Payette High School Fire of 1956
By Amanda Rekward and Hannah Rich

On the afternoon of November 2, 1956, the Payette Pirate football team as getting prepared in the locker room for a game. The team started to smell smoke but didn't think anything of it until James McCullough, a ten year old boy riding his bike by the school heard an explosion and noticed flames coming from the building. Then he immediately contacted the football players. The team went out of the building to see what was going on and saw the flames themselves. They quickly went into the building along with other students and townspeople and began to carry band instruments from the third floor out of the burning building. Other items removed from the school were home economics equipment, shop equipment and choir robes. The fire started in the basement in the janitor's room, also called the boiler room and quickly spread throughout the third floor. It is believed that the fire started by spontaneous combustion then entered the chemistry lab through the heating ducts providing fuel for the fire.

In an interview with Mary Lou Welch, who taught 7th and 8th grade English, literature, spellng and grammar, she was reminiscing about their plan to visit a friend in Ontario at the hospital, who had just delivered her baby. On the way down from the hill they noticed the flames and smoke. She said "We didn't end up seeing the baby, that day." She got to thinking, a teacher has to have her grade book. She approached a fireman and asked if she could go in and retrieve her grade book. A couple of the Jr. high teachers including Mary Lou Welch and Mrs. Townley the Social Studies teacher were able to enter the west part of the building escorted by firemen for their grade books. The fire hadn't reached the west part of the building because the fire doors were pulled down so only smoke damage was done. She recalled that Mr. Donavon Douglas was the school superintendent, Mr. Palumbo was the high school principal, and Elsie Robers was the school secretary.

While interviewing Mr. Jay Fitch agent for Fitch Insurance Agency he recollected how the townspeople were standing in the street watching the fire. He stated many including himself went into the school to retrieve items. Looking back he said this probably wasn't a smart thing to do. He started to chuckle, looking up at us he recalled his wife Barbara Firch tripping over one of the many fire hoses in the street. JoAnn Shurtleff called me and stated she was in the first grade at the time the fire broke out, she lived on Second Street and remembers seeing the fire and crying because she was afraid the fire would reach her house. In her eyes it was huge. She remembers running to Center and standing on the opposite side of the street watching in horror as the high school burned. Looking up to the third floor she remembers seeing silhouettes of kids in the band room, then saw them running out of the building carrying the band instruments. The next day she remembers walking up to the school building and looking into the ugly, deep windows. Everything was wet and black. She remembers reaching down in the debris and finding a pair of fingernail clippers that she kept for many years, often wondering who might have lost them.

According to the fire report, the fire was called in at around 6:45 PM by Fire Chief Glenn Levers. Assistant Fire Chief Lowell Coffee was assisted by sixteen firemen from Payette, eight firemen from Weiser and eight firemen from Ontario who were called in to fight the fire. When they arrived there was so much smoke and poisonous vapor in the building they were not able to fight the flames effectively. The flames under the roof rapidly broke through the base of the building and could not be reached until tremendous damage had been done. The flames engulfed the central section of the school. The ceiling and roof of the third floor was burnt completely and both water and fire damaged the floors beneath. After about three hours of fighting the fire, the firemen had the fire under control, but the fire took almost all night to be completely extinguished.

The High School fire was reported to be the largest and most expensive fire of the year in Payette County. It took approximately a quarter of a million gallons of water to extinguish the fire according to city superintendent William Schmelzel, who stated the city didn't suffer any water shortage during the fire.

While the flames burned high into the night, the Payette Pirates Football team still played their scheduled game against the Meridian Warriors. Coming out with a victory, the Pirates won by eleven points. The final score was Payette 24 and Meridian 18. Since the fire had the attention of the media one faithful Payette Fan, Jay Sherlock reported the game for the Independent Enterprise. Both teams played an outstanding offensive game. At the end of the second quarter Payette was ahead, but Meridian came back strong with two touchdowns, tying the game. At the beginning of the third quarter the Pirates scored giving them the lead. The Warriors then scored again tying the game but the Pirates came back to score once more, and were able to hold the Warriors for a victory.

On Wednesday, November 14, 1956, the Payette School board met at a special meeting in the Junior High Library to discuss many replacement solutions. Three estimates to replace the High School back to the condition it was in before the fire were given. The estimates were given by three contractors who were involved in part of the survey of damages being conducted by Charles W. Johnston, architect, the bids were Krieger Contractors, of Nampa for $196,381, Babbitt Construction Co., of Boise for $194,500 and DeBoard Construction Co., for $194,600. The Gordon Reynolds Flooring Co., of Boise offered a proposal to repair the Gym floor. Their first offer, which was not guaranteed to last, was for sanding, cleaning, and levelng for $4,600. The other offer included installing a new floor for $6,350, which included a standard guarantee. At the meeting Charles Johnston said that it would be possible to rebuild out of the remains, but that it still would not be a new modern building. He also pointed out that it would also be possible to continue to use of the two lower floors by roofing over the area and doing extensive remodeling, but also noted the space that was remaining would not be adequate for future generations in the up coming years.

