Karns Oral History: Memories of the KHS Fire

The following is a feature story from our sister site http://www.karnsoralhistory.com where we post content related to the history of the Karns Community. 

In 1938, after a devastating fire that destroyed the building before it, the first high school in the Karns community was built with great hopes and effort. An election was held at that time that changed the name from Beaver Ridge, the name of the school before it, to Karns, setting in motion the development of education, friendship, and many warm memories to come. For 40 years, the building thrived and held many students and staff; but, as fate would have it, the school would eventually share a similar story to the location it replaced.

March 10, 1978 marks the day of the first fire that would leave its devastating impact on the high school. After a student’s attempt to level the school, students lost two classrooms and the study hall; however, these losses were temporary and were expected to be resolved soon. All of that changed on March 15, 1978, when a far more catastrophic event took place that the Karns community will never forget. The same student returned and made his second attempt to destroy the school, and as everyone at that time would discover, he would greatly succeed. The flames devoured the cafeteria, social studies department, and numerous classrooms. Additionally, many memories were lost that cannot be physically recovered. A great part of Karns High School was gone, and it would never return to how it used to be.

The fire began later in the day at 9:06 PM; according to a source who experienced the fire and its aftermath and who wishes to remain anonymous, “There was a basketball tournament going on, and that was in the gym. And it was a lot like a junior pro basketball, you know, the little guys, little kids. And so they had to come out onto the floor and stop the games and evacuate.” The evacuation process was rather tranquil, and everyone in the building evacuated with little rush; those who were in the building had yet to understand what was going on. After exiting, however, they were met with a terrible and shocking truth: Karns High School was burning down. The fire department, which was opened that same year, arrived as quickly as they could to put out the fire; but, despite their eventual success, a large and valuable part of the high school was gone.

The witness remembers, “Of course the community at the time was more rural than it is now, so it was a close-knit community anyway; and that night […] the fire department, people were helping with what they could; […] they’re trying to get stuff out of the building because they didn’t know how much of it would go down. So you had some teachers that had shown up, trying to get some stuff out of classrooms, and the main office, and especially in the guidance area because the guidance was right there where it was burning, but they couldn’t get into that. You could get into the main office and get some stuff out.” Amidst all of the devastation taking place, however, good news emerged: everyone got out safely.

After the horrific flames were finally extinguished, life inevitably continued on, and students would soon resume their education. However, with the leveled classrooms and cafeteria, it would not play out as it used to.

In regards to lunch, the system underwent various changes, all of which could not have been done without the community coming together. “Everyone would bring their lunch, and, for awhile, there was a place […] just right down from the high school, it’s called Earl’s, and he made these great hotdogs, so he started selling hotdogs, and they’d bring hotdogs in; and, after awhile, the cafeteria started setting up in the hallway and sold sandwiches and stuff like that. But we were without a cafeteria for a long time. And then, the next school year, they would make the lunch at the elementary school and bring it over.”

As for education, the school made use of what they had left. “They turned the gym into classrooms, and it was nice; you’d go over to the football field and maybe have a class over there.” Students would still attend school regularly, and lessons would resume as usual.

Fire coverage from the Beaver’s Tale – the student newspaper of the time.

The fate of the building after the fire would consist of a long and arduous journey. Four days after the school’s demise, members of the Karns community came together to clean up the debris. In addition to donating their time and energy, some people brought tons of food and the work session took on the mood of a family reunion. Mr. Lyon expressed his appreciation in a speech on March 21st of the same year, saying, “We all owe our gratitude to these people, not only for reclaiming our school, but for demonstrating what great things can be accomplished when friends work together. We’ve been hurt. But we will endure all these things and we will pull through because we’re a family.” The community loved the school dearly. They did all they could to feel comfort for their memories that were taken.

The fire and the destruction that accompanied it left lasting effects that the school itself never fully recovered from; although repairs were made, the main building was eventually taken down before a full recovery could take place, and the construction of the new school began. Set to reopen early 1981, the budget for the construction was set at $8.5 million, and was, at the time, the country’s most expensive school. It was to take up 200,393 square feet and was meant to house up to 1,800 students. Compared to the old building of 3 floors, the new building only consists of two floors.

Despite the unfortunate efforts to tear down the past and the future, Karns High School, as well as the Karns community, remain strong today. Although changes have occurred, the community will never forget how things were; and, most importantly, they will never give up on what they have now.