Plains Folk

Child of Tragedy


On Christmas Eve 1924, a teacher greeted her pupils and parents as they arrived at the schoolhouse for the Christmas program. The school was freshly painted (with paint incorporating turpentine thinner). New steel grates had been installed over the windows to prevent any more breakage as had occurred in a recent windstorm. The tree was trimmed with red and green tallow candles, giving a warmth to the room that contrasted with the cold night and light snow outdoors.


The school was that of Babbs Switch, Oklahoma, on the southwestern plains. Recently I told the story of the disastrous Lang farm fire in McIntosh County, North Dakota; I have spoken of the Kansas schoolhouse fire that crippled Glenn Cunningham, later world record holder in the mile run; and in future I’ll tell the story of terrible Rocky Ridge fire in Billings County, North Dakota. But this story from Oklahoma outweighs them all in tragedy.


Christmas Eve in Babbs went as planned until Santa reached for a gift on the tree, bent a branch, and set the tree ablaze. People nearby tipped the tree and tried to smother the flames, but only succeeded in spreading them. Panic ensued. People piled up at the rear door, trampling one another. They tried to escape via the windows, but couldn’t get the gratings off. A reporter wrote, “Spectators who witnessed the tragedy said entire families died wrapped in each other’s arms.”


It was slow getting burn victims to hospital, because most folks had drained their radiators before coming inside. Thirty-seven people were counted missing. Next day, Christmas, volunteers retrieved bodies and dug graves in Rose Cemetery of Hobart. Twenty victims rest there today, under red granite markers. Others are buried in family plots.


Subsequently the legislature passed a fire code for schools that prohibited candles on Christmas trees. A roadside marker on Highway 183 now marks the spot of the Babbs Switch Fire of 1924.


Here the story gets weird. There were 37 counted missing, but only 36 bodies found. A young mother who escaped the blaze wrote in her baby book, “Our precious Darling Baby was taken from us Dec 24 1924 at the Babbs switch school house fire. Mary Elizabeth Edens age 3 yr 6 mo 2 da.” Little Mary Edens was thrust out one of the schoolhouse windows—someone having managed to pry loose a grate—by her Aunt Alice, who died of burns. Mary was seen no more. Her family believed someone, perhaps a childless couple, took advantage of the confusion to kidnap her.


That is exactly what happened. In 1956 the Daily Oklahoman published an article headed, “Is Mary Edens Still Living?” In San Bernardino, California, an accountant and Lions Club member named Elmont Place read the article. He then wrote to Wayne Fite, president of the Hobart Lions Club, “I have, among my clientele, a prominent young businesswoman [she ran a dress shop] whose life story has been entrusted to me. . . . She does not know who her father and mother were nor has she been able to find out anything as to possible relatives.”


This situation had to be handled delicately. Over the years the family had paid a fortune to detectives and had been repeatedly disappointed. The two Lions made discrete contacts, comparing recollections, including that the woman in question, as a child, had been “very fond of bacon rinds.” Back in Oklahoma, her Aunt Bertha recalled snatching bacon rinds from her hand and telling her they were bad for her.


Mary Edens Grossnickle, as told in her book, Mary, A Child of Tragedy, was reunited with her parents. And she told her story on the Art Linkletter Show on 27 March 1957.


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