By Henry A. Raymond

Click here for Photo of Original Fairfax BFA built in 1903

On May 18, 1997, I had the pleasure of attending the Fairfax Historical Society Meeting in the Fairfax Historical Building on Main Street at 7 p.m.. As a relative newcomer to the town (I've only lived here for the past 44 years), I thoroughly enjoyed listening to Joyce Bellows McCuin, Nellie Broe, Win & Charlotte McNall, Louise Bellows, Albert Rich and Larry Parsons recount the events that occurred the night that Bellows Free Academy burned on Friday night, January 17, 1941. The following letter written to Miss Jesse A. Southard by her mother Mrs. Ella (Burns) Southard on January 19, 1941 was read was read by Margie Cain:
"Dear Jesse:
Another snowy morning and I am staying inside. It was raining last night when we went to bed and snowing when we got up. A real wet snow. Well I have some very bad news to tell you. Bellows Free Academy burned up Friday evening. They don't know how or what started it. I saw it about 8:20 and it was all afire then. There was an explosion heard by many people in the village, after a short time it was all in flames. Guy (Guy Butler) said this morning they would never know what happened. The furnace seemed to be O.K. as far as they could see yesterday. They expect to reopen school in 2 weeks. Homer Hunt has offered his house. They are to have the vestry of the Baptist Church. A contractor was here yesterday and the report was he could have it ready for commencement. The Town Free Library went with the rest. After the fire was seen, they couldn't get into the building any place, it seemed to be a fire all over at once. They had just put in a carload of coal last week. Some say that might have exploded. They say it does sometimes.Guy will be at home tomorrow a.m. so they are having a meeting in the morning and expect two state men. The Principal of St. Albans BFA was out yesterday and offered any help they could give. One report said they would take the High School to St. Albans, but think that is not so. Peg said the new principal told them the first thing "No trip to NY". It was a lucky thing they were not having any doings in the hall that night. Malcom's velvet stage curtains are no more. The name plate over the front door is still in place and the globe to the front door light is not even cracked. The draft of the fire was up the hill. They had men on the roof of Hunt's house and barn, but nothing happened. There were people here from all surrounding towns and all day yesterday. I sat by the north window yesterday p.m. and there was hardly a minute there wasn't a car on one of the streets going to or coming from BFA. The Milton fire department came up. The hydrants were so close to the building, they couldn't use them. They called St. Albans Fire Department and said BFA is on fire. So the (St. Albans Fire) Department went to St. Albans BFA and looked all over the building, but couldn't find any fire. Guy says they have $51000 insurance, but that would be half enough. They will build a different style than the old one. Not more than 2 stories. The high school girls and teachers were at the fire, crying their eyes out. Vern (Vern Melendy) was sick with grip and Carl Gray and Fred Cherrier (Jr.) were caring for the furnace. Marge Shepardson said most of the new books in the library were out. That may save some. But their records are all burned. The class monies were in the building. They went up too. It certainly is a big loss to the town.
Later -
I think more than 300 cars have been to BFA this p.m. A car insight on one of the streets most of the time.

Dad & Mother"

Excerpts form several old newspaper clippings were also read by MikeCain:

"Explosion Heard All Over Town - St. Albans, Jan. 17. - Such large crowds were attracted by the fire that destroyed Bellows Free academy in Fairfax tonight that motor vehicle officers were summoned to direct traffic. Shortly before midnight some of the walls of the academy had fallen in and the fire still was smoldering in the ruins. The explosion of a boiler, believed to have caused the fire, was heard all over town, it was stated in Fairfax tonight. The first persons who arrived at the academy found the building a mass of flames from the front hall through to the fire escapes. Had the explosion occurred during a school session, authorities stated, it is certain that the pupils would have been trapped within the structure. No decision had yet been made at midnight as to where classes would be held Monday. A vacant church may be used, and some of the pupils may be transported into St. Albans until the building can be replaced."

