The summer of 1891 in Glen Ellyn was especially hot and dry. The drought persisted into the autumn. Old timers likened it to the weather 20 years earlier that had preceded the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, which burned for two days and consumed everything in a path nearly a mile wide and four miles long.
John Elick, a local baker, had the job of lighting the kerosene street lamps along Main Street in Glen Ellyn. On the evening of November 6, 1891, as Elick lit the lamp in front of his bakery, it slipped from his grasp and crashed in flames on the wooden sidewalk. Within seconds the blaze was beyond what could be smothered with overcoats or a nearby bucket of water, and it quickly spread to Elick’s own building, a wood-frame store front.
A general alarm was sounded, but there was little the townspeople could do. In those days, Glen Ellyn had no fire company of its own. A rider was dispatched to Wheaton two miles away, and the Wheaton Hook and Ladder Company responded as promptly as horses could pull the equipment. By the time they arrived, the fire was completely out of control. Furthermore, Glen Ellyn had no municipal water system to supply water for fighting the fire.
The fire started on the west side of Main Street, one building north of Crescent Boulevard. As was the case with the Great Chicago Fire, strong southerly winds pushed the fire north–toward Pennsylvania Avenue. Boyd Brothers Hardware Store was the next victim, followed by the office building of George M.H. Wagner, the drugstore of W.S. Ryder, the grocery store of John Mertz, and the W.H. Myers Meat Market. The fire burned all night until it had consumed every building on the west side of Main except for one just south of where the fire started.
Practically everyone in town turned out to help, but their efforts were limited to removing merchandise and fixtures from the buildings in the path of the blaze and dousing sparks carried by the wind to businesses across the street. While the buildings on the east side of Main were spared destruction, several suffered blistered paint and charred wood.
The Glen Ellyn fire of 1891 didn’t make headlines around the country the way the Chicago fire had 20 years earlier, but proportionally it destroyed as large a portion of this community as the Chicago fire did for Chicago. And, like Chicago, Glen Ellyn immediately set about to replace the wood buildings in its central business district with masonry structures, many of which still stand today.