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Sweets fire devastates town in 1939

The Linotype produced type, noise and fumes of hot lead.

Sun Advocate publisher

In 1939 people didn't realize what was looming on the horizon of world events, other than to know that part of the world, far away was at war.

Just like today, they had their own concerns locally, and one of those was a fire that took place in June of that year; a fire that destroyed a good deal of the town of Sweets.

Early on the morning of June 17, a fire started in a beer parlor and pool hall in the center of the mining village. Many of the structures in mining towns in those days were frame and the fire spread rapidly from building to building decimating the center of town. In all, two businesses and seven private residences melted before the flames.

But the disaster could have been worse if not by quick action of people from the town who used water from the storage tanks above town to control the fire, keeping the damage more isolated than it might have been. Just after noon that day the fire had been controlled.

Once the blaze was discovered, the fire departments in Helper and Price were contacted, but neither sent any help. According to Price Fire Chief Nick Bernardi, a city ordinance limited his ability to take fire fighting trucks out of the city limits. This was remedied years later when the county made arrangements with various towns fire departments to cover areas of the county in non-incorporated areas. That pact still holds today.

But nonetheless, despite not being able to transport equipment by city fire trucks, a number of municipal employees from both towns took chemical fire extinguishers to the site to help fight the blaze.

The two business buildings that burned were owned by the mining company, and so were five of the houses. The beer parlor was housed in the towns boarding house which was important for single miners who worked in the Sweets Mine.

Those out on the street because of the blaze included Bill Seely, Bill Pavlakis, Robert Williams, Richard Olson, Nick Baich and K. Sato.

As the fire spread people down the street began moving their furniture out of their homes because of the belief the fire could not be stopped.

Very little was saved from the homes that were burned.

The situation was made worse because even though the fire took place in June, it was a cold June day and snow actually swirled around as people darted here and there either trying to save belongings or escape from the fire and consequent smoke.

After that Sweets never really recovered as a town and mining activity there ended in the 1940s.

During that same time the Sun Advocate was advancing as a newspaper. The look of the paper changed in 1939 with new ideas and new graphics. But one of the biggest changes was the addition of a new composing machine called a "Blue Streak" in its composing room. The staff and owners of the paper were very proud of this new machine stating that "Loyal readers and subscribers are rightfully entitled to the latest typography, makeup and presentation for their enjoyment, reflecting their faith and confidence in the peope and future development of this community."

The machine, which had 12,000 parts was produced by a company named the Mergenthaler Linotype Company. The company had been started by Ottmar Mergenthaler who developed the first linotyype machine in the late 1880s. By 1939 the machine had changed a lot, but still held onto a lot of the orginal design systems.

The invention of the machine replaced the labor-intensive task of setting type by hand a huge endeavor when one considered all that needed to be done to produce a 12 page newspaper. The difficulty in the invention was not in creating the actual text, but in returning the characters to a proper position for future use. Mergenthaler solved this problem by placing type molds on the sides of specially keyed matrices. The matrices would be lined up and hot lead alloy forced to fill the matrices, creating the line of type. Then the matrices would progress through the machine, where a special keying system on one end of the matrix, unique for each character, would allow the matrix to drop only into the correct storage slot, ready for future use. Meganthaler also solved the problem of justifying lines of text, which fills each line with text regardless of the size of the words or letters.This had always been done by hand, but the machine did it automatically.

Thus the Sun Advcocate moved as of that date into a much more modern and efficient mode of publishing the paper each week. With that the year ended on a high note, but 1940 loomed as a year of transition across the nation as the inevitable war clouds gathered upon the national and local scene.

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