Consider this a cautionary tale for any of the 38 Minnesota school districts asking voters this week for operating money or bonding funds to build new schools.
It was just after midnight on the cold Saturday morning of Jan. 14, 1939. Nineteen-year-old Mike Fohl Jr. noticed the reflection of flames in an upstairs window as he walked home through an alley in Sleepy Eye. He followed the glare and realized the three-story public school building was burning in the southern Minnesota town of nearly 3,000 people.
Fohl dashed into the house and woke his father, Michael Fohl Sr., who was Sleepy Eye’s fire chief. They’d discovered the blaze early and firefighters extinguished it quickly with five-gallon water pumps, limiting damage to $10,000. Arson was instantly suspected.
The fire was “of incendiary origin,” the Sleepy Eye Herald Dispatch reported, and “the work was that of a fire bug who either gained access to the building sometime after the basketball game or remained inside” after the janitor locked up at 10:30 p.m. Friday.
A desk in a second-floor hallway had been broken up into kindling and ignited, the elder Fohl said. And two fires had been set in the attic with paper and kindling, “licking away at the walls and the roof,” the weekly newspaper said.
At first, there was no hint as to the arsonist’s identity.
“Attempts to run down the culprit were made difficult in view of the fact that he left authorities few clues on which to work,” the paper said, adding that Superintendent Edwin Harold Wilcox declined to estimate the cost of the damage. By Monday morning, a crew of workers cleaned up charred wood, plaster and debris as “a number of ladies were hired to scrub the floors and clean the walls” of smoke damage so school could reopen by Tuesday.
One family, hoping to pocket reward money, said they saw two youths fleeing the building just before the fire alarm whistle blew. But the youth weren’t to blame.
Seven weeks after the fire was set, the state fire marshal ignited another firestorm — charging Wilcox, the 52-year-old superintendent, with first-degree arson for intending “to burn and destroy … a public school.”
His motive? Wilcox had apparently grown tired of waiting for funding to build a new school and took matters into his own hands — figuring if he torched the place, he’d help his cause. The plan, well, backfired.
“The school superintendent, E.H. Wilcox, had thought he could get himself a new, improved school, but instead got himself put into jail,” according to the history page on the Sleepy Eye schools’ website.
Author Elizabeth Scobie agreed in her 1972 book, “Sleepy Eye,” saying: “The then-superintendent could think of no other way to get himself a new school.”
With Election Day coming up, 28 Minnesota school districts will have ballot questions asking voters to approve operating levies and 10 other school districts will request bonding money for buildings.
Back in 1939, Wilcox made his own bond request. Three men from Mountain Lake — a lumber dealer, merchant and doctor — posted his bond as he awaited a May arson trial. Wilcox had worked in Mountain Lake, 35 miles south of Sleepy Eye, for a dozen years. Residents there were “astounded at their former townsman being charged with arson,” the Herald Dispatch reported, adding that the school in Mountain Lake was “extensively remodeled during his superintendency.”
At the trial, 24-year-old music teacher Arthur Branae became the pivotal witness. “We will show that Wilcox had talked to the music teacher about firing the building and that plans had been made to do the job on January 9, but that Branae got cold feet and backed out,” Brown County prosecutor Thomas Streissguth told jurors in opening arguments.
He also brought up Wilcox’s communications with the state education department about a new school. Eugene Clark, Sleepy Eye’s police chief, testified about finding, amid the fire debris, three cans of Zerone — an antifreeze mixture used in car radiators. A 13-year-old boy, who helped the janitor, told jurors he’d seen Wilcox holding a match to a piece of maple wood in the janitor’s closet after Christmas vacation.
Wilcox was convicted and sentenced to four years at the St. Cloud prison. Judge Albert Enersen refused to stay Branae’s one-year sentence as an accomplice despite his role as chief witness.
Wilcox was paroled two days after Christmas in 1940 after serving 18 months. Born in Three Forks, Mont., in 1887, Wilcox was slender with blue eyes and dark brown hair, according to World War I draft registration records. He was married with two children. The 1940 census listed him as inmate 15138 at the St. Cloud state reformatory. When he registered for World War II’s draft, he was jobless and living in the southeastern Minnesota hamlet of Houston. He apparently lived there until two days shy of his 91st birthday and is buried in Houston’s St. Peter’s Cemetery.
Deb Moldaschel, the current editor of the Sleepy Eye Herald Dispatch, shared a little postscript. “That fire in 1939 figured into the successful passage of a bond issue to build a new school in 1979,” she said.
“The school was getting crowded and obviously was old,” Moldaschel said. The school dated back to 1896 when it replaced an earlier school destroyed in an explosion and fire.
In 1976, a charred roof beam from the 1939 fire was discovered and the school was abruptly closed a week before it was set to shut down for the summer. After five failed referendums, Moldaschel said a proposal finally passed to build a new elementary school wing in 1981.
So Wilcox, the not-so-super superintendent, got his wish — albeit 42 years later.
Darla Gebhard, research librarian at the Brown County Historical Society in New Ulm, contributed to this report.
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. A collection of his columns is available as the e-book “Frozen in History” at startribune.com/ebooks.