For more than a decade, the Boyertown Area Historical Society has been remembering the victims of the Jan. 13, 1908, Rhoads Opera House Fire with an annual wreath-laying event at the grave of the unidentified at Fairview Cemetery.
The 1908 fire took the lives of 170 people and helped change fire safety laws across the nation.
Opening night, with an audience of more than 300, the religious stage play, “The Scottish Reformation” by Harriet Earhart Monroe, never made it to the final act.
A stage lighting kerosene lamp was knocked over, starting the fire that led to the death of almost a 10th of Boyertown’s then-population.
Of the 170 opera house fire victims, 25 were unidentifiable. Their bodies were placed in individual caskets and separate graves. Their names appear on the stone marked “In memory of The Unidentified in the Boyertown Catastrophe Jan. 13, 1908.”
The annual memorial service is held to remember all of the victims of the fire. The wreath-laying ceremony is held at the grave of the unidentified and the historical society highlights one or more of the victims each year.
“This fire changed the lives of so many,” said memorial service coordinator Luann Zambanini, treasurer of the Historical Society’s board of directors.
A crowd of about 40 people gathered at Fairview Cemetery on Sunday, Jan. 15. The memorial service for the 115th anniversary of the fire included a wreath laying at the Memorial of the Unidentified, “Taps” played by members of the Boyertown Alumni Band, and a prayer led by Pastor Eugene Zaiser of Trinity Lutheran Church in Bechtelsville.
“We want people to remember what happened. We need to have our children learn their local history,” said Zambanini. “We need these children to realize our little town had a lot to do with fire safety laws changing.”
Doors on public buildings opening outward and fire escapes being marked are a result of the fire in Boyertown, she said.
“We have no idea how many lives have been saved and will be saved in the future by these laws,” said Zambanini.
Zambanini wants people to remember and tell their children.
“History is what happened yesterday and what happened over 100 years ago also,” she said. “Every town has a history, not every town has a history to changed laws in the country. Boyertown did that.”
Zambanini feels that it is very important for children to learn the town’s history.
“We know someday the children of today will tell their children stories about the COVID pandemic. I want them to also tell their children the history from their ancestors of Boyertown.”
Ceremony to remember the victims
One of the highlights of the annual memorial service is the wreath-laying ceremony at the Memorial of the Unidentified. Each year, the historical society invites a family member of one of the victims to share their ancestor’s story.
“I hope people will not just look at the names on the stone. I try to make folks come alive. I give them stories of the lives of these people. It makes it more of a reality, than just names on a stone in the cemetery,” Zambanini said.
This year, Boyertown author and historian Margaret Harner shared the story her of great aunt Marie LaPish and great uncle Robert LaPish whose photos she found in her mother’s box of pictures. Robert was 18 at the time of the fire. Marie was 8 years old, the youngest of the unidentified that perished in the fire.
“Robert made it out safely,” said Harner, “then he went back in for his younger sister.”
“He (Robert) was heard to say that he couldn’t go home to his mother without his little sister,” added Vaughn Starr, great-grandson of Robert LaPish.
Wondering how living in Boyertown would have been back in December of 1907 prior to the fire, Zambanini had read archives of the Berks Democrat, Boyertown’s weekly newspaper that would later become the Boyertown Times.
What caught her attention were several articles and ads that showed the Rhoads Opera House was used for a variety of things in town, such as a “Grand Sparring Show” and Edgar C. Mauger showing “high-class moving pictures, illustrated songs and vaudeville.”
“Anyone of these events could have turned out to be a tragedy without the fire escapes marked and with the doors opening inward. But the tragedy would happen on Jan. 13, 1908,” Zambanini said to the crowd. “It has been 115 years since that tragedy happened and we still remember. We still think about this.”
As it did 115 years ago, a Jan. 12 thunderstorm once again rolled through Boyertown this year.
“We all know what happened on Jan. 13, 1908, so I was a little nervous about what might happen on Friday, Jan. 13, 2023.”
Zambanini also shared the story of another family.
Horse dealer George Grim and his wife Isabella had three children: Lillie, Russell and an adopted son Howard, who was the son of Isabelle’s sister Catharine and her husband William Youse. Catharine died shortly after his birth. Howard was 17, Lillie was 16 and Russell was 4 at the time of the fire.
“Lillie would have graduated from Boyertown High School in 1909 had she not died in the fire. It is said that she was a very popular girl in her class,” said Zambanini. “No one knew, as they celebrated Christmas of 1907, of the horror that was to come.”
Lillie had gone to the play with Rosa Diamond.
“Neither Lillie nor Rosa would make it out of the opera house alive that night.”
An article in the Boyertown Democrat on Feb. 8 of 1908, almost a month after the fire, states that Lillie’s mother Isabelle was seriously ill suffering from the nervous shock which had been brought on by the death of her 16-year-old daughter. A Feb. 17, 1908, article later announced Isabelle’s death, citing that she died of nervous shock and heart failure, shared Zambanini.
“I cannot begin to imagine the thoughts that went through her mind and the minds of so many of the people in town who lost loved ones,” Zambanini said. “I am sure there are many other stories like this, with families devastated from what had happened.”
The memorial service concluded with those gathered at the cemetery singing “Amazing Grace.”
The Boyertown Historical Society would like to thank Harner, Starr and Zambanini for speaking at the event, as well as Zaiser of Trinity Lutheran Church and the brass section of the Boyertown Alumni Band for participating in this event. The Historical Society also thanks the public who attended to participate and share their stories.
The memorial service will be held next year on Jan. 14, 2024.
Source: Berkshire mont