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Rishel fire deemed news tip of the week

By Staff | Dec 3, 2015

Ken Schneider snapped this photo of persons reviewing the rubble following the complete devastation of the Rishel Furniture Factory at 137 South Third Street, Hughesville on Nov 4, 1965.

HUGHESVILLE – Just after midnight fifty years ago on November 4, 1965, residents near the Rishel Furniture Factory phoned relatives after a blaze broke out at the factory in Hughesville.

At Muncy, Garman Zehner was one of several adult children summoned by worried parents. His mother resided at 171 South Third Street, two lots away from the fire.

Images of the blaze caught on cameras by Zehner and brother Gerald were shown on screen to 85 attendees during the program given November 16 at the East Lycoming Historical Society’s (ELHS) November meeting.

The factory was located at the foot of Academy Street between Third and Fourth Streets, the current site of the Friend’s Church.

The factory consisted of two buildings, three story structures connected by a 75 foot enclosed belt conveyor taking furniture to the finishing room.

“In about three hours, between one and four a.m., the factory was gone. The blaze shot straight up and in the end nothing was left by twisted metal,” Zehner said.

There were no fatalities and no serious injuries. “These guys were heroes; they kept the fire from spreading,” Zehner said, referring to Fire Chief Del Swisher, Assistant Chief Don Price and the crew. Price, suffering from fatigue, was carried to the Ned Shuler home, but after rested, returned to the fire. Don Stugart had minor burns on his arm and also returned to the scene. “Firemen shooting water on the blaze were cooled by fellow firemen further to the rear, dousing water on them. Their helmets were so hot, steam could be seen when the water hit their head gear,” Zehner said.

“When Pennsdale’s pumper truck went to the creek for water, fireman Don Konkle jumped into the cold water. Submerged up to his armpits, he averted leaves from clogging the intake valve. Konkle went home, changed clothes and went back to the fire,” the speaker said.

Meanwhile across the street from the Zehner home, Mrs. Kenneth Hill phoned son Ronald at Towanda. In an attempt to console her, Hill said to his mother, “Calls from Rishel’s to the fire company are a common occurrence. No, my mother answered, this is it.” On the way to the fire with his wife to Hughesville that night, Hill said, “When we reached the top of the Sonestown lookout, the sky over the valley was aglow.”

Also commenting at the meeting was former foreman Jerry Ohnmeiss who said, “The cause was never officially determined.” Ohnmeiss with the agreement of several in attendance, gave the scenario that Williamsport Tech students came to work during the four to eleven p.m. shift. When watchman Ralph Hoover came around, it was supposed to avoid detection, a cigarette may have been tossed in the trash can.

The floor where the furniture was sanded was often covered with two to three inches of dust. Lacquer barrels were also an excellerant. One witness reported explosions shot off pieces of the metal roof which came down as far away as Trick’s garage.

John Hall, on his way home from a date, found himself traveling between two fire trucks dispatched from Clarkstown. “For 18 years, my father had been a maintenance man at Rishels. When arriving home, I told him he wouldn’t need to go to work in the morning. Immediately his feet hit the floor, he dressed and went down to the fire.” Hall’s father lost $400 dollars worth of tools which were never replaced.

Zehner war reminded that a local radio station offered five dollars for the hottest news tip of the week. He dialed “O” and was connected to radio station owner Vic Michael. Rising early to go to work from his home on the Muncy-Exchange Road, Michael noted a red glow on the wall opposite his picture window. Zehner’s call explained the reason for the reflection.

From the rubble of the fire, Charles Newhart gave Zehner the coin return portion of a vending machine complete with melted money. “The price of a soda was a nickel and a dollar ten was my hourly wage in 1962,” the speaker concluded.