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Whenever I step into a schoolhouse attic, I’m intrigued when I see charring. And I’ve seen it a few times ... at the closed Garfield Avenue School on North 4th Street, and at the shuttered Lee Elementary nearby on 9th and Meinecke. It’s also up in the attic at 8th Street School, which is open.
In my 2012 book, "Historic Milwaukee Public Schoolhouses," I wrote a chapter about three vintage Milwaukee schoolhouses that were lost to fire in the 1970s. In that story, I mentioned a newspaper report that had noted that an insurance adjuster had said that while Wisconsin has a less than stellar record in terms of school fires, Milwaukee’s record in that area had been "exemplary."
Looking across history, however, quite a few fires have affected -- and sometimes destroyed -- Milwaukee schools (like the one that changed the appearance of Dover Street School in Bay View in 1910). And many of those blazes have been arson or suspected arson.
Of the three in the book, two -- Walnut Street School and 18th Street School -- were suspicious. The third, at Jefferson Street School, was attributed to faulty wiring. Two of those fires were in 1978.
But 1918 was an even tougher year for school fires in Milwaukee. In April, Ferry & Clas’ gorgeous Grand Avenue School on 27th Street was decimated by fire. The blaze broke out during the night, fortunately, and by morning most of the 721 students of the school gathered to see what remained of their school -- only the walls were left standing.
"Some of the more studious girls came to mourn," wrote an unnamed reporter, "but most of the boys were happy in the excitement of the moment and at the prospect of an enforced vacation of a few days at least."
A fire occurred at Elm Street School (now Starms Early Childhood Center) in November, and in December, Lee Street (as it was then called) suffered a fire that had flames shooting through the roof, according to a newspaper report that included a photo of a large crowd watching firefighters battle the blaze.
"After investigating each of the (first two) fires, the school board determined that they were not accidental, but failed to place the blame," read a newspaper account. The Lee fire, too, was deemed to be suspicious.
Though it reportedly only took 10 minutes for firefighters to bring the Lee fire under control, 96 years later, there are still charred joists in the attic of the school, though many have long since been reinforced with metal supports.
The year 1969 was a bad one, too. That’s when the fire created the "alligatoring" in the attic at 8th Street School.
"We in the fire service refer to the charring (seen on the attic beams) as ‘alligatoring’ (because it is) similar to the back of a gator," retired deputy Milwaukee Fire Dept. Chief Warren "Ski" Skonieczny at the Milwaukee Fire Education Center and Museum told me.
The Milwaukee Sentinel reported that the fire was "set by vandals," at the school, which at the time served as a North Division annex.
A 1969 fire ultimately led to the disappearance of North Division, too. This one was clearly arson, as three separate fires were started simultaneously. While a new North was already under construction next door, in 1976, two more fires were lit by arsonists on the same day in March.
Also in 1969, the Associated Press reported "almost daily fires in lockers and water paper baskets" at Washington High School after a silent march commemorated the one-year anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Two Washington students were expelled in 1981 after they started a fire in the school’s auxiliary gym.
Ski sent me a list of school fires, that included a two-alarm blaze at Washington in 1973.
Two years later, while Eugene Field on the South Side was being demolished, a four-alarm fire broke out. Just up the street, in 1978, there was a two-alarm blaze at the old South Division, which was closed, but still standing.
He also mentioned fires over the past 30 years at Hampton Avenue, Clement Zablocki and Benjamin Franklin Schools.
Thankfully, in all my research into Milwaukee school fires, I can’t recall ever hearing of a staff or student injury or death.
I still find myself quite pleased when my kids come home and report that earlier in the day they had a fire drill at school.
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