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The Mysterious Fires at the Hawthorn-Mellody Farm

In the 1950s one of the biggest draws to Libertyville was the Hawthorn-Mellody Farm. At the height of its popularity, the farm, which was owned by the Cuneo family, occupied more than 1,200 acres of land adjacent to the Cuneo Mansion. Hawthorn featured a working dairy farm, a milking parlor, a western town, and even a zoo. However a string of six major fires, starting in 1953 and ending in 1957, hit Hawthorn-Mellody. From the start investigators were curious since there wasn’t any conclusive evidence on how most of the fires began. Nothing was ruled out; however, the fire department was leaning toward arson. After a major fire in 1957, the mysterious fires stopped. A farm employee confessed to two of the fires, but more on that later.

HawthornMellody_Farms 1_zpspt9sdrpd
Postcard of Hawthorn Melody Dairy Milk Parlor.

All of the fires were bad and in the end the damage totaled about $700,000 (in 1957 dollars). Several animals were killed and a few people were hurt. Three fires stood out from the rest as being particularly severe. First, on July 21, 1955, during normal business hours, a fire broke out in the farm’s round barn and quickly spread to the hay shed. The round barn was for nursing calves and housed calves and their mothers. Both it and the shed went up quickly and seven calves were lost to the fire. Due to the dedicated work of the staff and local fire departments, these were the only animals lost, as the rest of the herd from the barn and other cattle housed near the blaze were relocated to a pasture. Seven people were injured including Vernon Fire Chief Walter Gerbert. Evacuating all the livestock took only about 10 minutes. The staff and fire departments (six responded to the fire) were also able to get all visitors out without incident. The round barn and hay shed burned to the ground and a parking lot was soon put in their place. The loss was valued at about $200,000.

Fire 1
Photograph from the August 23, 1956, edition of the Libertyville Independent Register, showing fire from the Hawthorn horse barn.

On the night of August 20, 1956, Hawthorn’s horse barn caught fire. The 40 x 40 foot structure burned through its roof until the fire department was able to contain the blaze. Four fire companies fought the fire from about midnight until 9 a.m. Part of the reason it took so long to put out was the water supply kept running low. At one point fire fighters used water from the Cuneo Mansion pool. The horses were all safely led out to pasture and no animals were harmed. However, the damage to the barn was estimated at about $15,000. Then on the night of February 3, 1957, fire struck again, this time hitting the farm’s two-story dairy barn. Fire crews and farm staff were able to get all 19 cows out of the barn, but tons of hay and straw were lost. Thankfully, no one was killed or injured in the blaze.

Fire 2
Picture of the round barn going up in flames from the July 28, 1955 Libertyville Independent Register.

All of these fires together in one place started raising suspicion, as early as the big fire in 1955. Suspecting arson, Libertyville Fire Chief Guy Grinnell started an investigation with local law enforcement as well as the Illinois State Fire Marshall. They interviewed several past and present employees of the farm to try and get some information. One staff member stood out and the investigation started to focus on him. After questioning, the staff member admitted to starting the two big fires in 1956 and 1957 (one by accident and one on purpose). However he denied starting the others. He wasn’t angry at the farm’s owners. The main cause of the fires had been his drinking alcohol. Once the case was brought to court, the defendant was advised by his defense attorney to rescind his confession and the judge threw out the case as the confession was the only real evidence the prosecution had. (Unfortunately, barns are mainly used to keep things dry and so they burn quickly, thus destroying any evidence of arson.)

fire 3
A shot of a wall collapsing (on the left) during the July 1955 fire. This was part of an article from the September 5, 1955 Libertyville Independent Register, discussing the investigation into the fires at Hawthorn.

After this, the cluster of fires at the farm seemed to stop or at least greatly slow down. The Hawthorn-Mellody Farm was probably a victim of an arsonist. Just who the perpetrator was will probably never be known. Thankfully with all of the mayhem, no human lives were lost and most of the livestock was saved through courage and quick thinking. The Hawthorn-Mellody attraction would carry on from these fires and continue to be a hit until the early 1970s.

1. “Shortage of Water Irks Noel.” Libertyville Independent Register, August 22, 1956, p. 1 & 2
2. “Flames Sear Schumacher and Hawthorn Farms.” Libertyville Independent Register, December 3, 1953, p. 1
3. “Open Probe Of $50,000 Farm Fire.” Libertyville Independent Register, February 7, 1957, p. 1
4. “Zookeeper Blends Arson With Chores.” Libertyville Independent Register, February 21, 1957, p. 1
5. “Fire Destroys Big Hawthorn-Mellody Dairy Show Barn.” Chicago Tribune, February 4, 1957, p. 1
6. “$150,000 Fire At Hawthron-Mellody Farm.” Chicago Tribune, July 22, 1955, p. 1
7. “Fire Damages Horse Barn At Cuneo Estate.” Chicago Tribune, August 21, 1956, p. 1
8. “Probe Dairy Farm Fires.” Chicago Tribune, February 5, 1956, p. A5.
9. “Set 2 Farm Fires, Keeper Says.” Chicago Tribune, February 5, 1957, p. 1
10. “Freed in Farm Fire In Spite of Confession.” Chicago Tribune, June 12, 1957, p. 6
11. “State Official Directs Probe of Cuneo Fire.” Chicago Tribune, September 6, 1955, p. 10
12. “Order Probe of $150,000 Fire.” Chicago Tribune, September 5, 1955, p. 1
13. “Building Parking Lot on Farm’s Ruins.” Libertyville Independent Register, July 28, 1955, p. 1
14. “Hawthorn Zookeeper Acquitted.” Libertyville Independent Register, June 13, 1957, p. 1
15. “Quiz Ex-Employees After $150,000 Fire.” Libertyville Independent Register, September 5, 1955, p. 1
16. “Still Probe Farm Blaze.” Libertyville Independent Register, September 15, 1955, p. 1

Categories: Local History

Tags: Local History

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