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The Fire at Horace Mann

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

In the wee hours of Sunday, November 24th, 1940, the old Horace Mann Grade School at 14th Avenue and 39th Street in Rock Island burned to the ground. Firemen suspected spontaneous combustion, bad wiring, an overheated boiler, but nothing was ever pinned down. Since the statute of limitations has run out, I can now tell you it was a boy in the last row of sixth grade: Elbert Smick.

Elbert and school had never gotten along well, and sixth grade was worse than ever. By November, it was too much. Believing what he had been taught in Methodist Sunday school, Elbert knelt one night in November and prayed for the school to burn.

The response was immediate. Among the five or six thousand spectators who came to watch the fire, there was no doubt that it was supernatural. Never had there been such a conflagration in Rock Island. The fire began in the basement, swept up the open staircase to the second floor, fueled by years of well-oiled floors. The heat broke the windows, creating a draft that lifted the flames high enough to be visible across the river in Davenport.

Among the signs and wonders were flaming pigeons caught on the roof by the engulfing flames. Feathers on fire, the pigeons flew to surrounding house roofs, where they were doused by firemen to prevent the neighborhood from burning down.

When it was over, all that was left standing of Horace Mann was a shell and chimneys. Unfortunately for Elbert Smick, in praying for the school to burn, he had neglected to request release from all school. He and his classmates were promptly sent to emergency classrooms in the gymnasiums of other grade schools for the rest of the year.

Elbert settled down to finish his education and become a Navy photographer. He still lives a happy and productive life in Rock Island. But the fire did make of him a true believer. Aware of the power prayer can unleash, and fearful of the awesome responsibility of the petitioner, Elbert Smick did not pray again until 1967.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.