Two more special meetings were held. During the Tuesday meeting, consideration of the claims of certain individuals who lost their personal belongings in the recent fire were presented. Over 20 people filled out losses and statements totaling more than $1000 at the high school office, although fewer people were present to substantiate their claims. After considering the investigation, the board arranged that all of the claims submitted were valid and were accepted.

Then during the Saturday meeting the board agreed to use the survey service of Dr. Grederick Weltzin, Dean of Education, University of Idaho, and to use Charles Johnston as the architect for any of the rebuilding program which was still not yet decided upon. Dr. Weltzin said that any plan must be taken into consideration for the needs of the school for the next 50 years or more.

During another meeting on Friday night Irvin A. Cooper, of Portland, Even Kennedy, of Portland, and Ronald Blakely, of Caldwell, disaster expert were called in to re-examine the high school for the purpose of determining the strength of the building. The board called upon them because they believed that the school might require more work then was expected. Dr. Weltzin purposed two bond issues to in better the school for providing a new Jr. High School.

Meanwhile the school board called for an emergency bond, which asked the voters to vote yes to remodel the burnt building for the Junior High and build a new High School. This was purposed by Dr. Frederick Weltzin and by Charles W. Johnston an architect from Payette. The bond was advertised for $324,800. The bond failed with 708 votes for the change and 392 votes against the change, this made a difference of 26 votes to pass the bond. Many voters were surprised at how close the results ended.

Mr. Weltzin made two plans to repair the new high school. Plan A: was for rebuilding the high school in much of the same manner as it was before the fire. Some changes such as plumbing, electrical and safety requirements would demand changes. And the stairway would be made of fireproof construction to provide a safe environment so that the students couldn't be trapped in the school. Plan B: recommended building the two lower levels to provide a three-year Jr. High and build an academic part of a high school on another site. The gymnasium, shop, sports, and lunch facilities would be used by both junior and senior high students.

In February 1957 at The East Side Parents Group, Gordon Axelson motioned and Ralph Davis seconded to the Board of Trustees of the Payette School district, that they recommend a bond for rebuilding the two remaining floors of the school by money received from the bond. It was decided to submit a bond issue to the voters for the approval of the bond that would be voted on March 20, 1957. Then the money paid by the insurance agencies (regardless of how, when or how much) would replace the cost or be put into a fund for up coming buildings if not used. With no extra cost added onto the voter's taxes. This proposal was taken into consideration by the school board. They believed that the proposal would speed up the transferring of the elementary students out of the make shift classrooms at the armory and three local churches. The high school students took over the elementary school during this time. If this wasn't acted upon it could have taken up to two years for the students to return back to their classrooms.

During a meeting in which Kiwanians club attended, Superintendent Donnovan Douglas was asked by Jerome Brubaker, president of the school baord, to speak about the "Needs of Education" leaving out references to the money angle. He told the group that he thinks the students need to return to their adequate class rooms as soon as possibly. He pointed out that rebuilding limited facilities, since the science laboratory was completely destroyed. Next Johnston said that those who wanted the two lower stories should expect it but there was a lot of damage done and the sooner they start restoring the building the less damage would be done.

The bond issue for $155,000 would have to pass by two-thirds majority vote. This would increase the bonded indebtedness only temporarily. The bond would be almost paid off by the money from the insurance companies. The school board accepted this proposal unanimously and thought that since this was proposed by groups of parents they should go along with it because they are most concerned. On Wednesday the 20th the bond was voted upon with a total of 862 votes. 758 votes were in favor and 204 votes were against the proposed issue. This was a victory for the parents group. After the bond was voted upon and passed a school board meetng was held afterwards to proceed with the plans and specifications for rebuilding the building. At this meeting the Payette teachers also received a $300 across the board salary raise in addition to their regular increment.

At one of the meetings a representative for Intermountain Gas Company gave a plan to convert the school to natural gas for heating. The change would pay for itself within two and half years.

Many of the local merchants protested. They felt the school board should make all purchases at home. They criticized recent purchases made by the board for books, desks, and typewriters. Considerable misunderstanding was evident. Douglas pointed out that State law requires that the work be left under contract. The contractor then buys the materials and hires his labor; it is not the school boards choice. Much of the labor and supplies will come from elsewhere, unless local merchants can arrange to meet outside competition head on, both in price and in date of delivery.

The Fire was soon to pull Payette apart. After a final estimate by George Winsor, two Insurance companies were to share the cost each paying 100% for their half of the total cost. Both Companies, Bob McCarrol representing Three Rivers Insurance, and Neil R. Fitch representing Fitch Insurance Agency. Both Companies were suppose to deliver the draft for the amount at a noon luncheon at The Bird Blue Cafe. In which the school board and mayor were present. When the two companies were expected to hand over the drafts the Three Rivers Insurance backed out of the deal and refused to hand over the draft. The Three Rivers Insurance said that they weren't able to finance the school with the money because they were under insured and they would only pay 20 to 30% of their side of the cost. Many people couldn't believe it. This was the beginning of a long test of Payette's ability to stay as a whole community. Many people took sides and acted poorly against the insurance agencies.

This disaster made J.D. Fitch insurance unable to pay their side of the cost without the aid of the other insurance agency. While interviewing Jay Fitch he mentioned the great amount of tension within the town. His father's company had a draft ready to be presented by Bob Stall of Northern Insurance at the noon luncheon; he recalls the excitement in the air. But the excitement turned to shock. He can remember the shock in everyone's face when Three Rivers Insurance wouldn't pay. Fitch insurance couldn't turn over their draft because of this.

This caused a lawsuit filed by the school against both of the insurance agencies, for not paying their part of the cost. The school board hired attorneys James McClure and George Donart to represent the school. The school board felt this action was needed to protect the taxpayers from further loss and delay. The board felt they could not accept a lower offer from the insurance companies of $84,569.61 each, because they were dealing with public funds. It was estimated to cost $254,913,93 to repair, later this amount was reduced to $231,827.60. Judge S. Ben Dunlap ruled against the defendants, General Insurance Company of America: Three Rivers Insurance: agent Bob McCarrol and Northern Insurnace Company of America: Fitch Insurance Agency: agent J.D. Fitch. Giving the school district a win in its second skirmish with the insurance companies. There was never any mention of the amount the insurance companies finally paid to the school in the newspapers. While talking with Jay Fitch I asked him if he knew how much was paid to the schools and he said he wasn't quite sure, and there would probably by no way he could find out because it was so long ago.

Criticism by the townspeople was felt by everyone! All the delays! Many were upset because it was taking so long for concrete decisions to be made. Negotiations have resulted in a maze of figures, but not in settlement.

Upon the passage of the $155,000 school bond, demolition of the third floor began.

As the wreckers of the General Salvage company of Boise began to start the process of tearing down the third floor, removing the solid brick walls of the old third story many problems were found. They used a boom with great jaws to remove some of the bricks and debris. The rest was removed by the crewmembers themselves. The touchiest part of the demolishing was when Jim Easteppe, salvage superintendent, climbed a 65-foot mobile boom with an 180foot ladder extension. His job was tearing down 40 feet of the old smokestack. It was reported that the "chimney being partly isolated by the removal of one supporting wall, swung and vibrated precariously, especially after the boom deposited its human cargo atop the quivering stack. A safety line from the extension ladder's top and hooked to a heavy belt worn by Easteppe assured the maximum protection, for the dare devil." "Audible ohs and groans emanated from the neck craning onlookers."

Another exciting part of the demolition was the removal of three girders. The boom anchored on to the four massive box-type steel fabricated girders, which supported the roof on one large room. One of the largest girders to be removed was "40 foot by 6 foot mass of steel that weighed over three tons. The removal of this girder made all hold their breath as it swung free from its masonry anchors and swung in the wild, blue yonder."

During this process they found that the hardwood floors bore insects, which was minor evidence that the school was built carelessly and sloppy by the original builders. The floor had been put down on the raw concrete, with insufficient asphalt paper protection. This flaw had to be removed; thus new cement was poured over the faulty understructure. This was only the beginning of many errors found in the original construction of the high school, which was originally built in 1919. More poor work was revealed when the third floor was being torn down. "The third floor shows the original building to have been of sloppy construction. What with brickwork in the 17" walls being bedded in mortar so weak the alm shovel crumbled it like baked mud. On the north wall where steel angle irons (L-irons) should have carried the brick work over the window openings, a couple of wooden lintels had been substituted for steel ones. Each time a new problem occurred a delay would take place because any changes had to be brought up before the school board for approval before the architect's changes could be made.

Luekenga Construction of Nampa had lined up all its sub-contractors, so that as soon as the clean up work was done the new construction could begin. Another set back is in store for the school district. In the month of August 1957 a carpenter's strike had hit! Due to the carpenter's strike all scheduling for completion was altered. "Optimism prevails that tie-ups will soon be over." "Luekenga's superintendent, William Schafer was on the job with a few fine men, working in conjunction with the wreckers so things will be in better readiness once the strike is settled." There was some talk of local carpenters stepping in, but the union sources hadn't confirmed this.

Numerous changes in the schools stucture and floor plan needed to be made. A number of improvements included new acoustical title on the ceilings, new chalk and tack boards, and modernized electrical system. The lunchroom was moved into the space formerly used by the home Economics. This would cause less noise and vibration from the gymnasium above. The old library was turned into three classrooms; the former offices were made into a classroom. Two large science and commercial rooms would occupy the north side of the upper floor. The outside appearance will remain the same, except the third floor was removed.

The community of Payette "were up in arms" according to Jay Fitch. Tempers were hot, a line was divided. Many of the townspeople took sides. There were "harsh words spoken." The town of Payette not only had to rebuild a school after the fire of 1956 it also had to rebuild town pride and unity.


Jay D. Fitch
Mary Lou Welch
Floyd Rich
Fire Chief Jeff Sands of Payette
JoAnn Shurtleff
Independent Enterprise Newspaper
Video done by Mrs. Stauff interviewing Don DeBord (Firefighter), Ann Crosby (High School Student), Pat Townsend (Football Player), Bev Schuster (Student) and Barbara Wilson (Owned 8mm Film of Fire).

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