In the early morning of January 18, 1970, much of High Mowing School burned to the ground. But the stories from the aftermath of the fire, as remembered by Mrs. Emmet in From Farm to School, do not only paint a picture of loss. There are also many stories of hope and resilience from that night, and more still from the days and months that followed. Here are just a few.
Mrs. Emmet and many of the students gathered across campus in the home of Frank Waterman, a faculty member at the time. As the old houses and the connecting strip of barn continued to burn, those gathered waited for news.
“Suddenly one of the boys burst in carrying the lamb from the chapel, still hot from the fire and very much a black sheep as he must have taken a nose dive into the fire. The boy was instantly mobbed with cries of the lamb, the lamb. He was put on the table, still too hot to touch, but still with us.”
That lamb, its nose still black, sits on the mantle in the Emmet Alumni/ae House to this day.
"The Wilton fire department came very soon, and with the first burst of water it seemed that the fire could be contained in the three arches.
Then I heard boys’ voices crying water! Water! For many of the boys were out helping with the hose. The water had given out! The road up the hill was icy and a fire truck was stuck, blocking the road at the foot of the hill, blocking it for four more fire engines. We never had any more water….
Bob Pittman asked if he could go through the three arches with a bulldozer and knock down the dangerous structure. The firemen finally gave him permission, and covered with an asbestos something or other, he plowed his way back and forth, thereby averting any danger to the big-building."
—From Farm to School
The next day, the Chairman of the Wilton Board of Selectman and Wilton Fire Chief sent Mrs. Emmet a message. In addition to offering his heartfelt condolences for the physical and emotional toll of the fire, he thanked the High Mowing Community:
I would like to extend sincere thanks and congratulations to all the student members of your school for the hard work and help they extended during the time of stress. They were a big help to our department and in addition, I might add, that we were most pleased to be treated to breakfast and lunch with your student body, a meal that was not only most welcome, but very delicious. You must be very proud of your student body for their courteous and friendly attitude with members of our department made our job easier.
Expressing my sincere regrets once again, and hoping that the months to come will bring you nothing but good health and happiness, I remain,
Very truly yours,
Francis N. Gros Louis
Wilton Board of Selectmen, Chairman
An excerpt from The Vespers at High Mowing by Beulah Emmet:
“We had a Chapel Service in the big room at the usual time. The Lamb was on a table near the piano, the candelabra and flowers on the piano. We had a piano but no hymn books, so we sang ‘The Vesper Hymn’ and Thomson’s ‘Alleluia.’ Then Mrs. Emmet spoke...
'Somehow this school always rises to an emergency as you have today—this big night and day—in so many ways. Chapel tonight, to bear witness to the fact that we carry on as usual or better than usual.
What must we learn, all of us? My entire life or any material evidence of it has gone up in smoke. Could the 80 years be the cause of so much smoke?
Forty years these buildings have stood in my care, housing so much that came from rich experience. What can we do now? What can we build to balance that richness? It is too soon to tell, but not too soon to think of it. What can you give the School as rich as what you have lost today, and I am not speaking of material things—extraordinary as that picture is. It is the significance of those things. What can we substitute now for what is not here materially—can we keep its significance—the culling of a long life’s experience. Let us try.'"
A New Book
Since 1942, when the school was founded, a Christmas book was presented each year to Mrs. Emmet. In From Farm to School, Mrs. Emmet wrote that those books, which consisted entirely of student artwork, were “visible evidence of the heart of High Mowing.”
“Their burning is perhaps the greatest loss of the fire," She wrote. "There was real beauty, real poetry and tireless effort in those books, unique, alive, and irreplaceable." But once again, the High Mowing community rose to the occassion and made the best of the situation.
“After the fire, on St. Valentine’s Day, the students gave me a book. The cover was a box made from wood saved from my house. The inside pages, stressing the sun again and again, were many more than at Christmas, until as I turned them page by page, I realized that it was a new year book and almost a roll call book. And withal it had the quality of the Phoenix.”
The first page of that book presented on Valentine’s Day — the first of forty-four Christmas books made since the fire — bore a simple dedication:
At the beginning of a new age,
This book is given with love and hope
To Mrs. Emmet from her school