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A Christmas Tragedy: Willis Hall Burns

I wish to thank the Northfield Historical Society, whose Rice County Journal collection enhanced this week’s column.

Christmas 1879 was a dreary holiday for Carleton students and faculty. On the morning of December 23, a north wind was blowing and snow was falling as a man bringing firewood to the college saw smoke billowing from Willis Hall. Finding nobody in the vicinity, he ran back to town shouting, “Fire!” From the throng that quickly appeared at the scene rushed people eager to rescue items from the burning building. A Northfield hook-and-ladder truck arrived on scene, but firemen could do little to fight the blaze without water or a pump engine.

On Christmas Day, the Rice County Journal proclaimed, “Fire! Carleton College burned to the ground! Nothing to subdue the fury of the flames!” The headline was slightly misleading: Willis Hall’s stone walls remained standing, but the interior was destroyed. Authorities considered a stove in the janitor’s room, a furnace in the basement or a third floor dormitory as possible origins of the fire. The insurance settlement for the loss of the building and college property totaled $17,300.

The Journal reported, “All present who could do any good rendered their best services to save the contents from destruction, and some of the firemen and others suffered from frozen ears, though we trust not seriously. No lives lost or serious bodily harm done to any, though sad faces at witnessing the ravages of the devouring element were numerous.” Furnishings, records, over 2,000 books and most of the geological and natural history collections burned, while many students who had been living in the upstairs dormitory lost all of their possessions. A group of men saved a new collection of preserved animals and managed to retrieve the chapel’s grand piano. A town doctor “received a stunning blow from an armful of books thrown out of the second story window.”

College administrators secured temporary accommodations within two days of the fire. Classrooms were located in Carleton’s Ladies’ Hall, Northfield High School and the Baptist and Methodist churches. The Methodist Church was used for chapel services, and the music rooms and what remained of the library were housed above Clark and Wright’s drug store. The 30 students who had been living on the third floor of Willis all found new places to live. The winter term started as planned on January 7, 1880.

The Board of Trustees promptly voted to rebuild the College’s main academic building. Engineers from the Twin Cities deemed the outside structure of the building sound, so the interior was to be gutted and reconstructed. Meanwhile, College President James W. Strong (who truly lived up to his name*) appealed to Minnesota Congregationalist churches, with which Carleton was still affiliated, for moral support and whatever physical offerings they could give. President Strong spent much of the winter soliciting donations from benefactors in Minnesota and New England. The greatest immediate need was books, as two-thirds of the library’s capacity saved was reference materials of little use to the average student.

In a letter to pupils, President Strong said, “Your personal presence here will be worth more to us than pecuniary gifts can be. If you return in full force at the beginning of the term, as we believe you will, we shall feel that our loss is already half restored, and that the future is secure.” President Strong’s wishes were fulfilled: enrollment at the end of the academic year numbered 260, higher than ever before. The annual Commencement Dinner of 1880 was held in the unfinished Willis chapel, where students and faculty dined together surrounded by walls of bare studs.

Construction on Willis Hall was completed by the fall of 1880. The exterior remained unchanged, except for porticos added at each entrance, a modified mansard roof and a new belfry that contained a 1,200-pound bell. Inside were east and west stairwells, seven recitation rooms, two cloakrooms, the library, a gallery and a two-story chapel that could seat 640 people. Additionally, steam heat had been installed in all campus buildings. On October 20, 1880, the new chapel hosted the 25th Annual Conference of the Minnesota Congregationalists. The proceedings concluded with remarks from President Strong and a re-dedicatory prayer for the rebuilt hall.

*On December 23, 1870, exactly nine years prior to the Willis Hall fire, President Strong and a friend were riding in a carriage when struck by a train, critically injuring Strong and killing his companion. On the same date in both 1874 and ‘78, Strong learned of the death of a colleague, and on the morning of the Willis Hall fire in 1879, he was reading a notice telling him his mother had died.

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