40TH ANNIVERSARY: Remembering the fire of 1978

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Just over 40 years ago, several Salyersville businesses were destroyed in the historic 1978 fire.

According to the January 12, 1978 issue of The Courier-Journal, the fire started on January 10, 1978 at approximately 7:15 p.m., in downtown Salyersville.

Salyersville Fire Chief Paul Howard, who was a volunteer fire fighter at the time, said the fire started in the hardware store, owned by Cammie Owens (building owned by William Lyons).

Crews fought the fire in sub-zero temperatures and after several hours, thought they had the fire out, with only the hardware store destroyed, but late the next night, the fire started back up.

“We didn’t know it until the second night, but those buildings were all connected, sharing walls instead of being separate buildings, and had large wood beams running through all three, connecting them, which was how the fire spread,” Howard said.

The fire spread next door to Oran Salyer’s Restaurant, where local historian Jimmie Allen said you could get really good plate lunches, roast beef specials, and great hot dog sauce. In the back of the restaurant was a pool room, and Salyer lived upstairs.  

“It was a busy place and a good place to eat,” Allen remembers.

The fire also spread to the Willis 5 and 10¢ Store, taking the office upstairs, where lawyer Earl R. Cooper had an office. Cooper, who was the Commonwealth attorney for Breathitt, Magoffin and Wolfe for three terms, had a lot of historical records that were destroyed in the fire.

In terms of where the buildings were compared to today, the building with the old bank building (now Salyersville Renaissance) and what was most recently Alley Bugs, was directly connected to the Willis 5 and 10¢ Store (located where there is now a grassy lot). Next door to the store was Salyer’s restaurant and pool room, and adjacent to it was the hardware store (in The Courier-Journal was listed as a True Value hardware store) where the fire started.

The end of the hardware store was located near where the edge of the pumps is at present-day Speedway. 

Howard said Prestonsburg Fire Department and Paintsville Fire Department tried to respond as mutual aid, but their fire trucks froze up. He remembers the temperature falling to -15 degrees during those nights, with a -30-degree wind chill.

“I keep telling my guys in temps that low to never turn off their water hoses,” Howard said. “The first hose I carried up the ladder froze up and, luckily we were able to get another one to work and got enough water to stop it before it spread to that next building.”

Howard remembers that he had on the thigh boots and fire coat (the fire gear of the time), an old silver defense helmet and brown jersey gloves.

After fighting the fire, he said he couldn’t pull off his coat because it was frozen.

“They had to set it off of me,” Howard said.

Today, the fire gear is regulated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. To stay in compliance, Howard said they just ordered four fire fighters' gear, totaled at $10,000.