Fourteen-year-old Lena McKelvey was a temporary guest at the Haskell Home orphanage. The Battle Creek girl was being treated for an injured hand while her family visited Florida.
Cecil Coutant, who was 12, had lived at the orphanage for seven years. Originally from Iowa, her sister lived with Dr. Rowland Harris of the Battle Creek Sanitarium and her brother lived at the home of a farmer near Urbandale.
George Goodenow, 10, had only just arrived there by way of Chattanooga, Tennessee. The only black boy at the institution, he was quartered in the boys dormitory. But on the morning of February 5, 1909, he was nowhere to be seen.
Thirty-seven children were sleeping at the Haskell Home that night when a fire started.
Lena, Cecil and George didn’t make it out.
In the early 1880s, the Seventh-day Adventist Church began an effort to open an orphanage as well as an “old folks home” in the name of the church’s co-founder, James White. Seventeen acres of land was purchased for the orphanage on what is now Hubbard Street in 1891, but fundraising for the project stalled at $10,000.
“In the 1880s, people were asking Dr. Kellogg to take in orphans all the time, and at some point he said we need some institution,” said Brian Wilson, professor of religious studies at Western Michigan University and author of “Dr. John Harvey Kellogg and the Religion of Biologic Living.” “That’s when he approached the general conference. An orphanage and an old folks home was seen as a package deal.”
Caroline E. Haskell, a visitor to the Battle Creek Sanitarium from Indiana, donated $30,000 to build the orphanage, on condition it be named after her late husband and remain a non-denominational institution (she was Episcopalian) open to all races.
“We have an orphanage that was integrated,” Wilson noted. “It points to the fact that the home was really open to kids of all races, which, for the day and time, is quite remarkable.”
The Haskell Home for Orphans was operated by the Benevolent Association, of which Kellogg was president. He would be later described as the home’s “godfather and guiding spirit,” and was credited for devising its unique ventilation system.
The Gothic-style structure was designed by architect A.D. Ordway. Built to accommodate 150 children, it was made of Georgia pine with brick veneer, and had a 14-foot wide by 12-foot high veranda around its west and south sides. It could be seen by all passengers from the city’s three railroads.
Inside, there was a gymnasium, classrooms, a library, playrooms and an observatory that overlooked both the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo rivers.
The Haskell Home was said to be the “grandest institution” in Battle Creek when it was dedicated on Jan. 16, 1894.
Children in the home were grouped by “families” of six or seven, boys and girls slept in separate dormitories on the upper floors and classes were taught in subjects such as furniture building, mattress stuffing, cooking, agriculture. Some of the children would be “farmed out,” while others tended to the fruit trees and gardens on the property.
The Seventh-day Adventist Church published “The Haskell Home Appeal,” a quarterly that encouraged church members of the international Protestant sect to offer financial support for the orphanage.
However, Adventist co-founder and prophetess Ellen White increasingly feared centralizing the church in Battle Creek and called for a “scattering” of believers. In 1902, following a fire that destroyed the church’s Review and Herald publishing house, she transferred the Seventh-day Adventist headquarters to Washington D.C.
Beginning in 1903, White claimed to have visions that “a sword of fire hung over Battle Creek.”
By 1907, after Kellogg had been excommunicated from the church along with hundreds of others, the Seventh-day Adventist Church “disinherited” the Haskell Home.
The church urged followers to “withdraw their subscriptions, owing to Dr. Kellogg’s ungodliness,” according to the Sept. 9, 1907, edition of the Battle Creek Daily Moon.
The orphanage was reportedly closed for a time, but the sprawling 67-acre property continued to provide a home for children under Kellogg’s stewardship. He personally fostered at least 42 children, and he and his wife Ella legally adopted eight kids of various ethnic backgrounds.
“Kellogg had a genuine interest in children,” Wilson said. “He liked children. He liked educating them. His concern for kids was genuine. He came from a large family, and he was genuinely moved by tales of poverty. On the other hand, he also probably saw it as an opportunity to do a social experiment.”
Violet Armstrong (Bordeau) survived the fire and later settled down in Marshall. She was 16 at the time of the incident, and was staying at the Haskell Home along with five of her 12 siblings.
