Fires in Davidson, Part I
While the, perhaps, best-known and most spectacular fire in Davidson is the one that destroyed the old Chambers Building in 1921, the town has experienced many more fires over the years. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Davidson students provided much of the manpower for the bucket brigades. The cry of “fire” on the campus was sometimes confusing, as, according to historian Mary Beaty: “When someone shouted ‘Fire!’ on the Davidson College campus, there was no general rush to seize buckets of water; the rush was to the windows to look out, for ‘Fire’ was the traditional cry to alert students to a female presence in their midst.”
While little information is available on early fires in town, there were a number of small fires in the late 19th century. According to the May 17, 1888 edition of the Pickens Sentinel, lightning ignited John Caldwell’s warehouse, destroying it and some cotton that was stored there. Caldwell’s loss was estimated at $12,000. In August of the following year, in a fire reported in the September issue of the Davidson Monthly, a barn and stables belonging to Mr. Helper and Mr. Schofield, as well as a tenant house belonging to James Allison, also burned to the ground.
A smaller 1893 fire at the Stough house on South Main Street, apparently attracted much more attention. According to the February 1893 edition of the Davidson Monthly, the fire broke out late on a January night, and was not discovered until it was quite advanced. As usual, the students were aroused, but “efforts to awaken them by yelling fire were rather ineffectual at first as the cry of fire is such a common thing on the campus that no one hardly ever pays any attention to it. However, he changed his tune to yelling “Fire! Sure enough fire! Fire in the village!” which soon had everybody running in that direction.”
Stough’s house and all its contents were destroyed, and the nearby Potts house also caught on fire; it was saved by the combined efforts of students and townspeople. Despite the destruction, some found humor in the situation. The Monthly reported that “among the many peculiar and laughable incidents of the occasion…Mr. Tyson, in his heroic efforts to save the dwelling, poured a five gallon bucket of water down another student’s back. The gentleman was smoking a cigarette and Tyson thought he was on fire and immediately proceeded to extinguish him. Mr. Wooten also become a little overcome with excitement. He rooms in the Potts house and thought all of his earthly possession were about to be done for, consequently he knocked down his bed with an axe, took the foot of it for a battering ram, broke out the window sash, and quietly dropped his vest containing his watch and money to the ground. He is reported to have carried various things downstairs with him, such as pocket handkerchiefs, pillow cases, and a towel rack.”
According to the Monthly, by March of 1893 a group of men identified only as Hodgin, Brown, Goodman, and Arnold had organized themselves into what they called the “Independent Fire Department.” Their “latest act of heroism was extinguishing a brush pile back of Dr. Currell’s. They speak of black- balling Arnold for being negligent to duty because he was afraid to cross the road on account of muddying his shoes.”
In December of that year a barber shop owned by Mr. Newman caught fire in the ceiling from a defective flue, and the flames were extinguished by the students. In December of the following year, J.L. Smith’s gin house was almost consumed, with only part of the cotton being saved. In April of 1896, fire broke out at the Davidson depot, but the students gathered there to meet the train managed to put it out.
On January 24, 1901 Davidson experienced its most serious fire to date. There were a number of wooden buildings at the southern end of the business district, among them a livery stable belonging to Monroe Potts. The fire started in the stable, and by the time it was discovered, it was out of control. Due to the strong winds, several other buildings were soon afire. According to the Davidson Monthly, by the time the fire was extinguished, Potts’ stable, Sawyer’s grocery store, Sallie Lafferty’s millinery store, McCullough’s barber shop, and a beef market had been destroyed. Losses totaled nearly $15,000, and only Cranford’s store was insured.
There were minor fires the next year. According to the Davidson College Magazine, in late September 1903 a fire broke out in some cotton bales on the depot platform. Had water from the cotton mill not been available to extinguish it, it would probably have destroyed not only the depot but several nearby barns. In November of that year, there was a minor fire in an old wooden building next to Cranford’s store. In 1906, there was a more serious fire, which broke out in the post office at 102-104 South Main Street, on the corner of Brady’s Alley. It destroyed stores as far south as the current Village Store.
There were several fires in the early 1920s. According to the Davidsonian, in mid-February 1920 cotton bales once again caught on fire at the Davidson depot. The fire spread rapidly and destroyed 125 bales of cotton before it was extinguished. In 1921, in an event covered in an earlier column, Chambers Building, the largest building on Davidson College’s campus, burned to the ground. ( Link to the column about the fire that destroyed Chambers Building.)
The following year, during a church service, Watts Dormitory caught on fire. Although the congregation rushed to help, the building was a total loss. This prompted the college to organize and equip a student volunteer fire brigade. The engine was pulled by students. In 1923, according to the December 10 edition of the Davidsonian, the town of Davidson completed an “up-to-date water system,” served by a large, elevated water tank. In addition, fire hydrants had been placed throughout the town in an attempt to reduce the risk of disastrous fires. The first fire station was built in town in 1925, and in 1926 the college decided to organize its ROTC battalion into a fire battalion. According to the October 7 issue of the Davidsonian, “The town is without an organized fire fighting force and without adequate machinery and other facilities for such protection to both the townspeople and the college proper.” The ROTC battalion was chosen for this purpose because of its policy “requiring the cadets to be of actual assistance to both the college and the town of Davidson.”
Seven years later, in 1933, the town of Davidson purchased its first fire engine. On October 18, the Davidsonian announced that “The city fathers have announced the purchase of an ultra-modern Ford V8 fire engine costing over three thousand dollars. The truck is equipped with modern fire-fighting accessories, including a pump that can exhaust over four hundred gallons of water a minute. This engine will replace the ancient equipment that has embarrassed the college and town in the years past. Mr. E. N. Linker will hold the position of day fire chief and Mr. J. F. Riley will act as night chief. Due to the fact that the students are only in town for nine months of the year, it will be necessary to organize a volunteer company of about fifteen citizens…”
This new department responded to a series of fires in Johnson’s barber shop in March of the following year. According to the Davidsonian, the first fire was extinguished, but broke out again around 3 p.m. At 7 p.m. there was another fire behind the building. According to the barbers, this last fire was probably set on purpose, as papers soaked in a flammable fluid were discovered on the scene. Fortunately, losses were minimal. In 1937 firefighters were once again on the scene of a fire which destroyed a meat market and a grocery store near the College Inn (now the Carolina Inn) on North Main Street. Due to their efforts, damage to the inn was confined to its north side.
(To Be Continued)
Nancy Griffith lived in Davidson from 1979 until 1989. After a career as an archives and special collections librarian, she retired to Davidson in 2015. She has published a number of books and articles on local history, and has just completed a history of the Ada Jenkins Center.