The Human Side of the 1941 Fire at Chicago Mill & Lumber Company - and Our Family's Connection

John Dunn, the brother of my generation's grandfather, rose from being an entry-level employee to become the president of a far-flung publicly-held company with thousands of employees. The company was Chicago Mill & Lumber Company, and in 1941 it experienced a terrible fire that resulted in the deaths of three Chicago firefighters in the line of duty as they fought the fire.
One of the firefighters was George Michalski, and
I was contacted by his son, Daniel, who found this blog and my reference to Chicago Mill. Daniel provided a collection of photos and articles about the fire, his father, mother and their children. (While not a member of our family, firefighter Michalski's story
is one that I believe needs to be included here as part of Chicago Mill's history, which is part of our family story.)

As if the death of firefighter Michalski wasn't sad enough, there was an ironic twist. An article titled, “Outing With Family Costs Fireman Life”, says, “…Ordinarily Michalski would have been off duty at 8 a.m., before the 5-11 alarm [the highest alarm level used in Chicago] was sounded yesterday morning. But last week, to enable him to go out with his family, another fireman took his watch for two hours, and he returned the favor yesterday morning.”
(Click this article twice to make it readable.)

In other words, his desire to be with his family on that outing led to a schedule change that put him on duty at the time of the fire at Chicago Mill. How sad is that!

Chicago Tribune graphic given to Alice Michalski, widow of George Michalski
(Click to enlarge photos and exhibits.)

Our family connection to John Dunn:

Elsewhere in this blog
I report on the life of John Dunn, aka Jack, whose lineage and connection to our family can be seen in this matrix. Jack was part of his father William’s second family (William’s first wife and two of their four children had died, reportedly of scarlet fever). Jack was one of the six children of William and Josephine Lauer Dunn, including my generation’s grandfather, Eugene Dunn, meaning that Jack was our great uncle.

On the page in this blog that deals with Jack Dunn, John Stiefel - his son-in-law - made a comment that says, in part:

“Omitted from your biography is that when Jack's father died, Jack was approximately 16 years old, had to quit high school to support his mother and several younger brothers, went to work in a piano factory, eventually took correspondence courses to get an accounting degree, and then quit the piano factory where he had worked for many years to take a job in the accounting department of Chicago Mill and Lumber for ONE-HALF the pay he was then getting, because he knew there was a better future for him as an accountant. This man, who didn't attend college, and may not have graduated from high school, became the President of a public company.

I was with him when he died, and miss him to this day.”

Jack retired from the company after 1962 (when, as president, his name, photo and a letter from him appeared in the company’s annual report) and before 1964, when he died.

He was probably not yet the president of the company on June 16th, 1941, the date of the fire. In fact, I have no information about what his role with the company, if any, was at that time. However, on Jack's page of this blog is a quote from a report about the fire.

It says, in part:
“…The total damage of the fire was estimated to be about $75,000 [equivalent to about $1.1 milion in 2010 dollars]. The widows of the fallen firefighters were given support from Mayor Edward Kelly and the Firemen’s Mutual Benefit Association. The three firemen, along with other victims, were later recognized for their heroic efforts in the annual police and fire thrill show held at Soldier’s Field on July 13, 1941."

That version of the story is reported simply in factual terms – and doesn’t reveal anything about the families of the three firefighters who died in the line of duty during the fire. The purpose of this page is to provide at least a bit of that missing element.


More about George Michalski and the human aspect of this event:

In September of 1935, George Michalski, about age 24, was one of 125 rookies photographed by the Chicago Tribune when they were sworn in as members of the Chicago fire department. Here's a link to a photo of the swearing-in ceremony.

Two years after he was sworn in, on September 25th, 1937, he and Alice married.

Here they are on their honeymoon. Source

Soon they began having children. This photo is George and their eldest son, Daniel, on June 28, 1940.
 ◄ This is Alice and Daniel at the cemetery on June 21, 1941.

Alice, Daniel and youngest son, Floyd, in a news clipping on June 17, 1941.

