DANVILLE — It was a mild fall day the morning the old Danville grade school burned down, which is why janitor Bernard Mickley told the Mount Vernon News that he had only fired a small amount of coal in the furnaces to take the chill out of the classrooms.

Teachers Bertha Kaetzel, Bernadette Durbin, Donna Workman, and Triesa Rine arrived early on Friday, Oct. 20, 1944, but didn’t perceive any danger until students Glenn Smith and Larry Colopy ran in yelling that the roof was on fire.

The fire spread far quicker than any attempts to put extinguish it.

Danville bus row

Kaetzel found the attic interior “all in flames.” Principal A.B. Parker reported “there was so much blaze over the central part of the building that it was decided not to permit children or other persons to enter in an effort to save anything.”

No one was injured, but some 3,000 books and $35,000 in property (over $860,000 in today’s currency) were consumed in the conflagration.

The devastating loss of the community school did appear on the front page of the Mount Vernon News, but reports of the global war dominated the paper and the small column on the fire was pushed under the fold.

The headline that evening triumphantly announced “GENERAL M’ARTHUR ‘RETURNS’!!” and chronicled U.S. efforts to retake the Philippines from the Imperial Japanese Army. Over the next week, Americans would learn more details of the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the largest naval battle in history and a turning point in the Pacific front during which an estimated 3,000 U.S. soldiers and sailors perished.

I have been thinking about the legacy those Danville residents wanted to leave us in 1944 when, in their own way, they vowed to “Return” to the charred remains of their school to build something better.

While their sons fought to turn back Nazism in Europe, those on the home front would work to keep the flame of liberty alight for future generations to carry.

Danville road in 1944

It couldn’t have been easy. Struggling to feed the war effort, farming communities like Danville experienced significant labor shortages as able-bodied men fought on the European and Pacific fronts or went to work in factories to build America’s war machine.

Families reading about the Danville fire in the News would have also taken notice of the goods being rationed that day: sugar, gasoline, shoes, canned fish, and liquor.

The average household incomes were only beginning to rebound from the Great Depression.

The average farm in Knox County made about $4,000 per year, but non-farm-owning families made considerably less, just $1,100.

Despite those challenges, the Danville community looked to the future. Insurance covered some of the damages, but far less than necessary to rebuild.

School Board member Glenn Nyhart lamented that they were scheduled to vote on increasing coverage in November of that same year, but the existing policy only paid out $25,000.

Between Class Notes on winning the final game of the football season against Centerburg 20-0 and the newest “nickel show” to come through town, Seniors in 1945 marked “Election Day and a very important one to the school. It was the vote for a levy to complete the new school building.”

Following the passage of the levy and with the recent victory in World War II on their minds, local families set to building a new school by contributing their own labor and supplies.

As a later 1951 Danville Clarion noted, “materials were hard to get at that time but before too long a beautiful new school was erected.”

Just two years after the blaze, students writing for the now defunct Danville Times bragged about the new eight-classroom school building, each room with its own small library and “wardrobe with disappearing doors and separate ventilators to keep clothes in good condition if they happen to get wet.”

They were especially pleased when the new outside bells were installed as “This will save the cow bell some wear.” To celebrate their new building, students decorated school windows and doors for the Christmas of 1946.

The Danville Intermediate School is a gift bestowed to our community — with great sacrifice — from the people of that time for which we should all feel proud.

Through the years, it has been sustained and preserved with successive levies by residents, countless parent volunteer hours, numerous teachers and administrators, and generations of students. I attended grades 4-6 in that building, as did my father and grandparents.

Now, a plan has been introduced by the current Superintendent to tear down the old school to make space for additional parking. And so, the decision is up to Danville’s current residents on how best to honor our village’s past, while also considering the legacy we want to leave for the future.

Can we come together to reimagine the school building as a library, an incubator for local businesses, or a cultural center to showcase our heritage?

Can we make a new promise to “return” community life to the old school building, or should we allow a bulldozer to unmake the work of so many past and current residents for convenient parking?

To find out how you can help preserve the old Danville Intermediate School and learn about efforts to reinvest in our community assets, visit DanvilleHeritage.org.

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