Visitor remembers Scarbrough-Hicks fire of 75 years ago

Reporter Editor

Gene Gary visits one of two memorials commemorating the Scarbrough & Hicks fire on the city library grounds. Reporter/Mike Brown Gene Gary visits one of two memorials commemorating the Scarbrough & Hicks fire on the city library grounds. Reporter/Mike Brown They don’t get too many visitors like Gene Gary at Rockdale’s Lucy Hill Patterson Memorial Library these days.

Gary, a resident of Albuquerque, New Mexico, came in Thursday and while he did some research inside the building, he also had some memories outside.

Gary remembers the era-defining Scarbrough & Hicks fire of Sept. 3, 1935.

In fact his father was a volunteer firefighter who helped get the blaze under control.

And there were some anxious moments when the Gary family didn’t know if his father, also named Gene, was one of the two firefighters who died when a wall collapsed on them.

The library is located on the property Scarbrough & Hicks occupied from 1882 to 1935.

Two memorials, one denoting the firemen and one the building, are on the library grounds.

GLOW— Gary was 10 years old that fateful night in 1935. The family lived just a couple of blocks north of Scarbrough & Hicks.

Scarbrough & Hicks was Rockdale’s “Super Walmart” in the early part of the 20th Century.

It was a complex of four buildings, groceries, men’s and women’s apparel and a storage area.

Just before 1 a.m. two members of Carlyle American Legion Post 357, Homer Turner and Max Ferrari, were returning from a Legion convention in Dallas down Ackerman Street, then the main highway between Rockdale and Cameron.

They noticed a red glow in one of the buildings. It was on fire and Turner and Ferrari raced to summon the fire department.

Before long downtown Rockdale was a mixture of sirens and chaos.

ANXIETY—“ We heard all the commotion,” Gary said. “We were just a couple of blocks away.”

“I remember looking out down the street and seeing the glow from the fire,” Gary said. “My dad dressed, came out and went down the street to go help.”

It wasn’t long before the terrible news filtered back to the Gary household. Two firemen had been killed, crushed to death when a brick wall, pulled over by the weight of an awning fell on them.

“We heard some firemen had been killed but we weren’t told who,” Gary recalled. “They had the street all blocked off and we couldn’t go down there.”

How did he learn the senior Gary was all right.

“I think he just came home,” Gary said. “That’s when we knew it.”

ONLY FATALITIES— The dead firemen were Wilbur Williams and J. W. Hooper.

They are believed to have been the only members of the Rockdale VFD ever to have perished in the line of duty.

The late Genie Vinton, who was Williams’ sister, told The Reporter she remembered her mother waking Wilbur three times that night to get him to go to the fire.

“She shook him once a nd he went back to sleep,” Vinton recalled. “She did it a second time and he went back to sleep. Then she did it a third time, he woke up, went to the fire and never came back.”

Gary said the family was also concerned about his uncle, Clyde Franklin, who later became Rockdale’s postmaster.

“He was a volunteer fireman and nobody could find him either during or after the fire,” Gary said. “It turned out he slept through the whole thing, never heard the alarm. He was safe in his bed all the time we were worried about him.”

DRAFT BOARD— Gary graduated Rockdale High School in 1942 and knew what was in his future.

“I knew I was going to get drafted so I went and joined the Navy,” he recalled.

“My father told me he was downtown Rockdale one day and Mr. (M.N.) Stricker, who was the head of the draft board hit him up about me, said ‘say, when is your son going to register for the draft’?”

“My dad said, ‘he’s in the Navy and he’s been overseas for two months’!” Gary said.

Gary saw combat in the Aleutian Islands, went into the Naval Reserved and got called back to active duty during the Korean War.

He’s a retired air traffic controller and has been an Albuquerque resident for over 40 years.

“We were visiting relatives around here and decided to stop in the library,” he said. “I won’t ever forget that night in 1935.”

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