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Explosion Rocked Masonic Institute In 1919; One Man Killed, Several Students Injured

I recently read a Tomahawk newspaper clipping that my wife Mary had filed away and I found it to be very interesting. There was no date on the clipping, so I don’t know what edition of the Tomahawk the clipping was from, but I estimate it to be in the late ‘70s or early ‘80s. The clipping included a Letter to the Editor from a Mr. Isaac D. Eggers who was 94 years old at the time. Eggers’ letter recounts some of the interesting occasions of his life. He writes about his high school days, his higher education and subsequent first teaching assignment as principal and teacher at a grade school in upper Shady Valley.
Eggers mentions in his letter that back then the county school superintendent would give tests for or to prospective teachers. He asked to take the test, passed it and went to East Tennessee State Normal School (now East Tennessee State University). ETSU has been in the news a lot this year as it is the school’s 100th anniversary year. The school opened October 2, 1911.
Eggers’ assistant at the Shady Valley School was Miss Ruth Blevins (Mrs. Ruth Bowling who wrote a weekly column for the Tomahawk for many years.) I never had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Eggers but I knew Ruth. She was my friend. I valued her friendship and enjoyed reading her column.
One of the most interesting events Eggers writes about in his letter is his first person account of the boiler explosion that occurred in the Masonic Institute in December of 1919. I had general knowledge of the accident but learned some of the details from Eggers’ letter. My wife’s mother, Mrs. Nora Lee (Cress) Ward, 12 years old at the time, was injured in the explosion, as were several others. Her classroom was directly over the boiler room. Stacy McElyea, the janitor on duty at the time, was killed. Eggers wrote that he helped pull the man from the room. He was taken to whom Eggers recalled as a Dr. Snyder. According to my research it was probably Dr. Harry Shelton Smyth who was practicing in Johnson County during that time. I could find no record of a Dr. Snyder.
The building in which the accident happened was the second one that was built on the site by the Taylorsville Lodge No. 243 Free and Accepted Masons. According to the late Ross D. Fritts’ book, Development of Education in Johnson County, Tennessee, the first building — a three-story structure with the first two levels devoted to education and the top floor as the lodge hall — was built about 1873. It was razed in 1905. The second building was finished in 1907.
The second building (also a three story structure with the lodge hall on the top floor) was used for Mountain City elementary education classes and later for high school classes on the first and second floors. When I was in high school, my Physics, Agriculture and Health classes were in the old Masonic Building. The superintendent’s office also was in the building. Later the building was razed and the current Masonic building that faces College Street was built. Of course, I had several classes in the new high school that was built in January of 1922. By the time I got to high school (1952), wings had been added. It now houses beautiful Heritage Hall as well as several county offices.
It was an awful day in Johnson County when those young students were abruptly transformed from a tranquil day of learning to a time of chaos, fear and pain.

Herman Tester now has hard cover and soft cover copies of his new 424-page book, Portrait of the Past. For information about his book you may call him at 423-753-6961 or you may email him at [email protected]