MORE ON STORY: Sooty Chimney Starts School Fire | Columnists


It was the spring of 1914. Plato, Minnesota was home to a two-story brick schoolhouse. The school, although small, was quite an achievement for a small town at the time. Built in 1903, the structure was divided into four classrooms and was considered one of the best schools in McLeod County – certainly an honor for the Plato School District.

It is safe to say that things were a little different in 1914. Schools were smaller, and high school graduation was not always expected of students, especially those living in rural areas. Also, athletics was not considered as vital as it is today, which is why Plato’s school, like many others, did not house a gymnasium. Apart from school activities, safety was not seen as it was in 2022. With that in mind, it was not seen as a big issue when the school chimney caught fire.

Even though the weather was starting to warm up, there was still a need to heat the interior. Since the school was a two-story structure, a large furnace and chimney were needed to keep the students warm during the colder months of the year. It was common for the chimney to become coated in soot which occasionally caught fire – in fact this event seemed to occur at intervals of two weeks, but staff and students were aware of this and rarely worried that it might lead to a disaster. .

On Monday, March 12, around 1:15 p.m., the fireplace caught fire again. This time, however, the school’s principal, George Monier, and several students noticed that the fireplace was burning hotter than normal. Monier decided to alert the school janitor to the fire and watch him closely as he feared the chimney fire would send sparks falling onto the roof and ignite it.

School work continued all afternoon. At 2:50 p.m., just before the students were dismissed, Monier heard a loud thump coming from upstairs. His first thought was that a student had fallen down the stairs, but when he entered the hallway, he discovered that the situation was much more serious – a gleam of light was visible through the hole where the cord passed. the bell. The attic was on fire!

The situation was critical, yet Mr. Monier did not want to cause panic. He went to each classroom and told the students to pick up their things, walk out of the school quietly, and wait outside. The principal’s approach worked and all students and staff left the building without incident.

The alarm was raised and firefighters responded quickly. As was the custom at the time during a community emergency, residents flocked to the fire to help in any way they could. Unfortunately, there was a lack of water in the community, which hampered attempts to fight the fire. People worked tirelessly to salvage whatever content they could from school. While the roof was burning, all movable objects such as desks, books, musical instruments, etc. were taken out of school. A valiant effort was made to put out the flames, but it was in vain as the school was a total loss.

It was a dangerous situation that day, but in the end, the people of Plato could count on their luck because no students were injured in the fire. It is likely that the school year has resumed in the empty houses and buildings around Plato. A new school was eventually built, but those who were there in the spring of 1914 will never be able to forget the day the school burned down.

Brian Haines is executive director of the McLeod County Historical Society and Museum, 380 School Road NW, Hutchinson. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday to Friday, from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday and by appointment. Free entry. For more information, call the museum at 320-587-2109.


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