SPRINGFIELD, NJ - It was rainy evening with temperatures just below freezing on the evening of Sunday, Feb. 5, 1939, and all seemed quiet and normal in the Perkins’ two-story wood frame home at 500 Mountain Avenue in Springfield.
The Perkins Family
The Perkins family were just an average Springfield family trying to make ends meet in the final year of the Great Depression. James Owen Perkins, a 52-year-old auto mechanic, and his wife Kathleen Perkins, a 40-year-old homemaker, were the parents of seven children, Mary Elizabeth, 21, James John, 18, Lee 16, John Henry, 12, Betty June, 8, Robert Richard, 6 and Donald William, 3. Mary was married and living with her husband, Charles Lemke and their new born daughter Kathleen in Clark, New Jersey.
The Perkins home lacked steam heat and electricity and was rented from Philip and Margaret Bono who lived next door.
James and his two oldest sons, James John and Lee were at the service station on State Highway 29 (now Route 22) in Union where James worked to earn a meager living. The Perkins’ oldest daughter, Mary Lemke was at her home in Clark with her husband and child. Kathleen’s widowed mother, Frances Conboy, was visiting from Newark that evening.
Earlier in the evening, a portable kerosene heater was lit in the hallway on the main floor to provide some warmth in the home.
Around 7:15 p.m. Kathleen and her mother tucked the children into bed in their upstairs bedrooms. Normally, the youngest child, Donald, usually waited on the couch downstairs for the arrival of his father before going to sleep, but he told his mother that he did not want to wait and went upstairs to bed with the other children. After tucking the children in bed, Kathleen and her mother went downstairs to the kitchen to read the Sunday paper.
Sometime around 8:00 p.m. Kathleen and her mother heard a dull pop while reading the paper at the kitchen table, but paid no attention to it until they smelled smoke. They quickly put down their papers and ran towards the stairs to the children. The kerosene heater had exploded.
Flames already were climbing up the stairs and their attempts to reach the children were frustrated by the quickly spreading fire. Kathleen and her mother rushed to the front of the home on Mountain Avenue where they called encouragement to the children, who could be heard crying for help.
As the two women stood by the street screaming for help, a neighbor, Louis Stiles, called the Springfield Fire Department. James Petruziela, who was next door visiting his in-laws, the Bono’s, was having his dinner when he saw the flames and ran to the front of the home.
Petruziela joined Stiles and together they ran to the rear of the home. Stiles boosted Petruziela up to the back-porch roof, just under the second story window. Petruziela broke a window pane and climbed into the home. He managed to get as far as the head of the stairs but the smoke nearly overcame him as he was almost opposite the bedroom where the three younger children were trapped.
Petruziela climbed out the window to the porch roof and had Stiles pass him up his overcoat. He placed it over his head as he once more entered the burning home. Now flames were already burning the side walls in the front of the home and rapidly spreading to the rear.
Petruziela was making his second attempt to get at the children when the Springfield Fire Department arrived in its 1933 Diamond “T” Pumper truck. The fire department, on the backside of town hall, was located only one mile from Perkins’ home. Firefighters upon arrival, battled flames for more than half an hour to get the fire under control.
The grandmother, Frances Conboy, collapsed just before the fire department arrived and was taken to a neighbor’s home and treated for shock.
Passing motorists noticed the flames around 8:15 p.m. The home, was described as dry as tinder and was a roaring mass of flames in a few minutes.
Stiles called James Perkins at the service station and told him to come home immediately. Just as Perkins and his two oldest sons reached the scene of their smoldering home the burned body of his son, Jack, was being carried down. The three other children were brought to the street soon after.
The Perkins were taken to Overlook Hospital in nearby Summit and were treated for shock. They were soon released and moved to Lodge 1583 of the Elks in Union, where they were joined by their surviving sons for next few days. The grandmother, who was taken to a neighbor’s home and wasn't immediately told of the death of her four grandchildren.
On Wednesday, February 8, the Reverend Fred Druckenmiller, pastor of the Connecticut Farms Presbyterian Church in Union, officiated services of the Perkins children. The four children were taken in four white Packard hearses and each were in a tiny white casket.
Eight officers of the Elks Club served as pallbearers. They were: Joseph A. Rowe, esteemed leading knight, John J. Albiez, past exalted ruler; John F. Prost, esteemed lecturing knight; Paul L. Jones, past treasurer; Joseph M. Johnson, Trustee; Walter J. Nicholson and Maurice A. Scotch, past exalted rulers, and George R. Albiez, loyal knight.
Kathleen Perkins, a grieving mother shrouded in black, her husband James, their two surviving sons and a daughter were joined by more than 1500 local residents for the burial of their four children at the Springfield Methodist Church Cemetery.
Unsteady and held upright by friends, the Perkins watched as the four caskets of their children were lowered into the cold February ground. The expenses of the funeral were provided by the Elks Club.
When the shivering survivors of the Perkins family stood gazing at the smoldering ruins of their home the Union Elks opened their doors of their new acquired headquarters at Five Corners to provide three days’ shelter for the homeless quartet. Their daughter Mary Lemke returned to her family in Clark.
James Perkins was a member of the Elks Lodge in good standing for seven years prior to the fire that destroyed his home and claimed the lives of his four youngest children.
The Perkins, according to Elks Secretary Stanley Parkins, their former residence had no adequate plumbing facilities, no indoor bathroom. Their furniture was decrepit and in need of repair and an icebox for the most part was the outside edge of the kitchen window sill. They could not afford electricity in their home and consequently kerosene lamps had to supplant that luxury.
Except for the clothing on their backs and salvaging of a few possessions, what little comfort in the way of clothing and furnishings the Perkins family owned was lost in the inferno that claimed their home.
The family found a home with hot and cold running water, steam heat and electricity at 2630 Vauxhall Road in Union. The residence no longer exists today and that area is now a bridge that crosses I-78.
The landlady of the new Perkins home, Anna Gutbrod, a kindly old German widow, assured Kathleen Perkins would find a haven at the modest truck farm marked with rows of grape vines and with a line of chicken coops where she can work and stay busy.
The Elks assisted the Perkins family with furnishing their new home and sought donations of furniture from in and around the local vicinity. The Elks raised $230 in pledges and a trust fund was opened by Parkins for the Perkins family.
The Perkins family moved to Warren, NJ, in 1940 were they owned a home on Old Sterling Road. Today, the Perkins home that originally stood at 500 Mountain Avenue was never rebuilt.