Editor’s Note: The Beltrami County Historical Society is partnering with the Pioneer on a series of monthly articles highlighting the history of the area. For more information about the Historical Society, visit www.beltramihistory.org.
On a warm summer afternoon, Vera Weis was walking home from work when she heard someone yell, "Central School is on fire!"
It was June 24, 1958, and she’d spent the day supervising activities on the playground as part of her job with summer recreation, but she rushed back to the school -- her school, the one she’d attended after moving to Bemidji when she was in fifth grade, and the school where she had worked as secretary since graduating from Bemidji High School.
Firemen were on the scene and, at first, it seemed as though the fire could be confined to the top floor. Soon a crowd watched as the firefighters battled the flames. The next day the Bemidji Pioneer reported that four Pioneer carrier boys -- Tommy Byrne, Dennis Burgess, Jeffrey Mussberger and Allan Skinner -- first saw the smoke, and Byrne and Burgess reported the fire.
June 24 marks the 63rd anniversary of the fire that destroyed the old school, which served the community for 60 years. Its replacement recently closed after serving another 60-plus years.
Burgess remembers seeing the smoke when he and his friend Tommy were on their way home after their paper routes. "We saw smoke coming out of the top of the school," he recalled.
They went to the closest house and knocked frantically on the door. The owner assumed it was some kind of prank until he stepped outside and saw the smoke himself. Then he called the fire department.
"It was a big deal for the rest of the evening," Burgess said. "Hundreds came out to watch, and many went inside to try to save some books on the first floor."
When Weis arrived, she found a high school tech teacher, Herb Whiting, at the building. Whiting had sprung into action, removing whatever could be salvaged before the fire spread. He asked Weis what he should grab from the office.
"The electric typewriter," she said. It was her first electric typewriter, and Weis didn’t want it to be left behind. Before long many spectators were entering the burning building to bring out whatever they could: books, desks, filing cabinets.
Weis remembers working with Margaret Isaacson, the principal, to organize office items to load onto a truck and be taken to J.W. Smith Elementary. The Pioneer reported the next day that about half of the books and equipment were salvaged.
The firemen continued to battle the smoke and flames, attempting to confine the fire to the upper floor. After three hours, it appeared to be under control, but then part of the top floor collapsed, spreading the fire to the floor below. When a piece of the cornice crashed down, part of it nearly knocked over a ladder with three firemen on it, but firemen on the ground steadied the ladder.
Smoke could be seen for 35 to 40 miles, the Pioneer reported, and neighborhood residents used garden hoses to douse their rooftops to prevent flying embers from starting new fires.
Part by part, the old building collapsed until the ground floor fell into the basement where fuel in a 250-gallon water heater tank ignited and accelerated the fire. The Pioneer recorded, "The huge bell of the ancient structure, swung to by the rising air currents from the terrific heat of the fire, tolled plaintively at various times before the collapse of the bell tower at 9:30 p.m."
Central School, the core of which had been built in 1898, was completely destroyed. Fortunately, no one had been in the building, as it was mid-summer, and no lives were lost, but a landmark school that had served Bemidji for 60 years was gone, an estimated $370,000 loss. Its absence brought a mix of feelings.
Art Vandersluis, a local merchant, wrote a piece called "On Death of a School," written from the point of view of the destroyed building: "I died last night," it began, but also spoke of "relief" and going out "the way I wanted to! In a blaze of glory," rather than being "broken down under hammers and prys [sic]."
Central School had started out as a four-room elementary school built for an enrollment of 200. When it opened on Jan. 1, 1899, over 400 pupils arrived. Space was rented in the Methodist and Presbyterian churches to house the overflow students until an addition could be built. In May of 1900, the independent school district was formed and school board members were elected. Work on an addition to Central School was started shortly thereafter. Enrollment continued to grow, and by 1912, another addition was built.
Central School started offering high school courses, and in 1903, Bemidji’s first three high school students graduated. By 1908, about 100 high school students were enrolled, and the first Bemidji High School was built between 6th and 7th Streets and America and Irvine Avenues.
When Central School burned, students were sent to J.W. Smith Elementary, which had been built in 1954, but space in the Methodist, Lutheran and Presbyterian churches was needed once again.
Weis remembers the annual summer student census, conducted door to door, and tabulated to plan and predict district enrollment. Part of her job was the tabulation. With the information gathered, students were assigned to one of the locations and parents were informed. Grades fourth through sixth had classes at J.W. Smith; first grade went to the Presbyterian church, second grade went to First Lutheran and third grade to the Methodist church.
"We didn’t lose a single student," Weis remembered. Everyone showed up in the right places and students were brought to J.W. Smith for lunch each day.
Planning began immediately to replace Central School. The original site would be home to the new Central, but the school would be built in the northeast corner of the block to allow for maximum playground space in the back. The new Central opened in the fall of 1960 and served students until spring 2021.
The old school bell that had pealed so plaintively during the fire had been salvaged from the rubble, but Weis recalls no one knew where it was until several years later when Dr. Hildenbrand, whose children had attended the school, contacted them to say that he had the bell. Plans were then made to erect the bell on a structure outside the new school.
In 1976, the bell was placed and dedicated outside the front entrance of the new Central School and a time capsule buried beneath it. The program included Mayor Doug Peterson, Superintendent L.M. Wangberg, Erwin Mittelholtz, of the Beltrami County Historical Society, among others.
Weis created the program for the event and has saved it along with many photos and other memorabilia of Central School and of her 43 years with the school district.
Recently the historic bell was removed for safekeeping -- its next home is yet to be determined.