Plains Folk

Blooming in Richer Color


There were regrets in the wake of disaster, as people in western North Dakota considered the circumstances and consequences of the Rocky Ridge School fire of November 6, 1914. The fellows working on Melvin Greenwood’s threshing outfit regretted moving the rig across country near Fryburg on a dry, windy day, so that sparks from the steam engine, lighting in the dry grass, sprang up as fierce flames out of control.

21-year-old schoolteacher Gladys Hollister, as she lay dying of extreme burns, regretted having told the schoolchildren to flee the fire, rather than just hunkering down in the one-room schoolhouse, which in the end came through the fire unscathed. Six children, along with the teacher, paid the ultimate price for that decision.

Miss Hollister and her thirteen students gazed with alarm out the school windows as the towering prairie fire swept toward Rocky Ridge School, generally called the Davis school, near Belfield. She instructed the students to make a break for a nearby plowed field. Three of them made the run safely. Others got caught by the fire but came through all right on bare ground. Miss Hollister and Ruth Olson, a 12-year-old girl, also made the plowed field, but then they noticed a group of five boys who were going the wrong way. The teacher and Ruth went after them, and were overcome, with them, by the flames.

The first persons on the scene after the fire were two farmers, Frank Davis and William Pike, who lost a son in the blaze. Three victims were dead; the others lived for a while, and they talked about what had happened. Miss Hollister, carried to the schoolhouse, died there. She would be carried back home for burial in Mapleton, Iowa.

The six children who perished in the fire all were buried in Belfield, following funeral observances that constituted a deluge of grief. The little white caskets were placed in a row in the Belfield opera house. Floral tributes were profuse, one of them bearing a large placard reading, “Memoir of Our Dear Teacher.” Three pastors—Norwegian Lutheran, German Lutheran, and Presbyterian—officiated. Twenty-four Belfield schoolchildren served as pallbearers. Some 700 mourners turned out for the services, but only half could get into the building. The funeral cortege was three-quarters of a mile long.

The editor of the Belfield Times exercised his full rhetorical powers in a lengthy expression of community grief. “Never before has it fallen our lot,” he wrote, “to record a funeral where life ended with such a sorrowful and heart-rending history as the one held in the opera house Tuesday afternoon over the six little corpses who so tragically and untimely passed to the soothing arms of their Maker last Friday, helpless victims, with their teacher, of the prairie fire which swept across a large stretch of country southwest of town. Words fail us in our effort to express the dark gloom which fell over the city, or the horror stricken faces of our citizens.”

Of heroic young Ruth Olson, who tried to save her brother, the editor wrote in remembrance, “We cannot think of Ruth as dead, but, as a flower wafted to a distant shore, touched by a Divine hand, blooming in richer color and sweeter fragrance than those of earth.”

In her book on the history of prairie fire, historian Julie Courtwright writes of the tendency of prairie folk to erect memorials to fire victims after the fact, especially during the 1930s. This never happened with the Davis school fire. Perhaps that should be redressed. A century later, it should be possible to make a respectful site of remembrance without opening old wounds. This site of tragedy and courage should be marked.



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