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Posts Tagged ‘collinwood school fire’

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Gretchen Dorn was 10 years old when she perished in the Collinwood School Fire. Her stone shows signs of severe weathering, and I don’t know that I would have recognized it for what it was if I didn’t already know that she was buried in Woodland Cemetery not far from the Swanson children who died in the same tragedy. Gretchen is one of the children that we have a surviving photograph of, which is uploaded to her Find A Grave entry.

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I’ve written before about being a part of the Collinwood-Nottingham Historical Society’s project to locate the graves of the children who perished in the Collinwood School Fire of 1908. Of the students for whom we have burial information, all but 4 were interred on the east side of Cleveland or in one of its eastern suburbs. One child, Dorothy Hart, is supposed to be buried at Spring Grove Cemetery in Medina, Ohio, and I have an email in to the cemetery sexton asking for assistance in locating her burial records and grave. There are also three boys (Norman, Max, and James Turner) whose bodies were sent back to Oswego, New York, to be buried with their grandmother. Unlike with Dorothy Hart, however, there is not a specific cemetery listed in the records. I’ve found some Collinwood victims in a completely haphazard manner – just going to a cemetery to do photography and finding them, but I can’t very well head to Oswego for the morning to do the same. Also, Oswego has a number of cemeteries listed as being in the city, and there are more in the county as a whole. I tried searching on Find a Grave to see if some kind soul had by chance already created a memorial for the Turners. I am taking any suggestions on where to start to narrow down my cemetery search and figure out which Oswego cemetery they rest in.

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On this date, 103 years ago, tragedy descended upon Collinwood, Ohio. Sitting just east of Cleveland along Lake Erie, the previously fairly obscure municipality would be a household name within a matter of hours. On the morning of March 4, 1908, Collinwood’s Lake View School caught fire. Approximately 172 students, 2 teachers, and 1 rescuer died in the worst school fire in United States history.

In preparation for commemorating the anniversary of the tragedy, some members of the local community came together in what has now become the Collinwood-Nottingham Historical Society. The fire contributed to Collinwood’s absorption into Cleveland in 1910. Nottingham is the adjacent community, also now subsumed into the city.

The fire was one of the most significant events in local history, and it created a flurry of records in the form of things like newspaper accounts, death records, and memorials. It was a possible opportunity to find out what life was like in turn-of-the-20th century Collinwood. And so the Historical Society began to compile all the information they could about these victims. (I joined the Historical Society in 2010.) We wanted to see what the stories about their deaths would provide us about their lives, and we wanted to make sure those lives and tragic deaths were properly memorialized.

We’ve learned some things. We understand better the ethnic composition of the community at the time and have come to more strongly appreciate the influence of immigration in shaping the neighborhood. We’ve disproven the common assumption that all the school fire victims are buried at Lake View Cemetery. But mainly the answers to our questions seem to have provided us with…more questions.

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We aren’t even sure the commonly accepted victim count of 175 is correct. No one actually knows how many children were in the school building that day when the fire started, and many of the victims were burned beyond the regular methods of recognition. Their parents and relatives attempted to match names to their loved one by a scrap of hair ribbon, an unsinged keepsake in a pocket, a shred of fabric. There are a number of lists that attempt to tally the school fire victims – and they don’t match. They do not contain all the same names and they do not contain the same number of names. Having 19 bodies ultimately determined to be beyond identification muddies the waters as well – no death certificates, no concrete list of who those 19 are assumed to be – after all, the parents still knew who never came home and must be somewhere among the dead. I’ve concentrated mainly on the cemetery research – if the children aren’t all buried in Lake View, then where are the rest? Sometimes finding a tombstone opens new doors for inquiry.

Mildred Schmitt and Emma

Why does this angel for Mildred Schmitt have this inscription on the side?

Emma (3 of 4)

Who is Emma? According to the obituary information I’ve found so far, Mildred was the daughter of Peter and Katie Schmitt, and she had only one sibling, a sister Lucy who was much older and wouldn’t have been enrolled in Lake View School.

Am I reading this inscription correctly on the Rostock tombstone at Euclid Cemetery?

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Is the last word “unidentified”? Is Emil Rostock really in Euclid Cemetery at all? Or is he one of the unidentifiable children buried behind the memorial at Lake View Cemetery?

We probably won’t ever have all the answers to these questions. But someday, I hope we have more than we do now.

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I’ve been uploading a lot of photos from East Cleveland Township Cemetery lately, which involves transcribing at least the name and dates on the stone into the website’s database. Examining each stone closely means that I notice some things that I haven’t before. One of the things that struck me was having a few stones in a row where the memorialized shared a death date.

Mammie M. and Daniel J. Frank

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I’m also including Eva and Edith Wachhaus in this count, because I know they died the same day – March 4, 1908, in the Collinwood School Fire.

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I don’t know what happened to the Frank or the Ford children – was it an accident that ripped two children from the family in one day? Was it an illness? How did their families cope with such tragedy?

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Tomorrow evening (Saturday, February 19, 2011) is the 2nd annual meeting of the Collinwood-Nottingham Historical Society. Doors open at 6 pm at the St. Mary’s Church School Auditorium (15519 Holmes Avenue
Cleveland, OH USA 44110). There will be light refreshments, displays about our local history work, and a showing of Kelleher, Russell & Young’s second Euclid Beach video Euclid Beach II – Gone too Soon.

I am the newest member of the Historical Society Board and some of my cemetery photography will be on display as part of the research on the Collinwood School Fire. I hope to see some of you there.

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Euclid Cemetery has two nearly identical tombstones that look like two hearts side-by-side. Sadly, these tombstones are for four children (two sets of siblings) who died in the Collinwood School Fire of 1908.  Rose Sophie and Erma Marie Buschman were laid to rest on one end of the cemetery, and Lillian Carrie and Emil Otto Rostock sleep at the other.

Rose Sophie and Erma Marie Buschman

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Lillian Carrie and Emil Otto Rostock

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The Swanson family lost three children in the Collinwood School Fire. Edwin, Hulda, and Fred rest along with their brother Paul, who died as an infant. (If you look along the side of the monument in the photo below, you can see the inscription for Paul.)

Swanson

My friend Mary Louise, the president of the Collinwood-Nottingham Historical Society and driving force behind their research of the Collinwood school fire, was showing me the location of the Swanson children’s graves when she told me there was something else I had to see. She pointed out to me that their mother, Minnie, was eventually buried next to her four children.

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There’s a space on the other side of the Swanson children’s stone where you would expect their father to be, but no grave marker. We found Mr. Swanson’s marker several feet away, looking out of place, and, worse yet, upside down.

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