Terribly rendered aerial photo from the Associated Press of the Jan. 2, 1963, Broadway school fire.

Local students returned to school this week in the face of historically low temperatures. But the bitter cold was nothing compared to what students in Broadway experienced on their first day back 55 years ago this week.

On Jan. 2, 1963, a “spectacular fire” engulfed then-Broadway High School around 1 p.m. during school hours, evacuating 389 students from their classrooms and heavily damaging a good portion of the two-story building. According to newspaper reports, the fire destroyed the main section of the school, the library and a one-story addition. Only the gymnasium and a “fairly new” science building were spared.

From the Associated Press story the following day:

Firemen and volunteers also managed to save most of the classroom equipment, including student desks, teacher desks, books, audio-visual equipment and the like.

Students from the seventh to 12th grades staged a quick and orderly evacuation from the 29-year-old two-story portion of the school after the fire was discovered underneath the library at 1 p.m.

A.K. Perkins, principal of the school for the last 14 years, said smoke was first discovered coming from the library, which was located directly over the furnace room.

Perkins said the cause of the blaze had not been determined. He said damage will run well over a quarter of a million dollars. The buildings were insured, he added, but probably would not cover the replacement costs.

Broadway in 1963 housed students in K-12; now the town is home to only an elementary school. Most students on the Lee County side attend Lee County High School and East Lee Middle School today. Amazingly, classes resumed a mere five days after the fire as the remaining buildings on campus and Broadway Presbyterian Church housed the displaced students. Within a year, a new one-story building was built in the place of the building lost in the fire. Broadway went from a K-12 school to an elementary school 14 years later in 1977.

A few interesting side notes from the story:

  • Jan. 2 was the first day back for students after Christmas vacation, and several of the younger students brought their favorite Christmas presents to school with them to show to their classmates. Many of those toys were lost in the blaze.
  • Also, lack of a sufficient water supply hampered firefighters’ efforts during the first hour as the fire grew. According to the Associated Press report on Jan. 3, 1963, pumper trucks began running between the fire and a pond a half mile away. A local farmer also came up with a supply of irrigation pipe to link the hoses to that pond. Thanks to this quick thinking, firemen brought the blaze under control late in the afternoon, although it continued to smolder after dark.
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