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Thursday, December 23, 2021

History of Bates County: Ballard School Fire

This yellowed front page of the Headliner newspaper on display at the Grill restaurant in Ballard details not only the events surrounding the fire, but how the community quickly made arrangements that got students back to classrooms in record time following events that unfolded March 15, 1980.

By Doug Mager

Little did anyone know, a newly installed, albeit malfunctioning scoreboard some 24 hours earlier would eventually result in a devastating fire that destroyed a local school and temporarily upset the lives of students, teachers and administration alike

The evening of March 15th, 1980 would have been any like normal Saturday night while ‘cruising the Butler strip’ with buddy Perry Ewbank except when we noticed a fire truck with lights flashing, heading north out of town. Of course, we curiously followed not knowing that we were about to witness something tragic and of historical significance. For some time, we tailed the rather slow moving engine through the countryside and as we came within a mile or two of Ballard, we could see a glow on the horizon; we assumed it was a house or another building, but quickly came to the realization that it was in fact, the school.

Naturally, our hearts raced a bit as we followed the fire truck into the parking lot. At this point, there were only a handful of onlookers as the fire was contained to about a fourth of the gym while the rest of the adjacent structure stood silently  intact and untouched. As we watched in amazement with hands in pockets, someone asked if we could please help get some important items out of the school office and main hallway. Without hesitation, Perry and I entered from the south side to join a few other volunteers; and soon it became a scramble of sorts, removing pictures from the walls, grabbing trophies in clusters and handing them to the next person in an effort to get as much out the door as quickly as possible. We didn’t have the luxury of time however, the noise of the growing fire, along with faint smoke trickling into the hallway heightened our senses. We were oblivious to the fact that while a light breeze from the south kept the hallway fairly clear of smoke, it was also feeding the flames mere feet away. Every second counted at this point. 

I recall peering through the door into the gym and thinking how strange it was to see a raging inferno just on the other side of the cinder block wall. The lights blinked and the strong smell of smoke began to fill the hallway. We were told to get out and promptly complied. After the fact, we realized that our time inside, while it seemed an eternity, may have been a few minutes at best.

Once outside, we distanced ourselves as more fire companies arrived. Perry and I carefully made our way around the east side to get a better look at what was happening and the view was a bit horrifying. A door on the north side of the gym had burned through and flames poured through the opening like a blast furnace; scorching grass and trees quite a distance to the north. I remember seeing a propane tank a little further away and at that moment decided it was time to quit looking and get busy leaving.

While fire crews from Adrian, Garden City, Harrisonville, Urich, Clinton and Appleton City joined Butler in the fight, it was simply too little, too late. After a battle long into the night, the 41 year old gym, administration offices, six classrooms and kitchen were a total loss. A portion of the newer elementary wing was saved, short of some heavy smoke and water damage. Fire crews stayed through the following day to make sure there was no re-ignition and further loss of what was left.

While a formal investigation was conducted by the Missouri Fire Marshal, the exact cause was never pinpointed. However, it was theorized that a faulty scoreboard was to blame as the fire did indeed start in the upper corner of the gym where the scoreboard was located. Another clue was the scoreboard was ‘acting up’ during a basketball game the night before. 

From the ashes, so to speak, the community of Ballard pulled together and made the best of a bad situation by getting students back in class right away. While some 60 high school students took up temporary quarters in the elementary wing the following week, the owners of the (then) AT&T underground facility on the north edge of Ballard graciously offered up space for students for the remainder of the term which helped to greatly reduce the amount of time students would be without classrooms. 

Today some 41 years after that fact, anyone passing by the current Ballard school would know no different as the only visible sign of the tragedy is a framed front page of the Headliner newspaper that hangs inside the Grill restaurant located a mere few hundred feet down the road. As fate would have it, portions of the school were rebuilt following the fire that greatly exceeded the building standards of the 1940’s, along with other upgrades that certainly would be warranted in time as well. All of which mostly likely would not have happened without the sheer determination and will of a strong community behind it.