"Cost $50,000
Bellows Free Academy was built about 39 years ago at a cost of $50,000. The school was unique in that it transported about 70 percent of its pupils. Because of its excellent teaching staff and its unusua lfacilities the academy received pupils from numerous surrounding towns, some of the students coming eight miles to attend classes. Nine barges have been employed in bringing in the students, besides which a number of the pupils operated their own cars. The academy held classes from the first grade through high school and taught about 300 pupils, many coming from Fletcher, Westford, Georgia and Fairfield."

Fairfax, Jan. 19 - Cause of the fire which destroyed Bellows Free Academy building here Friday night was today ascribed by Principal Clinton W. Demeritt to concentration of coal gas in the ventilating system. He and the trustees made an inspection and found that the boilers did not explode and that they were intact. Demeritt said yesterday, that it will probably be at least two weeks before the school will be in session again in the temporary quarters which will be selected from numerous offers. While the board of trustees were meeting at the home of Guy L. Butler, treasurer, to discuss the situation and make temporary plans for the future, phone calls were received from various parts of the state offering aid and donations of books, desks and supplies. However, no definite action was taken. In the meantime the walls will probably be torn down this week and preparations made for rebuilding the structure. Work of reconstruction will start as soon as possible, it is reported, in order to have the new building ready for occupancy next fall.


In the meantime classes will eventually be held in the house of Supt. Homer E. Hunt, adjacent to the grounds and which has been offered by Hunt. Some of the lower grades may be housed in the Baptist church which has also been offered to the trustees. Chairman Eugene W. Dewart of the St. Albans school board has offered the use of the third floor of Fairfield St. school to the Fairfax authorities and directed Supt. J. S. McCann make a check of books and equipment that possibly could he turned over for use. Principal H. S.Dickinson of the St. Albans Bellows Free Academy came here yesterday morning and offered all possible assistance of his school.

President Millis of UVM Speaker At the Ceremonies
FAIRFAX, Feb 26, 1942 - A noteworthy event took place in the town of Fairfax this afternoon with the dedication of the new Bellows Free Academy. After a little over a year of hard work, deep thought and careful planning on the part of Principal Clinton W. Demeritt and the trustees of BFA, a new and modern institution of learning stands on the site of the old BFA building which was greatly damaged by fire last winter.

President Millis Speaks
The dedication program was held in the afternoon and evening with President Millis of the University of Vermont giving the principa laddress. The afternoon program opened at 2 p.m. with a band number and entrance to the platform of guests and speakers followed by the salute to the flag and the singing of the "Star Spangled Banner." Speakers on the program besides President Millis included Superintendent of Schools Homer E. Hunt, Principal Clinton W. Demeritt, Foreman of Construction Petrie; Commissioner of Education R. E. Noble. Following President Millis' address the program closed with the singingof "America". Band numbers under the direction of Sterling Weed of St. Albans, interspersed the speeches. Supper and Dancing Supper was served at 5:30 and dancing was enjoyed in the new gymnasiumof the academy from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. with Weed's Imperial Orchestra furnishing the music. Proceeds from the supper and dance will be used by the BFA club for their school lunch project and other purposes. Proving that the motive that prompted the late Hirarn Bellows to establish a fund to provide for higher education for the boys and girlsof Fairfax and community had not been lost, plans for a new school building were started immediately following the disastrous fire which practically destroyed the old BFA and contents following an explosion on the evening of January 17, 1941. Since the destruction of the old building classes have been held in the basements of the churches and in private homes. This of course has demanded patience and perseverance of teachers and pupils. Neighboring schools loaned the use of materials, books and other equipment in order that this temporary arrangement could be carried out without the loss of much time during the school year.

Many Attend
The dedication exercises were attended by a large number of townspeople and also friends and alumni from many of the surrounding communities. The new building is modern in every detail and is one that Fairfax should be justly proud to call Bellows Free Academy. (A handwritten note on the article said Fred C. Cherrier Sang, Rev. R. W. Fitzgerald prayer and Rev. John Holden of Westford, Benediction).

Excerpts from a paper "THE HISTORY OF BELLOWS FREE ACADEMY OF FAIRFAX", written in 1963 by Richard (Dick) Stewart while a student at Johnson State were also read by Mike Cain: "After 1905 and continuing for a few years, there were three good highschools in the Northern part of Vermont. Fairfax was the location of one and Burlington, and Bakersfield were the other two."1905 was the first year of operation of Bellows Free Academy. The physical structure of the building was tremendous. By tremendous I mean, in 1905, this was one of the top buildings in the state of Vermont. The outside of the building was brick. The building contained three stories. The building is large and commodious, heated with steam. The second floor is entirely devoted to the academic department, and on the third floor is a large assembly room.,, "In 1905 there were four courses of study, Classical, Latin-Scientific, English and Business". In 1905 there were eleven teachers or instructors for the twelve grades. The courses they taught and institutions from which they graduated are very interesting and show how great this school was.

1. Mr. Chittenden, Principal, University of Vermont, Mathematics.
2. Mrs. Chittenden, Smith College, Literature.
3. Mr. Hayward, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Science.
4. Mrs. Ladd, Boston University, History.
5. Mrs. Perley, Middlebury College, Principal of Grammar School.
6. Six teachers in the grammar school.

"Bellows Free Academy was built from the money earned in stocks willed to the town by Mr. Bellows. I learned much about the stocks from an interview with Mr. Guy Butler. He was a member of the School Board and a life-long resident of Fairfax. Mr. Butler said, "the stocks were invested in the Chicago Rock Island Railway. When the stocks earned two hundred fifty thousand dollars, a beautiful school was built exactly as Mr. Bellows had wished. " From the town report of 1940, I found the following information, "last August the Trustees of Bellows Free Academy came to the conclusion that something must be done to increase the income of the Academy. The Academy owned Chicago, Rock Island Railroad bonds; but because of the amount they owed the Government, millions, the trustees felt they should sell the bonds. They employed the Fitch Investors of New York to sell the bonds and buy stocks from other companies. They sold the stocks for $22,170. There had been much discussion and many accusations made about the selling of these stocks. Selling the Chicago Rock Island Railroad bonds was probably the biggest mistake ever made in the town of Fairfax. There are two concrete reasons why this was a very big mistake. (1) Mr. Butler, with a sad expression on his face told me that during the war, the Chicago Rock Island Railroad became a strategic point between two defense plants.The stocks went sky high. He said they raised 97%. Add this first mistake to the very disastrous fire of 1941 and the combination explains why this was a very bad mistake. If the stocks had not been sold in1939, Bellows Free Academy could still be a private institution". In the course writing his paper "Dick" interviewed Mrs. Bette Anderson who stated, "It was a cold winter night and we were all over in the town hall (the old Grange Hall) watching a basketball game between Fairfax and Milton when Mr. Shepardson, the janitor came in and said "THE SCHOOL IS ON FIRE." We all rushed over, but we were unable to save anything. We merely watched our beautiful school burn. Lizzie Bellows, wife of Herb Bellows stated, "It was a clear night, that January 14, 1941. The snow reflected the light from the fire for miles around".

