Saturday, December 03, 2016

Fire Department rises from 1868 school's ashes

 It would be entirely appropriate on Monday to wish the Chariton Volunteer Fire Department --- organized on Dec. 5, 1877, a "happy birthday" --- the big 139th. And maybe to show a little gratitude for this ungainly structure --- editor Dan Baker called its design "execrable" --- that had gone up in smoke as a good chunk of Chariton's population stood helplessly by a month earlier, on the evening of Monday, Oct. 29, 1877.

No doubt a fire department eventually would have been organized in Chariton, but that big blaze was directly responsible for launching an institution that remains a pride and joy of the community.

The building was Chariton's first substantial schoolhouse, built during 1868 to house all students in the Chariton district. The scholars, numbering some 500 from primary level through high school by 1877, previously had been scattered among various smaller structures scattered around town. It was the first of three buildings to have been located on what we now call the Columbus School hill, originally the site of a small cemetery evacuated 1863-65. The current low-slung Columbus Elementary is the third.

It was Chariton's largest public building when completed --- and only the sixth big brick building in town. The 1858 courthouse had been built in brick as had been, earlier in the 1860s, the Palmer Building on the east side of the square, the Matson Building on the west side of the square and the Methodist and Presbyterian churches on sites still occupied by later buildings serving those congregations.

The bricks were manufactured locally, perhaps at the kiln of A. MacFarland, who was advertising in August of 1868 that he had 100,000 brick available for purchase at his establishment five miles west of town. The timber frame --- milled locally --- was provided for $2,662.12 by Gilbert, Hedge & Co., according to a report in The Democrat of Nov. 14, 1868. The first trains had arrived in Chariton during July of 1867, so it seems likely that finish lumber came in by rail from more specialized mills elsewhere.

A finishing touch was a 1,200-pound bell, added during January of 1869 after scholars already had begun attending classes in the new building, just completed.

By the fall of 1877, when the building burned, improvements had increased the value of a structure with an estimated base cost of $14,000 to roughly $26,000. And during all those years, 1868-1877, the Chariton City Council and its patrons had been squabbling about whether or not the Chariton really needed to form a fire department and purchase up-to-date firefighting equipment. Those who said "no" had been in the majority --- until the city's pride and joy burned down.

Here is Chariton Leader editor Dan Baker's report on the big fire as published in his edition of Nov. 3, 1877. Baker had a sharp tongue, translated via hand-set type onto paper, and spared no one.


On Monday evening about half past eight o'clock, the alarm of fire was given, and ere long smoke was seen issuing from the roof of the large, fine brick school house in the western part of the city. In a few minutes a large crowd was on the ground with buckets and other appliances for fighting fire, but the fire being overhead and in the highest room, the smoke soon became so dense and suffocating, that it was almost impossible to check the progress of the flames, which slowly, but surely, made headway.

The old rickety fire engine, that has so long been a monument of Chariton's folly, was brought out to the scene of the fire, and carefully wrapped in its night clothes to keep from catching cold, but even its presence failed to inspire the people with hope, or served to check the blazing element. Two reasons, however, were apparent for its inefficiency. First, there was no water to throw on the fire, and secondly the engine couldn't have thrown it on the fire if there had been plenty. Good firemen and skillful judges pronounced the last reason to be amply sufficient without the first.

It was evident to all that the building was doomed, and the people went to work to save what valuables there was in the house. Both organs of the school, as well as nearly all of the books, seats and furniture of the lower rooms were saved in a tolerable fair condition, and then the vast assemblage of distracted and saddened people stood off at a respectful distance and watched the splendid structure gently yield to the melting heat.

A little after 10 o'clock all the floors had fallen in, and the walls in places had yielded, but the main walls on the north and east sides, including the bell tower, still resisted and will have to be taken down to rebuild with.

The house was built in 1868 by Mr. T.W. Fawcett, of this city, we believe, at a cost of $14,000, and was afterwards adorned and improved until the cost ran up to about $26,000. It was a solid, well built structure, and though the design, especially the roof part of it, was execrable, yet the house was really an ornament to the city, and just at the present time is a very serious loss, owing to the fact that it throws out of school over five hundred pupils, who must wait until the new school house is completed unless the directors can rent a suitable place for them.

The building was insured by good companies for $10,000, which money will doubtless be promptly paid, as the companies are the best in the United States.

Of course there are a thousand conjectures as to the origin of the fire, but the probability is that the old story of a defective flue settles it. Good advice is of course in order from every one, and doubtless the City Council and Board of Directors would be eminently grateful to the charitable public if it could impart some useful information on the question, first how to run the school, and second how to avoid future blazes of a similar character.

We herewith tender ours: To the Directors we say, rebuild on the same spot, and have your school running again in sixty days. You can do it, and without extra cost provided your insurance is paid. To the city dads, buy a good engine, no matter who growls or how much. You can do it, and you ought to do it, regardless of opposition.


The first order of business after the fire was to get the school running again and the school board met the day after the fire, as reported in The Patriot of Wednesday, Oct. 31:

The City School Board was in session all day Tuesday and arrangements were made to have all the schools running by Thursday at least. The various departments have been assigned as follows: High School in the Opera Block; Grammar School in Bradrick's Hall; 1st Intermediate in the Hatcher House; 2nd Intermediate in Gasser's Block; and the two Primaries in Palmer's Hall. The Courthouse bell will be used regularly for convening the schools. Persons having school books not belonging to them will please return to any one of the teachers of the rooms mentioned above. A good many books are known to be out and scholars may be saved inconveniences and parents expense by promptly returning the property.


The Patriot joined Brother Baker in solding the "city dads" for inattention to firefighting needs, noting in its Oct. 31 edition that, "Now is the time to organize a fire company. It will be remembered that at the time the present engine was bought so much interest was manifested that many of those desiring to join the company couldn't get into the courthouse. By the fourth or fifth meeting, a man couldn't be found who would take enough interest to even ring the bell."

As a result, the Chariton Volunteer Fire Department organized Dec. 5, 1877, when Engine and Hook and Ladder companies were formed. It was equipped with a Silsby steam fire engine purchased for $3,500, two hose carriers and 1,500 feet of hose purchased for $1,900 and a hook and ladder wagon and apparatus purchased for $625.

All of this equipment, embarrassingly, went up on smoke on Sept. 13, 1883, when the fire house burned, but Old Betsy II --- still the CVFD's pride and joy --- arrived during the first week of December, 1883.


Construction of the grand Italianate school building, later named Columbus, that many of us remember commenced as soon as the weather was fit during the spring of 1878. It was completed in time to open the winter, 1879, term of classes within its walls on Jan. 13.

The bell from the 1868 building had been salvaged and rehung in the tower of the new school, but the fire had not been kind to it. Here's how Dan Baker reported the situation in The Leader of Jan. 13, 1879:

"The new school house on the site of the old burnt one was thrown open on Monday for the schools. The old bell that went through the fire still swings to and fro, but its music's not the same dear Tom it was a year or two ago. The peculiar way in which it is rung, coupled with its hideous sound, reminds us of a dismal death bell on a stormy day."

The old bell was replaced later that year by a new one --- bearing the date 1878 and cast by L.M. Rumsey & Co., St. Louis --- that still stands in front the current school on Columbus Hill.

No comments: