Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Villa Rica Explosion

Every teacher worthy of carrying a grade book realizes lesson plans cannot be written in stone...not if we truly want to meet our students where they are and truly design a prescribed course of study to help students reach various goals. Of course, teachers do have lesson plans they use over and over. I certainly did, but I never taught them the same way twice. They were always tweaked and tailored to fit the needs of each new group of students I encountered.

One lesson that I wrote while I was in the classroom stayed the same year-to-year with little change. It was a lesson I used during the first week of school when I was attempting to introduce my fourth graders to their first encounter with a full-range American History course that would span the entire year. The lesson was my attempt to show students how history is all around us if we begin to observe our surroundings very closely.

Villa Rica Elementary School...the school where I spent several years with some pretty fantastic fourth and fifth separated into four different buildings that form a large square. In the center is a large grassy area with a great shade tree. During the first week of school in August I would gather up my students, and we would have class in the grassy area underneath the tree.

Once everyone had settled in I would ask students to look around and notice where they were. I asked them to look at the tree, the grass, and the spots where there wasn't any grass. I would ask, "Is the ground completely flat, or do you notice it rising and falling in certain areas?"

I told students their job description in my class would be to act as historians, as they would need to be aware of the lay of the land. They would need to be able to make observations for anything that could be used as a frame of reference or a landmark of sorts when exploring a historical site.

Anything can be a clue regarding how the land was once used or who lived there.

I show students a picture of a pile of rocks and ask, "What could this be trying to tell us?"

I get all sorts of crazy answers. I also get a few plausible ones including the fact that the rocks could be covering a grave. We discuss all of the answers, and then I would tell students, "Sometimes it just takes a different viewpoint to really identify something."

I show them a second picture of the same pile of rocks except this time the rocks are seen from the air.

Generally, at this point I would hear several "Ohs" and "Ahs", and I would tell students the image they were looking at is Georgia's Rock Eagle, of course. Rock Eagle is a Native American rock formation located just north of Eatonton, Georgia.

The next picture I showed students is this deep gully. I would pass the picture around and allow students to observe it up close. We discussed possible causes for the gully...erosion, earthquake, Mother Nature, God....

As I showed students the next image I would ask, "How about man? Could this gully be caused by hundreds of wagons over a fifty year period?"

The gully I picture above is actually part of the Natchez Trace running between Nashville, Tennessee and Natchez, Mississippi. Thousands of settlers traveled the Trace making their way to new lands.

Finally, I show students a picture of a trench. Generally, when I asked students how the trench was formed they reacted predictably and gave me all sorts of reasons. Most thought it was a picture of the Grand Canyon.

We discussed the possible causes at length, and then I showed them the last image.

Of course, sometimes trenches are man-made. The first trench image hints it was man-made because you see rocks and wood placed on the sides of the trench. I usually followed this with a very quick explanation regarding trench warfare that took place during World War I.

I ended our discussion by telling students history is everywhere around them if they would take the time to examine, to wonder, and to question what they see.

I guess the same thing could be said of adults as well, right?

A pile of rocks could be just that, but if you know a little history you might guess the pile of rocks might be a burial spot, if you just happen to know Native Americans in my area were doing that hundreds of years ago. If I knew a little history I might realize a pile of rocks could be part of a much larger design that could be seen from the air.

It's at this point of the lesson I could predict several wiggle worms, so I would change our location. We would walk down to the recess field where I would gather everyone in a group and impress upon students that historians never know what they are standing on unless they truly observe their surroundings.

I would have students verify we were standing on the recess field before asking, "Is that all we are standing on?"

Then I would remind them that sometimes you have to change your viewpoint. I take students to the edge of the playground and down some steps towards an area that had been set up as our outdoor classroom for nature walks and science experiments. From this vantage point it was very easy to see the playground wasn't what it seemed.

From the outdoor classroom the recess field was hidden at the top of a very large hill. Sticking out of the side of the hill in various places were all sorts of debris. Rocks, long pieces of rebar, broken signs, glass, wires, bricks, and assorted hunks of concrete littered the hillside.

I would point out the debris and ask students to come up with ideas about what happened.

Finally, I would tell them the story...Many loads of dirt were hauled in to build up the playground at Villa Rica Elementary, but before the dirt was dumped the town of Villa Rica brought in remnants of a section of town. Much of the debris came from the Villa Rica Explosion.  Usually, I would have a student or two who would nod their heads and confirm they had heard about the tragedy from their grandparents or parents.

Generally, most students had not heard about it, and were amazed.

