Missouri and Ozarks History

Information and comments about historical people and events of the Ozarks region and surrounding area.

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I'm a freelance writer specializing in the history of the Ozarks and surrounding region. I've written fifteen nonfiction books, two historical novels, and numerous articles. My latest books are Bushwhacker Belles, Wicked Women of Missouri, and Yanked Into Eternity: Lynchings and Hangings in Missouri.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

School Fires

There have been a lot of school fires over the years, not just in the Ozarks, of course, but throughout the rest of the country and no doubt the rest of the world. Building fires of all kinds, not just school fires, were more common a hundred years ago or so because heating systems and electrical wiring systems (if they existed) tended not to be as safe as those we have today. Fires in the olden days also were often more destructive when they did occur because fire fighting techniques were less advanced than they are today. Even in relatively modern times, however, there have been occasional school fires. There have probably been quite a few just here in the Ozarks. I'm familiar with a couple because I was personally affected by them. And neither was caused by faulty equipment.
On Saturday, November 13, 1954, when I was in the third grade at Fair Grove Elementary School, the adjacent high school caught on fire when a vat containing tar exploded while workers were repairing the roof. The fire was contained to one corner of the building long enough for workers and nearby residents to remove much of the classroom equipment and furniture, but the building itself ended up being entirely destroyed. Fair Grove did not have a fire department at the time, and calls to Springfield for help proved futile, because the Springfield department refused to make the 15-mile trek to help its neighboring town. This caused some hard feelings toward Springfield among Fair Grove residents at the time, but from an objective standpoint Springfield's policy of not servicing surrounding communities was understandable. The Willard Fire Department finally responded to Fair Grove's call for help, and although they got there too late to save the building, they were credited with keeping the fire from spreading to surrounding buildings, including the grade school. This incident spurred Fair Grove to organize its own volunteer fire department in the months after the fire.
As an 8-year-old boy, I didn't get caught up in the controversy surrounding the response or lack of response to the fire. I was just fascinated by the fire itself. I remember watching the school burn from my house on the other side of town. Flames shot into the sky and great clouds of black smoke poured into the air. I wanted go across town and get a close-up view of the action, but my mother wouldn't allow it. Later, my dad took me over but by that time the fire was pretty much out, with some smoke still rising from the smoldering ruins. I thought for a while that the fire would mean an unexpected vacation, but, alas, the elementary school building was saved. Only the high school students would have "no school" for the next few days while arrangements were made to hold classes in neighboring churches and other buildings.
About mid-morning on Thursday, January 28, 1982, while I was teaching at Joplin's old Memorial High School, the school building caught on fire when a student ignited some clothes or costumes that were kept by the drama department in some unlocked closets in a hallway on the 2nd floor just off the stage. The arsonist then closed the doors of the closets, which reached clear to the ceiling, allowing the fire to burn through the ceiling and spread into an area separating the 2nd floor from the 3rd floor before it was even discovered. All students were evacuated safely, but it was a close call for some of those in a couple of classrooms located on the 2nd and 3rd floors near the point of ignition. My classroom was on the 2nd floor but on the opposite side of the building. The Joplin Fire Department responded promptly and had the fire under control by noon, although smoke continued to spiral skyward for some time afterward. School was canceled for the rest of that day and the next day, Friday; so we got a little unexpected vacation. The following Monday, school resumed at Parkwood High School, with Parkwood students and teachers going from very early morning (about 6:30 a.m.) until late morning (about 11:30) and then Memorial students and teachers taking over the building from very early afternoon until late afternoon. Each school ran an abbreviated schedule consisting of about five hours' worth of class time for a month or two while the Memorial building was being renovated. Then we moved back "home." I don't recall for sure whether the arsonist was ever caught, but I think maybe he was. I do recall a rumor among the teachers that a kid they usually referred to only as "Freddie the Firebug" was the guilty culprit. He had apparently been caught setting a smaller fire just a week or so earlier.

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