FARGO — In April of 1966, the Lovin Spoonful topped the charts with “Daydream.”
“What a day for a daydream, etc…”
Meanwhile, some students at Fargo Central High School might have thought they were dreaming as they watched something happen that would have a dramatic impact on the rest of their high school years. On April 19, 1966, fire was tearing through their school, putting an end to Central High as they knew it.
It all started around lunchtime at the building located at 1017 3rd Ave. S., just west of the Cass County Courthouse.
Jim Ohnstad, who helped organize the 50th reunion of Central's Class of 1967, told The Forum he remembered the day very well.
He was a junior in study hall in the school's two-story auditorium that day.
"There were a couple hundred kids sitting alphabetically in every other seat. I was half asleep," he said.
Then he looked to the ceiling, "and there were flames licking out of the spotlights," he said.
Others said they heard popping sounds and looked to the rear of the auditorium, where they saw flames near the ceiling. The popping sounds were thought to be sprinkler heads activating.
"This is an active fire, not a practice."
— Fargo Central High School principal Otto Bernhoft telling students about the fire over the intercom on April 19, 1966.
Ohnstad said the evacuation from the auditorium and the school was surprisingly orderly. That was probably helped by the opening of North High School in the fall of 1965, which took about half of the students that had previously crammed Central's halls and stairways.
Many rushed outside, to a late spring snowstorm, to escape danger. Most left so quickly they didn’t have time to grab their coats or books. When the building was inspected after the fire, papers and open books remained on desks. Some students said they had to throw out the coats they had left in their lockers because the smell of smoke was so strong.
All eight units of the city's fire fighting equipment were on hand, along with 76 firemen, including off-duty firefighters. The snowstorm complicated firefighting as 30 mph winds fanned the flames. It took four hours to put it out.
Despite the efforts of firefighters, the roof, third-floor classrooms, library and auditorium were destroyed, with smoke and water damage throughout the building, according to news reports.
The rest of the building was razed a few months later. The loss was pegged at $700,000 to $1 million. It was determined building a new school, versus repairing the old one, made more sense.
Fortunately, no one was injured in the fire. It was the second time Central High School burned. The first time was 1916.
Many students watching that day were actually chanting, “Burn baby, burn!” hoping for a few days off school, but probably not wishing for the school building to be gone for good.
As it turns out, more than 1,000 Central High students would be in North High a week later, where students would finish out the school year and do the next year with split shifts. North High’s student body attended classes in the morning and Central in the afternoon.
The brand new North High was dealing with its own troubles. It had just opened in fall 1965, but by early winter 1966, heavy snow collapsed the roof over the gym, seven weeks before the fire at Central.
In June of 1966, voters approved the construction of South High School, which would become home to Central’s student body. Given the recent construction of North High just a couple of years earlier, architectural plans were basically reused. That is why North and South High look so much alike.
The Forum asked Central High School alumni to share their memories of those days. We were inundated with great stories - some heartfelt, some humorous. Here are just a few of them. If you’d like to read more stories go to InForum’s Facebook post at the bottom of this page.
'You know what? The school might just burn today." - Larry Homuth '67
When I was 16 our band had a car accident on the bridge between Halstad and Hendrum, Minn. It was the 19th of the month. From then on, we collectively decided it was a sort of "mystical" number which had to be avoided at all costs. It became an in-joke between us and we were always on the lookout for "that number." It began showing up more and more, like "19th Nervous Breakdown" by The Rolling Stones and the game kept us entertained whenever we were together..
So then it was 4/19/66 and I was in auditorium study hall with a bunch of school buddies and I leaned back and looked up at the ceiling (where the fire began) and mused that "you know what? the school just might burn down today." Word got back to the authorities about this student's knowledge and I was brought in for questioning. I told them I had a "premonition." The story might be of extra interest to numerologists or whatever but it was just a rather bizarre coincidence.
Save the apple crisp! - Don Hulbert ‘66
I graduated in 1966 from Central. On that day I was having lunch located on the lower level with large windows looking south. We heard no fire alarm but the sky was black outside those windows. A lunch room worker told everyone to leave quickly. A classmate and I were the last ones to leave the lunchroom because each week on this day, apple crisp was the dessert that we all loved. After consuming several abandoned deserts, my friend and I headed up the stairs which by this time were flooded with running water. We arrived outside as the fire trucks arrived. It was chilly and there was snow on the ground. Someone threw a snowball at the pumper truck.
