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Saturday, May 18, 2002

The day Armijo High School burned down

Nancy Dingler

The fall of 1929 was turning out to be quite a year for the country, and for Fairfield, as well.  Black Thursday - Oct. 24 - had brought about the stock market crash. People all over the country, whether they had the financial means or not, had invested in the market.

As the country went into an economic tailspin, President Herbert Hoover was trying to deal with the crisis. As October slipped into November and December, it became a sad holiday time for most families, yet life continued on.

On Sunday afternoon, Dec. 8, Professor J.E. Brownlee and Athletic Director Buck Bailey were getting ready to leave Armijo High School. The school had hosted guest athletes from the Italia Virtus Club of San Francisco earlier that day. The San Francisco group was going over the course for the Fairfield-Vallejo marathon race, to be held on the 22nd.

As Brownlee and Bailey were locking up in preparation for Sunday dinner at home, they smelled smoke. The two men immediately investigated and found the locker room of the building ablaze, with smoke pouring out.

The alarm was sounded at 12:45 and both Fairfield and Suisun fire departments were summoned.

Fairfield Fire Chief Matt Knolty and his firemen were on the scene in exactly 40 seconds from the sounding of the alarm by Buck, who made the run from the school to the firehouse, on Texas Street “in nothing flat.”

The blaze spread rapidly throughout the wooden Queen Ann-style building. The raging flames inside the structure prevented firemen from entering. The fire ladders added to the firefighter’s frustration, because they were not long enough to scale the walls.

Additional help was summoned from Vacaville, who sent an engine and a squad of firemen, headed by assistant Chief L.H. Parker. Fire Chief Otterson of Napa arrived and took charge of the efforts to stem the blaze.

Not only did Fairfield lose its high school, but the County Free Library that had been housed for 15 years, on the second floor, had almost all the contents destroyed. The library had been a labor of love and huge effort by many people in the community and it was heartwrenching to see so much damage.

Men, women and children flew to the fire and heroically worked to save what could be safely removed from the flames. The days of salvaging that followed were made more difficult by the fact that the weather turned to rain.

Jagged walls, charred openings, were all that were left, where doors had been. Cracked ceilings, sagging book shelves, muddy pools on the remaining floors in which floated valuable reference volumes, met the eye at every turn.

The library bureau cabinets teetered at precarious angles, or had already toppled over, in the muddy water. New books lay in masses of pulp and everything dripped, dripped and dripped in the soft falling rain.

The first thought among most everyone, was of hopelessness, it seemed as if the years of labor had gone for naught. Distressing as the plight of the high school and library were, people went into action, to take to safety the volumes that had been rescued.

The catalog drawers had been hastily lifted out of windows, during the fire, as had been the branch and shelf list records. Though the records had been badly damaged by water, they were found to be legible when dried.

The goal was to locate library property, collect it and find a place in which to house the salvaged books. The American Legion in Suisun stepped up to the plate and offered its building for use until such a time as a permanent home would be provided.

Months were spent in clearing up losses, sorting damaged from worthless material, and finally computing exact records of loss. The loss to the Armijo High School District was estimated at more than $200,000.

The County Library, alone, suffered a loss of more than $150,000, of which only $15,000 was covered by insurance.

The High School moved into temporary quarters scattered about the city. Classes were established in the Fairfield Firemen’s Club rooms, the Methodist Church, and four rooms of the Fairfield

Grammar School, as well as the Community Club in Suisun and a few others.

Professor Brownlee offered his opinion that the fire had begun because of faulty wiring. However, a well-informed fire insurance adjuster, believed that the fire was of incendiary origin, pointing out that it was the 11th public building to be destroyed within a short period of time in Northern California.

The insurance adjuster went on to inform the local citizenry that a certain chemical could have been placed in the attic of the building on Saturday afternoon, after the library officials had gone home. In approximately 24 hours, the chemical would ignite, assuring a fire.

Architects flocked to town to offer their services in the rebuilding of a modern high school and library.

Coupled with the insurance money and the tireless pleadings of many citizens, some prominent, the funds were raised for the new library. The funds for construction of the new high school were not near as difficult to come by, as those for the new library.

The cost of the land was not an issue, because the property had been given to the city back in 1858 by Robert Waterman so that the county seat could be moved from Benicia. The librarians had hoped for a design that would have some California historical significance and were quite pleased when the Spanish style was chosen. This was the first County Library building that stood on its own, not part of the high school. However, the second floor did house offices for agricultural services to serve the community.

The “new” Armijo High eventually became the courthouse building at the corner of Texas Street and Union Avenue. The current Armijo High is across the street. The “new” library is currently occupied by county offices, having moved to larger quarters on Kentucky Street in the 1970s.

Note: The decision as to what is to become of the old courthouse and library will be under discussion by the Fairfield City Council, June 4 at 7 p.m. Local historical groups are rallying to ask for a county museum be established in Fairfield for the repository of historical artifacts, photos, and stories that are in the hands of private individuals, so that the community’s citizens, particularly school children, might have the opportunity to learn about Fairfield-Suisun and Solano County’s rich past. If you are interested, please attend. To have such a gem of repository would certainly be a wonderful addition to the city.