Though it made international news at the time, few recall the tragic 1928 dance hall explosion that changed West Plains forever. For this segment of our ongoing history series, Sense of Place, KSMU’s Emma Wilson explores the history of this mysterious disaster and the woman who penned it back into the public conversation.
[sound: café noises, talking]
Sitting in the café in the Aid Antique Mall on the West Plains square, Lin Waterhouse and Mayor Joe Paul Evans mull over the details of an eighty-two-year-old mystery.
Mayor Evans says, “I guess the crowd for the service that day was unbelievable.”
“The newspaper estimated 4,000 to 7,000 people,” says Waterhouse.
Evans says, “And the town was only 3,000!”
“Yeah, they came from all over.”
That funeral service was for the 19 unidentified victims of an explosion that claimed 39 lives altogether on an April night in 1928. Lin Waterhouse is a writer who lives in Sycamore, Missouri. She started researching the catastrophe a couple of years ago and has recently published a book titled The West Plains Dance Hall Explosion.
“It just kind of offended my sense of justice that no cause was ever determined, [and] no person was ever named responsible.” Waterhouse says.
The book explores the lives of the folks involved in the accident and the various rumors and legends that emerged in an attempt to explain the incident. Waterhouse says that she wanted to set the event in time and place, to bring the reader back to the “Jazz Age.” She describes a cold, damp evening. Around sixty people had gathered at the weekly dance in Bond Hall.
[Music: “At Sundown” – the Artie Shaw version]
“That evening, they convinced the band to play one more song. And they were playing the song, “At Sundown.” And at 11:05, there was this horrendous explosion.” Says Waterhouse.
The force of the blast shattered every window on the square and down the street. Only minutes after the initial explosion, Bond Hall and the buildings on either side of it collapsed into a raging inferno that could be seen from miles away.
Waterhouse says, “Well, everybody had heard it, you know what I mean? Everybody had heard the explosion in town so people just converged on this area. And the problem was that there was no one to rescue, virtually no one left to rescue. If they weren’t pulled out of there in the first five minutes or so, they died.”
We got to go into the old bank building which sits just in front of the place where those three small buildings were leveled over 80 years ago.
[Sound: key unlocking door, walking up steps]
Toward the back of the second story, scorch marks from the blast still dot the hardwood floors like black clouds. The flames would have licked up into this room all those years ago.
“It really does bring home what a tragedy this was. And what a frightful fire this must have been. To have the actual explosion two buildings down and for it to have burned into this big old building the way it has is pretty amazing.” Waterhouse says.
The most horrific parts of the ordeal, she says, were the lives lost and the effect on the community.
“Practically everybody was an aunt or uncle or cousin to each other. So the grief in this town was just unbelievable. Everybody lost someone from their family.”
“I lost an uncle in the explosion—my dad’s older brother.” Again, West Plains’ mayor, Joe Evans, “He’d just graduated from Missouri University, and he and another lad were going to open a great big dairy operation.”
Waterhouse says that nearly everyone who died in the explosion was a college graduate, the young future-leaders of the community. Before I left town, we visited the tombstone dedicated to the unidentified victims. As the author runs her hand down the list of names, she shares a story about every person.
“Ollis Holstein he was playing the saxophone at the time of the explosion, he had stepped in for Dail Allen for the last song. Ruby Hodkinson….”
One theory for the blast is that a newcomer to the town had blown up his car garage below the dance hall for insurance money. Another theory is that explosive gasses mixed in a cavern underground and somehow ignited. Ultimately, the cause is still unknown.
For KSMU’s Sense of Place, I’m Emma Wilson.