The day rain saved Macon: Old Wesleyan College burned out of control before dawn 50 years ago

lfabian@macon.comFebruary 23, 2013 

Burning embers the size of lunch plates fell from an orange sky as fire trucks raced for College Street.

Leaving headquarters near Macon City Hall, firefighters could see flames shooting 100 feet into the air as old Wesleyan College burned out of control before dawn on Feb. 24, 1963.

Beginning at 5:41 a.m. that Sunday, the fire department switchboard lit up with 50 calls about a blaze that threatened to burn downtown.

The second call came from the Olivers, who lived across the street at the corner of Georgia Avenue.

Nicky, the family cat, was howling like never before.

When Kitty Oliver got up to see what was going on, it was as bright as day, although the blinds and draperies were drawn.

“There were big boards flying through the air,” said Oliver, who still lives in the white, Greek Revival house that was blistered as the fire raged.

She started packing up clothing and family photographs as flames quickly devoured the 1836 birthplace of the first college chartered for women.

The liberal arts college had moved to the new Forsyth Road campus in 1928, leaving the School of Fine Arts on College Street. Speech, theater, music and art instruction moved north once the upper floors of the buildings were condemned as a fire hazard.

Demolition of the property was under way to make room for a new post office, although several residents were actively fighting the planned razing of the historic buildings.

Their towers, turrets and porches had overlooked Macon since they were added during the Victorian era.

Windows had already been removed, helping funnel the west wind in cross ventilation that fanned the fire through Comer Hall to Pierce Chapel, known for its amazing acoustics that drew world-renowned musicians.

It was a cold, rainy night.

Richard Thompson, who lived in the College Hill Apartments across Georgia Avenue from the Olivers, heard what he thought was the rain, which had dumped nearly three-quarters of an inch in the early morning hours.

Out the window, Thompson first saw the north end of old Wesleyan on fire.

By the time he called for his wife and went to find a pair of trousers, flames had engulfed the building.

“We thought we were going to burn up,” Thompson told a newspaper reporter that morning. “We didn’t have time to put on clothes.”

Bits of burning cinders hit their backs on the way out.

With fire shooting across College Street and spreading to the Ellisonian and Magnolia apartment houses next to the Thompsons’ home, firefighters retreated to the side and rear of the campus.

“It was sad, sad,” Oliver said of the apartment residents forced to evacuate. “The people were just awakened and came out barefoot and in their pajamas, not taking time to put on their shoes.”

Five minutes after the Olivers called, a general alarm rang out across the city, with 130 of the city’s 150 firefighters called to the scene.

For the first time since World War II, fire crews from outside the city responded -- from as far as Warner Robins and the Naval Ordnance plant.

Fleeing the inferno

Police banged on the Judd family’s apartment, the first building down on Magnolia Street.

Flames were already ravaging the three neighboring apartment buildings that fronted College Street.

Nearly three dozen families -- 54 people -- were losing their homes and nearly everything they owned.

“We gathered up everybody and sat out in the park,” said Elizabeth Judd, who was raising six children across from Washington Park.

Her daughter, Janie Judd Godbee, was in the fifth grade. She headed to the street in her pajamas.

“They didn’t give us a lot of time,” said Godbee, who remembers finding her violin floating in water after they were allowed to return.

The conflagration threatened to create a firestorm as drafts from the intense heat swirled around the inferno now consuming five buildings.

As flames suck in more air, the updraft on large fires can create a tornado-like effect with deadly results. The 1871 Peshtigo firestorm in Wisconsin killed at least 1,500 people, and some reports say it was more like 2,500.

With several buildings ablaze on College Hill, veteran newsman Bill Tribble was filming the action -- sometimes a little too closely.

“It was spectacular,” Tribble, who died last year, said in a 2000 interview with Ben Sandifer of GMS Productions.

The heart pine and oak interior of the colleges’ 19th century buildings incinerated.

Several cars on the street burned, their tires oozing into a mass of molten rubber.

At one point, one of the 75 police officers on the scene asked Tribble if he realized his coat was on fire.

“I snatched off the plastic raincoat and it had melted from the heat,” he said in the recorded interview. “It was actually trying to burn. It was bubbling.”

Along with the smoke, steam rose as light rain hit the hot ground.

Oliver was grateful for steady, light rain that firefighters credited with keeping the flames from consuming more of the neighborhood than they did.

“If it hadn’t have gotten a misty rain, all of us here would have gone up,” said Oliver, who also recognized the massive human effort to quench the flames. “We had a dadgum good fire department because it was tremendous. If they didn’t know what they were doing, a lot could have gone up.”

Drawing a crowd

The glow on the horizon and wailing sirens drew hundreds of spectators.

Fran Reagan Thompson was spending the night at her Aunt Harriet Estes’ house at College and Bond streets.