“I was awakened by the screams of my sister, Mary,” she told the Battle Creek Enquirer the day of the fire. “I tried to find my way to the door but the smoke drove me back. Then I went to the window and jumped, and was knocked senseless. My hair and eyebrows were burned by the flames in the room.”
Mary Armstrong, who was 15 at the time, was widely recognized as a heroine for waking the children and encouraging seven girls to take what would be a perilous three-story leap to a coal shed below. She was later described as an “angel of mercy” for her role as a Chicago nurse, caring for hundreds during the 1918 flu epidemic. Later in life, she and her husband operated a rooming house on Chicago’s west side.
Ivan Confer, 11, and his brother Oren, 9, had been living at the Haskell Home for three years when the fire broke out.
“We never knew what caused it,” Ivan recalled in a 1965 interview with the Battle Creek Enquirer. “But I can still see James Armstrong waking up us boys. There were a dozen of us in the boys’ dormitory, second floor, facing Hubbard. We got out by the stairs and in our nightgowns marched or ran across the snow to the old laundry building in back, to the northwest. I can still look back and see Mr. Armstrong shoving some of the girls out the window of their wing onto the coal shed roof…. I still can see the steamer fire engine, horse-drawn, lined up pumping. They came from Washington and Manchester, and I suppose the whole town force, too.”
James Armstrong, 12, was credited for saving two of his younger siblings from the burning building by dropping them from a window before making the leap himself. He then absorbed the fall of two more while his sister, Mary, encouraged the youngsters to jump. The floor collapsed on Lena and Cecil before they could make it to the window.
“Immediately following the alarm, the western sky reflected a dull glow,” the Battle Creek Enquirer wrote in the Feb. 5, 1909 edition. “A minute later the entire sky reflected the ugly blaze and the heavens were lighted by the fire till rays of the rising sun dispelled it.”
Rodney Owen, superintendent of the Haskell Home, ran into the kitchen at the first sign of smoke, but no flames were present. His wife, Sarah, ushered the boys in the dormitory to safety as they clung to her dress, but not before leading them back into danger for the sake of a newborn baby.
“We were outside the door and about to go down the stairs when I remembered Donald Webber, a six-weeks-old babe,” Sarah Owen recalled to the Battle Creek Daily Moon. “I returned to get the sleeping babe from his crib, the entire brood still clinging to me. Thank God were able to make our way out again in safety.”
The building, valued at $50,000 ($1.4 million adjusted for inflation), was a complete loss. Due to the intense heat of the smoldering ruins, it would take days before investigators could review the scene.
The tragedy led to immediate suspicion and insinuation of foul play, as recorded in at least five of Battle Creek’s newspapers.
On front page of the Feb. 6, 1909 edition of the Battle Creek Daily Moon, the main headline reads: “THEORY OF INCENDIARISM NOW GROWING; NO BODIES ARE FOUND.” That same day, Battle Creek Daily Journal had a headline that said, “INCENDIARISM MAY BE BACK OF HASKELL HOME FIRE AND THE POLICE PROBE.” And the Battle Creek Enquirer invoked Ellen White’s “sword of fire” over Battle Creek in its lead to the story, printing a list of 13 Seventh-day Adventist properties that had burned since 1887.
The Feb. 7, 1909 Battle Creek Sunday Journal discredited a rumor that a nurse was lost in the fire and the home’s administrators were attempting to cover it up.
The Haskell Home fire was, in fact, one of 103 fires to damage or destroy Battle Creek buildings in 1909.
The official cause of the was never determined. However, Battle Creek Fire Chief W.P. Weeks told the Journal on Feb. 9 that he did not incline to the theory of arson. He believed the fire originated from the dust chute. Used for sweeping dust and dirt from the third floor down to the basement and located in the north end of the building, the fire was potentially caused by spontaneous combustion.
After the fire, the Sanitarium’s Benevolent Association continued to operate the orphanage on a reduced scale after $100,000 in renovations to the power house and laundry on Welch Avenue. The facility closed in 1922.
Source : Nick Buckley, “3 children died when the Haskell Home orphanage burned in 1909. Their grave is still unmarked“, Battle Creek Enquirer, February 13, 2020.