So, there you have it. On June 16th, 1941, Firefighter First Class George Michalski, age 30, and two other firemen died in the line of duty while fighting the devastating fire at the Chicago Mill and Lumber Company. Firefighter Michalski was survived by his wife, Alice, 31, and two sons, Daniel, who was almost three, and Floyd, who was ten months old.

◄ This is his badge.

It's labeled with the month and year in which he died in the line of duty. It appears to be part of a tribute to fallen firefighters, for the edges of other badges can be seen in this photo.

The rest of the story:

In January, 2011, I received the following email message from Daniel Michalski, who found my email address on this blog:

"Dear Mr. Dunn,

Attached are [links to] photographs and documents from my keepsakes.

I thought they might interest you. [The photos and exhibits on this page come from his collection - and are included here with his permission.] 

My father George was age 30 when he was killed, my mother Alice had just turned 31, my brother Floyd was age nine months, and I [w]as to be age three in two weeks.

Death benefits were virtually nonexistent in those days.

Mom received a one-time check for $500 and an absolutely fixed duty-death annuity of $125 per month from June, 1941 until a revision of Illinois state law in 1972 increased that amount somewhat. She received an additional $10 per month for Floyd and me until we reached age 18.

A City of Chicago trust fund in her name was swindled from her.

She was never able to remarry, saying that she felt married to Dad in her heart.


Daniel Michalski"


The photos and documents provided by Daniel are sad, dramatic, touching and interesting – all at the same time. After seeing his remarkable collection of mementos about George Michalski and the fire, I requested Daniel’s permission to use on this blog some of the exhibits he provided. He graciously responded as follows:

“Dear Mr. Dunn:
I was moved and flattered that you chose to make public the documents regarding my father's death in the line of duty. By all means use them, but judiciously.
The $500 my mother Alice received was a one-time death benefit. She later invested the full amount in a private trust fund managed by a Chicago firefighter from his firehouse on North Elston Avenue, Chicago. When my younger brother Floyd became ill with pneumonia, [s]he took me by the hand and together we traveled by streetcar to that firehouse, where she intended to withdraw some of her money.

I recall the incident clearly. We were told that the firefighter ‘retired’ to Mexico, taking all of the assets of the fund with him. In those days during World War II, trust funds were not regulated or insured. Mom lost her entire $500 death benefit. The incident was confirmed to me by a trustee on the Firemen's Annuity & Benefit Fund Of Chicago, the pension arm of the Chicago Fire Department.

My mother Alice died of heart failure on May 6, 2000, age 89; and my brother Floyd died of cancer in 2002, age 62. As I previously told you, my mother was never inclined to remarry.

The Paepcke family, father Hermann and son Walter, founded the Chicago Mill and Lumber Company and later the Container Corporation of America as you surely know. Neither they nor their companies acknowledged my father's death with so much as a sympathy card to my mother. My mother never conceived that Dad died a ‘wrongful death’ in what investigators called a ‘tinderbox’, and was never inclined to sue.

Life is the chance that we all must take, and my mother, brother and I went at it with a vengeance, devoid of my father's presence as a provider, husband, wage earner and consort to my mother.

Again, use my documents and memories as you please, but with discretion.

Every best wish to you, Mr. Dunn.


Daniel George Michalski”


Here's a news clipping about the fire.

Here's a photo from the funeral.


◄ Alice at the funeral

Here's a memoriam to firefighter Michalski.
Daniel Michalski with his father's helmet at the Chicago  memorial park for fallen firefighters and paramedics.

Other exhibits from Daniel's collection:

Editor’s comment: I cannot adequately express the emotions I’ve felt as I’ve read the articles and reviewed the photos. It’s impossible for an outsider to understand the impact – both past and ongoing – of the sacrifices made by George Michalski and his family. The same applies to the other two men who died in that event - and their families.

I can only say thanks...

And that seems totally inadequate.



Last updated 4/13/2011

Please refer to the disclaimer on the index page of this blog for a statement regarding the accuracy of - and documentation for - the information presented in this blog.

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