Thursday, April 4, 2013

Fire At The Tennessee State Fair - 1965



  When I was a kid we looked forward to the Tennessee State Fair like most kids look forward to Christmas. The schools gave us a day off to attend the fair, which was always on Monday. In the 1800's the Fairgrounds was originally one of several horse racing tracks. A huge wooden three story building called the Woman's Building was built around 1915 on top of the hill overlooking today's race car track. As a kid the Woman's Building reminded me of a castle or a haunted house. It was massive and surrounded by several other large three story building's. There was one called the Administration Building and another called the Merchant's Building. During the fair they housed various exhibits and eating places that you could go to take a break from the hustle and bustle of the Fair Midway. I always looked forward to the sights and smells of the Fair and I never went to there in the daytime. It was a different place at night with bright lights and sounds of the rides and people screaming in terror. Then there were the hawkers trying to entice you in to the various freak and girly shows.

  On Monday, September 20th, 1965, I was invited by my cousin's Jenny and Judy to go to the Fair. My Uncle Doug and Aunt Catherine took us there around 9:00 PM they picked us up. The three of us were sitting in the back seat listening to the local rock station WMAK. We were close to the Trinity Lane exit on I-65. In those days the interstates were under construction and I-65 only went as far as Trinity Lane. All of a sudden the announcer broke in with a news bulletin. He said that a fire had broken out at the Tennessee State Fair. The three of us turned simultaneously to look out of the rear window. The entire horizon, as far as the eye could see, was on fire. Flames seemed to be leaping thousands of feet into the air. Every time I see the "burning of Atlanta" scene in "Gone With the Wind" I am reminded of that image.

  All three of those massive buildings along with the Fair "Grandstands" were destroyed. Eighteen people, including ten firemen, were injured but miraculously nobody was killed. Thousands of people fled in panic from the Fairground's. There was an estimated twelve million dollars worth of damage and Mayor Beverly Briley officially closed the Fair for the rest of the week. The Maxwell House fire on Christmas night 1961 had been the biggest fire I had ever seen until that night. Nothing has even come close to the Fair fire since. I had a paper route and I picked my papers up at Co. 18 Fire Hall on Gallatin Rd. I will never forget the sight of those exhausted and dirty firemen the next mornin as they piled out of that fire engine. One of them told me that every Engine Co. in Nashville was on the scene and parts of one truck had literally melted by the heat of fire.

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