Kansas Masonic Home Fire

I always love driving by the Kansas Masonic Home.  The building and grounds are charming, but it also brings back memories of my church group going over there on cold winter days and singing carols to the senior citizens.

The Masonic Home started as the Maplewood Mansion.

It was built in 1889 as the home of Robert E. Lawrence, a prominent pioneer in Wichita, and the namesake of the Lawrence-Dumont Stadium. 

In 1896, he sold the home and property to the Kansas Masons and Eastern Star for $21,000.

Retired Kansas Masons and orphans of lodge members lived at the home.

The home was enlarged and several additions were built over the years including a chapel built in 1906.

I was granted a tour of the chapel by the Kansas Masonic Home.  Paige was an excellent source of information.  The dark wood popped against the off white walls.  The red upholstery and carpet complimented the whole chapel.  It was easy to imagine a group of men and women singing hymns in the packed chapel. 

There are still a number of Masonic symbols at the chapel. Including a mosaic on the floor and a quilt hanging on the wall.  Symbols of the organization can also be seen in the stained glass windows. 

Paige mentioned there will soon be a garden planted in front of the chapel using the Mason symbol.

This chapel was the only building to survive a fatal fire in 1916. Nearly the entire complex burned down in the early hours of December 21st.

When it was all said and done five people were dead and 92 were left homeless.

Photo provided by KMC

On December 22, 1916 the AP reported, “…scores of old men, women and children were exposed to the flames and blizzard weather. Many were rescued with difficulty and several, made unconscious by smoke and fire or overcome by cold as they fled from the burning structure in their night clothes, were taken to hospitals and private homes.”

43 children were sleeping in the Masonic Home’s orphanage when the fire started in the women’s hall around two in the morning.  

The outside temperature was reportedly around 8 degrees that night which froze up the fire department’s water plugs and rendered the hoses useless.  The volunteer team spent most of their time doing search and rescue.

The damage to the campus was estimated at $200,000.

The original list of the deceased showed the four men and their wives listed as Mrs. (husband’s last name). I find it sad that the women’s names were not listed.

The only woman listed was the single woman, a kitchen employee named Gertrude. Gertrude Weigle was credited with helping many of the kids get out of the building safely. Sadly, she perished while trying to save her dress from the fire.

All of the victims are buried at Maple Grove Cemetery. I was able to find the full names and ages of all of those that perished thanks to Maple Grove’s caretaker, Jim Sampson.

The first four graves can be found in the Masonic Home burial site.

Jesse T. Brown, age 73, of Wichita

Elizabeth Brown, age 66, of Wichita

Frank Ferris, age 82, of Atchison, KS

Amanda Ferris, age 83, of Atchison, KS

Gertrude Weigle, age 20, Burden, KS

The fire was blamed on a 16-year-old boy who was working in the boiler room.  Paul Zellke fell asleep during his watch.  He woke up to find gallons of crude oil burning. Zellke ran to an instrument board to turn off the motors that drove the oil pumps. Unfortunately he switched off the lights in the entire building, making the search and rescue even harder on fire crews and volunteers.  Zellke was injured in the fire but survived.

The residents were dispatched throughout the neighborhood.  With some homeowners taking in four or five people that night.

The Masonic Home chapel became the headquarters for the home during the day and a dormitory for the men at night.

The familiar white stucco building with a red tile roof was completed in 1921, just two years before East High’s current building was constructed.

I want to thank Paige and Jim for their kind help on this project.

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