In 1945, Wakefield’s Main Street was easily 100 feet wide, and started at the railroad station near the west bank of the Republican River. From there it went straight west up the hill to the school at the very top. From this position the school provided a commanding view of the town below. The main street was quite steep at the top, losing it’s slope gradually during the first six city blocks. It was a perfect setting for those whose cars had weak batteries. With a slight push, most cars would roll half a mile. If it wouldn’t start during such a roll, the Ford dealership was four blocks down on the right.
Wakefield’s school was a combined elementary and high school. The school building was pa 1920’s vintage, red brick, and three stories. The ground floor was excavated several feet into the ground, and the second and third floors rose above that. The high school occupied the top level, elementary classes were below that, and an assortment was on the ground floor including showers, locker rooms, furnace room, and storage. Inside the bricks was a totally wooden structure of floors, stairs, and walls. The floors had been treated with oil preservative for many years, and were dark brown because of this treatment.
School enrollment was small by all measures with possibly 150 total students in all grades, 1-12. A third of these were in the High School. As a practical matter, the school was unable to field a full 11 man football team. A few schools in Kansas played eight man football, while Wakefield’s league played six-man football. The entire team, complete with equipment, could travel to the neighboring cities in three or four cars with plenty of room for sisters, mothers, or girlfriends. Six-man football was a wide-open game because every man was eligible to receive a pass. First downs came with 15 yards of gain, and the six men on the field played both offense and defense.
On Friday, November 9, 1945, Wakefield’s Blue Bombers had a game at Morganville, an equally small town about 40 miles away. Because Morganville had lights the game was in the evening. The bombers probably lost the game, and returned home to Wakefield to shower and store their gear in the school. It did not happen.
As the caravan of cars drove up the long hill to the school, a bright orange glow appeared clearly from inside the lowest level of the old schoolhouse. It was burning fiercely inside, and was clearly already out of control. With the oiled floors and wood construction throughout, the entire school was ablaze within 15-20 minutes, and within an hour the school was gone. The flames shot a hundred feet into the night sky illuminating the entire city. What had been an adequate, but sorry school building produced a magnificent fire. Then it was no more.
There was, of course, loss of all the building’s contents as well. Gone were the school desks, teacher’s desks, chairs, tables, office furniture, library books, student’s books, school memorabilia like athletic trophies and class pictures which covered the walls. It was all converted to fine ashes within an hour. For several days following the fire, individuals would comment that missing items must have been left in the school. How long would it take to set up school again?
Bill Avery was the chairman of the school board, and Fred Settles was beginning his first year as principal of the school. Saturday morning they started contacting local businesses and organizations which might provide space for a temporary school. A considerable amount of space was required for all students, and all classes. The only place for school was in the downtown area. The main street buildings consisted of one and two story buildings with their retail outlets on the street level. When there was an upper level, it was used for storage or not at all. Within a short time more than adequate space was identified for setting-up a new school.
Space in the Methodist Church, Congregational Church, Library basement, and Mercer’s Funeral Home were set up for both high school and elementary school classes initially. In these facilities there were already adequate bathroom facilities, real rooms in which classes could meet, and an occasional blackboard complete with chalk and erasers. Except for a shortage of books, activities in the elementary grades continued the following week in these facilities with few disruptions.
Subsequently, the high school was set up primarily in the second story spaces above Hawes’ Grocery Store and Jevon’s Plumbing. These were adjacent buildings which were quite large, and almost sufficient for the high school. There was an outside entrance to both upper stories so students could enter and leave without going through the respective businesses. Neither of the spaces was partitioned, but were primarily open spaces. These adjacent stores did not have adequate access from one building to the other. After the initial dust was settled, the next thing was to create an opening from one building to the other. Sledge hammers, saws, and miscellaneous pounding, dust and other noise from this construction introduced the students to their new facility. It was an appropriate introduction, as these conditions would persist in one form or another for what seemed like an eternity.
