately set. In 1977, Gulbranson was found guilty of arson.

Michelle Leonard

Michelle Leonard joined the Woodbury Bulletin staff in November, 2014, after 14 years covering news for the Bulletin's sister publication, the Farmington Rosemount Independent Town Pages.  Michelle earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Mass Communications: News-Editorial from Mankato State University in 1991. She is an active member of the American Legion Auxiliary Clifford Larson Unit 189 of Farmington, and served as the 2014-15 Third District President to the American Legion Auxiliary Department of Minnesota. Michelle is also the volunteer coordinator for the Minnesota Newspaper Museum which is open annually during the Minnesota State Fair. She has earned Minnesota Newspaper Association awards in Investigative Reporting, Local News Coverage, Feature Photography and Column Writing. 

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