Fires have played a crucial role in Central School’s history — and did you know the largest was caused by poop?
It’s strange but true.
While researching how Sprenger Health Care aims to restore the building as a 41-unit assisted living center using state historical tax credits, we spoke with Amherst assistant fire chief Jim Wilhelm.
He launched into a detailed history of the building. We sat down with binders of news articles, book passages, and photos to get Central’s story.
In the late 1840s, Amherst town hall was moved to Church Street between the present-day Bread and Brew and Amherst Cinema. The building was town down just last year.
In 1849, a second-floor fire destroyed the school. It was repaired and reopened but in 1856 another fire ravaged the building.
The new Union School was built between 1854 and 1857 on Church Street where Central School stands today. Classes for all grades were held in the space, just 25 feet wide by 40 feet long and two stories tall.
No definitive pictures exist of the structure, though there are a couple that show students against brick walls. Wilhelm believes the school looked exactly like the old Brownhelm School that still stands on North Ridge Road.
In 1872 or 1874 (it’s unclear), that building’s footprint was doubled in size to house a growing student population.
The school was used until 1893. Around 1 a.m. on July 5 of that year, the engineer of a train passing on the nearby tracks saw flames. Union School was completely engulfed by flames by the time firefighters arrived. Wilhelm said that while at first a mystery, it was later determined students had entered through unlocked doors and set off firecrackers inside the building.
For a couple of years, schooling was moved back to the old town hall on Church Street and a Baptist church on Milan Avenue.
In 1895, the new school opened and for the first time was called Central School. It looked somewhat like the sandstone structure that we know but with a gabled roof, a steepled bell tower, and two smokestacks rising from the wings. It was also half the size.
Tragedy struck again in 1907 when a fire destroyed the entire inside, leaving just the sandstone shell.
The flames began in the northeast corner of the building, which was used as the boys bathroom. There was no plumbing; part of janitor Ed Gessner’s job was to muck out the waste hole and feed the feces into an incinerator. When he was finished, Gessner extinguished the incinerator fire and left — but it roared back to life, possibly due to a faulty chimney flue.
Gessner returned to fight the fire and was driven back by the intense smoke, nearly suffocating, according to newspaper reports.
The building was rebuilt in 1908 with brick walls erected inside the sandstone, and was christened Amherst High School.
In 1922 and 1923, an addition on the west side more than doubled the size of the school. It included a gymnasium ringed by classrooms.
Powers Elementary School opened in 1953 for children up to fifth grade and Marion L. Steele High School was built in 1958. The old Church Street building was rebranded as Central Junior High.
Its student base winnowed through the 1960s and 1970s as Amherst’s population boomed and more schools were built. Central finally closed in 1984.
Purchased shortly after by Sprenger, about 25 feet of the property was ceded to the Amherst fire department. When an addition was built to the fire station in 1992, that section because a new driveway for fire engines.
In the 1980s, the Amherst Historical Society petitioned to have the building placed on the National Register of Historic Places — Wilhelm said at the time there was some doubt it could be preserved because the doors, windows, and much of the structure had been changed and updated, but the push was successful.
Wilhelm said he’s always been fascinated by the “neat old building,” which he attended as a child. His parents both graduated from Central.
“I would rather see them do something than tear it down. I think, though, that if it extended much further with nothing done, the only thing to do would be to tear it down,” he said.
The assistant fire chief said he walks through the building a couple of times each year. Firefighters periodically use it for training, dragging hoses up the stairs and practicing for responses.
Now, pending funding and approvals, the old school is readying for another chapter as an anchor point for Amherst.
Jason Hawk can be reached at 440-988-2801 or @EditorHawk on Twitter.
Photos courtesy of the Amherst Historical Society Central School can be seen here looking a little different than it does today. This picture was taken before the school burned in 1907.