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Skagit River Journal

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April 27 fire guts old Concrete Grade School addition
Updated May 1, 2008

(Both Concrete Schools)
      This photo, courtesy of Valerie Stafford of the Concrete Chamber of Commerce, will help orient readers to the old school complex just southwest of downtown Concrete. We are looking northeast from Main Street in the fall of 2007. On the far right is the grade school addition that burned to the ground. To its left is the original "District School," as it was called when it was built in 1910, for grades one through eight, as a "fireproof school" from cement provided by the new Superior Portland Cement Co., just a few hundred yards away. Concrete was just incorporated a year earlier, combining the earlier towns of Baker City and Cement City and the early Minnehaha.
      To the far left is the original high school, built in 1923 for graduating Concrete eight-graders who were formerly bused nearly 25 miles west to Sedro-Woolley High School. An addition was later added to the north and this high school functioned for nearly three decades until it was replaced by the Concrete High School that is located south of town. To the right of the original high school building is the wooden gymnasium, which was based on a large donation by local mill worker, Mike Moore.

(Concrete School Fire)
This photo is courtesy of Scott Terrell of the Skagit Valley Herald, who raced to the fire scene after he attended the Murrow centennial party in Blanchard. Follow coverage of the fire and its aftermath at the Herald website. See a larger version of the photo by clicking on the byline link.

      While many of us Skagit County historians were attending the centennial birthday party for Edward R. Murrow in Blanchard Sunday afternoon, April 27, the addition to the old Concrete Grade School burned to the ground. As we were eating dinner in Sedro-Woolley, Skagit County Historical Society board member remarked that two KING-TV News trucks just drove by and we wondered what the commotion was all about. We soon learned, as Dick Clever of the Skagit Valley Herald wrote below. Update: The Skagit County Sheriff has determined that the fire was set by three pre-teen boys playing with lighters..

Fire destroys old schoolhouse building
Dick Clever, Skagit Valley Herald, April 27, 2008
      CONCRETE — Valerie Stafford watched as fire crews tried to douse the last remnants of the fire that gutted her old schoolhouse Sunday. Concrete's fire chief called the blaze "suspicious."
      "I went to first grade there," said Stafford, who is president of the Concrete Chamber of Commerce and public relations director for United General Hospital.
      For many, the old three-story schoolhouse on Main Street represented memories of childhood. For others, it was an eyesore. The building had stood empty for much of the past two decades except for occasional efforts by its most recent owner to recreate it as a medieval castle — a project that was all but abandoned several years ago.

    Update: A follow-up article in the Sedro-Woolley Courier-Times on April 30, 2008, included an interview with the building owner, Jack Clifton of Bellingham. He said that he purchased the property in 1990.
    "It's sort of a big chunk out of my life," Clifton said, who lived in the building for several years while remodeling the structure. Construction to the building slowed down several years ago as Clifton was unable to come to Concrete as frequently as he would have liked, he said. . . . Clifton said he didn't have firm plans for the building when he purchased it nearly 20 years ago, but said he thought it could be a place for shops and a bed and breakfast. He had made some remodels to the structure that gave it the look of a medieval castle — like the construction of several castle turrets. . . . "I loved the building," Clifton said. "I think it had great possibility and I didn't have the money or energy to do it right."

    One by one, as the fire grew in intensity through the afternoon, each of the three uncompleted castle "turrets" fell in flames to the ground.
      Five fire departments, including Concrete, Burlington, Sedro-Woolley and two rural fire districts, responded to the blaze, which was reported about 1:45 p.m. Concrete Assistant Fire Chief Jim Past said his department was on the scene almost instantly.
      "We could see smoke coming from the building when we got there," he said. The building was fully engulfed in flames within the next 20 minutes, he said.
      Concrete Fire Chief Rich Philips was at the Mariners' baseball game at Safeco Field in Seattle when he heard of the fire. A friend who had accompanied him to the game got a call on his cell phone that came with a photo of the burning building. Philips left the game and was on the scene of the fire by midafternoon. He said the origin of the fire has to be considered suspicious.
      "It's suspicious because there is no power to the building," Philips said. "I can tell you people have been breaking into it, and we've been boarding it back up."
      Skagit County Fire Marshal Dan Cain will investigate the cause of the fire, Philips said. Cain said it probably would be sometime Monday before investigators can safely enter the building.
      As the fire raged, the wood-frame roof of the building collapsed, then the floor beneath it fell. The thick, second-story floor joists added fuel to the fire, burning furiously as they fell to the floor. A ladder truck from the Burlington Fire Department, equipped with a high-pressure nozzle, poured water steadily into the building from above, while fire crews on the ground saturated the structure with foam.
      Philips said firefighters knocked down the main blaze and some flames that ignited in nearby woods. They sprayed water on hot spots and worked to keep a smaller section of the building from catching fire, he said. Embers from the old school building landed on the roof of a shop on Main Street, igniting a small blaze that was quickly extinquished by fire crews. About 12 Concrete firefighters were expected to take turns resting and working to ensure the fire doesn't flare up again, Philips said.
      "We'll probably be here all night," he said. The concrete and wood building was constructed in the late 1930s for the Concrete School District. School district leaders sold the structure after moving to the current location next to Concrete Airport.
      Fire Districts 8 and 10, including Punkin Center [Hamilton], Birdsview and Grassmere, as well as the Burlington Fire Department with a ladder truck, helped Concrete with firefighters and equipment.

Click on these thumbnails below for full-sized photos
(School 1)
(School 2)
(School 3)
These photos are courtesy of Douglas Dunn from British Columbia. In conjunction with his program, Volunteer Researcher BC Explorers, A Digital History of the Pacific Northwest, Dunn has volunteered dozens of hours digitizing the history of Concrete and other towns. Far left: A view of the whole burned addition in the fall of 2007, looking east.. Center: A closer view showing details of the turrets added at the corners of the top of the building.. Right: A view of the building from the south, to contrast from the photo of the burned structure above..

(Concrete School Fire)
See this slide show of fire photos supplied by KIRO-TV from local photographers.

      Valerie Stafford noted that the developer who originally added the turrets to the school building more than a decade ago was Jack Clifton. She adds this note from the Self-Guided Walking Tour of Concrete that the Chamber offers through its website.
      Built in 1910, the Concrete "District School" housed grades one through eight. A large addition expanded it in 1938. The High School was built in 1923, saving students from having to continue their education in Sedro-Woolley. The wooden gymnasium was started by a large bequest from a local mill worker; this building was one of the sets for the 1992 movie "This Boy's Life". All the structures are now privately owned. The playground park has been a baseball field from 1910 to the present, and with a large local population of young single men employed in logging, mill and cement work, Concrete's "Nighthawks" Town Team became a top team in the county's early ball leagues.
      You can read more about the historic Concrete schools in the reprint of Charles Dwelley's 1980 book, So They Called the Town Concrete, which has been reprinted by the Concrete Heritage Museum and is available through their website.
      See this video of the fire shot by a Concrete grade school student.

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