Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Babbs Switch School Fire

As told by Hall Cavel Jr, Charlie's eldest son - 13 February, 2009

While living in Carmi (Illinois) in the early 1940s, Dad came home from work one day to find the house next door was on fire. He asked some people standing on the street watching if the family had gotten out and they said they didn't know. Dad ran into the burning house, found the woman and carried her out, then went back in and got the child and brought it out. Boiling tar dripped from the burning roof onto him and blistered his back. He had a row of blisters as big as quarters all down his back from his neck to his hipbones.

It wasn't the first time he'd saved lives in a fire. After Hall told me about Dad's involvement in the Babb's Switch School fire I looked up the official reports on the web, the story of Dad's involvement is afterwards.

"On December 24, 1924, a crowd of nearly 200 had gathered to watch grade school children perform an annual Christmas songfest at the Babb Switch School in Hobart, Oklahoma when fire erupted. A candle placed on the top of a Christmas tree, located on the school's stage, fell into the tree branches causing the tree to burst into flames. Parents saw the fire and rushed the stage to rescue the children. The children unaware of why everyone was rushing at them began to retreat. This caused the tree to topple.

The play had been taking place in the rear of a one-room schoolhouse, the farthest distance from the one door. The fire forced the children to the rear of the stage - trapped with no avenue of escape. Parents grabbed children and ran through the flames towards the door but since it opened inward and the crush of terrified people were pushing forward the door was jammed shut. No one could escape through the windows because they were covered with wire mesh, probably to keep baseballs from breaking the glass.

Some men arrived and began pulling bodies and survivors through the exit door. The door had become jammed due to the onslaught of humanity. Within minutes the building was incinerated along with the loss of thirty-six lives. Most being small children."

Christmas Fire in Oklahoma School House Claims Lives of 33 With Five Missing.

(By The Associated Press)

HOBART, Okla., Dec. 25th; With the identification of the last victim established the rechecked death list in the Christmas Eve fire at the Babb Switch rural school, stood at 33 tonight. Twenty injured persons are still confined in two hospitals. One is expected to die and two others are in a critical condition. Funeral services for 16 of the dead will be held tomorrow.

Memorial for Fire Victims

(By The Associated Press) HOBART, Okla., Dec. 25th;

With thirty-two bodies, most of them burned beyond recognition lying in a temporary morgue in two store buildings and five others listed as missing as a result of a Christmas eve fire at the district school house at Babb's Switch, seven miles from here. Hobart citizens tonight were continuing their efforts to identify the dead.

At a mass meeting today called by Mayor F. E. Gillespie, committees were named to look after every detail of the sad task and the work was going forward systematically.

It has been decided to bury all the unidentified in a large grave in the Hobart cemetery and late today a crew of men broke the snow that blanketed the burial ground to throw up a long trench of earth. Early tonight only ten of the dead had been identified, despite the fact that the morgue was early thrown open to the public. A steady procession of grief stricken relatives filed all day long between the shrouded forms, but so terribly had they been burned that it was impossible in most cases to mark the features of loved ones.

Halls' story of Charlie Cavel's involvement in the event:

On Christmas Eve night, 1924, Dad was working as a fireman in the grain elevator at Hobart (OK). He and the fire crew, including Orville Grider, were called to the Babbs Switch School, which was on fire. They tried to open the school's only door but the door opened inward and people had packed up against it in an effort to escape. When they couldn't open the door they chopped through it with their fire axes, and were able to start pulling people out, but many people died, and as a result legislation was passed requiring that the doors on all public buildings in Oklahoma open outward.

As an aside, Hall Cavel Jr. married Deloris June Grider, daughter of Orville Grider, who worked as a carpenter at the grain elevator in Hobart and went out with the fire crew to the Babb's Switch School Fire. Charlie and Orville worked together for a few months in 1924, and 27 years later when Hall Jr. told Charlie he was marrying a girl whose surname was Grider, Charlie remembered working with Orville well enough to describe him perfectly; i.e. short, skinny and blind in one eye.

The Mystery in the Field

Cavel House Built by Grandad Fred in 1911

This is a story I heard numerous times as my Dad, Charley Hall, and his brothers sat around and talked after meals. It must have happened when Dad was about 11 or 12, as the family was living in the house on Highway 7 near Velma then, and that's where the story took place.  

The boys had been told by their Dad to clear and plow a previously unbroken field. They had cleared the brush from the field and were plowing (with a mule). They were picking out rocks and throwing them in a pile at the edge of the field as they turned them up. After several passes across the field one of them remarked that the rocks they'd been picking up seemed to lay in a regular pattern, a series of circles. This piqued their interest, and they began to pay more close attention to the position of the stones. 

Soon it was clear that the rocks were not only laid in circles, but that the circles got closer together as they neared the middle of the field. By the time they got to the middle their boyish imaginations were on fire. The final ring of stones lay in a small circle a couple of feet across. They were sure they had found the spot where the famous Jesse James' gang had hid their loot. (Apparently everyone in Oklahoma and Texas had a theory about where this stashed treasure lay - my Granddad Clark used to go hunting for it every summer.) 