Memories of those present at the meeting:
The center of activity that night was a basketball game at the Town Hall (The Old Grange Hall and presently Wold's Book Store located at 1155 Main Street) in Main Hill between Milton & Fairfax. The game was interrupted by someone making the announcement that BFA was on fire. At that point the crowd quickly moved to Bellows Free Academy to find it was completely engulfed in flames. To the best of their recollection, the fire only lasted a couple of hours except for the smoldering remains. Except for a bucket brigade and a small hand pump, the official fire department for the town was Milton. Someone called them and they responded, however, not to Bellows Free Academy in Fairfax, but to Bellows Free Academy in St. Albans where they went through the building, but found no fire. Apparently, whoever reported the fire only said, BFA is on fire". According to the Fairfax History Book, 1763 to 1976, BFA of 1903 "housed grades one through twelve. It was a large and commodious, lighted thoroughly by electricity, supplied with a telephone system, with a master clock and synchronizing clocks, heated with steam with a modern and hygienic system of ventilation of the time. The second floor (members at the meeting stated that the Assembly Hall was on the third floor) contained a large Assembly Hall where Chapel exercises occurred each morning and where music recitals, debates, public speaking, receptions, etc. were held." Individuals present stated there were two sets of stairs, one at each end of the building. One was used by the boys and the other used by the girls. The doors were not kept closed and the floors in those days were wood and oiled which they felt was the reason the building burned so fast. The fire started with a loud explosion which some individuals at the time claimed they heard in St. Albans, although those present at the game stated that they heard no explosion. When asked what they thought was the cause of the fire, several theories were given. One that the boiler exploded, another was an explosion from the coal gas and another that this was during the second World War and anthracite bombs placed in coal cars by German Saboteurs at the point of distribution could have been in the coal delivered shortly before the fire. The question was asked by one of the younger members of the Historical Society about a cafeteria and hot lunch program. This gave rise to quite a chuckle by the former students of that era. They stated that there was an oil stove in the basement used for making soup which could be bought for 3 cents a bowl, however, many of the students could not afford this. The majority brought their lunch. Each individual had a particular interest when they went to view the fire, the first being, "Is my classroom still there?". Larry Parsons, much to his disappointment, found his classroom had not burned yet, however, he knew his books were in there because he certainly had not brought any home. Another individual lost her skates in the fire. The town acted quickly and temporary classrooms were set up in the local churches and private homes. Books and desks were donated by neighboring towns. Even though books for the same classes were not necessarily the same edition and somewhat dog eared, they made do and the high school class graduated as planned that year with their classroom being in the Baptist Church. One of their first notifications after the fire was that their trip to NewYork City was off as their class funds had burned in the fire. You will notice in the old part of BFA today that it looks like the bricks are old bricks. The truth of the matter is they are. Most of the old bricks were used in the new BFA built in 1941-1942. Since the invested funds of the original bequest had been invested in a RailroadCompany and thought to be nearly worthless, they had been sold. Albert Rich remembered that with the onset of the War, defense contracts requiring transportation by the railroad raised the price of the stock they had sold tremendously, and had we held on to this, we would have been in great shape. Many individuals made private contributions to get the new building under way which was dedicated early in 1942. In the course of the discussion, a number of members reminisced about their class trip, however, due to the content of the discussion, it is felt that this part of the meeting go unrecorded. The former students also mentioned that hours for school in the early days was 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. with an hour for lunch. The general consensus of their impression of the New Building in 1942 was "Awesome". It appeared so much bigger than the old one. Of particular remembrance was the new Gym. Having played their games in the Old Grange Hall where there were no lookers, shower facilities or seating room, this was really something for them.They also reminisced about their old proms and the fun they had decorating for it. Bellows Free Academy continues to be an important way of life for the citizens of Fairfax and several surrounding communities.

As I stated earlier, I am not a native of Fairfax, however, my three daughters graduated from Bellows Free Academy, my wife Maryann Hoben Raymond graduated in 1958 and my Mother in law, Katherine Rooney Hoben in 1930. We are very fortunate to have the fine school we have today. There are few towns, if any, that have provided the fine educational opportunities provided by the Town of Fairfax. The housing of all twelve grades in one building, along with the barge system (now known as school buses) to transport not only grade school, but high school students as well has given our Fairfax youths since 1905 an experience and memories they wil lnever forget, thanks to the bequest of Hiram Bellows and the spirit of the Town of Fairfax.

