The Great Fire, Maryland Agriculture College, 1912

Lee Pennington

Lee Pennignton, called, "Duck" as a cadet, hailed from Havre de Grace, MD. He was present to witness the fire and describes several theories as to how and why efforts to stop it failed.

Lee Pennington standing
Lee Pennington, pictured as a senior in the 1915 Reveille yearbook

Freshmen were called rats. They had very strict rat rules. Frequently we were hazed to the nth degree. I've had to run gauntlet races up on the halls. I've had to get up on a table and either sing or recite and then they'd sometimes knock the table out from under you, and infrequently somebody'd get hurt.

Well, I got safely through the freshman year, and that was in 1912. Coming back in the fall of 1912, I was a sophomore. In reality, the failure to save the two buildings, barracks, that we had... the old barracks built in 1856 and I do not recall when the new barracks was built... But anyhow the failure can date right back to May, 1912, when we had a baseball game with our then greatest rival, St. John's of Annapolis. We licked them in baseball, and everybody started celebrating.

Due to the fact that we were a military school, we all had rifles in our rooms in the barracks. We had blanks, and we had real cartridges. Some overenthusiastic member of our military corps turned around and shot a hole in the big water tower, which was up behind the old agricultural building. Water was squirting out and another man and I, Kenneth Grace -- later anchor man on the relay team -- and I climbed up the crosspiece rungs of the water tower, found out we couldn't quite reach it, so we came down and got two brooms and a wooden plug and plugged it up.

So, during the Thanksgiving holidays in 1912, most of the students were on vacation. There was a dance, and it was a propitious moment for letting the water out of the water tank in order to have men come out there and insert a metal plug. So during the dance, at the intermission, some of the boys went up to one of the rooms of the new barracks. Apparently, they threw either a cigarette or a lighted match in the wastepaper basket. When the fire alarm rang out, I, who had not gone to the dance, ran to my fire station at the north end of the old barracks, grabbed my hose and no water came out. As a result, when we could have gotten the fire out at the initial alarm, lack of water made that impossible.

From Washington, fire engines were shipped out on the B&O Railroad on flat cars. No provision had been made to be able to take them off the flat cars. So they just had to sit on the flat cars while the barracks burned.

We had a few interesting experiences that evening. Due to the fact that we kept ammunition in our rooms, you could hear bullets going off all during the night. Those of us who were there cleared out as many rooms as possible and placed the belongings of the cadets down at the old flagpole, where the chapel now stands. Some scavengers from Lakeland, thinking perhaps they could pick up a little bit of loot, came up to the vicinity of the flagpole and we saw them beginning to filch clothing and stuff. So several of us cut loose at them with blank cartridges. You sure could hear them yellin' going over the hill.

From then on, we were not in the barracks at all. We were farmed out to private homes in Berwyn, Riverdale, and Hyattsville.

Those of us who were there at the dance had to take their dates back. Those of us who were not at the dance just lay out on the ground around the flagpole, safeguarding the uniforms that we had been able to save. We were not able to save anything but uniforms due to the fact that we were not allowed to keep civilian clothes in our rooms, and they were all in the locker rooms in trunks and so we lost all our civilian clothing.

I lived initially in a home in Riverdale. The three of us didn't like it, so we got transferred to a home down in Hyattsville. I remember this lady whose house we lived in way up on top of the hill -- I think it was called Ravenswood. She tried to get her youngest daughter and me interested in marrying, but she didn't. She liked me, and I liked her, but we were not interested in each other.

The school paid the rent, and she believed in spiritual stuff, and every once in a while when we weren't studying she'd get us in the dining room with a little table and put her hands on it and try to get the table to lift. It wouldn't lift while I was there, so I was finally kicked out due to the fact that I was a nonbeliever.

"Duck" was my nickname in college. You see, I came from Havre de Grace, Maryland, the greatest wild ducking area in the Eastern United States.

~This account was recorded and transcribed from an oral history interview in 1973. Cite as Maryland Manuscript item 1207

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