Knox Street Fire — 1961

by Paula Bosse

knox-street-fire_3100-block_052161_unt_portal_dallas-firefighters-museum3100 block of Knox, after a 4-alarm fire… (click for larger image)

by Paula Bosse

I often run across photos that aren’t particularly historical, but they’re interesting because they show a part of town with which I’m familiar but which looks very different today. The photo above shows the 3100 block of Knox Street, between McKinney and Cole, looking toward Cole (seen at the stoplight). It shows the aftermath of a 4-alarm fire that broke out on May 21, 1951 and destroyed three businesses: George’s Cafe (at 3124 Knox), the Knox Street Barber Shop (3128 Knox), and Foster’s Food Store (3122 Knox) — the building housing these business survived, but it is long-gone; the land is now occupied by On The Border.

A firefighter was briefly overcome by smoke, as seen in the Dallas Morning News photo below (click for larger image). The caption: “Emergency Corpsman Bill Wheless administers oxygen to Fire Capt. J. R. Montgomery, who was overcome by smoke while fighting a 4-alarm blaze in the 3100 block of Knox Sunday morning.” (I am forever running across weird connections. I grew up a few doors down from Mr. Wheless in the 1970s and was in his house quite a bit — I never knew he had once been a fireman.)

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Dallas Morning News, May 22, 1961

There were no fatalities at the scene, but, sadly, Charles William Layne, a 13-year-old neighborhood boy who suffered from a heart condition, collapsed while while running to see what the commotion was and later died.

I looked up one of the businesses affected by the fire: George’s Cafe, owned by George Bartlett, who opened the business at 3124 Knox in 1937. Apparently those early days were difficult, and Bartlett barely kept the business afloat. The only thing that seemed to keep him going was the fear of losing the money his widowed mother had loaned him after she had mortgaged her home. A heartwarming rags-to-riches article by Kenneth Foree appeared in The Dallas Morning News in 1946.

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DMN, Nov. 28, 1946

Digging a bit, I saw that Bartlett had tried to sell the cafe several times but never seems to have found a buyer. The for-sale ads stopped after 1964. The last appearance of the cafe in the Dallas directory was in 1965. Bartlett died in 1966.

But Bartlett wasn’t kidding when he was interviewed by Kenneth Foree in that Dallas News article: it was very hard making money running the place. So hard, in fact, that in order to keep from going under he had to take on a side job: he became a bookie, taking bets on basketball games, football games, and horse races. He was arrested twice (in 1959 and 1963) and spent 90 days in jail after being convicted on bookmaking charges. When arrested in 1963 after having been caught flushing receipts down the toilet as the vice squad broke down his door (a case which was later no-billed), the 57-year-old Bartlett told the arresting officer, “I just can’t make any money in the cafe business” (DMN, Nov. 17, 1963).

Oh, George. What would your mother have said?

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DMN, May 26, 1961

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DMN, June 22, 1945

Below, the businesses in the 3100 block of Knox Street at the time of the fire. The businesses that burned were located in a building torn down many years ago and replaced by On The Border (the view today is here).

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1962 Dallas directory

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The photo at the top was taken by Dallas Morning News staff photographer Joe Laird and appeared on the front page of The News on May 22, 1961; it is from the Dallas Firefighters Museum, via the Portal to Texas History — more info is here.

Pictures and clippings larger when clicked.

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Copyright © 2016 Paula Bosse. All Rights Reserved.

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