School safe reveals surviving WVSDB history
ROMNEY — “A total loss.”
That was the report given by firefighters, state officials and investigators immediately following the Feb. 26 fire that consumed the Administration Building at the West Virginia Schools for the Deaf and the Blind. The historical building, a longtime Romney landmark, was a “total loss.”
Well, while the structure couldn’t be salvaged, the school’s safe was virtually intact, containing photos, books, admission information and more, all dating back to at least the early 1900s, with some items as old as the 1880s.
Romney historian Dan Oates said that while some of the documents and photos in the safe were familiar to him, many more were not.
The documents, photos and books in the safe aren’t in the best of shape either: some are charred, some covered in soot, some flaking even at the slightest touch and all of it smelling strongly of smoke.
When it was found, Oates said, the safe was full. The deeds and ledgers that survived in the safe were sent to Charleston for review, but much of the rest of the safe’s contents stayed.
While the devastating fire destroyed antique furniture, décor and more, the contents of the safe were, well, safe, as the surviving photos and documents continue to paint the mural of the rich history of WVSDB in Romney.
A book that holds a weather log that began Oct. 5, 1879 survived in the safe, though Oates said it “barely made it.”
The weather reports in the charred book correspond with the weather reported in the Tablet (the WVSDB newsletter) at the time.
In fact, at the bottom of one of the pages, there’s a note about “10 loads of ice,” and in the Tablet, there is a brief comment about the ice.
The weather log itself only details to December.
Applications for admission
The safe housed applications for admission to the school as well.
“I have all of the enrollments,” Oates said excitedly, “but I don’t have these. I have no idea why they were in the safe.”
The applications include basically the same information as the enrollment books, including information as to why a potential student was deaf or blind.
C&O discount letter
One of the leaflets in the safe was actually a letter from the C&O Railroad, dated 1899, which offered a discounted rate for students and staff (detailed as “inmates and employees” in the letter) to travel back to their respective homes on the train.
At that time, students arrived in Romney for school in September, and they went home in June. Staff members accompanied them to their home stations.
Along with the letter clarifying student and staff discounts to ride the train, the safe held a larger book, which Oates said at first he thought might be an enrollment book.
“It says enrollment, and it took me a while to figure it out,” he mused.
Upon review, he realized it was actually a transportation log for the school, listing students by name, what county they were from and what post office and railroad station they went home to when they rode the train.
“This (book) was probably something that was carried on the train to make sure the kids were taken care of,” Oates explained.
While the large, framed photos of the school’s superintendents that hung on the walls of the Administration Building were, in fact, lost in the fire, their miniature versions remained safe.
“A lot of people will be happy these were in (the safe),” Oates said. “These were all mounted in the Admin building, framed. And they’re gone.”
They’re gone, but not lost: the miniature versions of the superintendents’ portraits, along with the portrait of the school’s founder Howard Hill Johnson, survived, all with legible names written on the back.
“I was amazed that these survived,” Oates added.
The safe also held countless miscellaneous photos, some depicting life in the classrooms way-back-when, some group photos of students at the deaf school, some detailing chair-caning in a blind classroom, etc.
Oates said that some of the photos he’d seen and worked with before in his archiving adventures, but some he had not.
The images will be scanned and saved for posterity and potential future display, all falling into Oates’ mantra of “preserve and return.”
Oates said that the school kept many, many applications from folks wanting to work at the school, including the application from Madeline Blue.
“There’s a drawer with a ton in there; it’s still there, and not even touched,” Oates said.
Blue came here single, Oates said, and then married John Blue. Her application is one of the many that survived in the fire.