News: Loyal Area Farm Fires (Feb 1971)

Contact: Dolores (Mohr) Kenyon

Surnames: Zepplin, Kauffman, Wangen, Rohan, Wehe, Schlinsog, Weyer, Martens, Gruenke, Bertz, Patey

----Source: Clark County Press (Neillsville, Clark Co, WI) 2/18/1971

Loyal Area Farm Fires (Suspect A Firebug - 18 February 1971)

“It was real scary. You got so when you looked up you wondered whether you’d see another house or barn burning in the distance.” The speaker was Byron Zepplin, Loyal businessman and member of that city’s volunteer fire department.

Just three hours before he and 19 other members had returned from an area three to four miles east and south of Loyal, in which three barns and a house had burned to the ground.

A total of 87 head of livestock had perished in the flames on four farms, two owned by Richard Kauffman, who came here about two years ago from the Hillsboro area, and on two farms owned by James Wangen, Loyal insurance man. All were covered by insurance.

An apparent effort had been made to burn two other vacant houses and a vacant barn on the properties of these two men; but one was foiled by sheriff’s officers and firemen. The other two went out by themselves.

Sheriff’s officers were cooperating with William Rohan of Eau Clare, state fire marshal, in an investigation being conducted into the fires. They has spent three and one-half days gathering information; but, contrary to a report made by an area television station earlier, they said they were nowhere near winding up their work.

Thus far, principal clues found were an incendiary device composed of a roll of tarpaper with melted wax on top, found in the house on the old “Wimpy” Wehe farm, one and one-half miles northwest of the Schlinsog Dairy at Pelsdorf; a house broom which had been freshly singed, and a boot, in the basement of the house on the old James Martens farm, a half-mile north of the Schlinsog Dairy. This house did not burn.

An effort apparently was made also to burn the barn on the Wangen farm, two miles to the northeast, and a mile east of the L. G. Anderson repair shop corner. But when investigators checked the location, they found that debris which had been reported on top of a beam beneath a smoke-marked ceiling had been “swept clean.”

All four farms were within a two-mile area.

Flames broke out in three of the locations within minutes of one another; but there was a delay of nearly an hour and one-half before fire was seen on the horizon at the old Wehe farm owned by Kauffman.

That was what made Zepplin and other firemen apprehensive that there might be still another fire at any time.

The first blaze discovered was at the Wangen farm house east of the Anderson repair shop. Richard Weyer saw the glow and telephoned the alarm about 12:55 a.m. Sunday. The firemen arrived there in time to find the house on fire; but not the barn - although this is where an attempt had been and failed.

While there they saw the glow in the sky at the other Wangen place, a mile directly to the west. They knew this barn housed a number of head of cattle and that nothing could be done to save the house where they were.

They went to the barn fire; and as they arrived they saw flames in the sky a mile to the south, at the former Martens farm. Five men remained at the Wangen place and drove cattle out, while five other members then present raced to the Martens farm.

At Wangen’s they were able to save 70 head of milch cows. They were unable to save four cows and 28 heifers. Although they drove some of the latter from the barn, they could not keep them from going back in, and they perished in the blaze.

The 70 milch cows saved from the Wangen barn were driven over icy snow-packed country roads to the Eugene Gruenke farm, six miles to the south, and only one fell along the way. This alone, was considered remarkable.

At the Martens farm, firemen found the fire raging full force. They were unable to save any of the 30 springers in the barn. This is where an effort was made, also, to start a fire in the basement of the house; but Sheriff David Bertz and Deputy Dan Patey said they believed pressed board used in the ceiling resisted the effort.

It was not until nearly an hour and one-half after the first alarm - at 3:59, to be exact - Deputy Patey discovered the fire at the old Wehe farm, a mile directly east of the Martens place. He radioed the alarm to Sheriff Bertz, who had reached a point near Christie on his return to Neillsville; then he called Chief Martens of the Loyal Police by radio to alert the firemen at the Martens place.

“When we first got there (to the old Wehe farm),” commented Fireman Zepplin, “I think we could have saved the cattle in the barn had we known they were there. But there weren’t any tracks around the barn and we didn’t hear anything inside, so we didn’t believe the barn was being used.” But it was. Nineteen heifers were destroyed as this old barn quickly was engulfed by flames.

It was almost an hour later - about 5 a.m. - that fire was found breaking out in the house on that site. It was extinguished by firemen on the scene, with but minor damage.

It just happened that Sheriff Bertz, Deputy Patey and the owner, Richard Kauffman, were checking the house. Bertz just happened to put his hand on the door leading to a platform at the head of the cellar stairway. It felt hot to his touch, he said, so he and Patey forced the door open and found the wall already in flames.

The homemade incendiary device consisting of the roll of tar paper and probably a candle was found on the platform after the firemen had extinguished the house blaze.

Sheriff’s officers said that Kauffman had returned home from Hillsboro, where he had gone Saturday to attend to business, just before the fire broke out in the house on the Wehe farm.

Thus far, investigating officers have interviewed two men whom they asked to come to Neillsville, and several others.

“We are gathering all the information we can, and checking all the rumors that come our way,” commented Sheriff Bertz Wednesday morning. “Thus far we have nothing substantial which might lead to an arson charge; but we’re working in that direction.”



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