UPDATE ON CAUSE OF 1921 SRHS FIRE

Normally I don’t update an item with an entire new article, but more has come to light about the 1921 Santa Rosa High School fire than can squeeze into a footnote. Plus, there’s a really good story here that deserves to be widely shared.

In writing “THE FALL AND RISE OF SANTA ROSA HIGH, PT. 1,” I overlooked a lengthy sidebar about the fire in the November 16, 1921 Press Democrat which contained several important details, such as: “The bursting of a water pipe in the upper part of the building sent a geyser of water into the air. This continued to shoot upward, entirely surrounded by flames.” What a sight that must have been!

Also, the PD reported “several work benches and chairs and a static machine used in the physics laboratory were saved by those who reached the scene during the early stages of the blaze.” That electrostatic generator was probably the most expensive piece of equipment in the school, and the “work benches” were likely experiments setup on the tabletops – but then again, it’s mystifying that they saved chairs, so maybe the kids did lug heavy furniture out of the burning building.

Most intriguing was a mention that “people are finding it more than a coincidence that there have been several school fires in this county in the past year. Roseland, Cotati and Petaluma have been visited by blazes which destroyed schools.” Although it may seem like the PD was hinting there were suspicions of a serial arsonist, one of the other incidents was a grass fire at a Petaluma country school, and the almost-new Cotati grammar school (designed by Brainerd Jones) burned during the middle of a schoolday in a furnace mishap. I found nothing on a Roseland incident.

After the fire was discovered by the boys and girls, critical time was lost because they did not know how to turn in a fire alarm. The next day, a letter to the Press Democrat said we shouldn’t be too hard on the kids – 2 in 5 people questioned on the street didn’t know how to do it either. It was a three-step process: Break the glass, turn the key to open the little door inside and then pull down the lever within.

The earlier article repeated an twice-told tale about the fire possibly being started by teens sneaking a smoke during the halftime of a basketball game that evening. Further research shows there were no high school sporting events after school that Tuesday except for the football team holding evening practice games that week at the “Recreation Field” to prep for an upcoming weekend game against Eureka. And that afternoon the high school “120 pound” basketball team held its first practice before its opening game of Dec. 2, presumably in the annex gym.

There is another unlikely sports-related theory which is well worth reading despite its shaky legs. It comes from a letter by Raymond Clar (SRHS class of 1922) shared by Mike Daniels, historian for the SRHS Foundation.

Clar – who also penned the yearbook poem and sketch of the school ruins seen in the original article – was quite a gifted writer. His letters read like the best of Mark Twain; he takes awhile to get around to his point, but the scenery is so nice along the way you don’t mind the detours at all. I took to reading the letters aloud to my long-suffering wife in my best Sam Clemens imitation (which is to say, imitating Hal Holbrook imitating Clemens). This story related to the fire – and the┬ádistress of his poor, poor friend, John Parmeter – is among his best:

…To the best of my knowledge, no authority has ever set forth even a good guess as to why that fire occurred. What I write here is very probably the first time a very likely cause has ever been set down in writing.

John Parmeter didn’t do it. He probably never heard the little story I have to tell. But his very painful experience one day in the Fall of 1921 helps set the stage for the Fire Cause Theory.

I “went out” only one season for football and I roomed in Santa Rosa to do that. The fact that my lack of ability did no good for the undermanned team is of no consequence. John Parmeter was undoubtedly a much better athlete, and that is not important either. Our being with the team allows me to now be the scribe and John the victim, and it primarily points to “The Cause.”

As I remember, the basement of the Old School on Humboldt Street was at ground level. Its principal use was for lockers and dressing rooms for athletic teams and gym classes. On rainy noon hours it was a madhouse of male students staying out of the rain. Oh yes, there, too, were toilets. Now I remember that a line of toilets and urinals was flushed at regular intervals by a tipping bucket system. Running water from a faucet overhead filled up a scoop-shovel-shaped galvanized iron tank. When the water load reached some 50 gallons the pivoted tank slopped over and delivered a cascade of water all along the line. And that had nothing to do with The Fire and relatively little to do with John Parmeter.

The important point is that when a team had suited up and was ready to go out to a game on practice, someone, probably the coach or team manager, lit a substantial gas water heater in the locker room to assure water for showers later. It should be remembered that we then had to travel from Humboldt Street to the site of the present high school for football events. And the field was hard, bare ground with numerous surface pebbles. In fact, on days preceding a Saturday or regular season game some gym classes of boys were transported there to pick up pebbles. (And I personally still bear a scar where my chin was split open when the chubby Elsworth Barnett fell on my head in scrimmage one day.)

In my several diversions herein let us not forget the unwatched gas water heater in the locker room back in the basement. So, one day the boys returned from the practice field–dirty, sweaty and bruised. But several lads still possessed enough energy to engage in a towel slapping fray. Here were there or four naked youths snapping at each other with bath towels used as bullwhips. I remember the event very vividly but I suspect that I considered that I lacked the social status, even as a senior, to become involved in such horseplay. I was still an outlander in this essentially closed society of Santa Rosa students.

Anyway, John was maneuvered close to a burning water heater when he entangled his gangly legs one with another and a snapping towel. John fell backward into the very hot cylindrical, iron heater. What a yelping and howling with pain! The horseplay ended and John was on the floor. Some of us rolled him over and viewed, I solemnly swear, the letters DETROIT MICH –in reverse — branded on John’s posterior.

But, as I herein above declare, John Parmeter did not cause the old high school to burn. What I have done thus far, I do hope, is establish beyond question the matter of the gas fueled water heaters.

Somewhere, a dozen or so years later I was talking with a relatively young man. I do not remember his name, or why, or where. I do remember that he told me that he had been a member of some team from San Rafael Military Academy. (I feel that was the school). That team had “borrowed” the SRHS locker room, apparently aside from any contest with Santa Rosa, as I remember. Then, very snidely, he told me, “We were the team that forgot to turn off the gas water heaters on the day Santa Rosa High School burned.”

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