By Stephen D. Bowling
Shortly after midnight on June 11, 1918, ringing bells, train whistles, and pistol shots alerted the people of Jackson to a growing danger. The orange glow of a hot and destructive fire illuminated the streets of our small town as sleeping families awoke to the sounds of the alarms. The work of the “fire demon” in the city was a much too familiar sight; few were shocked to see yet another tall plume of embers and smoke spiraling into the night sky’s darkness.
Flames, which started in the north corner of the building, shot through the roof and poured out every window of the Jackson Bargain House. The popular business, located on the corner of Court Street and College Avenue, sold various household items, including mattresses, excelsior, furniture, paint, carpets, linoleum, and other highly flammable materials. The entire store was ablaze within minutes of the discovery of the flames. Flying embers landed on the roof and lit the nearby home of Bargain Store Manager Robert E. Gillum on fire. Witnesses said the small wooden structure was “consumed” within minutes and fell while Mrs. Gillum and her children attempted to rescue some household items.
The fire continued its rampage up Court Street toward Main Street, driven by the night wind. Despite the best efforts of the “Jackson Bucket Brigade,” the spire of the Methodist Episcopal Church soon burst into flames. Men at the scene ran into the burning church and carried out pews, seats, and furnishings, piling them on the public square near the jail. Less than ten minutes after the wind-driven fire reached the church, its spire collapsed to the ground in ashes.
The volunteer firefighters feared the small cottage on the hill behind the church owned by Charles J. Little would also be destroyed. A favorable shift in the wind spared the Little home and those of the Friedmans and the Delaneys. On College Avenue, a steady stream of water, delivered up the hill from the river in the buckets of the volunteers, saved the brick structure that housed the Home Bakery Company, but every window and the roof were burned away. Across College Avenue, the heat shattered the large display windows of the J. R. Blake Store and blistered the paint.
The following morning, pillars of smoke still spewed from the ashes of several of Jackson’s most profitable businesses. The Bargain House, owned by J. R. Blake, was a total loss with only about fifty percent insurance coverage. R. E. Gillum fared some better with the contents of his home being fully insured. Blake lost an estimated eight to ten thousand dollars in damages to his mercantile on College Avenue.
The city’s residents were shocked by the rapid spread of the fire and the volunteer’s inability to slow its progress. The public outcry to “turn on the water” from the waterworks and take advantage of the “millions and billions of gallons” of water that “run by Jackson and flow forever on to the sea, but not a drop can be used to put out a fire.” A new pumper wagon would soon be ordered for the Jackson Fire Department, but the much-desired hydrants and modern water system were not installed until 1929.
The Methodist Episcopal Church, despite the destruction of the sanctuary, seemed to be the only winner in the fire. The old wooden structure on Court Street had needed many repairs, but the building was insured for $3,700. The church board met and decided to proceed with the purchase of a piece of property on the other side of College Avenue near the Sewell Boarding House.
The building committee raised money for nearly two years and planned a large church on the low hill overlooking Court Street. Construction started on the foundation in 1920. A lack of funds stalled the project, and the sandstone foundation was not completed until early 1922. At 4:00 p.m. on Monday, May 15, 1922, a large crowd gathered at the lot on College Avenue to celebrate the real beginning of the construction of the new building. William D. Harris, the building’s contractor, stopped all work on the building, and they joined the dedication ceremony.
The May 19, 1922 edition of The Jackson Times reported that the event was well attended and a grand success. The audience sang several songs, and prayers and scriptures were offered by the ministers of all of Jackson’s churches. The keynote address, delivered by Rev. E. L. Griffey, offered “at length” the history of the church, its founders, and progress.
After his presentation, Rev. Griffey invited John M. Snowden, R. T. Davis, Alexander H. Hargis, and George W. Sewell to stand by the cornerstone. George W. Sewell could not fulfill his part due to his health, so they invited Thomas T. Cope to take Sewell’s place at the stone. The large stone, “cut by Mr. Williams of Hazard, and Alf Chamber of Jackson was of native stone” quarried from the works on Marcum Heights, and looked “very much in place in the prominent corner of the Church building.” Williams and Chambers lowered a small, metal box filled with artifacts to represent the day into a cavity in the foundation bricks.
Slowly the cornerstone was lowered by block and tackle and guided into place by the men on the platform. The Jackson Times reported that:
as the corner stone was lowered to its position these men, of the oldest among the membership of the church with their hands on each of the four corners held it in perfect position. Before lowering the stone to its place many of the church members and friends of the Church placed a trowel of mortar under it in preparation of its final bed, and in this part of the service each of the pastors of the other churches of the city took part, each placing a trowel of mortar in the bed of the corner stone, after which the pastor invoked the blessings of God in the name of the Trinity upon the Church, the new building, and its members as he set apart the building to the exclusive services of God.
The guests helped close the ceremony by singing the Doxology and the Rev. G. B. Crawford dismissed the ceremony in prayer. The Jackson Times printed a list of the items placed in the cornerstone’s cavity.
The following articles were deposited in the receptacle prepared for them in the center of the cornerstone by Rev. E. L. Griffy, pastor of the Church as memorials of the time which we live and in which the building was erected. A copy of the New Testament, A copy of the Methodist Quarterly Review, A copy of the Christian Advocate, (General organ of the Church) , A copy of the Central Methodist (Conference organ of the Church), A copy of the Pentecostal Herald, A copy of the Missionary Voice, A copy of the Methodist Hymn book, A copy of the 1918 Discipline of the Church, A copy of The Jackson Times, A picture of the old Church Building, A list of the donors that made the Church building possible, And many of the people present and especially the children in the audience dropped in small coins.
Within moments of the final “Amen,” William D. Harris ordered his men back to work. They began to lay brick over and around the newly installed cornerstone. Many of the ladies of the church took the opportunity to help by laying a brick each with the assistance of the work crews. Within fifteen minutes, the cornerstone box and its contents were sealed from view forever or at least until a new building is built.
© 2022 Stephen D. Bowling