As the month of August barrels onward, Southern Utah University, here in Cedar City, is preparing to receive another class of students ready to advance in their chosen fields of higher education. The early history of SUU has recently been documented in an impressive film, partially shot on location here at Frontier Homestead. It can be seen here: https://www.suu.edu/backupthemountain/index.html. While the story of the building of Old Main is well known, the sad tale of its fire is not.
The morning of December 12, 1948 should have been like another other Sunday. It was a clear, crisp, wintery day. There was no way to tell that this morning would change Cedar City forever. As Jack Walters and his father Roy were returning with the newspapers Jack was to deliver to the homes on his route, they noticed something unusual. There was smoke rising from the top of the Old Main building on Temple Hill. The two men rushed to the nearby home of Eldro Rigby, manager of the college farm, to sound the alarm. By the time they reached the Rigby home, flames were visible through the roof of Old Main. Rigby called the fire department and then called Edward Matheson, the school custodian, who was the first to reach the blaze. Matheson threw off all the electrical switches to the building, but the fire was already blazing through the dry attic.
As students became aware of the situation they rushed to the scene and formed a human brigade up the steel fire escape and began to retrieve all that was possible of the precious books and artifacts housed in the historic Old Main. Retired Cedar City Fire Chief David E. Bentley was only 14 years old at the time, but clearly remembers that winter morning. “I could see black smoke coming from the college…I quickly dressed and ran from my home …up the hill towards the Old Main building. As soon as I reach the top of the hill, Sheriff Art Nelson put me in line with other students to help save the books. We worked furiously, passing piles and piles of books to safety until the fire reached the library. Books were then quickly thrown out the windows, which damaged some, but saved many from certain destruction.” The students worked undeterred until they were forced to vacate the property only moments before the burning roof caved in. They then stood by helplessly to watch the remaining materials be consumed by the blazing inferno.
Almost in a daze, Professor Parley Dalley stood at the corner of the building, pouring water towards the flames with a garden hose. The Cedar City Fire department arrived on the scene only to discover that the new truck they had purchased which could pump 750 gallons per minute did not have a nozzle that fit the hydrants located on campus. While the fire continued to grow in strength, precious minutes were lost stringing the fire hose from the door of Old Main, east down the sidewalk, over to the 300 West and College Avenue intersection where there was a hydrant that would fit the powerful hose. By the time this was done, the fire had such a hold on the building that the firemen couldn’t do much more than contain the flames. During all of this, on the west side of the building firemen worked diligently with a 1939 Studebaker, a booster pump and 200 gallons of water, but all they were able to do was spray the embers coming from the roof.
Ralph Hazon, Orwin Green, and other courageous firemen took a hose into the burning building in an effort to contain the flames, but by the time they reached the stairwell, the smoke and fire were so strong it made it impossible to advance any further. As they began to withdraw the fire reached the tower containing the cast iron bell. The most dramatic moment occurred when with a resounding clang, the bell crashed from floor to floor, falling finally to ground. The bell, constructed by the local Iron Works Company, was so badly cracked that it was unsalvageable. Many townspeople fought to save the bell, but it was eventually melted down and used for other purposes.
It took about three hours to get the blaze under control. During that short time virtually everything in the building was consumed by the flames or completely destroyed. The community just had to watch as the building that so many of their families had sacrificed everything for – went up in flames.
Several old men, who 50 years before had been young men filled with dedicated determination, now stood sadly by. These were men of the lumbering expedition and the building crews of 1897. They watched tearfully. Rob Bulloch recalled the emotion he felt as he watched the historic structure he built go up in flames, “It was the older men then, who could see what could be done, and they filled us with enthusiasm so that we did what was needed. Now it is our turn to enthuse the young ones to get this building rebuilt.” The whole community was in mourning. Not so much for the loss of the books, furniture, and paintings which could be replaced, but for the loss of an integral part of Cedar City’s proud heritage.
As the ashes settled it was time to assess the damage. The art department and library had been demolished. Art professor Mary L Barstow’s paintings, a lifetime of work, were completely destroyed in the fire. Only about 20 percent of the library collection had survived the fire. Those few books were carried to the cafeteria where students attempted to place them in some semblance of order. The business department on the lower floors of the building had been protected by the falling books and the machines and equipment from that department were salvaged.
Administrators and faculty members met early on Monday morning to discuss what should be done. True to the resolve of the Cedar City community, they were not going to let the tragedy of losing their beloved and cherished Old Main prevent them from moving forward. By Monday afternoon regularly scheduled classes were back in session. While crammed into inadequate spaces, none of the classes were forced to move off campus. Students and faculty entered into a spirit of cooperative effort and virtually no class time was lost.
President Wayne Driggs was dedicated to the concept that, even though the cost would be greater, they were going to remodel and restore Old Main maintaining the original exterior and its historical integrity. The fire again brought the town and college into cooperative effort. With much tenacity and lobbying on the part of the citizens of Cedar City and repeated refusals to take “no” for an answer, Utah Governor Herbert Maw appropriated $150,000 so that the repairs for Old Main could begin immediately. Cedar City would be back within the walls of their beloved Old Main before two full school years had passed.