We Remember “The Christmas That Almost Wasn’t: The  Gratiot County Courthouse Fire of 1978”

Firefighters from Ithaca, Alma and St. Louis work to put out the fire at the Gratiot County Courthouse on the evening of December 12, 1978.

The Gratiot County Courthouse three years later in 1981.

For the better of fifteen years, the Gratiot County courthouse treated county residents to Christmas decorations representing the holiday spirit. However, two weeks before Christmas in 1978, Gratiot County almost lost the then 70-year-old national landmark.

It all started around 10:30 pm on that Tuesday night of December 12 when Sheriff Deputy Jerry Roslund reported for work. Roslund looked up and saw smoke coming out of the courthouse’s second floor. Upon approaching the main doors, he smelled smoke and immediately headed to the dispatch office next door. At 10:50 pm, dispatch called the Ithaca Fire Department, and the race to put out the fire began.

A group of approximately 45 men from three fire departments (Ithaca, Alma, St.Louis) worked with six large pumpers to control the fire. Firefighters worked furiously, fearing that if not quickly contained, a chimney effect would occur, with fire spreading up through the dome and rotunda shape of the building. They were fortunate that the slate roof that covered the building and the addition of recent insulation helped keep the fire from spreading.

The effort of firefighters contained the blaze within an hour. The Alma Fire Department remained on the scene for 4 hours, while Ithaca stayed on duty until 4:30 am. The presence of the fire marshall, use of hose, and cleanup continued on site until noon on December 13. The cause? An overloaded drop cord ran through the Circuit Court Office.

While firefighters saved the courthouse from a devastating fire, there was severe damage and a lot to clean up. Two rooms and the attic suffered the most, along with the circuit court office. Burned books and papers went out of the second-floor windows, and the original woodwork in the rooms suffered damage. The county-owned law library was lost, as was furniture.

As a result of the fire, Probate Court Judge James Harmony moved to the bottom floor. The offices of Clerk, Treasurer, Register of Deeds, Juvenile Office, and Probate Court all moved temporarily to other locations, such as the Ithaca Presbyterian Church. Damages to the courthouse were initially estimated at $150,000 to repair fully. Very soon, the Board of Commissioners applied for a $20,000 grant with the National Register of Historical Places Preservation Grant in Aid. With help from the Michigan History Division, $49,200 became available – if Gratiot County matched the grants, which the county did. Still, the county could only use the $98,400 available for architectural planning, not actual construction. The rebuilding and remodeling eventually started, and the courthouse received the work it needed to represent Gratiot County again. 

For many Gratiot County residents of the 1960s, the county courthouse represented the best of the Christmas season. People came from across Gratiot County to observe the many Christmas decorations that adorned our county and national landmark. Looking back at December 12, 1978, it is easy to forget that Gratiot County came very close to losing the courthouse.

Copyright 2022 James M Goodspeed

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