The fateful day was Thursday, December 5, 1957. People were going about their normal business on a weekday...going to the store, keeping appointments, seeing to some early Christmas shopping. Some folks were simply out to cast their ballot in municipal elections going on at the time, but shortly after 11 a.m., a natural gas explosion took the lives of 12 people and injured at least 20 others...changing the lives of so many in an instant.

In 1997, the 40th anniversary of the explosion, the Douglas Sentinel published an article recounting that fateful day. Many folks remembered the sound of the explosion...a loud whoomp, that was more like a clap than a bang...and others said that the town suddenly looked as if it had been hit by an atom bomb.

Ethyleen Tyson said that an announcer came on WSB-Radio shortly after the noise and reported that a bad explosion had occurred in Villa Rica. Authorities asked that people stay away from downtown since only emergency vehicles were being allowed into the area and a search was under way for bodies.

...Eyewitnesses who were downtown when the blast occurred told reporters who swarmed the area from as far away as Atlanta, that the air was filled with clothing, papers, wood, bricks, and other falling debris.

Buildings several hundred yards away were damaged. Four cars were completely smashed. Fortunately, rescuers found them to be empty.

Newspaper accounts from the day reported that Berry's Pharmacy was believed to have been ground zero for the blast. For several days prior to the explosion, employees at several downtown buildings had complained of smelling gas, especially at the drugstore.

Ralph Fuller is one of the few who can claim he was inside the drugstore that morning and lived to tell the tale. "I was in the drugstore, and I was sitting with a girl in the back having something to eat," the Villa Rica barber remembered.

"We were sitting by the jukebox, and I thought the jukebox had blown up. I thought I would smother once I realized what had happened, what with all the debris on top of me," he continued. Fuller received severe burns in the blast and was hospitalized. Although Fuller said that he does not remember how long he had to stay in the hospital, he did remember the reaction of family members who visited him there. "My own sister didn't recognize me from the burns I had," said Fuller.

James Harrison, [a longtime pharmacist] was downtown when the blast occurred. He had been out making house calls with a doctor friend, and had returned to town just before 11 a.m. His friend dropped him off in front of Berry's Pharmacy, and Harrison had started inside to have a soft drink and relax. "As I opened the door and began to walk inside, I remembered that it was Election Day, so I decided to go vote...Just as I reached it, the explosion took place."

The following persons perished in the December 5, 1957 natural gas blast in downtown Villa Rica:

Mrs. Ann Pope Smith, age 23
Mrs. Margaret Berry
Bobby Roberts, age 13
Miss Carolyn Davis, age 22
Oscar Hixon, age 34
O.T. Dyer, age 60
Johnny Dyer, age 30
Rob Broom, age 54
Dr. Jack Burnham, a dentist
Kenneth Hendrix
Carl Vinter
Rozella Johnson

Many of those listed above are included at this site.

In 2010, author Elaine Bailey published a book titled Explosion in Villa Rica in an effort to make sure the history regarding the tragedy would not be forgotten.

Mrs. Bailey recounts in her book how members of Douglasville's National Guard were among the first rescuers on the scene. In an interview with the Times Georgian Mrs. Bailey recalls, "One of my most interesting interviews was with an 85-year-old man, who was head of the National Guard in Douglasville at the time. He was on the scene 30 minutes after the explosion and stayed for three days. After the story hit the news, National Guardsmen put on their uniforms and took off for Villa Rica."

Bailey further advised the guardsmen provided security to prevent looters from stealing from the damaged stores, including a jewelry store whose merchandise was scattered al over the street. She said, "Many years later, people were bringing back jewelry, because they felt guilty about taking it."

While downtown Villa Rica is actually in Carroll County, the explosion remains one of the most catastrophic events in area history in terms of injury and loss of life.



  1. Interesting information. I lived in Carroll County from when was about in fifth grade through 8th grade. I went to school in Bowdon, Ga.
    April Hawkins

  2. OUR Family started out in Carroll Co. & Villa Rica areas! Growing up, I recall asking about people's birth certificates, etc. and Mother would mention the fire burning the courthouse!
    She might have meant this, but I am not sure.
    Thank goodness, I have been able to get ancestors' info anyway :)

  3. Bowdon is an interesting town, April. I used to have to go out there for various meetings when I taught in Carroll County.

    CheriO....The courthouse in Douglasville did burn down in 1956, so that was what your mom was referring to regarding birth certificates, etc. The saving grace was that they can also be obtained from the state. I haven't written about the fire.....yet, mainly because it's a fairly well known historical event. I like to tackle the not-so-well-known events first. :)


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