On Friday, November 9, 1945, Wakefield Rural High School burned to the ground in a magnificent bonfire. It took with it all three floors of classrooms in the 1927 building, the classrooms for the grade school, and many public and personal belongings. Suddenly the Friday night football game we played at Morganville was history, and an immediate concern was “what will we do for school Monday Morning.” The Board of Education along with the principal, Fred Settles, had a mammoth job on their hands and only two days to create a miracle.
The following week school for all grade levels was back in session, and the mighty WRHS Blue Bombers Band never missed a practice. It is testimony to the spirit and dedication of a small town that this could be achieved in such a short period of time. The credit for leadership must go to the Board of Education at the time, which included Bud Elkins, Bill Avery, and Walt Herman. Bud and Bill were both prominent and long-term farmers in the area, and Walt was Wakefield’s only banker.
The board, and Fred Settles, received an abundance of support from throughout the community. The old shop behind the school and the ancient community building were still available, but were terrible spaces for multiple classes. Rather it was decided that the downtown area’s business and surrounding buildings would collectively provide the best opportunity for having many classes in operation simultaneously. The following week classes were set up above Hawes’ and Jevon’s stores, in the Episcopal and Methodist churches, in the Library basement and Mercer’s Funeral Home.
With this campus spread at one time across eight city blocks, education continued almost without a hitch. Many fundamentals were initially missing, like books and tables and chairs and blackboards and music instruments, but they were soon replaced and schooling returned to normal.
With the new arrangements, there were a number of noteworthy exceptions to normal. The high school was planted primarily on the second floors above Hawes’ and Jevon’s stores. They were adjacent to each other, but there was no direct access from one to the other, short of going downstairs, outside, walking around the corner, upstairs and into the other building.
The buildings included no restroom facilities of any kind. Initially this required going down stairs, outside, across the street, and into the Episcopal Church, where facilities were available. Eventually a marginal facility was built within the upstairs portion of Hawes’ Store, eliminating the walk through town.
Hawes’ store was essentially an undivided storeroom. There were no separate rooms or partitions of any kind, so classes which met at the same time were separated by distance alone, – in a tight space for 60 students. Eventually partitions were constructed providing a minimum of separation of one class from another.
Blackboards, chalk, and erasers were initially all missing, and needed to be acquired and hung. Desks, tables, and chairs finally arrived.
One of the final steps to establish a minimal school environment was cutting a passageway between Hawes’ and Jevon’s. While this allowed direct access for activities in both buildings, the opening also provided an opportunity for sound to carry readily from one building to the other. In an orderly school, this is not a problem until the band starts practicing. The band was scheduled to practice just before lunch in Jevon’s building.
Following all these enhancements, school seemed to be progressing quite nicely, and for the better part of a year, we were all adjusting quite readily. Then it happened again!
The band was practicing in the main street end of Jevons building when suddenly, without warning or provocation, a tremendous explosion occurred immediately below the band in Jevon’s Store. The floor beneath the band raised about a foot into the air, then precipitously fell back to its original position. We all knew that band practice was suddenly over, and we should get out of the building as soon as possible. With instruments in hand, we all ran down the stairs along the west side of the building and into Main Street, leaving our instrument cases to whatever fate provided.
What followed was a rather substantial fire that destroyed the High School for the second time in about a year. The fire was limited to the Jevons building, but smoke damage managed to make Hawes Grocery Store and the high school above it uninhabitable. Six pictures from WRHS hot little school houses are presented below. The first is a street scene from Mercer’s Funeral Home on the extreme left. The second is an enlarged street view of the front of Jevon’s Store. The third picture is looking through the roof of Jevons’ Plumbing Shop from the floor over the precise spot where the band was playing. The final pictures show the old school, the old school after the fire, and the new school which is still standing today.
Wakefield’s new school completed in the fall of 1948
Following this second fire, we started from scratch again; no tables, no chairs, no blackboards, no instrument cases, most of which were burned in the fire. Fortunately the Board of Education was experienced in relocating. Within a very few days, the High School was again relocated over the Drugstore and Siemer’s Department Store.
Construction of the new school was well underway by this time, and given the schools history, it was built to the highest standards for fire safety. Some suggested that it may have been less than harmonious screeching of the band during their practice that ignited the butane tanks in Jevon’s plumbing shop immediately below. While very little credence was given to such wild speculation, following that second fire, the band was required to practice in the Masonic Hall across Wakefield’s 100 foot wide Main Street from the rest of the high school, and was insulated and sound-proofed by the outside walls of two buildings. The city fathers, in their wisdom, decided to take no further chances with band practice.