The Mecca School burns in the early morning hours of Nov. 11, 2022. Photo courtesy of Scott Simpson
The Mecca School burns in the early morning hours of Nov. 11, 2022. Photo courtesy of Scott Simpson
Perhaps it is fitting that the last event to take place in the old Mecca school gymnasium before it was taken by fire came on the very night the building burned. A “Feast of Gratitude,” sponsored by the town’s churches, the Ladies Fire Department Auxiliary, and the Reading Boot Camp, drew over 100 people, and in the photographs taken that night, the smiles and full plates, the warmth and friendship of the place, are a happy contrast to the burned and blackened ruins I saw a few days ago.

Once called Wabash Township Graded School and first dedicated in 1901 in the then-prospering Parke County town, Mecca School saw an expansive addition in 1910 (a fire nearly destroyed Mecca’s business district that year), and then, during the first golden age of Indiana basketball, a wonderfully bright and modern gymnasium was constructed in 1923. The structure, last used full-time by Southwest Parke School Corp. in 1986, has endured since, even flourished as a community center. It went on the National Historic Register in 1987, and has also received thousands of hours of loving care by generations of townsfolk, many volunteering their time and money through ARABS (the Alliance Representing A Building Savior) or on their own.

Prior to the fire, the magnificently- kept building housed the Mecca Historical Society and the Boot Camp (conducted every Wednesday night and serving at least 50 area children with lessons in phonics, spelling and more). It was the site of countless family gatherings, reunions, gospel sings, a music series, corporate meetings, AA meetings, dance and exercise sessions, basketball games, even funeral dinners. In recent months, the building had seen many renovations, including a new heating and cooling system, a sound system, tuck pointing, and lighting upgrades. Donations and grants and hundreds of volunteer hours were making these things possible in a building that has stood over 120 years.

One of the school’s great treasures, a Great Depression era mural fastened to the northeast corner wall of the gymnasium, was painted by Parke County native Ernest Freed in a style befitting his mentor, Grant Wood. The mural, along with hundreds of other treasures, was feared lost, and although many were, particularly on the beautifully preserved third floor that housed trophies, books, class portraits, and a stage, Freed’s work survived, protected by a Plexiglass cover installed years ago. A structural engineer gave volunteers the go-ahead to safely remove it from the open and wet building just a few days after the disaster; it will be housed in the town’s firehouse and will soon be inspected by an art restorer. The mural surely serves as a symbol of perseverance, perhaps as one of the miraculous too.

In the early-morning hours of Nov. 10, a wiring issue sparked the devastating fire which drew the desperate response of no less than 15 area fire departments. Although a state fire marshal’s investigation is pending, Mecca Volunteer Fire Department Chief Jim Fellows, who attended school there, says that every other probable cause has been ruled out, and that the fire began in the attic close to where the gym connected to the older building. It was so hot, however, that nothing was left in that spot to give a definitive answer.

Fellows knows what a painful impact the fire has already had on the community.

“We saw people driving by as we worked that night, and we could see the tears in their eyes. It was a more intense experience knowing what this building meant to the community …” “The fire was tragic, heartfelt,” says Fellows, now 42. “But I believe this building can be saved; our department’s last efforts here were to pull things out of the school. We have salvaged a lot. We should be so thankful for the help we received from other departments, several from other counties.”

Scott Simpson, the secretary of ARABS, oversees the day-to-day operations of the building and its activities; he was constantly in its hallways cleaning, repairing, and restoring, and in a special case just a few months ago, showing the building to Mark Gibson and his crew, who filmed part of a yet-to-be-released documentary on the history of Indiana basketball on the gymnasium floor.

“I’ve heard some of the media refer to this fire as being a ‘total loss,’ but it’s not,” Simpson says. “Not only have we managed to salvage hundreds of things from the building, I think we’ll see that our community can come together after this and be stronger than we were before.”

Simpson also says that the engineer has told him that the original portion of the school is structurally sound and can be restored. It is interesting to note that much of the school’s construction did what it was designed to do in the case of a fire, although the south wall of the gym is leaning because its brick outer layer was lined with a clay tile interior. Right now, besides pulling items out that can be saved, the building has to be braced and protected against the elements of the fast-approaching winter.

Simpson acknowledges that it will be a massive and costly undertaking.

Raymond Haughee, who lives nearby, graduated from the school in 1962 in its second- to-last high school class; he worked in the building as its custodian for years, and continues to volunteer to maintain it. Haughee says, “This school meant everything to Mecca.

"We had a closeness here, and I think we realize what we’ve lost. It isn’t a total loss, though; I just hope we can make this a positive thing for our community. There’s too much negativity these days,” he added. He also mentioned with a sparkle in his eye that he used to jump from the building’s fire escape, much to the horror of his instructors. “The teachers were great though,” he added.

Ray Wilson, from the “Class of ’58,” like Haughee, has spent his life living near the school; his nine children all attended there. He can’t calculate the number of hours he’s spent, the number of games he’s seen, the number of homecomings and dances he witnessed, and the number of friends he’s made at the school. “There were prayer meetings at the churches in town the night of the fire,” he told me.

One of Wilson’s favorite memories comes from decades ago when his father — a “vocal” fan of the red-and-white clad Arabs basketball teams — drew a technical foul from a harried referee as he yelled from the stands. Told to leave the gym, Ray said that his dad instead moved to the other side to sit with the Bridgeton fans, and eventually received a technical that cost the black-and-gold Raccoons team too.

As we stood at the corner of College and Wells streets, just east of the charred gymnasium, I suspected that it wasn’t just the cold fall breeze that had brought tears to Wilson’s eyes.

As he turned toward his house, he said, “This is more than a little school that burned. There are a lot of our community’s hopes and memories here too.”
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