Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Babbs Switch School Fire

As told by Hall Cavel Jr, Charlie's eldest son - 13 February, 2009

While living in Carmi (Illinois) in the early 1940s, Dad came home from work one day to find the house next door was on fire. He asked some people standing on the street watching if the family had gotten out and they said they didn't know. Dad ran into the burning house, found the woman and carried her out, then went back in and got the child and brought it out. Boiling tar dripped from the burning roof onto him and blistered his back. He had a row of blisters as big as quarters all down his back from his neck to his hipbones.

It wasn't the first time he'd saved lives in a fire. After Hall told me about Dad's involvement in the Babb's Switch School fire I looked up the official reports on the web, the story of Dad's involvement is afterwards.

"On December 24, 1924, a crowd of nearly 200 had gathered to watch grade school children perform an annual Christmas songfest at the Babb Switch School in Hobart, Oklahoma when fire erupted. A candle placed on the top of a Christmas tree, located on the school's stage, fell into the tree branches causing the tree to burst into flames. Parents saw the fire and rushed the stage to rescue the children. The children unaware of why everyone was rushing at them began to retreat. This caused the tree to topple.

The play had been taking place in the rear of a one-room schoolhouse, the farthest distance from the one door. The fire forced the children to the rear of the stage - trapped with no avenue of escape. Parents grabbed children and ran through the flames towards the door but since it opened inward and the crush of terrified people were pushing forward the door was jammed shut. No one could escape through the windows because they were covered with wire mesh, probably to keep baseballs from breaking the glass.

Some men arrived and began pulling bodies and survivors through the exit door. The door had become jammed due to the onslaught of humanity. Within minutes the building was incinerated along with the loss of thirty-six lives. Most being small children."

Christmas Fire in Oklahoma School House Claims Lives of 33 With Five Missing.

(By The Associated Press)

HOBART, Okla., Dec. 25th; With the identification of the last victim established the rechecked death list in the Christmas Eve fire at the Babb Switch rural school, stood at 33 tonight. Twenty injured persons are still confined in two hospitals. One is expected to die and two others are in a critical condition. Funeral services for 16 of the dead will be held tomorrow.

Memorial for Fire Victims

(By The Associated Press) HOBART, Okla., Dec. 25th;

With thirty-two bodies, most of them burned beyond recognition lying in a temporary morgue in two store buildings and five others listed as missing as a result of a Christmas eve fire at the district school house at Babb's Switch, seven miles from here. Hobart citizens tonight were continuing their efforts to identify the dead.

At a mass meeting today called by Mayor F. E. Gillespie, committees were named to look after every detail of the sad task and the work was going forward systematically.

It has been decided to bury all the unidentified in a large grave in the Hobart cemetery and late today a crew of men broke the snow that blanketed the burial ground to throw up a long trench of earth. Early tonight only ten of the dead had been identified, despite the fact that the morgue was early thrown open to the public. A steady procession of grief stricken relatives filed all day long between the shrouded forms, but so terribly had they been burned that it was impossible in most cases to mark the features of loved ones.

Halls' story of Charlie Cavel's involvement in the event:

On Christmas Eve night, 1924, Dad was working as a fireman in the grain elevator at Hobart (OK). He and the fire crew, including Orville Grider, were called to the Babbs Switch School, which was on fire. They tried to open the school's only door but the door opened inward and people had packed up against it in an effort to escape. When they couldn't open the door they chopped through it with their fire axes, and were able to start pulling people out, but many people died, and as a result legislation was passed requiring that the doors on all public buildings in Oklahoma open outward.

As an aside, Hall Cavel Jr. married Deloris June Grider, daughter of Orville Grider, who worked as a carpenter at the grain elevator in Hobart and went out with the fire crew to the Babb's Switch School Fire. Charlie and Orville worked together for a few months in 1924, and 27 years later when Hall Jr. told Charlie he was marrying a girl whose surname was Grider, Charlie remembered working with Orville well enough to describe him perfectly; i.e. short, skinny and blind in one eye.


  1. My grandmother had four sisters injured in this fire. One, Ethel Hill, was not expected to survive, but she did. Tragically, 10 years later, her youngest sister, Ruthie, who was not in the Babbs Switch fire, was killed crossing the street in the evening of Christmas Day in California where the family had moved to.

  2. Oh my, small world isn't it? Thanks for sharing your family's story with me. For a while our family's lives touched each other's. And though we don't know each other your grandmother and aunts almost certainly met my dad and my sister-in-law's father Orville.

    Families were close in the 40s and 50s. Orville and my Dad and Hall Jr were in business together when I was a child, and we lived together in the same house. The household included in-laws and sometimes friends and old folks who had no other place to go. No one got paid for taking care of them either. It was done out of kindness and because no one would have tolerated seeing an old soldier or widow homeless, or living in a room alone when they could be included in a family.

    I can't help thinking America was a better place when we weren't so blinded by dollar signs and obsessed about making sure anyone who gets help "deserves" regular meals and a roof over their head. We just assumed everyone deserved the dignity of of love and care, whether they were a child, disabled, old, sick, or just down on their luck.
    I think we had the right idea, but we were revolutionaries.