The boys dug the rocks from the middle of the circle and found a large flat stone. They pried it up, to find a stone-lined vault, a fold of calico fabric and another rock beneath. At this point they ran to get their dad, sure they'd found treasure and were bursting to uncover it. But when he arrived he scolded them, saying they had disturbed a child's grave. He made them replace the stone on top and cover the hole back in. He then sent them to clear a different field and told them to leave that one alone.

One thing the Cavel boys did not do was disobey their father. They dared not investigate their find further. But in the night they went out and set up markers in the adjoining woods, took sightings and made notes, so that in the future they could come back to the spot. 

Before the farm was sold, which must have been after my Granddad Cavel passed away in 1941, the brothers went back to the site. They hunted up the markers in the woods and paced off the steps. With great expectation they dug where they'd found the vault some 25 years before, but there was no sign of it. There was nothing but dirt. They rechecked their markers and notes, and paced it out again, which brought them to the same spot. 

They were as mystified as men as they had been as boys, but for a different reason. Now they couldn't understand what had happened to the rings and the stones. They speculated endlessly; had their father moved the markers, had they paced it out wrongly somehow, had he dug the whole affair up and moved it? Whatever happened, the secret went to the grave with someone. 

After I discovered Kizziah Crouch's family origins I began to read about the culture of the Tuscarora people. They were described as light-hearted people, who easily bore every misfortune except one, the death of a loved one. They considered the departed still part of the family, and when they moved they carried generations of ancestor's bones with them.

The Tuscarora burial was in a cypress-lined vault in the earth. The body was laid on a bed of boughs, covered with boughs and roofed over with bark. It was left until the bones had been entirely cleaned by "the little creatures of the earth", then the bones were taken up and placed in a clay jar. They were kept in the home, or buried nearby, to be taken up when the family moved on. I found record of one Tuscarora family, long since melded into the "White" community, having moved through four successive states, still in possession of a great-grandfather's bones 75 years after his death. 

Which makes me wonder. Kizziah Crouch and Enoch Jones Smith had a little girl named Mahalia who died between the ages of five and ten years. Could the "grave" the Cavel boys discovered have been the temporary resting place for her little jar of bones? And if so what happened to them? Perhaps they were dug up when Kizziah Crouch Smith Carter died in 1921 and placed in her coffin with her? 

I am puzzled by Kizziah Crouch Smith Carter's position in the Velma Cemetery. She is buried in an aisle, not in the row of graves. She lies in the aisle between the plots of her children William Wesley Smith and Eliza Ann Smith Seely, both of whom died years after she did. I thought for years she might have been buried first on the farm, and moved to the Velma cemetery later, maybe when Granddad and Grandma left the farm in Velma years before they sold it. They moved to Hastings in 1935, and both WW Smith and Eliza Seely had died and were buried in the Velma Cemetery by then. But I now have a copy of Kizziah's death certificate which states she was buried in the Velma Cemetery the day after her death.

I may be letting my imagination get the better of me, but it's one explanation for where the "child's grave" went, but I can think of no good reason why Granny K herself is buried in such an unusual spot. She is the only person in the entire huge cemetery who is buried in an aisle. 

In the last few years the descendants of Randolph Carter have placed a stone on her unmarked grave, for which I am very grateful. I feel a deep connection to her for some reason, in part maybe because I look a good deal like her but even before I'd ever seen a picture about her I felt a connection to her. I asked Dad what she was like once. It was one of the few times in my life I ever saw him tear up, but his eyes filled with tears which he brushed away before saying, "She was wonderful." 

Come Lord Jesus!

Uncle Arthur aged 15

I heard this story many times in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, recounted my Dad Charlie Hall Cavel, and uncles Arthur and Dick Cavel.  It must have taken place when Charlie was 14 or 15 years old, so 1917 or 1918.
Charlie, Arthur and Dick were driving a herd of cattle from Velma (OK) to the rail head at Chickasha (OK). One evening they had corralled the cows and camped for the night. After a while they heard singing and shouting and, being naturally curious, they went to see what was going on.
Well, from some distance they could see a group of 30-40 people having a religious meeting under a brush arbour, lit by torches on poles stuck in the ground a few feet from each corner of the arbour. So the boys climbed a big tree just beyond the reach of the torch light and watched as the preacher worked his congregation into a fervor of religious enthusiasm. The worshippers became more and more energized under the influence of "The Spirit". 
Soon they were running up and down the aisles, jumping the plank benches, throwing their arms in the air, imploring in loud voices, "Come Lord Jesus! Come Lord Jesus!"
Accustomed to the sedate dignity of the Baptist service, this hullabaloo struck the boys as comical, and they saw the opportunity to have some fun.  They began to shake the limbs and branches of the tree. Arthur, who was about 20 years old at the time, lowered his voice as deep as he could and shouted down from the tree, "I'm a comin'! I'm a comin'!" 
On hearing this announcement the worshippers began to scream and scattered into the night, including the preacher.  Not a one waited to welcome the coming of the Lord.
If their father (who was a Baptist pastor) had ever learned of this stunt he'd have soundly whipped them all. I'm betting they didn't tell it openly until after Granddad's death in 1941, but while I was growing up they repeated the story again and again as evidence of what scoundrels they had been as teenagers.