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Pendleton County Historical Society Tells a Tale of Tragedy and Tenacity in Remembering the Franklin Fire of 1924

The Pendleton Times

“I appreciate the crowd that we have today,” beamed Paul Clayton, president of the Pendleton County Historical Society. “It’s kind of overwhelming.”

More than 180 filled the fellowship hall of the Franklin Presbyterian Church on Sunday to learn about one of the great defining events that shaped the town and surrounding areas. The presentation brought residents, visitors, some who had moved away, and community leaders. 

Clayton gave a few words about the historical society, noting that it too would celebrate its centenary this year. He also shared that the organization now boasts more than 300 members, “more than for most historical societies around the state.”

He then asked for, and received, permission to waive the customary business meeting and go straight into the presentation. Before he ceded the podium, Clayton thanked many who had helped to make the event a reality, including Brenna Mitchell, Richard Ruddle, Eddie Sites, Julie Taylor, Sherry Crigler, and others.

Mitchell then went to the front of the room to give the hour long talk. She used a power point presentation filled with photos, maps, and other explanatory slides to accentuate her talk, stating that the group had found much more information than it could present that afternoon.

One of the first slides held a line from after the fire that was printed in the Pendleton Times. It read, “The great fire of Thursday night, April 17, 1924, swept through the heart of the town of Franklin and will live as long as memory lasts in the minds of the eyewitnesses.” 

This statement remains poignant for the fact that the last eyewitness to the day of the fire, Woodrow Hartman, recently passed.

Mitchell also noted that keeping such memories alive even beyond the days of the eyewitnesses served as a key mission of the historical society.

The presentation showed the structures that burned, both before and after. Numerous shots of different buildings and streetscapes appeared throughout the presentation. Mitchell’s stories about families and individuals, business owners and residents, sadness, but also frivolity, gave the presentation true depth, even more so because so many relatives of those named had come to the church that day.

Though the buildings were lost, the strength of the town lay in the people who doggedly came back from tragedy. Some even found reason to dance by the river to the music from a rescued phonograph to celebrate their survival as the ruins still smoked. 

Mitchell related the anecdote of a store owner who raced into his business to unscrew the light bulbs and bring them out. She also shared that residents hurriedly cut down a tree to purposefully crush the Grover Evick ice cream shop, to prevent flames from leaping an alley to burn what is now the William McCoy House.

After the inside presentation, Michelle Sites led approximately 100 attendees down Main Street. The historical society had placed explanatory signs and black bunting in areas affected by the blaze. As they listened to more details of buildings and residents, members of the society set up a reception in the William McCoy House.

Jared and Katie VanMeter had issued the invitation to hold the reception there. Guests enjoyed a buffet of hors d’oeuvres, including cheeses, prepared foods, sausages, fruits and vegetables, and a range of desserts. All were served in the recently renovated front rooms of the historic mansion.

The Pendleton County Historical Society will hold two more public events this year. On May 26, it will host a presentation in Sugar Grove on “Our Five Boys,” about the loss of five sons in World War II. On Aug. 11, a talk on “Old World Traits in Early Appalachian Architecture” will take place in Circleville.

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