On October 16, 1937, Slippery Rock University's North Hall caught fire and burned to the ground, all because of one unfortunate ox.
October of 1937 was a big month for Slippery Rock. As of October 6th, six thousand letters had been sent out to Alumni, inviting them to homecoming. Students were getting ready for the homecoming dance, which was planned to take up both gyms, each with their own orchestra. Also featured that night would be an ox roast, a real shindig for Slippery Rock Teachers College. Around campus, the school had plans for a large renovation project, with costs at $860,000 that included improvements on North Hall, and a new library.
In the early morning hours of October 16th, the notorious ox was roasting over a large bonfire. How exactly the fire started remains a bit of a mystery; however, an empty man’s wallet and three flasks that were found near the bonfire paint an incriminating picture.
In addition to 167 female students, the Hall was also home to the President, Dr. Charles S. Miller, and his family. Dr. Miller lived in a large three room residence that featured five bedrooms and a library. The President’s son, Bill Miller, was thirteen at the time, and recalled the smell of smoke that was precursor to the inferno.
The wood frame of the building went up quickly. Thankfully, Dr. Miller’s family, the 167 students, and the other residents of North Hall, all managed to escape the building, and no one was killed or injured in the blaze, however damages in were estimated at $500,000. The Rocket reported seeing two boys jump from a second story window, what they were doing in the girls dorm remains a mystery. Almost the entire structure was leveled by nine o’clock that morning in perhaps the largest fire in Butler County, maybe even Western Pennsylvania. The south tower fire escape and the storeroom were the only recognizable features that remained. Footage of the fire was caught by a student on 16mm film, a short documentary is available on YouTube that uses this footage, and can be accessed through the link below.
The community was quick to respond. The student body held benefit dances, and other colleges sent in money. Funds were needed to replace books and personal effects lost in the disaster, but also for the $500,000 estimated for the creation of a new dorm, in addition to the money already set aside for campus renovations. By winter of that year, President Miller and Emma Guffey Miller broke ground for the new North Hall, the same North Hall standing on campus today.
After the fire, life continued at Slippery Rock. James Sheehy was prepping Anton Chekov’s “The Boor” for a performance on campus, radio dramatist Jill Edwards came to lecture on “The Department of Personality,” and the girl’s hockey team lost to Pitt. The girls from North Hall moved into the boys’ dorm at South Hall, and the boys were temporarily relocated to private residences in town.
On October 16, 1937, an ox roast reshaped the landscape of Slippery Rock’s campus, paving the way for the current North Hall. North Hall still has a girl’s only floor, a testament to its days as a single sex building. Slippery Rock girls, and later boys, got a brand new dorm, the school spent another $500,00 dollars, and homecoming became a bit of a downer, all because of, as the Rocket called it, “a little bonfire.”