“There was a lot of goings-on and it woke me up,” said Thompson, who was 16 at the time. “Aunt Harriet was very adventurous. My mother would have gone back to sleep, but Aunt Harriet said, ‘Let’s go.’ ”

The pair did not take time to dress and headed out in their night clothes, but they didn’t feel the normal chill of the morning air.

“I can remember it was hot,” Thompson said. “I remember where we stood. I remember the smells. I remember everything.”

Hundreds of people had gathered near the Olivers’ corner house, but police moved back the crowd due to the danger of the college’s main tower collapsing.

Little Tommy McBrearty was fixated on the fire from his window at 381 College St.

“Even being 4 years old, I can remember as if it just happened,” McBrearty said. “That thing was just roaring, blazing.”

His mother was busy trying to decide what to take with them if the wind changed direction and blew the fire their way.

Bo Stewart said his father had been listening to radio station WBML and got the family up to go see what was happening.

They drove from their home off Wimbish Road and watched all the commotion from in front of the Massey Apartments.

“It was a spectacular fire,” he said. “Sparks were dropping on buildings as far away as the Macon Hospital,” which was several blocks away.

Marie “Binks” Solomon hadn’t heard about the fire before her family left for Christ Church from their Delaware Drive home off Vineville Avenue.

“We didn’t have instant communications like we do now,” she said.

The road was blocked, and her father turned the car around.

“We might have been able to go through Pleasant Hill, but as soon as Daddy saw the fire he said, ‘We’re going back to get the movie camera.’ ”

She salvaged about a minute’s worth of the old 8mm film that has been transferred to a DVD.

The fire was out by the time they arrived, but smoke continued to rise from skeletal remains of buildings and clouded the footage.

Hot spots flared up for days.

Seared into the memory

Kacy Oliver Discher was sleeping over at her cousins’ house the night her black-and-gray cat sent out his vocal alarm, but to this day she has a respectful fear of fire.

“It was terrifying,” she said. “I wouldn’t sleep in my room for weeks after that. My room overlooked it, and flames came out for several days.”

Firefighters kept vigil to extinguish hot spots that flared up.

Concert pianist Louise Barfield will never forget those old buildings.

“I was fascinated with the high steeples, the surrounding porches and the pointed towers,” said Barfield, who began studying piano with Gladys Pinkston at the Wesleyan Conservatory of Fine Arts when she was 6 years old. “The interior was elegant with velvet, upholstered, antique furniture; gold-leafed, ceiling-to-floor mirrors; marble-top tables; long hallways and staircases that led to upper floors.”

China’s Madame Chiang Kai-shek, who studied at old Wesleyan in 1909, was once scolded for sliding down the smooth banisters from the dormitory to the main hallway.

The future first lady of the Republic of China returned during World War II with armed guards watching over her address in the chapel.

The ornate buildings had already been stripped before demolition crews began their work. Roberts Hall was still standing and demolition resumed after the blaze.

Barfield was studying at Stephens College in Columbia, Mo., when she got a call about the fire.

Her family had watched her old school burn from the hill on Forsyth Street.

“To me, it was as if an old and best friend died,” she said.

By the time The Macon News hit the streets that Monday afternoon, arson was suspected.

The electricity had already been disconnected, and no other cause was apparent.

That day after the tragedy, Fran Thompson went back up the street from her aunt’s house, ducked under a barricade and took a souvenir brick.

It was still warm.

Her conscience has bothered her for 50 years.

“It was a big deal in my puny little brain. I had been taught you don’t steal,” she said.

She knew the brick belonged to the salvage company, but it turns out she didn’t need the memento.

Her father bought a truckload of old Wesleyan bricks to build a cabin at Lake Wildwood, where she now lives.

Black smudges from the fire pepper the brick fireplace in her kitchen.

Louver doors salvaged from the ruins enclose her closets.

“They were in bad shape, but Daddy fixed them,” Thompson said.

Framed, yellowing articles about the calamity and the possibility of arson hang on her wall.

She always thought it was fishy that the historic buildings burned just as people were trying to save them from the wrecking ball.

Others speculated that a demolition contractor got in over his head with a low bid.

As a girl, Thompson took summer art classes in the basement of those old buildings she loved.

“It was fascinating for me,” she said.

The fire also robbed her of a favorite landmark to give directions.

She could always tell someone to turn by the old Wesleyan. Using the post office as a reference requires explaining which branch, she said.

When Barfield travels by the Henry McNeal Turner post office building, she is reminded of the profound loss she felt reading each article and looking at every picture mailed to her at college.

“Even today, so many years later, I can hardly think about what Macon lost that night.”

Information from Telegraph archives was used in this report. To contact writer Liz Fabian, call 744-4303.

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