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Tabor goes up in smoke

Century-old fire met with determination to rebuild

Staff writer

Tabor College is a thriving liberal arts college with a record enrollment this year of 770 students, including its Wichita campus, but if not for the determination of its supporters and the residents of Hillsboro 100 years ago, it might not exist.

Tabor College vice president P.C. Hiebert returned from Oklahoma the morning of April 30, 1918, to find nothing but ashes where the original building had stood. Sitting all alone and surrounded by prairie, it had burned to the ground in one hour.

“All our hopes for the immediate future seemed to be dashed,” Hiebert wrote later.

At that time, Tabor had an enrollment of 200. Solomon Loewen, a youngster at the time, along with others, seeing the flames, had climbed up ladders into a second-story classroom and thrown chairs and maps out the window until the floor started to burn.

He took pictures of the fire with his Brownie camera and later made a sketch and a model of the building for posterity. Loewen later became a longtime science teacher at Tabor.

Rumors abounded as to what caused the fire. The simplest explanation was an overheated furnace, but World War I was in progress, and some people speculated that anti-German sentiment in surrounding counties might have prompted someone to commit arson.

The cause was never determined. Hiebert wrote a “Tabor Fire Song” that was sung in remembrance for several years.

Nevertheless, although the building was gone, the Tabor spirit had not died. The same day as the fire, a decision was made to rebuild, and the following day, $10,000 was raised for a new $100,000 administration and classroom building.

For three days, students, faculty and constituents worked to clean bricks and crush rocks salvaged from the rubble.

Classes continued in other buildings around town, and two years later to the day, the new building was occupied. It still stands today in the midst of many other buildings as the H.W. Lohrenz building.

Peggy Goertzen, director of the Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies at Tabor, researched the history of the college for its centennial in 2008 in an article titled, “Birth of a Vision: Our Own School.”

She said Loewen was her main source of firsthand information. Her primary sources were newspaper articles and other written material. Loewen died in 1996.

Two pieces salvaged from the fire, a microscope and a textbook, are displayed in the museum room at the center. When drainage trenches were being dug for the science building in November 1997, more artifacts from the building were found. They also are on display.

Before Tabor College was founded in 1908, H.W. Lohrenz and P. C. Hiebert, both associated with the Ebenfeld community southeast of Hillsboro, proposed a Mennonite Brethren alternative to nearby McPherson College.

By March 1908, a board of directors had been chosen, Hillsboro had been selected over Aulne, Inman, and Lehigh, and the name “Tabor” was approved.

That spring, a simple building was constructed for $13,500. It included a basement of stone and cement and two wood-frame stories with a brick façade.

The basement held a heating system, gymnasium, laboratory, coal room, and two dressing rooms. The first floor had a large chapel and several classrooms with moveable walls. The second floor had classrooms and a library.

The architect was Franz Goerzen. Known as the “church architect” in Marion and Harvey counties, he had built the Springfield Krimmer Mennonite Brethren Church in 1903, Ebenfeld M.B. church in 1904, and Gnadenau K.M.B .Church in 1905. The construction crew made 25 cents an hour, considered a “very good wage.”

Construction delays occurred when a severe August storm moved one corner of the building off the foundation, when two workers were injured by falling bricks, and when the architect fell and broke an arm.

Though the building was not yet completed, an official school opening was held on Sept. 16, 1908 with a Sunday afternoon public worship service.

School started with 39 students who met in the Hillsboro M.B. Church until the building was completed. Attendance grew to 100 by the end of the session. The church now sits on the campus as a historic building.

The four programs offered included a preparatory course for those who had not completed elementary school, an academy or high school taught in German and English, a four-year college, and a Bible school for all ages.

Goertzen described the fire as a defining moment in the history of Hillsboro.

“The question was, are we going to give up or keep going,” she said. “It was a call to go forward. Many people gave money. Business people of all faiths contributed. They realized the value of an institute of higher learning here.”

Last modified April 25, 2018

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