LA GRANGE – Several fires in the late 1800s and early 1900s in La Grange helped shape the village’s unique history, and now, a retired fire chief is offering walking tours of the downtown area that retrace those fateful events.
Bill Ruting, who served as La Grange fire chief for 33 years, will give three 90-minute tours of the locations of several significant fires in downtown La Grange. The tours are scheduled for 10 a.m. Sept. 15, Sept. 30 and Oct. 13.
The tours will take guests to 21 locations around La Grange where significant fires occurred between the late 1800s and the 1970s, and attendees will learn about the history of each event. Ruting will highlight the Cossitt block, Packer’s Livery and La Grange Club fires and many more on the tour, which will cover between four and five blocks.
Ruting said he gave similar tours two years ago during his 50th Lyons Township High School class reunion, and they were so popular he wanted to offer them again to the public.
“People really enjoyed the tours, and it’s a good way to share the history of La Grange," he said. "People will learn a different aspect of it."
Ruting self-published a book about the village’s historical fires and the La Grange Fire Department’s history in 2017. He said he’s always wanted to publish a book and thought the history of the Fire Department would be a good subject because of his extensive experience. Tour guests will learn about the history of the department, which Ruting said began as an all-volunteer department in about 1890.
The largest fire in terms of dollars lost was the Ford dealership fire in 1932, where between 40 and 60 vehicles were destroyed, Ruting said. He said the 1905 fire at Packer’s Livery killed 43 horses, while the only fire with a human victim was the 1975 fire at McAllister-Schoen department store that left a bookkeeper dead.
“The causes vary, and some were unreported or weren’t investigated,” he said. “One of the things that came out of [the fires] is that the older buildings made of wood were replaced with more substantial brick buildings, and firewalls were added between buildings to prevent fires from spreading. Those were important changes.”
The La Grange Area Historical Society also offers historical tours of the village, but Executive Director Sarah Parkes said Ruting’s tour offers a different perspective than the historical society’s tours.
“His tour is from a firefighter’s point of view, and it focuses on how those fires affected the village, and how it thought of safety and architecture,” she said. “[The village] had to experience those fires to reinvent and continue to evolve as a safe and comfortable place to live. Suburban villages have such a unique history, and their own personality.”
The tours are free, but registration is required at ruting.us. Ruting’s book, “Steel Men and Wooden Ladders,” will be available for purchase at the tours.
If you go
WHAT: Historical fire walking tours
WHEN: 10 a.m. Sept. 15, Sept. 30 and Oct. 13
WHERE: Various locations in downtown La Grange