The class that ‘burned it down’ - Mark Schneider ‘66
My class at Central was the last class to graduate from Central. The 66-67 class had to go the full year at North (graduating as "Central" grads although not attending a day of school there. )So, my class proudly claims we were the one who "burned it down". I remember the day well. I was playing hockey and taking lunch at home (five blocks away) when I heard and ran back in time to creep up the 10th Street stairs to see for myself. A sea of water was flowing down the stairs so I took a quick look and got out. Just in time to see the chemistry lab on the top floor explode, to the cheers of the multitudes of students watching outside in the spring snow.
We limped through the next seven weeks around the debris of the cave in (of the domed roof) at North. Needless to say, there was not a lot of academics going on though graduation (at the Civic auditorium, after an all-night party there joined by both graduating classes. We have had joint reunions of both schools for the class of '66 ever since. My worst memory? The gloating of the North players (many of whom I had played with the previous two years) who beat us in the first North- Central football game 17-6. Thanks to Barry Mayor and John Sandler.
‘I remember thinking this is a big one’ - Kathy Brant '67
When the fire broke out I was in a lunchtime study hall in the auditorium. It was a large study hall. We could hear crackling noises that seemed to be coming from above. Tom Manley, the faculty member in charge, was upset and told the boys sitting at the highest point, closest to the ceiling to stop whatever they were doing. The most outspoken of that group stood, defending himself saying he was doing nothing. (Most of us were watching.)The crackling and popping got louder and then flames shot out of the ventilator across the ceiling. Mr. Manley immediately smashed the fire alarm and went back to the front of the room where he helped a couple students too terrified to move.
I remember thinking this is a big one, (At that point I was very happy the auditorium had such a high ceiling as the fire was more distant from me than if it had been a regular classroom.) picked up my books and left the auditorium. The smoke in the hallway outside of that room was scary thick and I remember thinking if I couldn't get out the door I was headed to which one would I go to next.
The exiting was surprisingly orderly and fast, kids weren't shoving; I didn't see anyone fall. Since I am short, the moving crowd and smoke was claustrophobic. Once outside the building I saw fire hoses everywhere and firemen yelling to us to get away from the building. I was still on school property when I heard a loud crash which I believe was the roof of the auditorium falling. Because we had open campus at lunchtime many students were returning to find the building afire. It was amazing that within just a few days we were back at school at North High, afternoon shift, for the rest of that year and all of the next one.
‘I’ve never forgotten it. Never will' - Michael Newgren - ‘67
April 19, 1966, began just like any other school day for me. On this cold spring morning, I walked to Fargo Central High School from our home on 12th Avenue and 14th Street South.
As usual, I met five or six guys I hung with for a few minutes of laughs near one of the radiators just inside the main entrance, then went through my morning classes as a 17-year-old junior. During the noon-hour study hall, I found a spot in the two-story auditorium, which was in the center of the school, hugged by hallways and classrooms.
Shortly thereafter, the day took a nasty detour.
Suddenly, loud popping sounds came from the back of the auditorium. And then flames started shooting out of the ceiling.
To this day, I remember the sense of panic and fear that gripped the auditorium. Students were hurriedly exiting the auditorium when Principal Otto Bernhoft informed us over the school intercom that it indeed was a bona fide fire and not a drill.
I quickly grabbed my jacket, leaving my class books in the auditorium, and headed for the main doors on 3rd Avenue. I walked across to the south side of the street, leaned against a tree as a light snow fell and watched as the school burned between 10th and 11th streets.
The sound of fire-engine sirens in the distance filled the air. They got closer and closer until all of a sudden they were upon Central, ladders climbing above the school roof as dark smoke filled the sky.
I watched for a while more, then walked home. I ate dinner with Mom and Dad, watched news coverage of the fire on WDAY-TV, then walked back to the school to see how it looked. It was not a pretty site. I remember crying, not knowing what my educational future held.
It didn’t help that a smoky haze burned my eyes to no end. I zipped up my jacket against the cold night air, pulled down my stocking cap over my ears, turned around and headed home. That night is etched in my memory.
A couple of days later, I found one of the doors in the back of the school open and went in. I sidestepped debris and puddles of water on the floors. An odor of smoke and charred wood filled the eerily quiet building. I was there about 30 minutes, even popping into the administration offices to view the destruction.
That was the last time I walked the halls of Central High. It was 55 years ago and I’ve never forgotten it. Never will.
Other stories by Tracy Briggs: