Once upon a time, a long time ago, when I was a senior at High Mowing in 1970, there was a long, cold winter; with dark nights, deep snow and icy roadways. High Mowing was a school with mostly boarding students back then, with just a few day students from the surrounding community. To amuse ourselves in the winter some of us went skiing just down the wooded slope beyond the soccer field where Bob Pittman (remember his name—he was one of the heroes of this story, as you shall see) had rigged up a rope tow, a generator to run it, and an old green bus for a warming room. It was Bob Pittman who made sure that we got to have barbequed hot dogs and hamburgers out there occasionally by the old bus on Saturday evenings. (It was also Bob Pittman who taught the chorus, taught algebra, worked to keep the school office up to date, ran the maintenance program and the student outdoor after school work crew; and—let’s just say it—basically kept the school running).
The downhill ski trails were thickly bordered with, and even randomly interrupted by many tall pine trees, and the trails were narrow—so that if you fell down suddenly… the skiers behind you would have no choice but to ski over you. But it was definitely fun. We also created dances and parties on campus—baking cookies for them and creating our own bands to play the music for the dances. The school buildings were all attached in those days—and they had all been part of the original farm buildings There was a long extension, hallway, classroom, laundry room and apartments off of the big room (now the outdoor walkway) and beyond that a beautiful faculty living room—where we had some classes such as History Through Art taught by Mrs Emmet—a piano room with a nice grand piano; and the chapel—with another nice grand piano; as well as Mrs. Emmet’s own living space. All of these rooms had amazing antiques and teaching materials (including valuable ancient Egyptian coins for example) that Mrs Emmet had collected from all over the world—plus all the Christmas books that the students had given to her each year so far. On the evening of the fire I had been practicing piano in the beautiful little piano room, and playing my flute, and hanging out with a friend in the plant conservatory (a small room off the faculty living room) Eventually I went across the oval to Mrs. Karl’s apartment to spend a late evening with my friend Isabel. It must have been after midnight when we heard people running past the kitchen window shouting urgently. Wonderingly we looked out and saw huge flames and sparks raging from the annex off of the Big Room. Everything changed in that moment for us—very suddenly.
The girls’ dorm at that time was upstairs over the Big Room; we saw that all the girls were coming out over the oval wrapped in blankets to take shelter in boys’ dorm—so they were safe. Mrs Emmet was out on the driveway with several other resident faculty members who had gotten out of the building—everyone was in shock.
The fire department came—but the driveway was icy and we heard that the first fire truck had gotten stuck or stalled halfway up the driveway and none of the others could get around it. It was freezing cold outside, and there was no water from the fire trucks to put out the fire; but the firemen walked up to see what could be done.
The consternation and dismay amongst everyone present was terrible—what could be done? Some of the boys wanted to get close to the fire, and help out, and they had to be told to stay back. Isabel and I went out and found one of the cooks—an elderly woman crying and worrying—so we stayed with her, freezing, outdoors. Her husband was in the school kitchen making hot coffee and sandwiches for the firemen as they tried to figure out a way to deal with the fire, and tried to get some sand on the driveway to get the fire trucks up the hill.
An extremely urgent priority was quickly decided on. Somehow the annex must be separated from the main building or the entire High Mowing School complex would burn to the ground We, the students and faculty and firemen, watched as a very determined Bob Pittman (remember him?) started up the bulldozer/backhoe; doused himself completely with water and bulldozed his way through the flames with the red hot splintering debris of the roof and walls of the annex falling all around him. We couldn’t believe we were watching him do this. He kept clearing and pushing at the burning wood until it was effectually separated from the main building. I don’t think anyone went to sleep that night. The fire burned its way through the long corridor, the beautiful faculty living room, the faculty apartments upstairs (where one of our teachers had a precious collection of wooden musical instruments) the sweet little piano room, the chapel, and Mrs. Emmet’s apartment with all of her antiques and rare collections of teaching materials from all over the world. Bob Pittman and Cleave Beard and a few faculty members and many of the students started sifting through the cooling ashes the next morning and for a few days afterwards for anything that could be saved—one boy found Mrs Emmett’s statue of a lamb that had sat on a little table in the chapel. It was singed black, but it was unharmed. He ran with it to Mrs Emmet. The bricks from the Chapel chimney were saved—black with soot
Taking a practical view of things, Bob Pittman decided to start right away on a logging program with the students to make boards from the trees on the property— to immediately set into motion the healing process of rebuilding the school. Logging was done across the road on the property where Pine Hill now stands—there were plenty of pine trees there to make pine boards—and after school every day several determined students went with Bob and a few other men to help with the logging operation. And here I might add that many of them were boys for whom Bob Pittman was quickly becoming a role model and father figure; my own brother and several of my friends among them. Bob was able to set them an example of a practical and caring work ethic that year just by moving forward with the rebuilding of the school and including them in the project. That summer my brother and Seth Kallman and a few others worked hard with Bob and Cleave ; doing anything that needed to be done—washing the sooty bricks for the new chapel chimney for example. There was another hero, or heroine, as well. Mrs. Emmet, deeply shocked at the destruction of much of her beloved school and treasure, gathered herself together and—determining that we had only lost “things” not people; and encouraged by Bob Pittman’s view that “of course we are going to rebuild the school”—took an extremely deep breath and decided that we still had a school called High Mowing and that we would all carry on. It was my last year at High Mowing and I went off to college the next fall. I came back again and again---to see the beautiful buildings that Bob and the students had made; to see the school that was saved; to see the sunsets and the spacious meadows; to see students working and learning here, and sitting in this chapel built lovingly from the bricks and ashes of the first chapel and the pine trees from the surrounding woods.