Teacher Edith Martin may have saved 30 children by forcing them out a second-story window as flames consumed Thayer’s Caldwell School on Feb. 16, 1903.
An Illinois State Register special correspondent described the rescues in a highly colored account published the next day.
Thayer, Ill., Feb. 16 — Miss Edyth (sic) Martin, a teacher in the Caldwell school, is the heroine of the little town of Thayer to-night. Fire broke out in the school building this morning at 9:40 o’clock and had it not been for the presence of mind and courage exhibited by Miss Martin, the lives of over twenty children would have been sacrificed. All escape by means of the stairway had been cut off and the teacher dropped the little ones from a second story window into a snow drift. Several were painfully and probably fatally injured.
Aside from misspelling Martin’s first name, the unnamed writer had several other errors in the story. Most notably, none of the children died of their injuries. In fact, none turned out to be seriously injured.
However, the bulk of the article is confirmed by other coverage: Quick action by Martin and, to a lesser extent, a teacher named Luella Leonard prevented what could have been dozens of deaths in the fire.
Caldwell School, which had two classrooms on each of its two floors, was the first school ever built in Thayer (the village itself wasn’t founded until 1901). It had been dedicated only two months before it burned down.
The fire apparently was caused by an improperly installed furnace, which principal J.B. Gardner said later “had not given the satisfaction it should from the first, and it had come to be a common thing for gas and smoke to fill the rooms.”
The school enrolled nearly 200 children, but, because of a heavy snowfall the day before, only 82 students were in class the day of the fire.
Gardner’s own classroom was on the second floor, but he had sent his students down to the first floor because of another buildup of furnace gas in his room. Those students discovered the fire through heating vents in the hall, and they escaped out the door.
However, flames blocked the stairway before the rest of the school could be emptied. As a result, Leonard on the first floor and Martin, whose room was directly above Leonard’s, got their students out through the windows.
Gardner described the chaos to the Register correspondent a few days later.
“With admirable fortitude, Miss Edith Martin entreated her pupils to jump from the windows. Some would not, and with dauntless courage she struggled with them and hurled them from the doomed place to the ground – fifteen feet below. When the last duty was faithfully done Miss Martin, stifled and bruised, was rescued by a carpenter who had just arrived with a ladder. She had remained to see her thirty pupils say ‘goodbye’ and jump, while the room seemed her certain end. …
“The heavy snow fall of Sunday seems providential in lessening the attendance on Monday; and the snow on the unfrozen ground beneath made miraculous escapes from the second floor possible.”
Although some children jumped straight into the snow, a school janitor (his name was not given in news stories) stood below the window and caught most of them, according to newspaper reports.
Martin had to force several students to leap from the window, the Register correspondent wrote. “On one or two occasions, she was compelled to strike them in order to gain control.”
Edith Martin (1873-1951) returned to her girlhood home in Auburn to recover after the fire – she suffered from smoke inhalation and bruises – and never returned to teach in Thayer. She married Edwin Chapman, a railway postal clerk also from Auburn, about 1905 and retired from teaching to raise a son, David. The Chapmans lived in Missouri and Carbondale, Ill. Both are buried in the Martin family plot in the Auburn Cemetery.
Caldwell School was rebuilt, and a rededication ceremony was held in October 1903. Among the speakers was U.S. Rep. Ben F. Caldwell of Chatham, the school’s most generous contributor and therefore its namesake.
Note: Caldwell School in Thayer should not be confused with Chatham’s Caldwell School, also funded by and named after Ben Caldwell. The Chatham school, coincidentally, also burnt down – twice – in the first decade of the 20th century.
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