FAIRFAX — Girls from Bellows Free Academy (BFA) were in the third quarter of a basketball game in the town hall when an explosion brought the action to a halt.
Players and spectators quickly learned the cause. BFA, in Fairfax, was on fire.
The fire occurred 75 years ago, and the Fairfax Historical Society is inviting the public to a remembrance of the fire on the anniversary Sunday at 7 p.m. at the old gym at BFA.
The gymnasium was part of the 1942 building which replaced the burned school, it contains singed bricks salvaged from the original building.
According to Mike Cain of the historical society, townspeople gathered to watch the fire, unable to stop it.
Having been built in 1903, the wood and brick building had no fire walls or sprinkler systems, nothing to stop the blaze that swept through the building, Cain explained.
“There was nothing anybody could do,” said Cain. “The back side of the building collapsed.”
Fairfax didn’t have an organized fire department, but firefighters from Milton were called and responded. The St. Albans fire department also was called, but told simply that there was a fire at BFA. So those firefighters went to BFA in St. Albans, according to Cain.
In a letter to her daughter, Jesse, Fairfax resident Ella Southard three-quarters of a century ago described the scene: “After the fire was seen, they couldn’t get into the building any place, it seemed to be a fire all over at once… The Milton fire department came up. The hydrants were so close to the building, they couldn’t use them.”
According to a newspaper report the next day, so many people came to the fire that motor vehicle officers were called to direct traffic.
The fire started around 7 p.m., said Cain. “Shortly before midnight some of the walls of the academy had fallen in and the fire still was smoldering in the ruins,” the newspaper reported.
It was originally thought the boiler had exploded, but following its excavation from the ruins it was found to be intact. “I believe they even got it to fire up,” said Cain.
The school had recently received a delivery of coal, and principal Clinton Demeritt told a reporter coal gas had likely gotten into the ventilation system.
The school’s original price tag was $50,000. The three-story building had an auditorium on the upper floor. Students from several neighboring towns attended.
The fire destroyed all of the school’s equipment and supplies – books, desks, chalkboards – as well as the town’s public library.
Insurance was just $51,000, and it would cost $120,000 to replace.
World War II made steel hard to come by, and there is just one steel beam, supporting the gym, in the replacement building. The new building also was kept to just two stories, perhaps because townspeople were haunted by the thought of what might have happened had anyone been trapped by fire on the third floor.
Demeritt reported calls had come in from around the state offering assistance in the days after the fire.
Until the new school was completed, students attended classes in homes and buildings around the town. First and second grade was held at the home of school superintendent Homer Hunt, while fourth grade was at Demeritt’s home. Third grade was held on River Road in the home of the teacher. Middle and high school students attended classes in the Baptist building on Main Street, what is now the community center, according to Cain.
The new school opened on March 1, 1942.
The fire, said Cain, is “one of the major moments in Fairfax history.”