By 1917 the boy population had increased from two to thirty-two. The addition of Newton Hall two years earlier had partially relieved the congestion at Gladsome Cottage, but by then Starr had hired a housekeeper to help with the daily chores, and a young lady named Helen Sprague toassist in the classroom. Also, at four years of age, his daughter Margaret needed a room of her own. As Starr studied the twenty-plus applications for another year, he could not evade one issue – a new school building. The little tar-paper shack, cramped and crude at best, would never accommodatehalf a hundred lively youngsters.
This time Starr went to the City Bank of Albion considerably more confident of success in applying for a loan. The banker wassympathetic, but realistic, and did not consider Starr a sound financial risk, turning down the loan.
Uncle Floyd reported his failure at the vesper service that evening, but the boys took the refusal in stride. Disappointments had been staples on their bill of fare for most of their lives, and one more was “no big deal.” On the encouragement from one student however, Starr proceeded to make plans for the building. He went into Detroit and met with Marcus Burrowes, the architect who haddesigned Newton Hall. He went straight to the point: he wanted plans for a school building that eventuallyaccommodated two hundred boys, but he had no money to pay for them. Burrowes looked somewhatquizzically at his client at first, but listened to the rest of Starr’s story. At the end he said, “Very well, Mr. Starr. I’ll draw the plans for such a school building as you describe and you may pay me whenever you can.” This typically generous gesture continued afriendship that endured for many years. Eventually Burrowes would design every other building on the Central Campus – Newton Hall, Emily Jewel Clark, Hillside, Webster Hall, and three cottages as well. All modified Tudor in design.
In 1917, with American participation in World War I mounting steadily, contributions to the Commonwealth fell off sharply. Even with daily prayers and working plans in hand, there seemed little expectation that a new school house lay in the foreseeable future. Instinctively Starr did what every good school administrator does under likecircumstances – he started a campaign. By now he had a field representative who traveled Michigan’s railways three days a week in search of elusive donors. “I’ll go up toCadillac,” Mrs. Boehm told Uncle Floyd. “I know four men there, each of whom I’m sure will give a hundred dollars. True, that isn’t much money, but I’ll also have four good names to mention ascontributors when I talk with other prospects.”
Whenever Starr recounted this story in later years, he insisted that his field worker had scarcely left the campus when a chauffer-driven limousine pulled up at Gladsome. A lady steeped from the car to announce that she was Emily Clark and she wanted to see the school. Immediately recognizing the name as one of his elite $100 contributors, Starr cast aside his plans for the day and gave her a personal tour, tar-paper schoolroom and all. At the conclusion she asked, “Is that everything?” then climbed back into her car. “Thank you; I’m glad I have seen your school,” and drove away. Uncle Floyd was thunderstruck. How had he failed to make Emily Clark believe in his cause?
Quite by coincidence, the field representative called upon Mrs. Clark the very next day. To her dismay, the lady said to her, “I’m sorry. Yesterday I saw your school. I have decided I cannot give you anymore money. Your vision is so small, how could $100 possibly help?”
During the ensuing silence Mrs. Boehm realized her mistake. “Mrs. Clark,” she said, “you are right. For our present needs a $100 gift would not help very much.” Swiftly she described classes in a crowded shack andeverybody’s dream of a new school building. Again there was silence. For moments no one spoke.
“Does Mr. Starr have plans and the specifications for this building?” asked Mrs. Clark finally. Thanks to the faith of one small boy he did. “Very well then,” she said, “bring them to me and I shall build your schoolhouse for you.”
That evening Uncle Floyd gathered his boys around him at Gladsome to break the news to them. To his surprise it was received in awesome silence. Again they had witnessed the power of prayer. When Mrs. Clark learned how long and how earnestly the boys had been praying for a school building she said, “Ihave a son in the service. I wish the boys of Starr Commonwealth would pray for his safe return. If he comes back, I shall have no objection to your calling theschool the Emily Jewel Clark Building. Should he not come back, I want that to be his memorial.” In Starr’s words, “From that time on the boys prayed most earnestly for Jewel Clark’s return, and he came back unscathed.”
According to Mrs. Ann Eaton, Starr’s secretary at that period, unexpected late enrollment overtaxed cottage capacities on the campus. consequently, two of the older boys had been quartered temporarily in a ground floor room in theEmily Jewel Clark School Building. Though designed primarily for academic uses, the structure also housed Starr’s office, the bookkeeping department and the public relations center. In most respects, it was the hub of the campus.
The night of January 8, 1936 was bitterly cold, so the two boys housed in the school turned up the space heater between their cots. at about 4:30am, a blanket caught fire, and in minutes the room was ablaze. After a brief but futile bout with the flames, the boys escaped unscathed and rousedUncle Floyd.
According to the account in the Albion Evening Recorder, nothing went right in combatingthe fire. The rural telephone was out of order, so it was half an hour before word reached the Albion fire department. From nearby Marshall, the “county pumper” was even later in arriving “due to a weak battery.” Since there were no hydrants on the campus to supply water for thehoses, the small electric pump on one truck soon failed from overuse. Even the icebound lake lay tantalizing beyond reach.
Meanwhile of course, both the boys and the workers in other building had been routed from their beds when the blaze was discovered. Starr was already at the steps to meet them,plans in mind to salvage all he could with their help. According to the newspaperaccount, his young charges were the heroes of the day. “The boys of the Commonwealth worked valiantly and saved the greater part of the building’sfurnishings. Much of the school equipment, such as chairs, books, and the like, were removed from the structure. Valued paintings which Mr. Starr and hisassociates had gathered were believed to have been saved. In addition many of the office files were removed to safety. Other vital records of the Commonwealth were stored in the officesafe, which was dragged from the ruins later and found to be undamaged.
Years later one of these boys wrote an essay on “My Uncle Floyd” for a college English course. Despite thepassage of time, details of that flame filled dawn were still fresh in his memory. “Even with the scene of twisted girders and devastation before him,he wrote, “Uncle Floyd was thinking of prayer. As he turned to leave for a bite of breakfast, he said to the boys, ‘Well, tomorrow we will have to begin praying for a new school building.” The young man’s theme concluded, “Little need be said about a faith like that.”
After a fire in the Emily Jewel Clark building on January 8, 1936, Starr again set up his office in the front room of Gladsome, with his desk at one end and that of his secretary at the other. Since Newton Hall housed younger boys, most of the elementary classes were held there. In the main, however, it was the new building which rescued the academic program. Less than ideal for most classroom purposes, it was still”bettr’n nothin,” as the boys put it.
The press assured that “the loss of the Emily Jewel Clark Building was largely covered by insurance.” Bolstered by his expectations from the settlement and his indomitable faith in a caring public, Starr immediately declared that “he would confer with architects and contractors within the next couple of days on plans for a new structure to replace the one destroyed today.”Emily Jewel Clark Building 2
Source: Keith Fennimore. Faith Made Visible: The History of Floyd Starr and His School. Albion, Michigan: Starr Commonwealth. 1988.