Restrooms were also added as neither building had adequate facilities on the second floor. Until these facilities were completed, those in need could run across the street to the Congregational Church. All classes and all grades were relocated with few incidents the following week, three or four days after the fire. Of course, many textbooks were missing, standard school type tables and chairs were missing. Blackboards, chalk, and erasers were missing. Even classrooms were missing. It was make-do as best one can until things can be improved. It was a start, and incredibly there were few complaints.
With the assistance of a community, whose parents were thoroughly invested in their school’s welfare, relocating the school to its new quarters appeared to be essentially achieved within one very long weekend in the fall of 1945. With the trauma of a complete school burning and relocation, one might conclude that sufficient misfortune had occurred in this small community.
As soon as the dust settled upon the school’s relocation, plans were begun for building a new school on the old site. Within a few months, construction had begun with excavation and foundation construction. By this time partitions had been installed in the high school’s store facilities. Blackboards with chalk and erasers had been hung on the walls, and as a school, it was marginally tolerable, though considerably less functional than the old school.
One chronic irritation in this temporary high school was the orchestra/band. For whatever reason, it practiced just before noon above Jevon’s store. The opening which was created between the two buildings had made moving between classes much easier. The same opening allowed the marching band’s luxurious and melodic sounds to penetrate every corner of both buildings, disrupting class, and generally causing anything of educational value to cease. With this in mind, providence, good fortune, or blind luck took a mighty step into this temporary high school structure.
Then it happened again! In the middle of band practice, just before lunch on October 23, 1946, the band was raised, floor and all, a foot into the air by a mighty explosion from below. Had it been providence, one could suppose, the explosion might have come from above. This explosion clearly came from below the floor. Without much comment, everyone in the school took what was in hand and ran down the nearest stairs and out of the buildings.
Once outside it was clear the explosion, and subsequent fire, originated in Jevon’s Plumbing. In the front of the store were a number of gas cylinders similar to those used by welders of the day. Apparently one of the cylinders was leaking gas and when it achieved a critical saturation the explosion and fire followed. Compared with the school house fire, this was about a 2 on a scale of 1 to 10. However, you could give the fire a 10, as this was the last time the band ever practiced in that building while other classes were in session.
There was a considerable amount of smoke damage and some direct damage caused by the fire. Once again, the opening created between the two buildings allowed the smoke to blow freely throughout the high school, contaminating everything it touched. With few exceptions the band members left the building with their instruments in hand, undamaged by the fire that ensued. As they left the building in something of a hurry, their instrument cases were left behind, and were either completely destroyed, or so badly damaged that they were unusable.
This recurrent misfortune, like Groundhog Day, was cause for another major set of adjustments for the high school. The high school was moved once again to the space above the drugstore. Classes were also held in Siemer’s store next to the drugstore. Most fortunate of all, however, was access to the Masonic Hall, across the street and up the stairs. In this prime location the band could play to their heart’s content, any time of the day or night, and could not be heard by anyone else in the school. This single move by the band lengthened the effective school day for all the other students by at least 40 minutes by removing this noxious influence.
One final incident was to follow. The next relocation had only been recently completed when a third fire occurred in the drugstore. Students were again evacuated from the drugstore classrooms and into the street. It was not a false alarm, but was triggered by smoking wiring in the rear of the old drugstore building. It was located and extinguished without incident, but classes in that building were cancelled for the rest of the day.
By the beginning of the following school year, the new elementary school and high school building was complete and ready for occupancy. One notable feature was a full gymnasium complete with a stage. The stage and the gymnasium were soundproofed from the rest of the school, providing another perfect place for the band to practice during school hours. And for those who had endured school through these rebuilding years, the new building was completely fireproof.
This new building since 1948 is now the old building to which has been attached several newer additions. One story is that the basketball teams, PE classes, and other school activities which were scheduled into the gymnasium were completely unable to function when the band was playing. It should be no surprise that one of the newer additions is a new music wing with a totally soundproof practice room in which the band can practice to become both harmonic and melodious. Some lessons, it seems, must be learned over and over. This was one of those lessons.