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DAVIDSON HISTORY

Fires in Davidson, Part II

by | Oct 8, 2020 | Bottom Right Box, Davidson History

Members of the Davidson Fire Department stand together in front of two fire trucks, c 1955. Front row (left to right): George Hampton, Peewee Adams, Bud Farrington, Kenneth Brotherton, Homer Bumgarner; back row (left to right): Clayton Howard, James O. Gant Jr., J.C. Washam, Kenneth Caldwell, Ed Linker, Albert Karriker, Noah Hager or Charles Hoke, and James Oscar Gant Sr. (Thanks to John Woods, Jane Howard Schenk and Reid Washam for the photo and identification.)

There is little mention of fires in Davidson during the 1940s. According to Davidson native and former mayor John Woods, at that time the fire department was located in a building attached to the south side of the current Summit Coffee building. What is now the parking lot between Summit and Ben & Jerry’s was partly taken up by the fire department, and the rest was a narrow driveway serving the Withers Electric Building (where the Ben and Jerry’s and the Pickled Peach are now). The fire department building was demolished when the current town hall was built in 1990.

In 1950 there was a destructive and consequential fire in Brady’s Alley, a neighborhood of African American families along the alley that stretched from Main Street to Jackson Street, next to present-day Toast. According to the February 24 edition of the Davidsonian: “Sunday morning services were interrupted last week by the untimely wail of a fire siren. When the flames had finally been quenched, John Lowery, his wife, and two small children were left homeless, losing practically everything they owned. Mr. Lowery had arisen earlier to build a fire in the stove and had gone back to bed. He apparently fell asleep, for he was suddenly awakened by an excited neighbor who had seen smoke from across the street…The response of the fire department was excellent, for although the Lowery home was destroyed, the Davidson Volunteers arrived soon enough to save the home of John Heath, Georgia Dormitory Janitor, and perhaps several others. Dr. Carl Pritchett (then pastor of the Davidson College Presbyterian Church) soon made an appeal to the townspeople and Davidson Student Body for clothes to outfit the homeless family…The family, now living with relatives, has been well taken care of and now needs only to find a new home—something difficult to obtain in the Davidson colored community today.”

This fire and the crowded conditions in that neighborhood eventually resulted in the construction of housing for the town’s African American residents at Lakeside, adjacent to the present-day Roosevelt Wilson Park.

John Woods has vivid memories of what happened when a fire broke out in Davidson during the 1950s: “One significant ‘tradition’ among all the kids in town was to respond to the fire siren – the method used – day or night – to call the firefighters to the station. Kids chased the truck to see the fire. This was first accomplished by bicycle and then, as kids got drivers licenses, by piling into someone’s car and off we went! I have a distinct memory of my mom calling to us to come back as we bolted from the formal lunch table – it was fried chicken!- to run next door to the Kimbroughs to catch the ride. This included John, Patty, Lawrence, and Bill Kimbrough and Dan, Lacy, Jimmy and me – about five years old – piling into the car to go to the fire. This was big excitement!”

John goes on to describe several “great” fires during the 50s. The first was a 1952 fire that destroyed the cotton seed oil plant on South Main Street, just south of the present-day Ice House Restaurant (at that time Davidson Ice & Fuel), on land now occupied by Dr. John Allen’s office and the live-work units and offices. According to John, “From my 4-year old perspective, it was a HUGE fire. My brother Dan and sister Lacy were babysitting me – and of course- we went to the fire!  Lacy was worried the fire would scare me, but somehow I recovered!”

In 1954, in a blow to entertainment opportunities in Davidson, the Stough brothers’ Davidson Theatre (located on the site of CVS) burned to the ground. According to historian Mary Beaty, between 75 and 200 students were in the building at the time. While no one was injured, some students played “chicken” to see who could stay in the building the longest.

John Woods remembers that the building “had once been an auto repair garage. It had an open covered porch-like design with a candy/pop corn stand literally facing out to the street. The next morning my mother took me to see the scene: the roof had collapsed into the shell formed by the walls. Mayor Jackson (F.L. Jackson) picked me up so I could put my feet on the edge of the collapsed roof, and I could see the smoldering inside. Very exciting. As mentioned, the building had been an auto repair shop, and when the theater opened, they simply put a new wood floor over the old greasy floor. The fire burned between the two floors and simply could not be put out. As a five-year old I thought it was such a joke that the fire department had to come literally across the street multiple times because the fire kept going. My sister Lacy was a high school student and was attending a Louis Armstrong concert in Chambers building. She said smoke drifted through the open windows and at intermission, everyone piled out to see what was going on!”

If anyone else has historic pictures or anecdotes to share, please contact News of Davidson.

Nancy Griffith

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.

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