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1924: Heroic efforts of Hannibal firefighters saved original Eugene Field School building

Elwena Barrett Carr, president of the Class of 1939, Eugene Field Junior High School, is pictured in this 1939 photo of the girls' basketball team. She identified the following: Front row, from left, Addean Lankford, Rose Cousins, Alta Wassons, Betty Sims, Rachel Beilsmith and Dorothy Sellick. Back row, Coach Mary Louise Robinson, Ardella Cornelius, Barbara Allen, Marie McIntyre, Margaret (Maggie) Allen, Irene Chase, Mildred Curtis, Elwena Barrett and Harriet Beam. The team won the championship in 1937, she said. CONTRIBUTED

Note how this photo of the original Eugene Field School, at left, shows a flat roof, rather than the castle-styled roof the building had when constructed. Steve Chou believes this photo was taken after the fire of July 1924, and before the new building was constructed in 1925. Steve Chou photo


When the fire alarm sounded on the afternoon of July 29, 1924, William Jasper Grove immediately recognized the challenges ahead. The three-story Eugene Field School building was on fire, and Grove was among the three companies of Hannibal firefighters who immediately reported to the scene.

Grove had long been assigned to Engine Company No. 2, located on Market Street just across the street from the old school building which had served Hannibal’s west side students for 40 years.

He was a veteran firefighter, first joining Hannibal’s volunteer force in 1884 when he was 21 years old. Now, age the age of 61, Grove was captain of Hose Co., No. 2, and working under Fire Chief T.B. Parks, helped to established a prescribed plan in order to douse the flames, which were already shooting out of the building’s roof.

The plan was to point all available hoses to the top of the building, allowing water to stream directly down onto the flames.

The plan worked. The fire was successfully extinguished, confined to the structure’s roof. Water damaged furniture on the third floor, and the fire singed classroom woodwork on the third floor, but the building itself was saved.

By the time classes resumed for the school year in mid September, repairs were well enough along – including the construction of a temporary roof - to allow the building to be used for educational purposes.

The Eugene Field School staff, students and faculty, in addition to the community at large, were so grateful for the firefighters’ successful save that a luncheon was hosted in their honor.

The home economics class at Eugene Field, under the supervision of Mrs. E.T. Miller, instructor, prepared and hosted the luncheon on the first day of October 1924.

Prof. N.F. Romjue, school principal, praised the firefighters, as did Prof. A.L. McCartney, superintendent of the Hannibal schools. Also on hand for the luncheon were C.O. Mays, president of the school board, C.A. Troutman, who offered the invocation, and J.B. Jeffreys of the Hannibal Courier-Post.

In response, Chief T.B. Parks thanked the attendees for the words of praise, and for the splendid luncheon.

Old West School

The school at the intersection of Heuston and Pearl streets was originally constructed in 1884, and until 1914 was known as West School. When a public school was erected in Oakwood, the West School was renamed in honor of journalist and children’s poet, Eugene Field, and has carried that name ever since.

New building

At the time of the Eugene Field School fire, Hannibal citizens had already passed a bond issue allowing for the construction of new elementary schools.

In April 1925 – nine months after the fire – the Hannibal school board awarded the contract for the erection of the new Eugene Field School to the Tobin Construction Company of St. Louis for approximately $186,000. The planned structure would house both the elementary grades and a junior high school. The bid included a lighting and heating plant.

Fire department lineage

T.B. Parks served as Hannibal fire chief for more than 44 years. He died in late March 1931 at the age of 72. During his tenure, the fire department grew from one volunteer outfit to three motorized companies.

William J. Grove was Parks’ successor. After serving as chief for four years, he died, at the age of 71. Mr. Grove is buried at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Hannibal.

Firefighters in 1903

The Hannibal City Directory of 1903 lists the firefighters at that time, working under the leadership of T.B. Parks:

Hannibal Hose Co. No. 2, Frank Gay, captain; William Mangle, William Nerlich, Edward F. Nerlich and William Grove, hosemen, Market northeast corner Hueston and Market.

Hannibal Hose Co. No. 1, Hook and Ladder Co., No. 1, Dennis Mahoney, utilityman; William Dunn, driver, Frank F. Tessmer, Fritz Nagle and Charles Mahoney, hoseman, 206 and 208 S. Fourth.

Alumni and teachers

Thousands of students and hundreds of teachers claim association with Hannibal’s Eugene Field School.

A few of these individuals:

Imogene Kilian Ransdell was secretary for the Eugene Field School for 21 years. She died Dec. 29, 1998 at the age of 81.

Lorraine Yount retired in 1979 after 38 years of teaching at Eugene Field school.

Mrs. C.P. (Ruth) Anton III taught at Eugene Field after her marriage in 1948.

William Edward Jameson taught science at Eugene Field Junior High from 1954-1959.

While a student at Eugene Field School circa 1920, Roy Ham earned $2.50 a week for sweeping the school’s halls and stairways.

W.B. Pettibone donated the land for the Eugene Field playground in 1926.

Prof. A.H. Foreman, for many years principal at Eugene Field, was honored in 1920 by the school’s students for his half century of dedication to the public schools.

Hannibal residents Raymond Witt and Loren Allensworth, who shared their childhood memories with the Courier-Post in December 2010, both attended Eugene Field.

Betty Hickman worked as a Eugene Field School secretary in the fall of 1939, and remembers working with Mary Louise Robinson, first year teacher at the school. Betty married Joe Farrell, who was a Hannibal fireman both before and after World War II.

Nancy Richmond DeLaPorte, 80, attended grades six through nine at Eugene Field School and graduated from Eugene Field junior high school in 1950. She remembers the school office was located on the second floor, and across the hall was the auditorium. Junior high classrooms were basically confined to the second and third floors. The library was on the second floor, across the hall from the auditorium, and the school office was next door to the library. The home economics room was on the northwest corner of the third floor, a big room at the top of the steps, with windows overlooking Levering Hospital.

Bill Schweitzer ’s mother, Roberta Clarkson Schweitzer, attended Eugene Field and he recalls her mentioning the 1924 fire and its impact on her. “She and her sister Virginia Clarkson resided at Griffith & Grace streets and walked from there to school. She later taught for 35 years in the Hannibal school system, initially in a one room school in Hydesburg during WWII.” Bill graduated from Hannibal High School in 1955.

Mary Margaret Smith attended school at Eugene Field during the 1930s. Her parents operated Quality Dairy on Lyon Street, not far from the school. Mary Margaret’s parents drove her to Eugene Field School each morning, and then she walked to the dairy after school, where she helped with whatever needed to be done at the family business.

Her best friend at Eugene Field was Lura Mae Pitts. “Her father ran the 5 and dime on Market Street and my father ran the dairy. We got ice cream and candy whenever we wanted,” Mary Margaret said, noting that their status made them both very popular with their peers.

The old West School, located in approximately the same site at the newer Eugene Field School constructed in 1925. The old school was built in 1884, and served West Side students until the news school opened. The building survived a threatening fire in July 1924. STEVE CHOU COLLECTION

The existing Eugene Field School, marking its 90th year, was constructed in 1925. STEVE CHOU COLLECTION

The eighth grade gym class at Eugene Field Junior High School is pictured on May 26, 1939. Pictured at left is (1) Mary Louise Robinson, teacher. Those pictured include (2) Kathryn Roland and (3) Martha Wiseman Webdell. CONTRIBUTED

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