Community fought high school fire together

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Joan Denis Oconto Falls Community Library

Contributed Photo

School officials get a closer look at the ravaged north wing of Oconto Falls School after the March 8, 1957, fire. The photo is from the 1957 school yearbook.

A community came together as one the morning of March 8, 1957 – 60 years ago this week – when the north wing of the Oconto Falls School burned down.

The north wing, built in 1915, housed classrooms for the high school students. The junior high classrooms were located in the original part of the high school, built in 1903. What is now the gymnasium at Washington School was added in 1926.

Fire, later determined to be electrical in nature, was discovered at 7 a.m. in the attic by the janitors, Everett Housner and Bill Delzer.

As news swept through the town, volunteers offered to help the firefighters. Oconto Falls Paper Mill plant manager Gil Heath provided manpower by shutting down one paper machine and making equipment available. The plant’s fire brigade assisted the fire department; they included Ed Marks, crane operator; Bob Johnson, purchasing and traffic manager; and Jim Johnson, window attendant.

Busloads of students arriving for the day were returned home, but many came back to watch and participate in saving school supplies.

Roger VanHaren, a member of the Class of ‘57, wrote in a 2006 column that the high school students’ job was to “start as high up in the building as we could and grab whatever we could,” especially typewriters, paper records, filing cabinets, the public address system, stoves and refrigerators and sewing machines from the home economics rooms, chemicals and lab equipment from the science rooms.

Dale Seeling, president of the Oconto Falls Area Heritage Center, was in eighth grade and said the fire department asked the boys to help remove items from the junior high before things were damaged from water and smoke. The kids created a human chain and passed books, furniture and equipment down from the attic of the junior high.

Women of the neighborhood served lunch and coffee, as the temperature was only 10 degrees.

Fire damage to the north wing was estimated at $117,000. The fire itself damaged only the attic and third floor, but there was much water and smoke damage to the rest of the north wing.

When school resumed on March 14, high school students were scattered throughout town. Classes were held in homes (including the Larsen, Rymer and Malcomson homes), the Lutheran and Methodist churches, the JCC building at Memorial Field, and the public library. The school library was housed at the bus garage, the gymnasium was used as a study hall, and the recently added addition was also used as classrooms.

Diane Braun Malcomson was home that morning and took the phone call from Superintendent E.A. Moede informing her father, Herb Braun, the school board president, of the fire.

Verna Peterson remembers rumors going around that the senior class would not be able to graduate, but commencement was held in the gym that spring with 101 students graduating.

Things moved quickly back then. The fire was March 8. The school board had already drawn plans for another 25-classroom addition to the high school. By May 16 the city gave the school the go-ahead to begin construction, and classes moved into the newly built addition by the middle of the first semester.

VanHaren concluded his column: “It was had to believe that after such a disaster, none of us lost our transcripts, we missed only a few days of school, and the great Class of ’57 graduated on time. What an amazing thing it was to see the small-town spirit of cooperation that invested that time of almost-disaster with a kind of camaraderie and self-satisfaction at the work we’d all done to recover.”

This is by all means not a complete history; if you have something you would like to add to the story, contact Joan Denis at the Oconto Falls Community Library.