Risen from the ashes: Randolph-Macon Academy celebrates 125th anniversary

The Warren Sentinel

FRONT ROYAL — Randolph-Macon Academy will celebrate its 125th anniversary this weekend, but it could owe its continuing existence to a disaster that could have seen the local private school go up in smoke.

At the beginning of the Great Depression, the Randolph-Macon System included secondary schools here and in Bedford to go with the all-male Randolph-Macon College in Ashland and Randolph-Macon Womenís College — now Randolph College — in Lynchburg. When the poor economy took its toll, the board of trustees opted to keep the secondary school in Front Royal and close its other one in Bedford.

"They went with R-MA here in Front Royal because of the new building," said Cooper Bourdon, the R-MA comminications assistant who researched the academyís history in preparation for this weekend's celebration.

That "new" building — known today as Sonner-Payne Hall — was constructed out of necessity as the smoke cleared from a disastrous fire in 1927.

The early morning of Jan. 10 that year was frigid, as January mornings often are.

Suzie Gaskins, housekeeper for R-MAís then-lone building rushed through the halls at 4 a.m., pounding on Principal Charles L. Melton and Assistant Principal H.C. Coeís doors to alert them that the building was on fire.

The first rush of flames took out the buildingís telephone system, according to a Sentinel report from that week.

There are conflicting reports as to how members of the Front Royal Volunteer Fire Co. received the call. According to one report, an unidentified cadet ran to a nearby house to phone in the fire.
According to another, he ran all the way to the fire station, then on East Main Street.

The firemen responded quickly, with "16 strong men pulling and pushing the hose and ladder cart," according to the Sentinel report.

The winter's cold presented a challenge, Bourdon said.

"It was too icy for the firetrucks," he said.

Once the firefighters struggled up the hill and hooked up to a fire hydrant, they opened the valve and let loose ó ìa mere token of a stream of water,î according to the Sentinel report. The main water supply ran through the building. Falling timbers had ruptured the line.

Fire Chief Jim Shiner, Police Chief Doc Smith and their crews helped all of the cadets and instructors escape with minimal injuries, according to the Sentinel report. Instructors George Riddick and Dave Garner also were lauded for checking every room to ensure every occupant had fled.

Clearing the building was not as easy as it sounds. Professor Duncan stopped halfway down the ladder from his second-story room after remembering that he had forgotten his dentures. Emergency responders had to convince him to leave them behind and flee to safety.

"They donít know what started the fire," Bourdon said. "All they know is that it came from the basement."

Large air ducts left in place when a new steam heating system was installed likely helped the fire to spread rapidly throughout the building.

The building was a total loss, but that didnít stop the academy from functioning. Local residents took in cadets and classes were held in municipal buildings while the new building was under construction.

The building was completed in October 1927, making it only about six years old when Randolph-Macon trustees were faced with the need to close one of the Randolph-Macon academies. The newer building was a key factor in the decision and R-MA students in Bedford were transferred to Front Royal for the 1933-34 school year.

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