SKANEATELES | Charlie Major was lying in bed at his home on Austin Street the morning of Friday, March 21, 1952 when he heard four blasts from a nearby fire alarm followed shortly by four more blasts from the same alarm.
The then-Skaneateles High School senior knew exactly what that meant: At that time, the fire alarm system consisted of a series of boxes at different points along the streets in the village. When somebody pulled the alarm in the box, it emitted a signal specific to that part of the village.
The signal Major heard was the alarm for the corner of Austin and State streets. There was a fire somewhere near his house — in fact, as he soon found out, the entire high school was engulfed in flames.
Despite the efforts of more than 150 firefighters from six fire companies — Skaneateles, Mottville, Elbridge, Jordan, Marcellus and Borodino — a fire destroyed the high school that day and momentarily changed the school district's educational landscape.
'Hollow brick shell'
That afternoon, The Citizen-Advertiser reported that the fire "left the two-story structure a hollow brick shell" and caused damages estimated in the range of $500,000 to $1 million, with firefighters still investigating the blazes cause and origin at the time.
According to The Skaneateles Press published that day, local mail carrier Joseph Fisher discovered the fire at 6:40 a.m. while visiting his mother at her East Elizabeth Street home. Fisher saw smoke coming from the structure, and within minutes, there was "a seething mass of flames enveloping both wings of the building," The Press reported.
In the attack on the fire, firefighters concentrated on the school's windows in an attempt to save the first floor, The Citizen-Advertiser reported. They also cut away pine trees on school property to clear a path for fire hoses.
The Syracuse Herald-Journal reported that firefighters had the blaze under control less than an hour after it was first discovered, and the last section of the building collapsed at 7:30 a.m. Firefighters used "every available hydrant," the newspaper stated, producing 12 streams of water that hit the school.
Residents who lived out of earshot of the alarms and sirens awoke to "a village without a school," The Herald-Journal reported.
Church groups, community groups and neighbors set up a canteen at the house next door offering coffee, donuts and cigarettes to the firefighters battling the blaze, The Citizen-Advertiser reported.
While the building housed around 690 children and 40 teachers at the time, according to The Citizen-Advertiser, the fire started early enough that no one was inside the school when it began. In fact, the paper reported, firefighter Jimmy Allen suffered the only injury — a few of his teeth were knocked loose when he was hit in the face by a fire hose.
Meanwhile, The Citizen-Advertiser reported, records, books and other contents inside the school were lost in the fire. A safe containing the district's business papers was unreachable because of the smoke.
In fact, The Herald-Journal reported, the only property recovered from the fire were athletic equipment and band uniforms.
Afterward, The Citizen-Advertiser reported, only a shell of the school remained — the roof caved in, and the second floor collapsed onto the first floor. Some heavy timbers fell all the way into the basement.
'All were happy'
At the time, the district was in the process of formulating plans to build a completely new high school, and in fact, The Press article noted that there was an advertisement seeking bids for the construction in the same newspaper.
The Herald-Journal reported that district residents were scheduled to vote soon on a bond issue for the construction of the new building.
A separate article in the March 21 Citizen-Advertiser reported that there were plans for a 1,200-student junior/senior high school at an expected cost of $2 million, plus now several hundred thousand more dollars to replace what the fire ruined.
However, the article stated, new construction could not possibly be finished in time for next school year to start in September, with bids slated to be opened April 8 and plans and specifications in the hands of contractors.
That night, The Press reported, the school board called an emergency meeting to consider the situation. The separate Citizen-Advertiser article reported that several churches already offered the use of their spaces for school functions, and other organizations were expected to follow suit.
"All were happy that the fire, if it had to occur, happened when no children were in the building," The Press stated.
After that four-hour meeting, The Post-Standard reported, board members decided to close school the following week and arrange students in temporary quarters when school resumed. Six rooms were available in the kindergarten building — the only part of the school not touched by the fire — and eight branch buildings and other village structures were set to make up the temporary school.
'Just shooting up'
Major said his mother could see smoke rising out of the school from the back door of the family's home. Still in his pajamas, Major dashed out to the scene and narrowly beat the first firetrucks there.
He noted one of the trucks used was a then-brand-new Mac firetruck that saw its first action at that fire — and Art Hyatt was among the first firefighters there, Major added.
"We still have it. We use it for parades and decoration," Major said of the truck that responded to the scene. "Flames were just shooting up (from the school). ... Flames were just blowing out of there."
Major said his wife, then Peggy Palmer, was on her way to an early Lenten Mass before heading to school that day — and, along with Fisher, the future Mrs. Major was one of the first witnesses to the fire.
"She was walking in the street and saw the smoke before any alarms went up," he said. "She never made it to church."
At the time, he said, the school was situated — where State Street Intermediate School now stands — a bit more to the west of its current location.
After awhile, Major said he went back home to change into clothes — and may have grabbed some other items to contribute to the blaze.
"I ran home to get my books and throw them in the fire," he said. "That's better than, 'My dog ate it.'"
After the fire, Major said, it was determined the fire started in the cafeteria, which at the time was located in the basement. Workers were installing new electrical wiring in the ceiling above the cafeteria, and investigators found that is where the blaze started.
But, Major noted, a local legend persisted for a time that the fire was the result of arson. A local boy was later arrested for allegedly starting other fires, and rumors pointed him out as sparking the school fire too.
"There was never any proof of that, but it made a good story at the time," Major said.
Another good story, Major said, is how some of the athletic equipment was saved from the fire. A group of boys formed an assembly line to pass hockey gear and other items from the destroyed gymnasium area — and the last boys in line carried the items back to their home.
Their living room "looked like Dick's Sporting Goods," Major said. "The guys at the end of the line just ran off with it."
But, one of the saddest parts of the fire, Major said, is that the school saw its glass cases containing trophies and photos of sports teams destroyed along with the rest of the building.
"They lost a lot of things that can't be replaced," he said. "That's all gone obviously."
And as well as saving the gear, Major and some other students helped firefighters battle the blaze — by throwing rocks and ice balls at the windows to break them and allow water streams to reach into the building. Major said firefighters dealt with low water pressure — a problem that still persists in the municipal water system today — and could not break the windows with water alone to fight the fire.
'Quite an experience'
Students got two weeks off from school following the fire, Major pointed out. The school closed the week immediately after because of the destruction, and then the week after that was Easter break.
When school resumed, he said it was "like college," as students walked from building to building around the village and town to attend their classes.
But, Major noted, setting up the makeshift school didn't go off without a hitch, especially because the buildings had to conform to Health Department and Education Department regulations to host classes. He said Judd Gregory, then a school board member, told him he was at the Skaneateles American Legion building until midnight the night before school reopened making sure the bathroom was set for students.
"They did an incredible job of organizing all the places for school to hold classes," Major said. "It's amazing how they put it all together."
Centralization had occurred just a couple of years before, so country schools in Skaneateles Falls, Mottville, Mandana and Willow Glen were among the buildings students in those hamlets used to go to school.
In the village, Major said, churches and other buildings opened up their doors to the students. He said his public speaking and British literature classes took place in First Presbyterian Church, and shop and woodworking took place in the garage that is now Garage Eatz.
He recalled classes in St. James' Episcopal Church and said the basketball team practiced in the gym at United Methodist Church, though it played home games in Marcellus. The Masonic Temple and the Grange Hall were among the other buildings that hosted students.
Students had 10 minutes to walk between buildings for their classes. Since the fire happened in March, temperatures were warm enough for the students' walks, Major said, but sometimes the spring rains wreaked havoc on their journeys.
"You might have to walk from the Methodist church to the Episcopal church," he said. "You had 10 minutes to get there, rain or shine."
Major said the next class after his also graduated from the Presbyterian church, as the new school was not built in time for them to attend it.
After looking through archives at the Skaneateles Historical Society Museum at the Creamery, he noted State Street was completed and opened in 1953, and students set foot in the new Skaneateles High School for the first time at the start of the 1953-1954 school year.
"It was quite an experience," Major said.