Separate Interview With Ralph & Ruth (Leach) Ellsworth Ralph & Ruth (Leach) Ellsworth, both lifelong residents of the town were unable to attend the Historical Society Meeting due to previous commitments.
Ralph, now 81 years old remembers riding the horse drawn barges. Horse drawn barges were used on the dirt roads, being converted farm wagons in the fall and spring and traverse sleds in the winter. There were curtains on the side that could be raised or lowered, depending on the conditions and a seat for the driver up front. Sometimes a couple of the students would ride up front with the driver. Apparently the cold weather was not a problem. Ralph stated that they had warm winter clothes and did not remember minding the cold weather.When asked about the roads being plowed in the early days, he remembered that someone from Bakersfield did plow the roads, maybe once during the winter, but generally they traveled through the fields when necessary to avoid the snow which piled up in the roads. Many of the roads collected snow easily because of stone walls on each side of the road. He remembered that it was not until 1928 that stone walls were placed in the road as a base and gravel was drawn from a pit on the Driscoll Property, located behind where Jim & Mary Jane Machia and Jim & Connie Swaim live to widen the Fletcher road to two wagons wide. Prior to 1928 the gravel was drawn with horses, but he remembers in 1928 that Burt Sweeney and Wilmer White, who was Fanny Carpenter's father, purchased a couple of trucks and that was the demise of drawing gravel with horses.
Ruth (Leach) Ellsworth, now 75 and a retired teacher who taught school at BFA in Fairfax for 31 years did some research looking for a floor plan of the Old BFA built in 1903. Finding that there was none available, she drew one up from memory, also consulting with Win and Charlotte (Parris) McNall.

Click here for Basement Floor Plan drawn from memory by Ruth (Leach) Ellsworth

The basement had two sets of stairs with a landing halfway up where there were two doors to the playground in the back of the school, as well as half size windows for outside light. There was a set of stairs used by the girls and one for the boys and she remembers at recess the girls and boys lining up at their respective doors. The reason for the two separate sets of stairs was that the girl's toilets and coat room was located on one side of the basement and the boy's toilets and coat room was located on the other side. Also located on the girl's side was the Home Economics Room. This room contained several 3 burner oilstoves, some long tables and sewing machines. (Ruth believes that there was even an electric sewing machine when she took Home Economics in high school. This is where the soup was made occasionally, and Ralph remembered that on special occasions they had hot dogs and buns which he believes they sold for a nickel. The home economics room was also the center of activity in the fall when the canning of crops grown for the express purpose of the hot lunch program was done here. Ruth stated that this practice continued until the U.S. Government would no longer allow the use of home canned goods in the Hot Lunch Program. Along with the boy's toilets and coat room on the other side, there was also a manual training room and the furnace room. The manual training room was used for shop training for the boys and Ruth believes they also taught agriculture at one time. In this day and age, looking at the setup and the location of the stairs, the basement would definitely not be used in this manner. Fairfax was indeed fortunate, this disastrous fire which occurred in 1941 did not occur when the students or anyone was in the school.

Click here for First Floor Plan of original BFA drawn by Ruth (Leach) Ellsworth

The first floor contained grades one through four, a large playroom,teacher's room, music room, the front entrance, an extra room, janitor'room and a large open hall prior to 1934. In 1934, the large playroom was divided and converted to house grades five and six. Before 1934, the large playroom was used for a dinner, usually held each year around Washington's Birthday, for the benefit of the hot lunch program. After1934, tables were set up in the large open hall on the first floor.

Click here for Second Floor Plan of original BFA drawn by Ruth (Leach) Ellsworth

The second floor contained 6 classrooms, a chem lab, teachers room, the library, school office and a large study hall as well as a large open hall. Grades five and six were on this floor until 1934. Ruth remembers the large study hall as being the home room for the high school students. Each floor had two sets of stairs with a landing halfway between the floors as mentioned earlier with one being used by the boys and one by the girls. The top floor contained only the assembly hall and was smaller than the other two floors. All of their proms and assembles were held on the top floor. Each individual I spoke with remembers the events in a slightly different way, but one thing was obvious as I listened and spoke to different people. At the time of the fire, Lucia Cherrier, who lived where Marion Chaffee lived on the corner of the River & Shepardson Hollow road made one of the rooms available in her home for one of the classes, Clint Demerrit who lived in the principals house where the town clerk's office is now, made a room available for classes as well as our local churches. Even though the High School Graduating Class of 1941 still feels to this day, they did not have a high school to graduate from, their graduation that June was held in what is now the FairfaxUnited Church. Not one negative comment was heard about the school as the proud alumni reminisced and contemplated the bond issue (which passed) regarding the addition to the school. Again another graduation has passed with another generation of students graduating from the new Bellows Free Academy in Fairfax.

Author: Michael Cain,President
Web Site Design: Maryann Raymond
Updated: March 15, 1999

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